Navigating The Challenges In Deciding Religious Practices

If you and your partner differ in observance, or if you’re in an interfaith marriage, you may struggle to make decisions about your family’s religious practices that work for everyone. As a clinical psychologist and couples therapist, I frequently help partners navigate these conversations so that they can reduce their tension and get more of what they want from each other. Consider these three steps to take when you and your partner disagree about observance or faith.

1. Be Clear About What You Want and Why 

If you feel disappointed by your partner’s religious participation (particularly if you are more observant or they have a different faith), consider whether you have actually asked clearly for what you want. Maybe you hope your non-Jewish partner will learn to recite the Shabbat blessings with you more fluently, and you feel disappointed each week as they stumble. You find yourself wondering if they even care as they chuckle when they mess up yet again. Consider whether there’s a possibility they don’t know what is important to you and why.

You might say, “Something I really want is for us to say the blessings together as a family. This matters to me because I saw my parents praying together, and it really gave our house a Jewish energy. Are you open to learning to say them a bit more smoothly?” If your partner says yes, you can offer to practice together, listen to YouTube videos, or do call and response for a few weeks.

Your partner might say no or let you know that this is not something they want to spend time on. Although that feedback may sting, at least you now know they are aware of your wishes. Even if you don’t get the outcome you hoped for, having the conversation about what you want and why will help you and your partner better understand one another.

2. If They Say No, Get Curious

If you and your partner reach what feels like an impasse where your desires are in direct opposition, it can be tempting to double down and start insisting that you get what you want. Or you might find yourself “giving in” resentfully, saying yes without reaching a real mutual decision just to end the conversation. But pushing your partner or acquiescing disconnect you from each other and can harm your relationship.

Instead, try to be curious about your partner’s reaction or resistance without convincing them or selling your point of view. Ask questions and listen for understanding, not agreement. Imagine your partner says, “I’m just so uncomfortable at synagogue, I always feel one step behind, and I never know what I’m supposed to be doing.” You may want to reassure them: “No one is looking at you, I promise, lots of people feel that way.” But trying to convince them probably won’t work and will likely feel invalidating. Instead, make space to learn more about their experience. You might say, “I hadn’t realized you felt so uncomfortable at synagogue, it makes sense that you don’t want to go! I would probably feel that way too if I hadn’t grown up going to services.” By acknowledging and accepting the way they feel, your partner is more likely to acknowledge and accept your perspective in return.

3. Decide – For Now 

Sometimes I see couples make the mistake of holding decisions too tightly. Perhaps your partner grew up celebrating Christmas but agreed at the beginning of your marriage that they would not celebrate going forward to preserve the Jewishness of your family home. But as your children get older, their feelings change, and they express a desire to incorporate some aspects of Christmas into your life.

Or perhaps you and your partner were both secular Jews when you married, enjoying a few traditions and foods but otherwise practicing minimally. Now you’ve started to explore more ways to practice Judaism and want to bring your children into your journey. Your partner resists this, saying that they did not agree to raise religious children.

In either of these situations, frustration is understandable for both partners. As the partner who is changing, you might feel that your spouse is holding back your journey or limiting how you can practice. As the partner who wants things to stay the same, you might feel like your partner is going back on their word – after all, you made this decision already!

To prepare in advance for changes that may happen throughout your marriage, build in the expectation of reevaluation. Make decisions for now with the plan to check in about how the decision is going, in a few weeks, months, or even years. Even if you both continue to agree, having regular conversations about the way you practice – or don’t – deepens your connection with each other and your faith.

When you and your partner are not on the same page about religion, decisions can feel fraught. But they don’t have to. By clarifying what you want, getting curious about each other’s experience, and making decisions without holding them too tightly, you and your partner can maintain a strong relationship, even when you disagree.

Dr. Marina Rosenthal is a licensed clinical psychologist, couples therapist, professor, mammaleh, and wife. She lives in Minneapolis with her husband and son. Her Jewish identity journey continues as she navigates an interfaith marriage of her own. She provides practical, science-based relationship advice on her Instagram and is available for marriage counseling for couples in Minnesota.