Thought Catalog
June 20, 2017

We All Have To Mix Eventually — An Exploration Of Interfaith And Secular Relationships

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What is the issue?
Matheus Ferrero

Grown-up Stuff

In many ways, adulthood isn’t too different from childhood (apart from actually wanting to go to sleep before 11pm and paying for our own candy at the movies). The biggest change comes when we begin to consider relationships with those outside of our family, specifically romantic relationships.

We are introduced to the concept of love when we are children: our first crush who shares their crayons, our first girlfriend/boyfriend who we hold hands with at recess, our first tight-lipped, slick-palmed, smooch after the “dance”. It’s innocent and magical and makes us question what the heck adults were complaining about; love is the easiest, most natural thing in the world. “Grown-up stuff” isn’t hard at all.

Then the pimply, emotional gremlin of adolescence moves into the top-bunk to remind us that we are weird and complicated and no one will ever love us or our braces. If we’re lucky, we have one or two romantic prospects that slowly introduce us to the world of dating.

However, decades of YA fiction and John Hughes movies make us believe that high school is a one-stop dream shop where the quarterback secretly loves musical theatre, and the head cheerleader has a crush on her lab partner. We settle into the comfort of these archetypes like beanbag chairs.

But the illusion quickly disappears as we come to understand real-life courtship is nothing like what Molly Ringwald and Andrew McCarthy experience in Pretty in Pink. He doesn’t stare with his mouth open when you come to answer the front door, and you don’t get to pick her up in your brand new convertible. The two of you, all bones and angles in your teenage bodies, cozy up in your mom’s Honda, and most often with your mom in the driver’s seat. Challenging? Yes. Awkward? For sure. Worth it? Absolutely.

Having a hand to hold helps us to loosen our grip around our self-image and get comfortable with the notion of being important to people outside of our family. However, the lethal combination of time, perspective, and distance frequently squelches such young unions, leaving us to suffer our first heartbreak. It feels like a nuclear blast inside your ribcage, but eventually you heal.

And after a few flips of the calendar, you glance in the rear-view mirror and smile, fondly remembering your bad hair and sloppy puppy love, grateful for the beautiful mess that you were. “Grown-up stuff” isn’t really that hard.

Then, one day you find yourself sharing a cup of coffee with someone who challenges you to be better and you don’t fall, but plummet, into love. They buy things in your favourite colour and you list them as your emergency contact. It’s easy and simple. But simplicity and relationships will forever be mutually exclusive. You may wait all year for Christmas dinner, but your girlfriend fasts during Ramadan. You light all eight candles of the Menorah, but your boyfriend ignites diyas on Diwali. As it turns out, “grown-up stuff” is hard.

Inter-faith dating is both a reality for many and on the rise in Canada’s increasingly heterogeneous society. I know of over ten couples in my immediate group of friends alone who are currently engaged in inter-faith relationships. Having personally experienced both a same- faith and inter-faith partnership, I was curious to speak with others to gain a deeper understanding of how they navigate the complexities of dating someone of a different faith.

How does it compare with the difficulties faced by those in a self-professed secular couple, one without any faith element whatsoever?

I interviewed six couples, three of which identify as inter-faith, and three who do not. I asked a similar set of questions of both groups in an effort to control the variables and formulate a clear conclusion. It is a challenging subject to write about as there are countless exceptions. Additionally, the raw data I analyzed was people’s individual experiences and emotions, which hardly qualify as objective facts.

I wanted to ascertain how each couple planned and prepared for the future, as well as whether they had, at any point, seriously considered breaking-up to make their lives “easier”. The interviewed couples varied in both sexual preference and culture, while collectively representing the religions of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Sikhism. Along with being asked the basics about their relationship, like how long they have been dating or where they met, the couples were allowed the freedom to disclose as much or as little with which they felt comfortable. Those interviewed are in their early to mid-twenties and either recent university graduates or currently studying in their upper-years.

I am, by no means, a psychologist, sociologist, or anthropologist, nor will I ever claim to be. The opinions expressed herein are my own, in combination with those I had the privilege to interview.

Meeting the Folks

Regardless of the length of time they had been together, each couple I interviewed had one thing in common: they were in love. Snuggled together on the couch, in front of the webcam, in the restaurant, it didn’t matter the setting, they were smiling and laughing, just happy to be talking about one of their favourite topics: their relationship.

There was no glaring difference between the two sets of couples in the way they exploded into fits of grins and giggles when I asked about how they met: in an office, during a fire alarm, in class, through work, at a party.

However unglamorous or ordinary their meet-cute may have been, it held great meaning to them. When I asked more intimate questions about the significant other’s level of connectedness to their partner’s family, I began to see the disparity between inter-faith and secular couples. While most secular pairs had met one another’s families within months, if not weeks, of beginning their relationship, the majority of inter-faith couples have one partner who is still a stranger to the other’s family.

