bride and ringLast week I received an email from a reader who identified herself as an 18-year-old Mormon dating a guy who’s nominally Greek Orthodox.

“I know 18 sounds crazy to be talking about marriage, but it was a topic over a dinner date and now we talk about it every now and then,” she wrote. She wanted to know how my husband and I make our Mormopalian marriage work:

. . . I’m just curious. Who married you? Since most marriages are done by a religious authority in any religion, who did yours? I’ve seen marriages that are done by the LDS bishop, but never really anything else when it comes to a part-member family. My most important concern, if your parents are members (which I’ve read a few of your articles and it sounds like they aren’t), how did you get them to support you in your decision to marry someone of a different faith than you?

I get variations of these marital questions from time to time; in fact, they’re among the most common personal queries I receive through the blog.

This tells me something – not that my own marriage or life is so interesting, but that the Church is providing very little in the way of resources for anyone thinking of marrying outside its ranks.

The LDS Church strongly encourages Mormons to only date other Mormons, and certainly to only marry inside the fold (though as Naomi Schaefer Riley points out in her terrific book on interfaith marriages in the USA, Mormons also do a great job of fellowshipping interfaith families once a wedding has already occurred).

So, “H,” here’s my advice to you after 23 years of happy marriage to a Protestant:

Yes, a beautiful marriage is very possible for you.

But first, some conditions.

1)    Talk, talk, talk. You’re right that 18 is crazy to be getting married, but I don’t think it’s crazy for you to be talking about it. In fact, talking about it is one of my conditions. Interfaith marriages work best when you can’t stop talking to each other about the wonderful stuff as well as about potential sources of conflict – in this case, religion.

Riley’s research shows, though, that most people who are exploring interfaith marriage focus almost solely on the wedding, which is just one day: Who will do the ceremony? Will we merge customs from both traditions? Etc. I see a bit of this in your question to me. (And in answer to your specific question about my wedding, I wasn’t Mormon when I got married, so we had a Protestant candlelight ceremony.)

Focus on the marriage, not the wedding. Which brings me to my second point . . .

2)    Expect some loneliness. Mormons have the lowest rates of intermarriage of any other religion in America. In America more generally, about 1 in 3 marriages is now interfaith; for Mormons it’s only about 1 in 9. That’s great news for those who are concerned about propagating the faith, but know that it makes for a lonely road for you personally. Very few people in your ward will be in your shoes. Also, make sure you’re OK with going to the temple alone when almost all the other people on your ward temple trip will be married couples on a dewy-eyed date night. That can be surprisingly sad even when you have a happy interfaith marriage.

3)    Know that the greatest conflicts you may have about religion will occur when you have children. Even the most communicative and respectful couple may find that having kids is a game-changer. You’re surprised by how emotional you get about raising them a certain way.

In my case, we had a joint baby blessing after our daughter was born – a beautiful event with blessings, hymns, prayers, and talks from people in both our traditions. We decided to raise her in both religions and let her choose once she reached the age of accountability. She eventually decided to be baptized and confirmed as an Episcopalian, and she’s an acolyte there. I’m proud of her decision, and the fact that she came to it on her own. However, if I’m perfectly honest I have to admit it was a bit painful when all her little cohorts were getting baptized LDS and she just wasn’t interested.

So: have you and your boyfriend talked about how you would raise any kids you have? Very, very important conversation – and one you should revisit many times.

4)    Finally, you’re right to ask how to best respect your parents. No one else in our families was at all religious – and my dad had left by that time anyway – so for us this wasn’t an issue. But just recognize that both sets of parents probably had dreams for you that didn’t include marrying outside the faith. Yours likely had goals of attending your temple wedding and having grandchildren born in the covenant. As much as they might like your boyfriend, it will be hard for them, at least initially, to see him as the best choice for you. They may also try hard to convert him to Mormonism, which can result in some awkward “Pass the potatoes; have you heard about God’s plan for happiness?” family conversations.

What will win them over is seeing whether the two of you really do respect each other’s religious choices. This can take years (and in some families never happens). Just give your parents – and his – space, time, and love. Make it clear you’re not rejecting them.

And be sure to drop me a line to let me know how it all worked out.

