Interfaith Couples and Holidays: 10 Ways to Manage Conflict

Although the winter holiday season starts in the United States with the celebration of Thanksgiving in late November, many couples have been trying to figure out how to manage the holidays for months – sometimes even for the entire year since the last holiday season. How do you placate two, three, or even four sets of parents?  

It sometimes feels like you need a flow chart just to figure out where you’ll be on a given day during the holidays. “We’ll go to your parents in the morning of Thanksgiving, and mine in the afternoon;” or “we’ll celebrate Thanksgiving with your mother, Chanukah with your father, Christmas morning with my dad and his wife, and Christmas Eve with my mom and her husband.”

And being in an interfaith relationship can only add to the complications. How do you handle your families’ different celebrations during the holidays? And how do you make the holidays meaningful for you as a couple?

Before we answer these questions, let’s look at the current state of interfaith relationships. One of the reasons that young people are often told not to look outside of their religious or ethnic groups for a life partner is that these questions are not easy to answer. Marriage is hard enough when you agree on basic beliefs; and religious and ethnic differences add unnecessary stress and complication to a couple’s life.

Although in some countries and religions, of course, it is still unacceptable to intermarry, research shows that interfaith marriages are on the rise in the United States and Europe. And while it is still more common to marry within your own faith in the United States, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey, since 2010 four out of ten Americans married outside of their own faith.

The research also shows that it is even more common for unmarried young people to live with a romantic partner who does not share their religious heritage: 49%, or almost half of young unmarried couples living together are interfaith couples.

Many couples have discovered that they can also enrich a relationship, bringing unexpected fullness and joy into a couple’s lives.

But it can still be complicated to manage the holidays in an interfaith relationship. For one thing, even if a couple is okay with their differences, their families might not be. Parents have strong feelings about their own traditions and about their children’s relationships. And they frequently don’t have any difficulty telling their children about their opinions.

So from the beginning, there are often several voices in any couple’s discussion about how to celebrate their holidays. Your Orthodox Greek grandmother might be crying because you and your Buddhist boyfriend want to travel to Tibet over the Christmas holidays and will therefore miss your family’s traditional Greek Orthodox Christmas celebration; or your boyfriend’s Jewish mother might be hurt that you want to spend the first night of Chanukah with a group of friends instead of with her. Your father might complain that you aren’t spending Thanksgiving with him and your stepmother, or your wife’s mother might suddenly inform you both that their family always spends Christmas Eve at her house – even though your wife says that this has never been the case.

And then, of course, there are the traditions that you and your partner both love and want to recreate in your own home; and the ones that you hate and don’t want to have any part of.

If you are attempting to juggle different family belief systems this holiday season, you are by no means alone. But even couples whose religious beliefs are in sync are bombarded by conflicting and noisy cultural demands. Children growing up in faiths that do not celebrate Christmas, as well as those Christian groups that do not practice gift-giving on the holiday, may have a hard time understanding why they are not allowed to join in the festivities practiced by their friends and touted on every form of media.

Parents and family on one or both sides may also have difficulty embracing decisions you and your partner have made. This can be extremely painful for everyone. Guilt, anger and rejection can flow in both directions.

But in these days of political unrest, concerns about conflict over religious differences are not simply family affairs. In the confusing world we currently inhabit, it can be hard to hold onto our personal truths, and even harder to stay loving toward your partner.

So how do you manage all of the conflict?

I have collected a number of ideas for managing some of the most common conflicts that the holidays can stir up in interfaith couples, married or not, with or without children. (Children, of course, just amplify the conflict; so it’s always helpful to discuss these things long before they come onto the scene, even though you may have a totally different perspective once you have real life kids running around.).

These ideas come from couples with significant religious and ethnic differences, as well as some whose faith is basically the same, but have slight differences in how the holidays were celebrated in their homes growing up.

Source: rawpixel / 123RF Stock Photo

Here are 10 ways to make that relationship work during the holidays:

1. Be respectful, even when you disagree. Remember, you got involved in this relationship for a reason. See if you can find anything in your partner’s beliefs that reflect some of the things you most value about him or her. Put those thoughts into words in a conversation, or even in a card that you give him or her, signed with love!

2. Keep your eye on similarities, which often hide behind apparent differences. The themes of lights and traditional foods and songs, for instance, run through many of the holidays that appear around the time of the winter solstice. Also, cultural and religious celebrations are about finding ways to live a moral, caring, and responsible life. Every religion’s tradition and focus is on trying to teach these values.

