All partners grapple with differences, but differences in religion can feel particularly tough. If you and your partner differ religiously, either in observance or in faith tradition altogether, you might find yourself wondering if your differences doom your marriage.
As a clinical psychologist and couples therapist, I help partners manage all kinds of differences, including in religion, more effectively. And as one half of an interfaith couple, I also have personal experience navigating some of these tricky questions. Although there are no generalizable answers for every couple, I often use a thought exercise to radically shift the way partners navigate religious differences.
Consider The Benefits Of Your Differences
When you and your partner are stuck debating whether to observe Shabbat, whether your non-Jewish partner should go to services with you, or whether your children should attend Hebrew school, it’s easy to start feeling desperate for a resolution. In that desperation, you may forget the benefits of your differences. You chose a partner who is different from you, and you probably thought (at least at the beginning of your relationship), that those differences were a good thing!
Consider some ways your differences may enhance your life:
- The opportunity to model healthy disagreement, problem-solving, and conflict resolution to your children. In the moment when you must make a decision (should we allow that Friday night sleepover, or can my non-Jewish partner go on a trip during the high holidays) it may feel painful and potentially unresolvable. But in the long run, working through these questions is an opportunity to show your children how to negotiate some of the harder moments in marriage. Regardless of your faith, you and your partner will have some disagreements that feel irreconcilable. By respecting your partner’s perspective, sharing your own without blaming, and coming to decisions jointly, you provide a blueprint for healthy conflict. You can point out to your kids how even when you have different opinions or priorities, your decisions are collaborative and maintained strongly by both partners.
- Knowing you have chosen a life with intention. Although your differences add complexity to your life, they also compel you to choose what matters on purpose and not by rote. By asking what Jewish values and traditions are most important to you and your partner, you ultimately cultivate a practice with purpose. When you start on different pages about faith, none of your shared traditions are “just because.” By building a Jewish life of your own making, your family will develop a deep investment in your version of Judaism.
- Deeper articulation of your own faith. Before partnering with someone whose faith or practice differed from yours, you may never have needed to explore why you want to practice in a certain way. Why do you attend shul (or not)? What does lighting Shabbat candles mean to you? Although you and your partner do need to arrive at some shared agreements, developing a clearer sense of how and why you practice strengthens your own spiritual journey.
When you and your partner disagree about how to practice Judaism, whether to incorporate other religious traditions or what each person’s role in your family’s faith should look like, it’s easy to start telling yourself and your partner the story that your differences are a problem to fix. But that story keeps you stuck in conflict and tells the lie that you and your spouse need to be the same to be happy. Your differences are not a dire destiny, but a catalyst for depth, dialogue, and connection.
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.