 

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15 Comments

  1. All very good and undoubtedly much-needed advice. While the divorce percentages I’ve seen for Mormon intra-faith marriages have been pretty good, compared to the nation as a whole, the numbers for Mormon mixed-faith marriages have been abysmal. Anything that can bring that number down (and the number of broken homes it represents) is much appreciated.

    One additional suggestion, don’t go into the marriage assuming that your spouse will eventually convert. If it happens great, but that’s far from a given.

    • Jana Riess

      Doug — totally agree with you on the advice to not expect your spouse to eventually convert to your own religion. That is a recipe for disaster.

      But I’ve never seen any divorce statistics specifically showing that Mormons who marry outside the faith have a poor chance of staying married. Can you point me toward research on that? I *have* seen research that suggests that interfaith marriages in general have a higher divorce rate than same-religion marriages. (See, for example, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/06/04/AR2010060402011.html) But I’ve never seen any stats that were Mormon-specific.

      • I’m afraid I can’t provide specific links. It was a factoid I came across years ago in an article comparing divorce rates of different sects and religions as well as the non-religious. It had the LDS divorce rate at the same level as the nation, but the divorce rate for Mormons that married within the faith at half that level. Logically, that would mean that the divorce rate for Mormons that marry outside the faith is quite a bit higher than the national average.

      • trytoseeitmyway

        Jana, I agree with you. It worked out OK for my Mormon wife, but for the first 16 years it looked like a very bad bet from her point of view. (Some would say that’s still true, but that’s a whole other discussion.)

  2. Thanks for posting this. I married someone who became Mormon after the fact and it is definitely doable and definitely work. Can you say more about how you raised your daughter in both religions? Did you swap Sundays? Go to two services? You are right that having kids is a game changer. It’s one thing to have two grown people doing their own thing and quite another to be ok with/support your child going down a religious path I appreciate but don’t believe. This has been the toughest by far. I’d love your thoughts on this.

  3. Jana,

    I think you have given generally good advise, including acknowledging Doug’s good suggestions. We believe in honoring our parents for their care in raising us, their experience, and their love. However, marriage is about leaving our parents and cleaving unto our spouse. It is good council to generally date and marry with your own faith, especially if our religious beliefs and practices are important to us. Rather, than giving advise for many specific circumstances, I have some questions, I would suggest that this young lady ask herself and probably discuss with someone who has her long-term welfare as a primary concern.
    1. How long have you known each other? What sort of activities have you done together? How well do you know each other?
    2. How many times have you attended each others church services together?
    3. Have you moved through the infatuation stage when excitement about getting to know about each other is extreme and most of what you see in each other is through rose colored glasses?
    4. Love is about feelings, but it is also about choosing to act lovingly. How do the two of you do working together on projects, especially under stress?
    5. Have you considered serving a full-time mission at 19? (Learning to work with companions as a full-time missionary can be excellent preparation for marriage.)
    6. Why do you think you should AND should Not marry this young man now?
    7. How many times have you carefully studied it out in your mind, and fasted and prayed about it?
    8. What has the Holy Ghost encouraged you to do?

    My questions probably demand a level of maturity beyond most 18-year-olds, but marriage is a very important decision with long-term consequences.

  4. I think marrying outside the faith may be necessary for the sake of improving the household cuisine. There is only so much mayonnaise and Jell-o that a human being is meant to consume.

    Just kidding :)

  5. It is also important to know what you are married to when regarding spiritual life. The Apostle Paul in Romans chapter 7 uses the analogy of marriage to show that a person is either married to the law or married to Christ. To be married to Christ is to be dead to the law. “So, my brothers, you also died to the law through the body of Christ, that you might belong to another, to Him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit to God.”

    Are you married to the law, or are you married to Christ. To be married to the law is to be seperate from Christ.

    http://downtownministries.blogspot.com/

  6. Growing up a second generation LDS adolescent of parents in the midwest (both converts before my birth) who divorced in my youth, I was very trepidatious about dating and marrying outside the faith. Temple marriage was my goal, similar to attending sacrament, going on a mission, getting my temple initiatories and endowments.

