Making interfaith relationships work


 By Manahil Butt


Shazad Ahmed: Please take your seats. Now, it is time for the bride and groom to make their entrance.

Audio: The wedding march plays

Manahil Butt: You might have heard this tune.

Audio: The sound of traditional drums typically used for Bhangra styled music.  

Manahil Butt: Or maybe even this.

Audio: The sound of a slower paced South Asian music.

Manahil Butt: Well, these are all introduction songs that could lead you into your wedding ceremony one day. Weddings are usually the end goal when being with someone. The beginning voice could be your sibling, cousin, uncle or maybe even a friend who emcees your introduction before you walk down the aisle. Regardless of your faith community and religious customs, during a wedding, the warmth and love filled in the air (alongside a lot of booze for some families) often comes from a long time of understanding. But before we even start talking about weddings or jumping to that happy ending, you have to create a bond and have a relationship with someone. Sometimes your relationships from the get-go might seem really challenging because you might be Buddhist and your partner might be Muslim. Nimisha Maharage, a 30-year-old Sri Lankan who grew up in a Buddhist household in North York Toronto, found herself in a three-year long relationship with a Muslim man back when she was 21 years old.

Nimisha Maharage: I did have an opportunity with an ex where he was really religious, and I was, like, I guess I could switch halfway, like, be half your religion and half mine, just as a title but not in terms of beliefs. We did end up breaking up because he was super religious, and he needed someone who was super religious too. So, I feel like I don’t think I would at this point of my life compromise and fully change over to someone else’s beliefs if I don’t believe it.

Manahil Butt: But now she is dating Jonathan Belvedere, a 30-year-old Italian man who was raised in a Roman Catholic household but identifies as an Atheist. They both met online on OkCupid and have been together in a serious relationship for three and a half years now. Relationships are hard work, but the reason many interfaith relationships are working out so well is because couples from diverse backgrounds and faith communities are pushed to have conversations much earlier on in the talking stage. They come to some sort of conclusion or common ground before furthering their relationship, and they look at the overall importance religion has for them or their family to see if it’s worth fighting for. So, society and religious institutions should be more accepting towards interfaith relationships and create more support systems in place for these individuals instead of shunning them to the side. Going back to Nimisha and Jonathan, they both have cultural and religious differences that can cause a clash between them. But having conversations around their different mindsets when it comes to religion and culture is what makes this interfaith couple so strong.

Jonathan Belvedere: In most religions, what they are teaching you is, “Hey, don’t be an asshole. Just be a better person and treat people nicely.”

Manahil Butt: For Jonathan, he found himself drifting away from religion over the years because he wasn’t in line with the practices and his overall mentality changed over time. For Nimisha, it is a little different. Because she attended and taught at her Buddhist Sunday School, in the future, she would like her children to attend for a sense of community belonging. For her, religion isn’t about acting a certain way, so you don’t get punished and sent to some bad place if you don’t do something right. For Nimisha, faith is about working on yourself, mediating and accepting everyone for who they are. Although when it comes to sending their future children to a religious institution, whether that be a Buddhist Sunday School or even a Roman Catholic one, Jonathan disagrees with this.

Jonathan Belvedere: For me, I wouldn’t bother putting my kids into something because I think really for them, I’ve kind of put them in the same aspect as it comes to anything else growing up. I’d want them to kind of learn to make their own decisions and their own path of what it is they want to do.

Manahil Butt: For some, religion is very important when picking the right partner, but for others, it isn’t that big of a deal. When it comes to talking about interfaith relationships, there are people willing to take the chance and fight through the differences. Analyst Warren Clark found one in five Canadians are actually in an inter-religious union. From this research, he found people valuing cultural traditions over religion. This brings me to the next couple, Maria Papapetrou, a 21 year old who was raised Greek Orthodox, and her partner, Jordan Donikol, a 23 year old who was raised Catholic but identifies as an Atheist. They both live in Guelph, Ontario, and go to the university of Guelph. They met on the popular dating site bumble and have been together for two years now. When it comes to Maria and Jordan, religion isn’t that big of an aspect in their relationships. Even though they both don’t hold strong religious values, Maria is still expected to baptize her future children, and she wishes to be married in the church she has been going to her whole life.

