How to manage differences in religious beliefs in a relationship

A successful union between two people of differing religious beliefs requires respect, tolerance and participation from both members of the couple. Pascal Deloche

As life becomes more global in scope and many people reject the traditional beliefs of pairing up with others of the same race or creed, Canadians are more often finding themselves in interfaith relationships.

According to the 2011 National Household Survey, 4.6 per cent of all common-law and married couples were in mixed unions (including interfaith and interracial couples).

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While the hope is that interfaith couples share common ground in many areas, a difference in religious beliefs can present a problem down the line.

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“A strong or even moderate religious faith will influence many activities that husband and wife perform jointly,” Evelyn Lehrer, director of undergraduate studies in economics at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said to the Washington Post. “Religion isn’t just church on Sunday, [she] noted, but also ideas about raising children, how to spend time and money, friendships, professional networks — it can even influence where to live. The disagreements between husband and wife start to add up.”

But these differences — whether they’re between two people of different faiths or an atheist and a believer — don’t need to be a relationship pitfall, says relationship advice expert April Masini. She offers some tips to ensure a difference in religious beliefs doesn’t get in the way of a healthy relationship.

It starts with respect

“The most important asset in an interfaith relationship is respect,” Masini says. “You can agree to disagree — but you can’t disrespect and have things work. Acknowledge your religious differences and have open conversations [about them] throughout your relationship, but always respect each others’ religions.”

The same goes if one member of the couple is religious and the other isn’t. If you can’t respect someone’s faith that will inevitably spell trouble for the relationship, especially since deeply spiritual people attach a part of their identity to their religion.

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Participate in each other’s religions

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To build a strong union, you need to actively participate in one another’s lives, especially when traditions are involved. If you opt out of those fundamental practices, it won’t just alienate your partner — it could also create a divide between you and your children if they practice those same traditions.

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“You can attend religious services as a respectful observer — even if you’re not a believer. This is a big part of getting to know each other and to build on the relationship by supporting and participating in differences.”

Similarly, if one member of the couple isn’t religious, it’s important to participate in activities or non-religious traditions that are important to them. You can’t expect your atheist partner to respect your religion if you can’t respect or honour their decision not to practice a religion; that’s a breeding ground for resentment.

If you want your partner to go to church or temple to celebrate a holiday, join them in their own tradition around the holiday (if they celebrate it).

Prioritize the things that are important to your partner

You may not necessarily look forward to Friday night dinner or Sunday morning mass, but opting out by hiding behind other obligations, like work or a social engagement, will only show your partner that you don’t care about their needs.

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“Clear your calendar for this type of thing to show you’re both in it together,” Masini says.

At the same time, however, you need to give your partner time to acclimatize to the religion and its requirements. Tolerance works both ways.

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“It takes time for some people to adjust. Don’t expect people to have the same ability to adjust that you do, to embrace new things — and vice versa,” Masini wrote in an advice column on her site. “Be prepared for them to want to celebrate the cultural differences quicker than the religious differences.”

Discuss all of this ahead of time

All the tolerance and respect in the world won’t amount to much if you find that you’ve partnered with a person who has taken a hard-line against religion (or only for their own). Religious incompatibility can be a deal breaker for a lot of people. It’s the kind of topic that needs to be discussed early on.

“Try to see if you can make things work, but if you can’t, don’t force it. Recognize the incompatibility and consciously decide to stay in spite of it, or to move on because of it.”

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