Mixed Blessings

Marrying outside your religion often requires a leap of faith

Lisa Rosen* and Pete Bartolo breathed a joint sigh of relief as they stood under the chuppah at their interfaith wedding. The Jewish-Catholic service, fraught with family conflict during the planning stage, bounced seamlessly back and forth between the rabbi and the priest. In deference to Pete's Catholic heritage, they lit a unity candle; to honor Lisa's faith, Pete followed the Jewish tradition of crushing a small glass with his foot. But by the time the reception began, in-law opposition had reared its head. Pete's family, who had been adamantly against his interfaith union from the start, refused to pose for photos. His mother wouldn't dance with him, and his siblings sequestered themselves in a corner to avoid mingling with other guests. "I guess you could say we were successful, because we did manage to get married," Lisa recalls. "But having that much hostility surround such an important day was hardly the fairy-tale wedding I had always dreamed of."

Lisa and Pete's struggle to merge two faiths is not uncommon, says Beth Singer, associate rabbi at Temple Beth Am in Seattle. "When two people first fall in love, different religions fade into the background," she says. "But at some point those differences come to the forefront, and it's critical that the couple explore what their faiths mean to them and to their families so they can find a way to reach true harmony."

Parents and Prejudice
Compromise starts with the ceremony itself, the perfect platform to first test your negotiating skills as a couple. Sometimes, this means working things out between you and your fiancé. More often than not, however, it means mediating between two sets of uneasy parents. "Take comfort in knowing that most parents, no matter how opposed they are to your interfaith marriage, ultimately want the happiness of their child," says Rev. Susanna Stefanachi Macomb, author of Joining Hands and Hearts (Fireside Books, 2003). "Any opposition they show is out of fear that their child won't be happy." To ease the apprehension and foster positive discussion, try to:
  • Find common ground: "It's important to fight the natural urge to look for differences," says Richard M. Landau, author of What the World Needs to Know About Interfaith Dialogue (interfaithdialogue.com). By focusing on the elements of your faith that draw you together—a common belief in God, the importance of children, traditional wedding rituals—you can shift the tone of the conversation to one of a shared vision. For example, at certain Catholic and Jewish weddings, wine is sipped during the ceremony. Mention this and ask your family for shared wedding customs that you might include in your service.
  • Present a united front: You can't expect your family to be on board if you and your fiancé have unresolved issues. Before you sit down with your parents, be sure that the two of you are on the same page not just in terms of the ceremony—but about your life together beyond that one day. Remember that agreeing to worship with another person doesn't mean compromising your own beliefs.
  • Avoid loaded language: What may seem like normal lingo to you may be considered an insult by your fiancé's family. "Some people are offended by the terms religious groups use to describe outsiders, like 'gentiles' or 'nonbelievers,'" explains Landau. "Not only do you need to avoid giving people the impression that you believe you are superior and wish to exclude them, you also need to be able to explain exactly what you mean if you use a term they find offensive."
  • Speak Honestly: If you're sensing a difficult sell, it's time to lay your feelings on the table in the kindest possible way. Assure your parents that they haven't done anything wrong and that your decision to marry out of the faith is built purely out of love for another human being. You might say, for instance, "Mom and Dad, I have found the love of my life. I want your blessing on our marriage and want you to see him not as Muslim (or Greek Orthodox, or whatever), but as the person with whom I can start a family."
wedding ceremonies
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