Maria Papapetrou: To be baptized Greek Orthodox, you really don’t have to do a lot. It’s not like both your parents have to be Greek Orthodox. It’s a nice event, and you get, like, godparents and stuff. Jordan knows my godparents. I’m super close with my godparents, so I would like my child to have that — simply for the relationships and family tradition, but I don’t think I would necessarily need it to be religious.

Manahil Butt: Maria and Jordan both feel because they were raised kind of similar with their family values, difference in religious values can be accommodated for.

Jordan Donikol: As an atheist, it shouldn’t really bug you at all. I don’t understand how it would in a way just because they hold this value very dear to themselves. So, why wouldn’t you almost let them have that?

Manahil Butt: Typically, when bringing up conversation around future children with interfaith couples, it can sometimes get messy as couples hold off on having that conversation. Jorida Cila, a professor at York University, researched on the topic of interfaith relationships. She found conversations around interfaith and future children’s upbringings can ultimately lead to the falling out of any relationship. Going back to Maria and Jordan, they haven’t gotten that deep into the conversation around religion and their future children. For Maria, she says you don’t have to do much in order to be Greek Orthodox, it’s just about the baptism and then you are good to go. For Jordan, he’s more open to the idea of his children choosing.

Jordan Donikol: I’m not against it if Maria wants, like, our kids to go through, like, religious sacraments…. I’m more so like open to letting whatever our child wants to choose, religious wise, like, I’m totally fine with that. I’m not going to pressure them to be atheist or agnostic, or Buddhist or Taoist or whatever they want.

Manahil Butt: For Maria and Jordan, their interfaith relationship is working out because they both don’t hold religious values. Their connection of family values and understanding is what is important to them. But couples where both partners hold strong faith values can find it hard to work through those differences. Talking to Justin Michel, registered psychotherapist and Master’s in cultural psychology, he says, many relationships tend not to be interfaith because faith teaches their members to be with someone of the same faith as a security measure in place for a chance of less challenges for the future.

Justin Michel: Faith is both very personal and very communal, and relational. And what I mean by that is there’s a tremendous personal aspect to having faith. It’s very individualized and very personal and private. And there’s also a very communal and relational aspect of faith, where the faith is expressed and experienced and shared with people in your life. And that could also be a beautiful thing, or maybe not so beautiful…. For the relationship to be healthy, if faith is part of that relationship, then there has to be both of those aspects.

Manahil Butt: But this is not to discourage couples who hold strong religious values, because at the end of the day, it can still work. Justin talks about the different trends happening in interfaith couples. The most important and common one is people loosening up their own beliefs in their religion and focusing on finding some sort of common ground with their significant other. An example he gave was the belief of one God or a higher power. This helps couples focus on the similarities and work around the differences.

Justin Michel: Some other trends are, sometimes they might do both, and this is a bit more rare because it’s a bit trickier, but they might do something, like, they will on some days go to one or practise one faith and on the other days, practise the other.

Manahil Butt: The last trend he talks about is how many couples might start off interfaith and would love to embrace it, but someone ends up converting later on in the future. Every relationship is challenging to work through, but interfaith relationships have this added pressure in order to try and make it work. Susan Katz Miller, author of two books about interfaith families, understands those pressures because she grew up in an interfaith family.

Susan Katz Miller: I resist the narrative and the culture that interfaith families are going to be problematic and that they are not going to be successful. That’s not my experience. My parents had, they were married until death, for more than 50 years. They had one of the most successful and happy marriages I’ve ever encountered in spite of their religious difference, in spite of the fact that neither of them ever converted and so, I have a very positive outlook about interfaith families.

Manahil Butt: Susan’s father was Jewish, and her mother was Protestant. Although she was raised Jewish and identifies as a Jewish person, becoming an adult made her interested in her interfaith heritage and she strongly identifies being an interfaith child. She says there is a lot of negativity around the topic of interfaith relationships and believes it is the religious institutions’ fault.

Susan Katz Miller: I think that’s partly because religious institutions have discouraged interfaith marriage, they want you to pick one religion, preferably theirs. And, so, I think couples who are in love have to fight to put themselves in the centre and not be unduly influenced by the negative narratives that are put out and often by institutions who don’t have their well-being at heart. An institution is going to look out for the institution. It’s not going to look out for you and your partner.

