Is it that important to have the same religion?

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May 13, 2013 by Alex Johannigman

interfaith coupleThis past weekend I got a chance to talk to one of my closest friends who is currently dating someone with very different religious views than hers. Relationships are a conversation that tends to come up with us a lot lately, and her current situation has allowed me to impart some of the wisdom that I’ve gained from my serious dating experiences which, between a few Protestants and a Jew, have all been with someone with different religious beliefs than my own. And this isn’t super surprising, since more and more people are marrying outside of their faith, up to around 42%.

So, if you are currently in a relationship (or thinking about starting one) with someone who doesn’t have the same beliefs about God and all things divine as you do, here are 7 tips and things to look for to make it as healthy and awesome for both of you as possible, or to recognize that it may be time to call it quits. Keep in mind that I’m an unmarried guy in his early 20s, so take it for what it’s worth.

1. Don’t Evangedate. Whenever you’re in any romantic relationship, you shouldn’t go into it hoping to change a serious part of that person. That includes their spending habits, how clean they keep their living space, how they interact with other people, and even their faith. You should love a person for who they are, not who you want them to become. Don’t fall into the trap of “evangedating,” that is, dating with the hope that you’ll convert your significant other to your faith. If it happens, great. But if it doesn’t, you should be content with the choices your significant other has made and what their beliefs are and love them because of their faith, not in spite of it. If you can’t imagine not fully participating in a worship service together every week, or if you can’t bear the thought of your future spouse not being in heaven with you because you think people of their faith can’t be saved, that may be a sign that dating outside of your religion is a bad idea.

2. The relationship should help you both grow in your respective faiths. It is not a good sign if you or your significant other feels like your relationship is pulling you away from your faith. And it’s an easy trap to fall into. Different religions tend to have different values in terms of issues like morality and how faith is practiced and how frequently. It is very easy to start adopting the values held by your significant other, even if they share the same faith as you but practice it more or less often than you do. Do you find yourself skipping your weekly or daily worship service to spend time with them? Have they kept you from prayer? Are you doing anything that troubles your conscience or makes you feel like you aren’t living the life that your religion calls you to live? If so, it’s probably time to discuss potential solutions with your significant other, which may include ending the relationship.

3. Use this as an opportunity to learn about another faith and another worldview, and teach yours. Even if you’re still going strong in your faith, and he or she is doing great with theirs, find ways to learn about each other’s faith.This can be especially important for Catholics since some of our beliefs aren’t quite mainstream when it comes to sexuality which can be pretty important to discuss with someone you may want to marry. As an added bonus, by asking about each others’ beliefs you may encounter a question you don’t have answers to, which will force you to do some research and learn more about your own beliefs in the process.  This notion includes not just asking questions, but also taking the initiative to share your faith. Looking back, I realized that before taking anyone I was dating to mass for the first time it would have been really good to run them through how mass works and why we do what we do, and also to hand them a missalette once we got there. I have memories of girlfriends looking very confused and awkward walking into a Catholic Church and not understanding why we are kneeling or standing at different points, not knowing if they should go up for communion or not, and getting really weirded out during the sign of peace when everyone wants to shake their hand or hug them.

4. Make sure that they don’t only go to faith related things to please you, and that they seek spiritual growth outside of you. This is sort of related to point 2. Not only is it important that you help each other grow, but you should both work to grow spiritually independently too. My significant other’s faith shouldn’t grow just because I’m encouraging her to go to her Protestant service or making her take me with her, but she should also be trying about as hard to grow in her faith as I am in mine. If they are volunteering with their church or temple or mosque without you even mentioning anything about it, that’s a great sign.

5. Talk about married life and raising children early and often. After listening to the link above (here it is again), I discovered that about 50% of interfaith couples didn’t discuss how they wanted to raise children before they got married. That number surprised me a lot. I can almost guarantee that the biggest conflict for interfaith couples will be around raising a family. If you strongly desire to raise your kids in a certain faith, will your significant other be OK with that? And if they say they are OK with it, is it something they will support you in or just allow you to do on your own? I was raised in a mixed faith household, but my Protestant mother was still very involved in making sure we went to mass as a family every week, and that I was able to be as involved in my youth group as I wanted to be. Even if I get the OK from my future spouse to raise my kids in the Catholic faith, I’d want it to be a group project and not have to fly solo on something as important as religious education.

6. Remember that people become more and less religious over time. If you have serious disagreements with the beliefs of the person you are dating, don’t treat it as a non-issue just because they aren’t “practicing” at the moment. Statistics show that people get more religious as they age. Would you still want to be with this person if they got really involved in their faith? Make sure you’re comfortable not only with what your partner’s faith means to them now, but also what it could mean to them in the future, especially when they reach the point where they are raising a family (see the last point). And make sure they understand that you could change too.

7. Pray together. Prayer can be one of the best ways to become spiritually and emotionally intimate with your boyfriend or girlfriend. We often lift up our concerns to God through prayer, so praying as a couple not only allows us to see how our best friend understands who God is, but also what is weighing on their heart at that moment. It also builds good habits for praying as a family later in life if you end up raising a family together.

Here’s some supplemental reading in case you haven’t heard enough from me yet:

The Honest Truth: Should you date non-Catholics

The Trouble with Evangedating

Opinionator: Marrying Out of the Faith

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