3. Don’t take differences personally. In many cases, couples come together not only because of what they have in common, but also because of their differences. But we often don’t pay attention to these interesting and subtle attractors until they create conflict. When a difference, whether based on tradition or opinion, becomes a central issue, it is important to put it in context, as part of the complicated and hopefully multitextured relationship that you’re in. Differences don’t mean that one of you is saying the other is wrong (even if you do phrase it that way). Instead, they capture the fact that you are not clones of one another. You are two different people trying to find ways to live together and to bring joy to one another’s lives. Celebrate the differences. Too much similarity would, in the long run, be pretty boring!

4. Beware the phrase “We always did it this way.” Even if you both grew up in the same religious tradition, you will have different rituals. Just because yours are meaningful to you does not mean they are necessarily right for your partner or for your family. Rigidly adhering to those old practices will interfere with your ability to create new rituals for your own adult life. But that doesn’t mean dropping everything that has meaning for you. Try to find ways to integrate your rituals with your partner’s. If, for instance, you grew up with potato latkes for Hanukah and your partner grew up with spicy curry and dhal for Christmas, could you combine the dishes and create a new tradition? Or perhaps your partner grew up outside the United States, never celebrated Thanksgiving, and really dislikes roast turkey. Could you consider the possibility of incorporating some food that she enjoys in your own Thanksgiving tradition, or of bringing a dish of her country’s special celebratory food to your family’s Thanksgiving dinner?

5. Create new family rituals. They do not have to be complicated or even religious. Learn about the traditions of other religions than your own. Reach out to other religious communities and find out if you can attend any of their ceremonies. If nothing is available in your community, begin reading about and talking to your children and your friends about these other traditions.

6. Experiment, mix, and find what works for you. Go to services at different churches, temples, and mosques. Find what works for your family, and search until you come up with traditions that soothe you and your partner together.

7.  Know and accept that tensions will rise. Work on managing them together. This may mean sitting down and talking instead of arguing. It may be enough sometimes, though, simply to say that you both know that this is a difficult and confusing time of year. Take a look at the book Difficult Conversations, by Douglas Stone and Bruce Patton. It has terrific suggestions for conflict management in any relationship.  

8. And this one is so important that I will repeat it: remember you got together despite – or maybe even because of – your differences. Remind yourself of what you loved about one another to begin with. And remember that conflict is a normal, even healthy part of any relationship, and learning how to resolving conflict is perhaps the most important part of maintaining and nurturing a healthy, satisfying long-term connection with another person.

9. Incorporate your friends into your rituals. Having friends who are in the same boat as you can also help you manage the complexities and also deal with your family’s reactions. In my own interfaith experience, neither my family nor my husband’s were critical of our religious choices, but we often felt that we were reinventing the wheel. We were incredibly lucky that at a toddler holiday party we attended at the synagogue we eventually joined, a young woman came up to us and said, “Do you belong to that little boy?” We nodded, waiting to be told he had done something wrong, but she smiled and said, “He looks like he’s the same age as my son… can we have a playdate?” She and her husband were also from different religious backgrounds. Our close friendship, which has grown over 25 years, provides mutual support as we continue to navigate the complexities of interfaith relationships, interfaith children, and an interfaith world.

10. Join an interfaith group. In a New York Times article, Kamran Khan, a Muslim man marrying a Christian woman, says, “It helps to know other people in the same boat.” His parents disapproved of his relationship and refused to attend the wedding. But Mr. Khan said that being a part of the interfaith group gave him a sense of pride. “We can blaze a trail for others,” Mr. Khan said. “We’re at the forefront of something.”

Differences, and respect for those differences, is an important part of what makes any relationship work. As Kahlil Gibran, the poet and philosopher, wrote in his book The Prophet, spaces and differences are crucial to any relationship. He says, “Love one another but make not a bond of love: Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.”

Differences are part of that moving sea. How you and your partner manage these differences models something important to your children. Perhaps you might even model something to your parents. And although you should not be in this relationship to change the world, you, like every member of an interfaith, interethnic, interracial, and intercultural relationship, are offering up the most powerful kind of response to the black and white thinking all around us. You are showing there is no such thing as a single correct answer, a single way of being. You are living the opposite of a life in which only one person can be right, and everyone else must be wrong. 

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