(Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash)

The face of interfaith is changing fast, but the secrets to a successful dual-faith relationship remain the same. More than 28 million married or cohabitating Americans — almost one quarter — are interfaith, according to research.

At first blush, you might not even recognize the newest religious fusions. "I've married so many pagans to Jews and Christians," says Reverend Laurie Sue Brockway, an interfaith minister, and couples counsellor who has performed over 500 interfaith weddings throughout her career. "They call themselves 'Cath-Wics,' she says. "And then there are the 'Hin-Jews.'"

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The truth is, that interfaith relationships are on the rise in virtually every American religious community, researchers say. Nearly half of Jewish marriages and 40 per cent of Catholic couplings are interfaith.

And with Islam, Wicca — an earth-based belief system that predates Christianity — and the Church of Jesus Christ Latter-Day Saints among the fastest-growing American religions, by the year 2050, the most common interfaith pairings might not be the Jewish-Christian matches we most often hear about today.

All of the above combos can be fraught with tension, though the perceived slights may be invisible to the naked eye.

The New York Times Magazine contributing writer and Harvard law professor Noah Feldman, an Orthodox Jew, wrestled with the challenges of reconciling modern-day life, and love, with tradition.

After attending a reunion for his yeshiva, the religious school where he studied for years, he and his Korean-American wife were unceremoniously removed from the alumni group photo when it was printed in the school’s newsletter.

One former president has made peace with his interfaith upbringing early on. "My mother was a deeply spiritual person and would spend a lot of time talking about values and give me books about the world's religions," Barack Obama told Chicago Sun-Times religion writer Cathleen Falsani in her book, The God Factor: Inside the Spiritual Lives of Public People.

Now a practicing Christian, Obama was exposed to myriad religions, having been raised by an agnostic father, a Protestant mother, and a non-practising Muslim stepfather.

These stories only begin to hint at the issues involved in an interfaith pairing. The truth is, we can't choose who we love — and sometimes who we end up with challenges our deepest-held assumptions about what the future will look like. When the obstacles involve faith, the issue is, even in the earthly sense, bigger than the two of you.

Suddenly, the wagons circle: Spiritual advisors, friends, and generations of well-intentioned family members all want a say in how your relationship will play out, from the traditions you adopt, the holidays you celebrate, and the way you raise kids, to how you choose to say "I do."

Planning a wedding ceremony that will set the tone for a lifetime of love can be a meaningful and illuminating process — or a tear-inducing morass. And that’s before you try to incorporate two faiths. Besides, there's not exactly a rulebook to consult when a Christian and a Wiccan get hitched.

Take, for example, a recent interfaith wedding Brockway officiated: an atheist man with Christian parents marrying a Wiccan woman with a Jewish mother. The planning began on the tense side: "Just don't say 'Goddess' in front of my 84-year-old grandfather," the worried groom cautioned his bride.

But, ultimately, the couple wound up with a wedding that integrated their — and their families' — respective traditions, using one of Brockway's favourite refrains. "Never 'instead of,' always 'in addition to,'" she intones, meaning, never omit a ritual important to one partner or the other; instead, always be willing to incorporate more.

To honour the Christian side, the bride wore white, the couple lit a unity candle, and the wedding ceremony was co-officiated by a Unitarian minister. The Wiccan half of the nuptials involved lighting a specially blessed oil candle representing the male and female deities—and having the bridesmaids "call in the directions," a longheld Wiccan tradition.

Too convoluted? Brockway says about one in four couples choose to say "I do" twice, in two distinct ceremonies. Traci, 32, and Partha, 31, had a Christian ceremony one night and a second full-scale Hindu wedding the next, complete with traditional Bengali dress and the blessings of a Brahmin.

To Brockway, the biggest boon is seeing older generations set aside their differences to rally around the newlyweds. After one interfaith wedding, she spied the fathers of the bride and groom shuffling off together. "Oh, it's all the same place," she overheard one say to the other. "There are just different ways to get there."

It's easy to fall hard for someone different from you, but who stands the best chance of living a long, happy two-faith life together? Studies show that couples who assign similar values to their faiths are more likely to succeed, according to Joel Crohn, Ph.D., author of Mixed Matches: How to Create Successful Interracial, Interethnic, and Interfaith Relationships and a psychologist in Calabasas, California, who has counselled interfaith couples for more than 25 years.

