Counselling for Interfaith & Intercultural Relationships: When Religion or Culture Become an Issue in Your Relationship
For a couple in a serious relationship, issues about religion, faith and culture can become increasingly important over time. Working with a psychologist or relationship counsellor can be an effective way of dealing with the conflicts and problems that arise when religious or cultural beliefs clash.
For couples who come from different cultural backgrounds, open communication about their cultures
has been shown to improve relationship satisfaction, and is considered one of the most important
factors for maintaining a harmonious intercultural relationship (1). Similarly, research on interfaith
couples shows that the strongest predictor of relationship or marriage satisfaction is the ability to
communicate constructively during religion-based disagreements (2). One of the key outcomes of
couples therapy is improved communication skills, which can help interfaith or intercultural couples
overcome any tensions that may arise due to differing values or upbringings.
WHY ARE CULTURE AND RELIGION IMPORTANT?
As long as humans have been evolving, we have had a need to attribute meaning to something larger than ourselves – it is how we give context to our lives and our place in the world. Having a spiritual belief system is very much a part of being human and it is a central part in being a whole and complete being. Spiritual and religious approaches are as wide and varied as humans are. Whether we are Catholic, Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish, Atheist or anything in between, our spirituality touches on important aspect of our lives. For some of us, our religious beliefs can be the driving force in how we structure our lives and the choices we make that determine our present existence and our future.
WHAT ARE INTERFAITH RELATIONSHIPS?
An interfaith relationship is one where two people of different religious and/or spiritual beliefs find themselves together in a relationship. While not everyone wears their religious beliefs on their sleeves, our spiritual and religious beliefs are usually very important to us and deeply held. When we meet someone who we eventually fall in love with and want to share our lives with, one of the very foundational bonds can be our spirituality.
For some couples, however, what we believe and who we fall in love with can be diametrically opposed. Initially, religion and spiritual beliefs may not be an issue as we are glowing in the early stages of love. However, as life continues to march forward, we may discover that conflicts and issues arise because of our spiritual differences.
Common areas of conflict for couples with interfaith or intercultural relationships include:-
- how to spend holidays,
- raising children,
- how to discipline children,
- gender roles and responsibilities,
- the role of family and
- which church or religious events to attend.
Very often, these couples find that differences about issues related to spirituality overlap into other areas of their life, making religious and spiritual beliefs one of the foundational areas of life for a couple.
JACOB AND EMILY’S STORY
Jacob and Emily met in their early 20s, while they were still at university. Jacob was taken with how outgoing and friendly Emily was, while Emily was delighted with the thoughtful and intelligent young man she had met in Jacob.
Jacob had been brought up in a reformist Jewish home and his mother’s fondest wish was that he would marry a nice Jewish girl from a similar background. Even though they were not particularly religious, Jacob had all of the traditional Jewish rituals performed to mark the highlights and transitional rites that came with being Jewish. Although he had never really thought about it, he assumed that when he had children they would continue the traditions that he had been brought up with.
Emily had been raised in a relaxed family that occasionally went to her local Methodist church. Even though her family was not overwhelmingly religious, for a time Emily had seriously contemplated becoming a missionary. During her early teenage years, she had been avidly involved in her church’s youth group and even attended the Young Girls Ministry Leadership Camp that was held annually by the regional Methodist group. She had always dreamed of a big church wedding and had thought that when she had children of her own she would be more diligent than her parents had been about making sure that her children had a strong religious foundation to guide their life choices and moral sensibilities.
In the whirlwind of university life and dating, Emily and Jacob didn’t find talking about their religious beliefs especially important, except to talk about it in broad terms. Neither one of them made an effort to make an issue out of it and when they decided to get married, they both took it as a good sign that they were able to convince their families to compromise and have both a Jewish and a Christian official perform at their wedding ceremony.
For several years Jacob and Emily were extremely happy. However, when they began to talk about having children and how to raise them, they began having conflicts. Jacob was adamant that he wanted his children to be raised in a traditional Jewish household and at the very least go through the traditional Jewish rituals. He hoped that his kids would attend Hebrew school when they were old enough and have the experience of their own Bar/Bat Mitzvah as he had so proudly done in his own early teenage years.
Emily, on the other hand, wanted her children to have the joy of Christmas and attend church every Sunday, something she herself had missed out on because of her parent’s own lackadaisical approach to religion. At an impasse and desperately wanting to start a family, Jacob and Emily turned to a relationship counsellor for help.
HOW CAN A RELATIONSHIP OR MARRIAGE COUNSELLOR HELP?
One of the first things that a relationship counsellor or psychologist will approach with a couple is what their history is together. The counsellor or psychologist will make an effort to get to know the couple and find out what their strengths are as a couple and as individuals. For Jacob and Emily, their strength is their love for each other and their desire to find common ground in order to start a family.
Here are some of the ways in which a psychologist or couples therapist can help:
- Improve communication skills – teach a couple how to really listen and communicate their feelings and needs.
- Teach conflict resolution skills – very often, anger and fear stand in the way of a couple really communicating and coming together. Unacknowledged feelings can prevent a couple from communicating well and reaching agreements.
- Remind a couple of why they are together – when couples first come together there are qualities and characteristics that made them fall in love. A relationship counsellor will help a couple remember those things about each other.
- Help a couple find a resolution – very often a couple needs a mediator to help them find a compromise that they can both feel meets their needs. A psychologist or relationship therapist will help the couple communicate what they believe is vital and reach an agreement that addresses those needs.
Each of these aspects of relationship or marriage counselling has its value and very often they are interwoven throughout the counselling therapy process.
Ultimately, when an interfaith couple is having problems finding their own solutions, turning to a relationship counsellor or psychologist for counselling therapy services can be a good way to find answers. If you or someone you know is struggling with these or similar problems and would like to book a consultation with a qualified couples therapist or would like to obtain further information please contact:
ASSOCIATED COUNSELLORS & PSYCHOLOGISTS SYDNEY
8am to 7pm, Monday – Saturday.
Reiter, M. J., & Gee, C. B. (2008). Open communication and partner support in intercultural
and interfaith romantic relationships: A relational maintenance approach. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 25(4), 539-559.
Hughes, P. C., & Dickson, F. C. (2005). Communication, marital satisfaction, and religious
orientation in interfaith marriages. The Journal of Family Communication, 5(1), 25-41.