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Intermarriage: Adding Challenge to the Challenge Of Marriage

A couple in love struggles to appreciate possible difficulties in their choice.

Key points

  • Choosing to marry someone outside your faith/ethnicity/socioeconomic group adds challenge to the challenge of marriage/.
  • You need to be honest with yourself as to how much these differences really matter to you.
  • The acceptance or non-acceptance by each partner's family of origin matters a great deal to the success of the marriage.
  • After voicing whatever concerns they have, parents owe it to their adult children to accept their decision and to love and support them.

There’s a wise saying in the marriage counseling world: "Every marriage is an intermarriage". You can choose someone from your hometown, your church, your high school class and you’re going to run into some troubling cultural differences down the road. There’s no way around it, and these challenges are part of why we get together in the first place, because they help us grow into fuller versions of ourselves.

Source: mentatdgt/Shutterstock

But what about more pronounced differences, especially between groups that sometimes don’t get along? This has been chronicled in Romeo and Juliet, or its modern-day counterpart, West Side Story. What about Hindus marrying Muslims? Or Orthodox Jews marrying outside their faith? Should a couple’s counselor warn them away from such an endeavor?

There is no single answer to this question. I want to explore some of the dynamics involved, so that all concerned can make more conscious decisions for what seems like a clear-cut question: If I love the person, shouldn’t that be enough?

First off, most every couple who gets married thinks their love will be strong enough to weather any storm. You do hear about people who say, in retrospect, “I knew it was a mistake on my wedding night.” But barring that 20/20 hindsight, most young couples think some version of “love conquers all.” Most young couples also have no clue what they’re getting into, not only what marriage requires, but who the person they’re marrying really is. It’s probably better that way, because getting married requires a leap of faith, just like any other major life decision, such as having children or buying a house. If you worry too much about all the details, you’ll never do anything important.

Second, I think a young couple needs to take an honest look at how much the difference in their cultures matters to them, first and foremost. It can be tempting to swallow down some of the inner rejection/repulsion to our partner’s culture, to think, “I’ll get used to it,” or, “it doesn’t matter that much.” Or worse, to have some kind of idealistic notion that I’ll show how I’m not prejudiced by marrying someone from this other group. Save social work for the professionals. Don’t marry to prove your liberalism. That’s not fair to whomever you’re marrying.

Third, I think the acceptance of the families from each side matters a great deal to the future of your marriage. It’s not a deal-breaker, but it is an important ingredient. If your parents won’t attend your wedding, or will disown you, or not accept your children as their grandchildren because of who you’re marrying, you need to think honestly about how that will be for you. Many children in this situation will have a rebellious response to those kind of strong-arm threats from their parents. But that same rebellious response—“I’ll marry whomever I want to marry and you can’t tell me otherwise!”—will not hold up well at the wedding, as you stand there alone, without parents or siblings. It will be one of the loneliest days of your life, probably second only to the birth of a child without having an adoring grandparent to beam with pride with you.

These are very tough issues, and I want to save a little space for my message to parents of children who are marrying someone the parent doesn't approve of. You did your best to raise your children with the values you hold dear; that’s all you can do. Your children will never turn out exactly as you hoped for and you will have to let go of wishing they did if you want to have a healthy relationship with them, and your future grandchildren. Threatening your children with cutting them off is no way to establish a relationship with the adults your children have become. Ask yourself honestly: how much of your objections are because of your deeply held beliefs which you embody in the world, and how much of your objections are because of how your child’s choices are going to make you look to your network of friends? Your love for your child should conquer whatever different choices they are making with their life. This is your job: to love them no matter what, to accept them for who they are, and to support them in their decisions after you’ve said your piece. If it’s a mistake, they’ll learn from it, and they need to know you’ll be there no matter how things turn out.

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