Manahil Butt: But Susan loves being an interfaith child and talks about all the positives being in an interfaith relationship because she’s seen it growing up. She says being forced to have tough conversations in the beginning of the relationship and working out those differences makes the relationship much stronger. She also says how being a same-faith couple doesn’t necessarily mean that your relationship will work out and you’ll have this happily ever after.

Susan Katz Miller: I often say, every couple is an interfaith couple on some level because even if you have the same religious label, say you’re both Presbyterians, you really don’t have identical beliefs, and you don’t have identical formative family cultural experiences. So, everyone comes with their own set of beliefs and their own set of experiences. And, so, we have to work on fitting those together as a couple even when we are from the same religion.

Manahil Butt: Susan’s second book, called “An Interfaith Family Journal,” is created as an interactive book that can be used as a support system to help people in interfaith relationships connect on a deeper level. By doing these interactive activities and writing prompts, couples dive deeper into their partner’s minds and open up about themselves as well. Now, let’s say, you and your partner have figured each other out, you’ve had healthy conversations about everything, you’ve balanced all common grounds between each other and yet, your family is still unhappy. Well, Martti Pajunen, a full-time wedding officiant in the South-Central Ontario area, who has conducted over 2,000 weddings in the last 15 years, has seen a handful of ceremonies where tension occurs because of unhappy family members.

Martti Pajunen: There’s a difference between identification with a religious of certain faith group and then involvement with a group. We find that, oh, they just identify that way because their parents, grandparents or family heritage, you know, that’s who they had been but they’re not specifically practising that.

Manahil Butt: When talking about interfaith relationships and families being involved, the topic of conversion must be talked about.

Martti Pajunen: You know I would just be hesitant if I was going into a relationship and going to get married and had a faith background and said, ‘Well, you need to convert,’ and the response was, ‘Well, if that’s what you need me to do, I’ll do it.’ And, again, it’s done with a begrudging manner and it’s just to get the deed done. I don’t think there’s as much value in that, at all. After the wedding ceremony, they may not feel that they want to be part of the traditions of that particular religion or the expressions and that sort of thing, and that creates again, it creates tension down the road.

Manahil Butt: Remember we talked about Nimisha and Jonathan about their understanding of their cultural and religious differences as Nimisha is from a Sri Lankan Buddhist household and Jonathan is from an Italian raised Roman Catholic household but identifies as an Atheist. Yeah, well, they’re on the same page when it comes to the topic around conversion as well.

Jonathan Belvedere: I don’t know if I would make that step because I think that it’s such a, like, religion is almost such a big part of your identity that I don’t know if I could necessarily compromise something if I found there was an issue with that religion that I didn’t, you know, believe in. So, I don’t know if I could go all the way. I mean, you’d hope that there’ll be some sort of compromise in the middle but if it was like, ‘Hey, you got to convert or it’s over,’ I don’t think I would make that step necessarily.

Manahil Butt: For both Nimisha and Jonathan, they have a strong understanding of what they want and how to openly communicate with one another. They both feel when you are in a relationship, you want to grow in that relationship. You don’t want to lose yourself. And with that point, I come to Maya Yampolsky, researcher on interfaith and intercultural relations, who says the beauty behind interfaith unions is not a new concept.

Maya Yampolsky: Being able to embrace hybridity, like being able to embrace the fact that we can mix, and we can create things together. Recognizing that mixing has always been part of being human. There was no time in human history where people weren’t mixing across groups– like, it’s always been there. It’s part of how we survive, and it’s part of how we thrive in the world. So, knowing that and knowing the beauty that comes with that, and the strength and the richness, and the expansion of who we are. Those are beautiful things, to keep in mind for interfaith and intercultural relationships.

Manahil Butt: This is exactly why interfaith relationships are worth fighting for. Society and religious institutions need to do better with accepting interfaith couples and embracing them instead of shutting them down. There is no such thing as a “perfect” couple. Every relationship takes hard work and understanding between two individuals.

Audio: Slower themed tune playing in background called, “Once Again Sound.”