    My parents both re-married new people; one was inside the faith and the other was to another Christian person, outside the faith. I think both my folks married well and happily, but there are some differences in lifestyle in how this affects them within church life and practice. One did two full time missions in retirement, the other not able to but still active in church callings and generous in time and effort. In both cases they did not raise any children, but they still have had much adult and grandchild interaction.

    18 is very young, but who knows? A marriage at that age with time may be as successful as any other.

    I married within the faith, after dating mostly within as well. That has been the path for me to be more secure within my faith and goals. And also hoping to stave off marital problems/divorce, eliminating possible differences that I know I already inherently have as an individual with everyone/everything else.

  7. I agree with Wayne about searching out the right answer for oneself based on prayer, fasting, study and impressions from the spirit. I’m an active member of the LDS church who dated a wonderful man of another faith from age 24-26. I received so much discouragement and advice to never marry someone outside Mormonism that I discounted my own impressions and peace about the situation. Looking back on it, I feel that I was swayed too much by ward members, ex-mission president, temple matron, etc who didn’t know him but felt that there was one right answer. We have so much respect and honor for leadership and believe so strongly in obedience within Mormonism that it can be very difficult to go against the opinions of those in authority with “stewardship” over us.

    Work it out in your heart and your mind, talk and talk and talk with your partner and people you love and respect, and then ultimately trust yourself to make a good decision.

  8. Jana, I always enjoy reading your posts that have been high-lighted by Real Clear Religion and appreciate your open-mindedness. However, I have found in my own life that taking the route of peacemaking in a relationship can lead to compromises that we may later regret.
    The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the only Church that teaches exaltation. If we are not interested in that and salvation in the Terrestrial Glory is sufficient for our needs, then I can totally agree with you that the relationship is primary, regardless of the religion.
    However, if you have any desire for exaltation, then baptism and temple ordinances become primary.

    • trytoseeitmyway

      I understand this comment, but there is something that might be worth clarifying. When people hear of the doctrine of exaltation, it often becomes an issue of concern because it strikes them as prideful, self-aggrandizing or even narcissistic. From my point of view, I don’t “desire” exaltation; instead, I desire the eternity that is part of who I am anyway to be in the company of my family and in the presence of my Father in Heaven. I also know that He, a loving Father, desires exaltation FOR me. If we think of our roles as parents (where applicable) we know that we want the very best for our children and want them to achieve everything of which they are capable. We hope that they will reach out to fulfill their highest potential not from a position of pride or self-love but from an attitude of seeking to express the greatest selves that they can. I think that Heavenly Father thinks of us in this same way. He is grieved when we choose a lesser path because he knows that we are capable of the greater.

      • The only way to be WITH Father is to be in the Celestial Kingdom.
        You can be a good person and be with Jesus forever in the Terrestrial Kingdom but you can NOT be with the Father unless you are baptized and live up to the ensuing covenants.
        Exaltation is not only to be with the Father, but to be LIKE the Father.
        I don’t understand how that goal could be labeled narcissistic. Why stop with a Master’s degree when you have been given the opportunity through grace to be awarded a PhD?

  9. Raymond Takashi Swenson

    From my perspective as someone about to collect Social Security, and married to my dear wife for 42 years next week, my primary concern about the young lady who wrote would be her age at only 18. The emotional energy of having a strong relationship with a member of the opposite sex, of “falling in love with love”, can be very real but it is not necessarily the same as a having confidence that you know yourself, and your prospective partner, well enough to be able to have faith that you can weather the challenges of married life (regardless of religious issues).

    As for the religious difference, the young man owes to himself, and to you, to learn more about what Mormons believe and how they live. Some people who do that will find that they are attracted to Mormon beliefs; others will be able to accommodate them and be supportive of the wife’s spiritual needs; but others find they have an adverse reaction, for whatever reason, and are unwilling to allow their spouse to devote the time and effort required to be a participating Latter-day Saint. It is worth finding out where this young man stands, and the only way for you and him to find out is for him to spend some time learning about the LDS Church and attending LDS meetings and getting to know LDS people, NOT as a demand that he become a Mormon, but to give him an opportunity to understand why it is important to his prospective spouse.

    And likewise it would be a good idea for the young lady to learn what Orthodox people believe and how they live.

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