“I wasn’t sure what my parents would say,” one young man explains of his hesitancy in introducing his Caucasian-Catholic girlfriend to his mom and dad. He told me he was aware of some of the “white girl” stereotypes in existence and didn’t want such judgements to be imposed on his girlfriend. While his girlfriend’s fear was that her parents preferred her to “keep it Polish” in the family, and would not be accepting of her Pakistani-Canadian beau. It is important to note that some of the secular couples took their time making that introduction as well, but for different reasons. Some were unaware of the level of seriousness and didn’t know if such a meeting would be “worth it” if the relationship was to be no more than a fling.

Regardless of faith backgrounds or lack thereof, most couples want to be sure there is a future with their partner before integrating them into the family, in most cases in an effort to limit the amount of collateral damage done if the relationship is terminated.

For example, the male counterpart of a Catholic-Spiritual (formerly Sikh) couple explained that considering his culture, it would be inappropriate to introduce his girlfriend to his parents before they were engaged.

In both types of couples, the opinions and blessing of the family play an important role. Dependant on the status of an individual’s relationship with their caregivers, the approval of parents, grandparents, siblings, and so on, can make dating either really easy, or virtually impossible. Referring to the challenges he and his girlfriend of a different faith face, a young man who identifies as “culturally Jewish” said, “I don’t think it’s an obstacle for us… (but) an obstacle in the face of external factors.”

Those “external factors” he is implying are the family members who have the power to deny support and withhold love if they do not approve of your partner. One needs to gently separate themselves from the comfort of their home in order to grow, either independently or with someone new.

All those I interviewed agreed that this process runs a lot smoother if they have the encouragement from the first people they ever loved. It would be accurate to say that striking a balance between your partner and your family is a difficulty all couples face, regardless of any additional challenges specific to the relationship.

Nevertheless, it is important to remember that it’s not an issue of substitution, but addition. You’re not “subbing out” your MVP to give the rookie a chance; you’re learning how to play with a longer roster. Believe it or not, it’s easier to win with more players on your team.

So, where is this going?

One of the primary reasons why many of the couples interviewed were apprehensive to introduce their partner to their parents was due to the uncertainty of their future. Yet, without a crystal ball, it is highly improbable that one could accurately predict where the relationship is headed.

The only way to eliminate some of the worry is to communicate openly about said curiosity. But how does one begin that conversation? For one of the secular couples I spoke with, it was through humour: “We joke about it all the time.”

This tactic worked to dissipate the tension when discussing “the future” for a couple who had only been dating for two months at the time of the interview. Another strategy employed by an inter-faith couple was to be fully open during the early stages. The Catholic counterpart of a Catholic-Jewish union said her faith was something “vital” to her that would be a part of their lives should they stay together.

Another inter-faith couple chose to take their time discussing any long-term plans because they were aware of their religious differences and saw that as a red flag for an indefinite tomorrow.

Such serious talk too soon in a relationship can add unnecessary pressure that stifles any chance of natural companionship. We would all end up sad, bitter cat-owners if we started every first date with, “So, where is this going?” The tougher questions are better saved for when you and your partner have established a safe, honest, and loving environment primed for such discussions. But depending on the limitations placed on couples with implicit complications, like mixed race or cross-cultural unions, the nature of those “big” questions may vary. One of the secular couples decided that when they have a home of their own, they want “a really nice garden”, while one of the inter-faith pairs can’t imagine deciding such trivial things when it’s incredibly difficult to “determine what it could be like down the line.” Nothing is a guarantee, which remains true for both sets of couples. But the reality is that a game plan should be established as soon as possible, so both partners can exist on the same page in terms of expectations and concerns. Inter-faith couples have an advantage in this regard because they anticipate conflict and expect disagreements, so they take all necessary measures to ensure they have the answers to questions before they’re asked. In reality, love is very similar to fairy- tales in many ways. True, there are no hospitable dwarves or magic mirrors, but we can still ride off into the sunset and live in castles. The difference between couples who fail and those who succeed, are the ones who expect the fairy-tale and those who earn it.

“You gotta talk about the hard stuff”

A young Catholic woman dating an Indian-Canadian man who was raised Sikh but identifies as Spiritual offered that, “if you can’t talk about obstacles, then you cannot have a future.” But which obstacles is she referring to? There are several different forms of obstacles faced by couples of all kinds, as well as sacrifices that need to be made. Many have argued that compromise is a key factor in all successful relationships, and that being a talented compromiser is equally as important as being an effective communicator.

When discussing the issue of obstacles and concessions with both sets of couples, I was struck by an odd comparison that never occurred to me before.

Two of the three secular couples spoke openly about their refusal to sacrifice a promising job offer for their significant other. One woman responded saying, “I wouldn’t put my career on hold,” while a man in a different relationship admitted that he wouldn’t give up his career to “chase somebody”, punctuating his admission with, “if it works, it works.” These admittances formed a parallel with faith in a way I didn’t anticipate.

One could argue that the struggle inter-faith couples face of letting go of certain rituals or traditions, which may be a fundamental part of their identity, is very similar to a partner in a secular couple giving up their aspirations and dreams. Working your entire life to become a doctor or climb Mount Everest is not unlike nurturing your faith. Both require focus, sacrifice, and a great deal of effort, which is a lot to leave behind if we are asked.

