Navigating interfaith marriage is a search for common ground

By Whitney Evans, Deseret News

Published: Sat, Aug. 2, 2014, 5:00 a.m. MDT

 Bruce and Miriam Eatchel with their twins, Max and Madeleine. While Miriam Eatchel is Jewish, her husband is not, and together they are raising their two children to be Jewish Monday, July 28, 2014, in Park City.

Bruce and Miriam Eatchel with their twins, Max and Madeleine. While Miriam Eatchel is Jewish, her husband is not, and together they are raising their two children to be Jewish Monday, July 28, 2014, in Park City.

(Tom Smart, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — She's a devout Catholic. He's an active Mormon. And for more than three decades the couple has learned how to deepen their own faith while appreciating the faith of the other.

Their secret?

“We will accept each other as we are and pray to grow together but not necessarily pray for conversion,” said Juliana Boerio-Goates of Orem, who married Steven Goates on July 2, 1977. She then adds a caveat: "The path that we’ve chosen is not something that we encourage anybody else to do.”

In the United States, about 42 percent of marriages are interfaith unions, according to a leading expert in interfaith marriage in the United States. She reports that this up from 15 percent in 1988 and 25 percent in 2006, according to data from the General Social Survey, social science research supported by the National Science Foundation.

Interfaith marriages are three times as likely as same-faith unions to end in divorce, Naomi Schaefer Riley reported in her 2013 book, " 'Til Faith Do Us Part: How Interfaith Marriage is Transforming America."

"It is not the doctrines of religion, but its practices and rituals that are more likely to affect our day-to-day lives, and therefore our marriages. The latter may ultimately lead to more disagreements and eventually to divorce," Riley said in her book.

Juliana and Steven certainly understand the struggle. They said the "most intense fights" during the first two to three years of the Orem couple's 37-year marriage concerned religion. Now they happily married couple live in harmony, finishing each other's sentences.

“We decided that the only way we could make the marriage work was to be able to say, ‘Yes, I will love you even if you never change your faith. Even if I die Catholic and you die Mormon, we’ll have a happy relationship based in the things that we share, with an understanding of the differences,' ” Juliana Boerio-Goates said.

They tell a story of how early in their marriage, he was reading from Catholic theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and a passage helped him better understand and appreciate the sacrament of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. According to her, he read Teilhard de Chardin incorrectly, something she said does not matter much since it helped him spiritually.

“We decided to have a life together and that’s our advantage. That’s the thing that matters to us,” Steven Goates said.

Their relationship has not been without its bumps. Marriage is hard work and adding the interfaith element was an additional challenge. One benefit of their union has been an increased understanding of their respective beliefs, they said.

"Interfaith issues tend to be more complicated emotionally for people to figure out how to deal with than most issues that walk in my door," said marriage and family therapist Jonathan Swinton.

He said religious beliefs are more deeply ingrained in a person than other beliefs, and he said spouses struggle to separate their partner from their partner's beliefs.

Learning to cope

Interfaith couples considering marriage should discuss the details of which religion their children should attend and how they can best support the spouse in their religious activity, Swinton said.

In addition, it is important to communicate respect and understand how to best communicate their support for the other spouse's faith, according to Steven Szykula, a psychologist who specializes in children and families. It is also vital for people to know how involved their future spouse will be with their religion and be prepared to protect their partner from pressure that may come from their family of origin.

"Those sound like simple questions but for whatever reason, they're avoided. The detail is avoided," he said.

When interfaith couples approach interim Rabbi Jim Simon of Temple Har Shalom in Park City, he tells them that he is most concerned about the role religion will play in their home.

"As a rabbi, the thing that worries me most is a home that has no religion," he said. "Any home where there is no sense of religious faith or commitment, that scares me in terms of how the children will be raised."

Religion can turn into contention when kids come along, he said, especially if partners have not discussed their expectations and intentions. As a religious person, he would rather see a Jew who does not care much about his or her religion attend services with their spouse who perhaps clings more tightly to their faith than see them abandon religion all together.

“In a home with no religion does it mean that the children are devils? No. Does it mean they’re inherently unethical? No. Does it mean they will be bad children? No,” he said.

“But in my experience I believe that some commitment to a faith tradition, to some sense of religiosity, is going to help a person to have a more ... grounded life. A life that is anchored in certain types of values and principles that will be helpful to that person for his or her whole life.”

What about the children?

This was the case for Miriam Eatchel who, before marrying her husband Bruce in 1999, decided she would like to raise their children Jewish. He comes from a non-practicing Christian background and now considers himself a non-religious believer in God.

So he agreed that their 11-year-old twins would be reared attending Temple Har Shalom and the occasional Jewish summer camp. For Bruce, his children's religion is less important than the values they internalize. In the past he did not think organized religion was necessary, but he has since seen how traditions and values are more easily passed down through generations with the help of the organization.

“Learning Hebrew, learning values ... you know, there’s a big part of the Jewish faith about taking care of the people that need it and honoring your mother and father and stuff like that which I think is really good that they’re learning that,” he said. “No matter where they go they’re going to take that with them.”

