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What if our faiths differ?

Your mother taught you from early on that you should marry someone that thinks like you, but then rocker with a husky voice enters your life – and he doesn’t necessarily believe in what you do . . .

It’s already a tall order to meet someone in the same church group as you. Then there are the denomination dilemmas. And even within Christianity people believe different things. (You want to baptise your child when their baby and he believes in adult baptisms). If you marry a Christian man that believes in the same things that you do, you are lucky! But love can’t dictate who to fall in love with. Can a marriage with two faiths or a believer and unbeliever work?

Yes, it can work . . .

Nettie Smit believes that it is possible to be happily married to an unbeliever. “I am a Christian and my husband an atheist. We have been married for 14 years and have three children. We respect each other’s point of view and also communicate it in this manner to our children. Our children are open minded when it comes to different beliefs and respect other people with different faiths. Faith has never been a problem in our marriage.”

Even though a couple with different beliefs experience more challenges, these stumbling blocks could very well strengthen a marriage because from the very beginning they work extra hard at their marriage and have to learn to compromise. Even though a mission to get your partner to convert can cause big problems, there are indeed testimonies of couples with whom it has happened. An American study with 2 500 people in 2010 have found that a quarter of all couples of the same faith had different beliefs when they got married.

No, it can’t work . . .

Ronel Louw* has three failed marriages with unbelievers and says: “It doesn’t work at all to get married to a man who doesn’t believe. It doesn’t help that you serve God, go to church and sing Our King is coming in your car and he comes home under the influence. Old people always said love is blind and getting married is the glasses.” Ronel believes this happens when one isn’t patient enough to wait for God to point you to the right partner.

Couples with different beliefs can experience challenges with regard to family roles, raising children, holiday celebrations and even food. Inter-faith marriages is, according to statics, three times more likely to fail compared to marriages with the same beliefs.

What do the experts say?

Rev. Schalk van Schalkwyk from Kathu, believes that a marriage between a believer and an unbeliever can work, but it won’t be simple. A marriage between a believer and unbeliever is extremely complex, but it can still work. It requires mutual respect for each other’s opinions. The believer must be allowed to practise their faith in all aspects of their life and to also educate the children on Christianity. The believer must try not to object to the believer’s mission. It can also only work in cases where the unbeliever subscribes to the values of the Christian faith, even though he/she doesn’t believe in the existence of God,” says Schalk.

“Even though it is possible for such a marriage to work, it remains an extremely complex situation and one which should rather be avoided. Even though a marriage like this is binding, the believer will constantly have to be careful not to be sucked into sinful practises, as the Word clearly warns us that the believer and the unbeliever should not succumb to the habits of the unbeliever.”

Multi-belief marriages can cause problems, but it doesn’t mean that it can’t work and in some cases this type of marriage is stronger because the couples were forced to confront their problems and discuss their faith issues from the beginning. “Successful interfaith-marriages are successful marriages and are co-incidentally multi-faith marriages,” says Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben, author of A non-judgemental guide to unfaithful marriage.” They have the same values – they have a spiritual partnership, they are a team and they share each other’s dreams.”

According to Dr Elmari Mulder-Craig, a Sexologist and Relationship Counsellor, there are potholes in every marriage, but differing beliefs can be complicated. “The secret is to respect each other’s beliefs and to try not to convince each other to change. Should you get married with an unconditional love for each other, you can solve the practical problems a lot easier. Open and honest communication is the key word. You will have to compromise. If it’s important for you to get married in a church, you could maybe get married in a chapel instead with a service that is spiritually based. The idea is to make everyone feel as comfortable as possible.

“When it comes to children, both parties can communicate their point of view and their beliefs as the children get older. Children can be taught that one’s beliefs is extremely personal and that the most important thing is to respect people’s beliefs and not to judge. Before getting married talk about how you will go about handling your children when you as a couple have different beliefs. Are you, for example, going to baptise your child because it is important for one of you? Be wary of being judgemental and critical. Allow each other to have their own beliefs and give each other space to live according to these beliefs. Be accommodating. In the end love has to be the victor.”

Be prepared for the reality

When a believer and an unbeliever plan to get married, there are several important discussions that will have to take place before you go ahead with any actions. As the experts have already mentioned, a marriage becomes complex and it is needed to sort out a few issues before it results in serious conflict within a marriage. To believe that there will never be conflict because of your beliefs is unrealistic. It’s not a case of “if” but rather “when” you will clash.

“When you are in love, all these things look like small problems,” says Elmarie van Wyk, a Relationship Counsellor from Elardus park. “Later on it could very well result in a power struggle. Consequently, a couple will have to go about this with a sober mind.” Will you be strong enough to handle it? Talk to each other beforehand on the following potential situations:

1. To get married in court may be a reasonable solution. But if one of the partners’ beliefs requires them to partake in a certain ceremony to acknowledge the marriage, it can cause a problem. The Roman Catholic Church can ask the spouse to agree in writing that the children will be raised as Catholics. Muslim men are permitted to marry Moslem, Christian and Jewish women, as long as the children are raised Muslim. Muslim women are only allowed to get married to a Muslim man (or a man that has adopted the Islam faith). According to the holy Jewish book they are forbidden to get married to anyone of another faith. Hindus are more liberal and are allowed to get married with less difficulty. Also: you can’t expect your atheist partner to make a promise before God if the person doesn’t believe in Him. If that is the case, can such a promise carry so much weight in terms of its value and meaning?
2. If your loved ones don’t approve of the marriage, it can cause for a lot of tears and hostility. Think about the uncomfortable questions and stereotypical jokes that can be made during a family get together. It can result in you having to end all family ties.
3. Which faith will you encourage your children to follow? Not only will it dictate the venue but can also influence the choice of school. Children from multi-beliefs are more than twice as likely to take on the faith of the mother as that of their father.
4. Certain spiritual festivities are important to believers – for example Easter for Christians and Ramadan for Muslims. Will you partake in this with your spouse and his family, or are you going to distance yourself from it. The former can cause feelings of guilt, while the latter may place strain on your relationship.
5. There are often events that incite conflict between differing groups of believers. Take for example the 9/11 crisis with the World Trade Centre. How do you handle it if your faith is blamed for the pain and damage of another group?

Tips: How to make a marriage like this work

- Communicate: When a couple with differing beliefs start dating, then faith is like the metaphorical elephant in the room: Nobody wants to talk about it. Everyone is scared of spoiling the romance or of inciting an argument. When it comes to a marriage, both parties must talk about their faith and the role that it plays within a marriage.
- Be informed: By getting to know more about your husband or wife’s faith, doesn’t mean you are questioning your own faith. Should one party accept the other’s beliefs, then both parties must be informed about the faith that is being rejected. There must also be respect and acknowledgement for the person whose faith is being renounced. Another faith should only be adopted if you wholeheartedly believe in this faith and are truly prepared to distance yourself from the faith that they grew up with.
- Talk with your family: When a couple with different beliefs get married, it is difficult for the respective in laws to accept. It is you and your spouse’s responsibility to communicate to family members how you differ in this regards and how you will handle it.
- Go for premarital counselling: An objective counsellor can identify potential problems and provide you with a safe platform where you can work at these problems. According to the therapists engaged couples often suppress their different expectations because they are too busy with wedding plans and avoiding conflict.
- Talk with other couples in similar situations: By talking with another couple in multi-belief marriages, you can realise what potential problems may surface and in this manner be prepared for dealing with possible problems at a later stage.

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