Many would sooner amputate a limb than deny their god or turn down their dream job. This brought my attention to the harsh truth that all couples, at some point in their relationship, will need to discern whether it’s in their best interest to release a piece of their identity to make room for their partner.

Unfortunately, inter-faith couples have such career issues to tackle, alongside a slew of other seemingly insurmountable obstructions. Such snags include potentially letting go of their religion, gaining the acceptance of their in-laws, deciding whether their child will be baptized, circumcised, given an aqiqah, or all three.

No one said relationships were easy, but a couple should be flexible enough in their ways and strong in their character to allow their style to “adapt to the times and pulse” of the relationship.

In some cases, it’s difficult to imagine building a sense of trust in not only you but your partner as well. It’s in those situations that we doubt our ability to fix the relationship, or if we want to fix it at all. Therein lies the rub, and the “break-up” chat. It is no one’s favourite conversation by a long shot, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen.

There comes a point when all couples torn apart by distance, familial differences, cultural boundaries, career prospects and so on have asked one another and themselves whether breaking-up is the easier, wiser route to take.

Does the bad outweigh the good?

I asked this question of all six couples, each struggling with their own private cocktail of obstacles, but the response was unanimous. Almost all pairings conceded that breaking-up will always be a simpler option for the sake of saving money or grief, but all agreed that being apart would be even harder than making it work together.

One of the male counterparts in a secular couple argued that “it’s not about what’s easy or what’s hard,” he is simply happy to have the woman he loves in his life, and that is the most important thing to him. So important, in fact, that he is willing to travel the 600km to be with her. One of the gentlemen in another secular couple remarked that he would never take the “easy way out” because that is simply “not him”.

He said that any couple can make it work if they accept that they “are two different people… (who’ve) been raised by two different families.” He maintained that if you truly learn to appreciate and understand that, there will never be cause for walking away. Many hands make light work, which appears to be the mentality adopted by all the couples I had the privilege of interviewing. The general consensus was that they would sooner work through the “hard stuff” as a couple than the “easy stuff” alone.

Relationships get into hot water when one or both of the partners think there is a “quick fix” to their problems, but they find the strength needed when they recognize that there will always be struggle, but we have the power to choose who we struggle with.

Knock, Knock

I asked the inter-faith couples if they saw their faith disparity as a challenge, eager to gain some insight into how they mentally approach the issue. Initially, everyone agreed that at face-value, it is a challenge, but one that is certainly worth overcoming. “We don’t know, but we have to get to know… (and be) open to knowing, open to having our beliefs challenged.”

One couple spoke at great lengths about how the endless amounts of effort they put into their relationship is so much bigger than them. “Different worlds have to come together to support each other,” and by sitting at the table with a willingness to address the differences and work side by side, our challenges transform into opportunities to affect social change.

I began this process in an effort to gain a deeper understanding of how today’s couples tackle points of contention in their relationship. Honestly, I was hoping to walk away from this experience with a rough-and- ready guidebook on how to “make it last” with your significant other. I was looking for concrete evidence that would support this idea that inter-faith couples have it much worse than those that identify as secular. I thought interviewing friends and colleagues in similar situations would give me similar answers. But I was wrong on all accounts.

There is no such book as “Dating for Dummies” because there are no universal rules or truths that apply to each and every couple.

Even pairs who are free from cultural, religious, or societal boundaries have personal, private limitations to confront and resolve. I didn’t develop an air-tight formula to cure a troubled relationship, but what I did develop was something far more valuable: a little bit of insight.

There is no “right way” to manage the individual clashes in our partnerships, but there most certainly is a “wrong way”. The more we try to convince ourselves that the answers to our problems lie with the success stories of others, the further we’ll separate ourselves from finding a strategy that will work for us. There is no such thing as “one size fits all” when it comes to relationships.Every couple is a mixed couple, in one way or another.

We come from diverse backgrounds including but not limited to our language, family, morals, beliefs, level of education, culture creed, and socio-economic status. But it is vital that these distinctions are not mistaken for barriers as they allow for growth and encourage peace and understanding amongst the members in our communities. With the right perspective, any couple can succeed by converting their perception of “hurdles” into opportunities and eagerly throwing open the door when they knock.

I invited all six pairings to make a final statement regarding their relationship, allowing the moment for them to say something they felt needed to be said. One young man, a self- professed Atheist, looked at his girlfriend of four years and smiled, saying, “I love her. And she kissed me first.” She blushed and affectionately shoved her boyfriend, both of them basking in the quiet confidence that it was one of the best decisions she ever made. Despite this particular couple’s differences, the future’s uncertainty, and their experience with struggle, that was the most important thing to them; the love.

Truthfully, that should be the most important thing to all couples. When the sun begins to shyly peak over the horizon in the timid hours of the morning, what, or rather who, gets you out of bed? If that’s not worth fighting for, then I don’t know what is.TC mark