Interfaith Marriages: Few Checkpoints Not to Make It Hell

“We are responsible for what we are, and whatever we wish ourselves to be, we have the power to make ourselves. If what we are now has been the result of our own past actions, it certainly follows that whatever we wish to be in future can be produced by our present actions; so we have to know how to act.” – Swami Vivekananda.

My article on Interfaith Marriage is a reflection of what Swamiji said years ago. Our action needs to be thought-out properly because that will become the foundation of our future.

Marriage is a fascinating topic. In today’s world, it is an idea to experiment with rather than to understand what it stands for and entails.  The definition of this institution is changing daily and becoming more challenging with the expectations involved.

Marriage is an age-old institution, so what’s new about it? With the world becoming a global village, girls becoming independent and families becoming nuclear, the challenges of marriage have increased manifold. Many would argue that the institution is crumbling but I am of the viewpoint that instead, it is in the process of evolving. Since the slow downfall of arranged marriages, we have grown to see love marriages, live-in relationships, common law marriages, and inter-faith marriages taking a stronghold.

Looking at today’s challenges, when young men and women are picking their own partners, it is important that they consider not only compatibility but many other factors before plunging into a serious relationship. Apart from seeing compatibility, education and family, they also need to talk about religion, culture and certain ritualistic practises which can affect both parties in the long run, especially when it comes to raising their children.

I am neither pro nor against inter-faith marriages. Marriage is a complex institution, why to make it more complex?  But in today’s day and time when we are living in a multi-cultural society where we are exposed to different cultures, ethnicities, communities and groups, we simply cannot avoid it.  Dilip Amin in his book ‘Interfaith Marriage’ has provided data on USA based Indians marrying different faiths. According to him 38% of Hindus, Sikhs and Jains marry Abrahamic religions; 45% of Muslims marry non-Muslims and 40% of Jews and Catholics marry outside of their faith but what is alarming is the divorce rate, which is more than 50%.

Prior to delving into why this may be, I’d like to introduce the idea that in prior generations, marriage was a bond created between two families instead of two individuals. As a result, people generally verified the values of the families prior to tying the knot. It was believed that similarities bring less friction and conflicts.

The generation today believes that receiving education and working on a global stage makes them acceptable to a wider range of people without understanding the intricacies of human behaviour, culture, ethnicity, religion, practises and rituals.  It is important to understand the fundamentals of marriage, which is acceptance of two different families and their backgrounds. However, when two adults go for inter-faith marriages they may not realize the broad fundamental differences of each other’s culture. It may be that for one partner parting ways (divorce) after marriage comes as a shock, while for the other it is just normal. This example amongst many is the reason why it is important to understand the differences between two cultures.

What may be considered abnormal or unethical in one culture may be very normal and ethical in the other. If you understand this concept and nevertheless decide to take the risk, then there is no reason for blame when the relationship comes to an end. For example, an Indian man was married to an American woman for 7 yrs.  However, right after the wife gave birth to their daughter, she declared that she was no longer interested in continuing the relationship. Mind you, he was not an abusive husband, nor was he unemployed, rather he was caring and loving. He tried everything in his power to save the marriage, but nothing worked. At that time, everybody who knew the husband felt that injustice had been done to him. However, if you look at the situation more deeply, it can be considered that the wife is not to blame. She simply followed her heart and thought it to be normal as per her culture. In some cultures, marriage is not considered for life, regardless of the existence of children.

Some of you must have read the book or watched the movie ‘Not Without my Daughter,’ which is based on a real story by Betty Mahmoody. In this story the differences in two people’s roots and values are so strong and distinct, that even though they pretended to forget the differences for some time, it eventually hunted them down and destroyed everything that they had falsely created around them. It is a story of an American woman marrying an Iranian man. The man was a doctor by profession – a sophisticated and thorough gentleman who eventually turned into a male chauvinist, took his wife to Iran by promising their return to the states within two weeks.

Once in Iran, with his own people, the husband became hostile and declared that they were not returning to the United States of America and that she and the daughter will have to live with him and his family in Iran. When the wife confronted him and tried to fight for her freedom and rights, the husband and his family abused her. So eventually we see the family comes into the picture and makes him succumb to their pressures.

It is not my intention to dwell further into the story of Betty Mahmoody, but I would like to point out that if a person chooses to marry somebody from a different faith, then it is crucial to understand that person’s culture, religion, and values thoroughly. This is not to say that Iranian culture represents male chauvinism – it simply is a great example of one culture not knowing how to investigate the depths of another culture’s family values to determine if it is similar to their own. By investigating deeply – as we can within our own cultures, only will it be possible to solve misunderstandings. As it is said, marriage is made in heaven, but it is our job to make it work on this earth. We cannot deny the fact that only by birth can one understand the complexities and beauty of one’s culture. As outsiders, we can only judge the culture or person, which sometimes can create a world of differences.  It is also said, “what counts in making a happy marriage is not so much how compatible you are, but how you deal with incompatibility.”

People are somehow embarrassed to talk about such things or raise such issues with honesty. After all they have to live a life together and these issues will come up at some point in time, Ignoring the issues upfront comes back to haunt you. But it is important to recognize the differences and discuss it. This includes small details like attire, food, décor, and bigger practices like that of circumcision, Bar Mitzvah, and praying to deities. If there is hesitation to have an open conversation regarding these matters, then it may be best to take the help of a marriage counsellor or consultant or read literature so that you can be well informed before taking the plunge.

Conclusion: People in love tend to be inexperienced or may even ignore some of the complexities of a long-term relationship (i.e. marriage). With more information and better knowledge, the outcome will be superior. The tremendous ignorance about another person’s religion is serious and can jeopardize a healthy relationship.

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Disclaimer:The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of Hong Kong Desi.

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