Understanding and Exploring Differentiation within Mixed-Faith Marriages
Have you ever considered that every couple is a mixed-faith couple and in a mixed-faith marriage? Spirituality and what fuels and contributes to a person's faith, and/or internal sense of self and connectedness to others, are uniquely personal and intricate. All couples could be considered mixed-faith couples because they are unique and separate beings that enter into a partnership. Regardless if a couple's spiritual practices are similar, they not the same spiritual being or have 100% agreement and interpretation of spiritual and/or religious beliefs and practices.
If it's hard to put into context why all couples could be considered mixed-faith couples, let's put into context why seeing ourselves as uniquely separate spiritual beings can be so challenging within Orthodox faith traditions. A large majority of individuals from Orthodox faith transitions marry very young and haven't practiced their own individual spiritual development or unique individual identity prior to focusing on the identity of their marriage and their relationship. Human's prefrontal cortexes, the rational part of the brain's thinking structure, are not fully developed until we are roughly 25 years old, making it both a brave and a challenging venture to yoke oneself with someone else prior to knowing yet who they will be, let alone who we will be in relationship to someone else.
For couples who marry later in life, they may be very comfortable with their individual differences (professions, politics, family backgrounds) and find their faith practices to be the common linking identity so when one person's faith practices or beliefs begin to change after marriage it can feel challenging and threatening to lose that perceived commonality in the relationship.
In general, many couples from more Orthodox faith traditions including Mormons and Jehovah Witnesses, have not experienced modeling to practice and understand healthy differentiation within their spiritual/religious identity and relationship experience. Differentiation is the active and ongoing process of a person being able to define their thoughts, their feelings, their wishes and their desires to one another and to be able to tolerate the partner doing the same thing. It is the process of stepping into our individual identities and becoming aware of our partner's individual differences from ourselves.
Many couples enter their marriages practicing their spiritual and religious beliefs similarly, even though internally there are naturally going to be some minor if not major differences. What speaks to one person's soul or individual or unique sense of self, is different for each person. For example, prayer might be really meaningful to your partner while music as a form of worship might speak more to your heart. However, when one partner's thoughts, practices, or beliefs related to their faith beings to outwardly change, conflict within the relationship may begin to rise. One of the reasons the conflict shows up is because couples are not practiced in sitting with and knowing how to become comfortable with difference. They have not practiced differentiation in their marriages related to spiritual differences.
The following are three barriers to gaining prior-experience practicing spiritual differentiation within more Orthodox Faith Traditions prior to a faith crisis, faith transition, or faith awakening can include:
1. A dominant narrative and often a celebration of being on the same "spiritual page" as our partners. Culturally, Orthodox faith promotes and encourage members of the same faith tradition to marry within the faith. This means couples are practiced in spiritually highlighting what is the SAME about their spiritual beliefs and practices in their marriage versus where their differences lie. They are seasoned in celebrating perceived sameness versus recognizing and honoring differences.
2. Some orthodox faith traditions don't practice or model for their young adults how to have in-depth spiritual conversations about what uniquely feeds their soul, instead, they are practiced in making assumptions that what works for them spiritually, works for those they love. The inability to honor and practice discussing and exploring the difference in early adulthood about what someone loves and/or dislikes about their spiritual/religious upbringing can lead to stunted development in this area until challenges possibly arise later in life.
3. Many individuals withing more Orthodox Faith Traditions haven't been exposed to the fact that doubt and wrestling with one's beliefs is a natural, healthy, and anticipated aspect of spiritual growth and progression. Doubt and the wrestle with faith are celebrated within developmental models as normal and a natural progression of spiritual development. Often times doubt is not interpreted as natural and a part of the spiritual development within Orthodox faith traditions, thus when it shows up individuals are threatened versus of viewing it as developmentally normal.
Differentiation is the full acceptance that each person in a relationship is distinctly their own person with unique and different views and perspectives. Research suggests that differentiated couples have stronger and more authentic marriages. Psychologist Peter Peterson*, suggests that the following three qualities and attributes significantly improve a couples ability to move through the challenges of differentiation:
1. Patience - You need to have patience with yourself and your partner because there are going to be some stumbles.
2. Curiosity - You need to be curious because that's how you begin to understand who your partner is as an individual.
3. A willingness to tolerate tension - And you need to tolerate tension because things get tense when you bring up differences.
In religious cultures where the dominant narrative is that it's essential to believe, think, and feel the same way about religious doctrine, practices, and behaviors it can be incredibly challenging for individuals within a relationship to own their spiritual/religious differences safely.
Here are some questions to ask yourself and/or spouse about your comfort relationship with differences you two experience:
1. Not including your differences in faith, what other differences do you both experience? This could possibly include political perspectives, music taste, differences in hobbies or interest etc.
2. Are the non-spiritual/religious differences you experience threatening? If so, how have you navigated those differences? If not, how come those differences are non-threatening? (Example, do you have different love language, views on politics, different hobbies and interests etc.
3. What are the skills and attributes that allow you to be non-threatened by those differences? Are those same skills available to help you navigate the spiritual and/or religious differences you are now experiencing?
4. Wherever you are in your mixed faith marriage experience, as either the TBM or the PM, are you willing to honor your unique spiritual differences and needs over the desire to want to be the same?
If you're feeling frustrated that you have experienced conflict in your marriage related to spiritual and/or religious differences, let me offer this friendly reminder. The action and process of differentiation is a skill, it takes practice to develop. For example, I don't have strong biceps because I haven't regularly practiced strengthening that muscle. If your marriage hasn't had a lot of practice sitting in the tension or discomfort of spiritual differentiation it's not because you aren't able to, it's because you haven't practiced the skill building of that skill. You can develop this skill, it is possible, but like anything you want to be strong and well developed, it takes practice and consistency.
Sara Hughes-Zabawa, LMSW has extensive experience working with trauma survivors, depression & anxiety, LGBT+ individuals and their families, and faith transitions. She is also a yoga instructor and uses mindfulness training to support clients in cultivating self-care practices.