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The Art Of Mixed-faith Mixing

You and your sweetie practice different religions… and this is the season when things can get dicey. Here, tips for navigating this terrain smoothly.

By Margot Carmichael Lester

asha Salzberg didn’t know what to do. “The guy I was dating invited me to attend his family’s Feast of the Seven Fishes—an Italian Christmas ritual. I’m Jewish and was really concerned about what the event entailed and whether I should even attend.”

She’s not alone. At this time of year, people who rarely attend religious events are called to worship—and regular worshippers are engaged in more services. That can create sticky
“Find out upfront if you’re expected to participate in rituals.”
situations for people of different faiths. Here’s some expert advice on how to handle these situations.

Learn a little more
“It could be beneficial to go to a faith-based holiday party in order to gain a better understanding of the other person’s interactions within his or her faith community,” notes Donna Tonrey, a marriage and family therapist who directs a clinical counseling program at La Salle University in Philadelphia, PA. “This gained understanding may be helpful in building and strengthening the relationship.”

But if you really don’t want to go, explain that you just don’t feel comfortable because it’s not part of your own faith tradition. As is often the case, you can’t go wrong if you communicate honestly and stay true to your core values and beliefs. “It has nothing to do with not caring about the person,” notes Edmund Case, president of InterfaithFamily.com. “It’s more of a comfort thing. Being able to articulate what it is about going to a date’s faith-based party can lead to an important discussion about what faith means to each partner that will make the relationship stronger.”

If you decide to go, don’t fret too much, says Matt Cherry, executive director of the Institute for Humanist Studies. “Cross-faith events can be tricky,” he admits, “but a lot of it comes down to common sense and common courtesy.”

Know the drill.
Before the party, find out what the religious components are going to be, if they will dominate the party and if there will be others who won’t take part in the religious elements. “If the party is predominantly religious in nature and everyone else there will share that religion, you may want to gracefully bow out in advance,” Cherry notes.

Don’t pass judgment.
“If you see a nativity scene and immediately sense your stomach in a knot, decide to treat it as
“Don’t do anything you feel goes against your faith, but be subtle about it.”
a learning experience,” Case says. “Ask questions about it, and maybe even contrast it with your own beliefs so that everyone learns. Take it as an opportunity to get to know your date’s own beliefs, memories, and traditions. It will help you get a good sense of where he/she is coming from and whether this is someone you would like to make more memories with.”

Don’t betray your own beliefs.
Don’t do anything you feel goes against your faith. “But don’t make a big announcement, be subtle about it,” says Debbie Mandel, author of Turn On Your Inner Light: Fitness for Body, Mind and Soul. “You have to take the high road here and explain your convictions.” If you are caught in a bind, you can always excuse yourself to the bathroom for a bit to collect your thoughts and sidestep the parts of the event that are making you uncomfortable.

Be polite and respect your host.
“Avoid lighting your cigarette from the Menorah at the Hanukkah party and don’t start a game of touch football with the Baby Jesus,” Cherry says with a laugh. While few people would actually engage in that kind of behavior, err on the side of serious restraint during religious festivities to make sure you don’t inadvertently do something that could be considered thoughtless.

Understand the impact of faith
This situation can be a great barometer, Mandel says. “If the party becomes a deal-breaker because of incompatible core value systems, then better to find out early on,” she says. “Politics and religion can really put a relationship to the test.”

But this event also can also catalyze a deeper bond between you, Mandel observes. “Is there any way that you can both blend your beliefs or create new rituals together? That might be the best way to compromise and grow from this challenge.”


Margot Carmichael Lester is a Carrboro, North Carolina-based freelance writer. She contributes to a variety of magazines and anthologies.
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