If only one member of the couple is religious, he says, the secular partner runs the risk of becoming "more and more peripheral" as children come into the picture.

"What love conceals, time reveals," he says, meaning, when it comes to interfaith, the devil is in the details: The problems you face probably won't emerge immediately, but bubble up as you try to tease out your day-to-day life. This is just what happened to Elizabeth, 34, and her boyfriend, Joshua, 31.

Elizabeth was raised in a conservative evangelical Christian church in the Midwest; Joshua grew up an atheist Jew with an Israeli mother in El Paso, Texas. But after three happy years of dating and cohabitating in Washington, D.C., they went into a tailspin trying to discuss their future — issues like what their wedding would look like and how to raise the children.

While Elizabeth was supportive of their kids learning Hebrew and celebrating Jewish holidays, Joshua was adamant: He would not attend church with Elizabeth, and the children would not be taught to believe in Jesus. The couple consulted both a rabbi and a couples counsellor. 

Despite some compromises — Joshua eventually agreed to let the children attend church periodically — the sessions wound up raising larger questions for Elizabeth. "I don't care how strong your beliefs are — when you're considering giving up a relationship because you won't back away from your faith, you start to think there better be a God or none of this is worth it," she says.

Voicing doubts with a capital "D" such as these is healthy, explains Crohn. "If you help people to be more specific, they will either break up or work their way through their issues and eventually have a more robust relationship," he says.

There are many ways to bridge the mine-and-yours religious landscape: Troy and Sonja, Jewish and Mormon respectively, and both 34, have been happily married for six years. They have gotten by swimmingly by relying on honesty and humour — "It was always my dream, growing up as a Jewish boy, to marry a returned missionary," quips Troy —  that is until their daughter Alana arrived.

Now a toddler, she adds a new layer of complexity to their efforts at compromise. While Alana divides her time equally between Tot Shabbat and Sunday church services, it’s still easy for a 3-year-old to get confused.

Once, Alana got excited at church: "Shabbat Shalom, hey!" she shrieked, gleefully, swinging her arms — much to the amusement of her fellow congregants. As she grows up, she's becoming more aware of her two faiths — and the couple wrestles with how to fuse them. "It's the biggest stress in our next step," says Sonja. "That she's going to feel torn or scared that she's going to let us down if she chooses one or the other."

Not to worry, say experts. "The key to a successful interfaith marriage is to keep opening doors," says Mary Helene Rosenbaum, executive director of the Dovetail Institute for Interfaith Family Resources. "You need to keep communicating, and also testing your feelings and beliefs about your relationship with your religion, your relationship with each other, and your relationship with the larger community."

Are you ready for interfaith? Joel Crohn suggests 10 things to ask before you merge belief systems:

1. What have your religious beliefs and practices been in each phase of your life: childhood, adolescence, adulthood?

They've probably changed — and could again.

2. What do each of you believe about an afterlife?

Heaven, and everything in between — are issues couples in the early stages of love often find easy to avoid.

3. Do you plan on having children?

If so, you should talk about what role you want religion to play in their lives.

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4. What's the ideal religious and cultural composition of your future neighborhood?

The social context will affect how you practice your religion.

5. How do your families feel about your relationship?

You may not welcome their input, but they will inevitably affect your emotional state as a couple.

6. How much do you know about the faith in which your partner was raised?

Even if you plan to practice separate religions, ask about your partner as a show of respect.

7. How do your partner's cultural and religious practices differ from yours?

People who don't practice religion may still have a cultural attachment to their faith.

8. If you have children from a prior marriage, of a faith other than the one you intend to practice, how will you include them?

You'll need to create a system, especially if your ex-spouse is raising them differently than you.

9. How do you feel about making charitable contributions to religious or cultural institutions?

A potential land mine many couples don't broach early on.

10. Do you see your wedding as an opportunity to work through your different beliefs?

Preparing for your ceremony is an important dress rehearsal for your marriage.

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DISCLAIMER: The Views, Comments, Opinions, Contributions and Statements made by Readers and Contributors on this platform do not necessarily represent the views or policy of Multimedia Group Limited.