Steven Goates and Juliana Boerio-Goates, the Mormon and the Catholic, decided to raise their kids in both faiths with the hope that their son and daughter would hear about the best of both religions from those who are active in their respective faiths.

While this has not always been the case — people sometimes talked to the children about their "heathen mother or father who really wasn't Christian," Juliana Boerio-Goates said — their relationship has taught their children a valuable principle:

"A sense that good people who love each other can disagree on something as fundamental as God. That you don't have to go to war over different perceptions of God," she said.

Her husband added: "It was probably harder on them than it was on us."

Lessons learned

Miriam Eatchel said she is glad she and her husband talked about their expectations before they married.

"I think if we hadn't, we would have made assumptions or had different expectations. I think it's really important to discuss beforehand," she said.

The Eatchels represent the majority of interfaith couples that interim Rabbi Simon sees: Those where the non-Jewish partner has decided to step away from their own loosely held faith to support their partner.

Depending on the faith combination, Riley's research shows divorce rates from 24 percent (Catholic and Mainline Protestant marriage) to 63 percent (Mainline Protestant to someone with no religious affiliation).

Because there is little recent data from entities such as the American Religious Identification Survey on specifics involving interfaith marriage in America, Riley commissioned her own study. She surveyed 2,450 Americans about their attitudes about and experiences with interfaith marriage, using internet survey firm YouGov.

Her research also shows the highest marital satisfaction for those who belong to the same faith and attend at the same frequency.

The parallel in faith adherence is what BYU Family Life professor David Dollahite calls religious similarity. Having the same religion is not as indicative of happiness as is having similar levels of commitment, he said.

"You’re on the same page, in the same paragraph, in the same sentence on the same word, right? You’re right there together. That’s the ideal,” he said, adding that religious similarity only takes a couple so far. There are still matters of temperament and personality to take into account.

"Just because you have high levels of religious similarity doesn't guarantee success. But at least it means that you're starting from a place of a similar set of values and ideas and meanings and ritual and kind of assumptions about life," he said.

Religious similarity offers an opportunity for couples to bond and have a common community, he said.

"Shared opportunity to … hold hands while sitting in a Sunday school lesson … stand together and sing the hymns and hearing the word of God preached by the pastor or the rabbi or the priest. If you’re missing out on that I think you’re missing out on some important things that can help strengthen a marriage,” Dollahite said.

The lack of shared community has been a challenge at times for Juliana Boerio-Goates who said she struggles with seeing families come to Mass together, sit as a family and take communion as a group. It is also difficult for the couple, who consider themselves happily married, to sit in an LDS Sunday school lesson or testimony meeting and hear someone share their testimony of their own temple marriage.

In spite of this, they still find ways to support the other and attend church with the other on special occasions.

“The thing that we tried to emphasize always on our marriage was our shared faith. We appreciate each other's faith," Steven Goates said. "We always sought for the common ground."

Email: wevans@deseretnews.com

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1. higv
Dietrich, ID,
Aug. 2, 2014

There are many problems with interfaith marriages and I remember where Spencer w Kimball said being broadminded with the Lords eternal program is like being generous with someone else's money. LDS people teach that a temple marriage is necessary to exaltation and if someone does not convert will be many problems, though some do convert and others generous a lot of problems that way.

2. riverofsun
St.George, UT,
Aug. 2, 2014

Interfaith marriage and a healthy large family for my husband and I going on 50 years now
Not advantageous to generalize about this type of marriage, or the diverse and open minded people who are living them, Mr. higv.
Lots of lively discussions at our house every time the DN runs one of those controversial religion/social pieces.

3. samhill
Salt Lake City, UT,
Aug. 2, 2014

"'Interfaith issues tend to be more complicated emotionally for people to figure out how to deal with than most issues that walk in my door,' said marriage and family therapist Jonathan Swinton.

He said religious beliefs are more deeply ingrained in a person than other beliefs, and he said spouses struggle to separate their partner from their partner's beliefs."

Yes, I can certainly see how having different foundation beliefs could throw a wrench into the relationship works. Sort of like trying to build a building designed with one foundation in mind on top of a different foundation. Be prepared for problems.

4. A Scientist
Provo, UT,
Aug. 2, 2014

I've been in an "interfaith" marriage to an LDS woman for over thirty years - does her being married to an atheist count as "interfaith"?

And in order to make it work, she has had to disregard or disagree with a number of opinions and teachings from local as well as general Church authorities that other members take for granted.

Foremost is the idea that atheists are immoral, "godless" people who have no "eternal perspective" and no values, and therefore cannot be trusted. (These are all things I hear openly stated in Church meetings frequently)

She has taken out her "endowments", and is as "worthy" and has as much "exaltation" in her future as any other LDS member (quite frankly, she puts 99.99% of Mormons to shame).

And we don't worry about "common ground" because neither of us believes that sameness is a requirement for good relationships or celestial glory, nor that "common" is necessarily desirable.

And we're still madly in love after all these years!

5. Paul Elder
Chicago, IL,
Aug. 2, 2014

I have been in an interfaith marriage with an LDS woman who was not active when we married. Now she teaches primary and is very involved. Make sure you know what you're getting yourself into. Unless you are 100% okay with the other religion, you're destined for many years of pain.