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"Our Two Faiths Are Tearing Us Apart"

Kristina and Steve never thought their different religions would come between them. But having their first child, and facing the holidays, changed everything. Can this marriage be saved?
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Her Turn

"No one is going to tell me whether or not I can baptize my son! Michael is 9 months old already, and I want to take him to the Catholic church in Venezuela where I was baptized. But Steve's mother insists he should have a Jewish naming ceremony first — and, as usual, Steve won't stand up to her. 

"Religion was never all that important to either one of us, but now I feel that Steve is putting his faith before mine. Though I'm not a regular churchgoer, my family celebrated all the holidays. I grew up in Caracas, and for me, faith was tied in to our culture: the food, decorations, music. Mama raised me and my siblings alone. I've always had a difficult relationship with her; in her eyes, I never measured up, and I was criticized for everything. 

"The nuns who taught me encouraged me to pursue a career, so I went to graduate school and eventually entered a foreign study program in New York City to learn English. At a party my first night there, I met Steve, who was a resident in pediatric cardiology. I hadn't planned on becoming involved with anyone, but I fell in love. Steve convinced me to stay in the U.S., and when he asked me to marry him, I said yes instantly. 

"The first hint of trouble came as we were planning our wedding. I wanted a Catholic ceremony, but his mother said that no son of hers was going to be married in a church. Steve said, 'It's not worth upsetting Mom over' and I didn't have the nerve to insist on what I wanted. We finally had a rabbi marry us in his study. 

We moved into the first-floor apartment of Steve's mother's two-family house to save money. That first Christmas, his mother wouldn't let me put a wreath and lights on the front door, and Steve said we shouldn't have a tree, either. The next year, I spent hours cooking a special seafood pie, a Venezuelan holiday tradition. Steve gobbled it up without so much as a "thank you," and went right to bed.

"I got very depressed as the months went by. Steve was working insane hours, and we hardly saw each other. I wasn't able to pursue my graduate degree in New York because I couldn't transfer all of my credits, and money was tight. Since nothing else in my life was going right, I thought it would be a good time to have a child. But Steve was rarely around during my pregnancy, and it's been no better since Michael was born. 

"Steve and I fight all the time, most recently about his trip to a medical conference in Atlanta. He doesn't want me and the baby to come, even though it means he'll miss Michael's first birthday! After our fights, I try to make up, but Steve pushes me away. Sometimes he won't make love or even talk to me for days. On top of that, my mother-in-law drives me crazy. When we're out, she goes into our apartment, empties the trash and roots through the closets for clothes to take to the dry cleaner. She calls it being helpful; I call it invading our privacy! Worst of all, Steve refuses to stand up to her.

"Now that Christmas is coming again, I know a bad situation is going to get worse. And the religious question seems much more real now that we have a baby. But if we can't resolve this, I told Steve I'm ready to leave."

His Turn

"My wife has a strong personality. She's fiery, and her temper has become a problem. If Kristina disagrees about something, she immediately threatens to leave. Her drama-queen antics make me so angry; it's hard to feel loving when you're always being screamed at. Half the time, I'm not even sure what I've done wrong. The Christmas pie is a good example; I didn't realize Kristina wanted me to rave over it. Once I realized I'd hurt her feelings, I tried to make it up to her, but she kept ranting about how I didn't care about her traditions. 

"This whole religious question has me confused. It's true that religion was never important to me as a child; I was raised Jewish, but my late father was a nonpracticing Catholic. Our family went to temple only on the High Holidays, and I never went to Hebrew school. Still, I don't like the idea of a Christmas tree. To me, a tree isn't much different from a crucifix, and having one in the house would make me uncomfortable, because it goes counter to my faith's teachings that Jews don't worship Jesus. 

"Now that we have a child, I feel a much stronger pull toward my religious roots. Maybe it's for the cultural heritage. Maybe it's for the sense of belonging, which was always a struggle for me. I was adopted, and my parents handled the issue as well as anyone. But I still remember relatives saying, 'We love you. You'll always be a part of our family.' It made me feel as if I weren't really related to them. 

"Dad was always stressed-out. Mom complained all the time that he never paid attention to her, and she depended on me for things that he wouldn't do, like going with her to the movies. Both of my parents were very strict. If I was late coming home for dinner, left my socks on the floor, or talked back, they'd send me to my room. After a while, I learned it was better to keep my mouth shut.

"I guess I'm doing the same thing now. Though I've told Mom a thousand times not to barge into our apartment, she just doesn't get it. The thing is, she's letting us live there rent-free, so I don't feel right making demands. Besides, we won't be living here much longer. 

"My hours are long and I come home drained. It's an effort to put on a happy face after seeing sick children in pain all day. I do try, but Kristina doesn't give me a break. The way she exploded at me about the medical conference is typical. I don't want to miss my son's first birthday, but there's nothing I can do. This is an important business trip, not a vacation, and it'll be a disaster if I'm exhausted from caring for a crying baby.  

"I'm tired of dealing with Kristina's rages. Whether we're fighting about the holidays or my mother, she's at such a high decibel level all the time, it seems I can't get a word in edgewise. We've got to find a way to get along."

The Counselor's Turn

"Arguments over how to honor each partner's religion can be the cause, as well as a symptom, of problems in an interfaith marriage. For Kristina and Steve, it was a little of both. As they tried to figure out who they were separately and as a couple, they centered their arguments on their differing faiths. Before they could begin to end the standoffs, they had to learn how to communicate. 

"It's common for couples in the early stages of romance to overlook issues of religion. But especially after a child is born, many find themselves feeling the pull of religious roots.

"Having grown up in a hot-tempered family, Kristina fell into the pattern of expressing her feelings loudly. Steve's instinctive response was to distance himself, which only reminded Kristina of her mother's disapproval. When Steve pulled away or refused to make love, she panicked, and her temper tantrums escalated. 

"Given Kristina's temperament, it was also inevitable that she'd plunge into power struggles with her equally strong-willed and critical mother-in-law. To stand up to her intrusiveness, Kristina needed to know that Steve was on her side. Steve, fearful of confrontation, found his wife's fiery personality difficult to live with. Growing up, he was rarely encouraged, frequently punished for expressing his ideas, and often felt invisible. Having felt like an outsider in his own family, it was especially painful for him to feel criticized and rejected by his wife. 

"The couple needed to change. Kristina prided herself on her frankness, but honesty can also be cruel. I showed her how to rephrase her hurtful comments. For instance, instead of: 'Why don't you ever make love to me?' she's learned to say, 'I miss you and I can't wait to be with you tonight.' Soon, Steve lowered his protective armor and was affectionate again.

"To keep their disagreements civil, Kristina and Steve have learned to 'coach' each other. When either feels that the other is being rude or disrespectful, they ask permission to point out the offensive comments so the speaker can express himself or herself another way. To build Kristina's confidence, I suggested that she seek out new friends through mother-child play groups, music classes, and in the park. After broadening her social network, she was happier and less dependent on Steve for attention. 

"As for the mother-in-law problem, that was a responsibility Steve had been avoiding for too long. I told him: 'You must support and praise Kristina in front of your mother so she knows you stand united.' He did so, telling his mother that while he appreciated her help, they had a right to privacy. From then on, she was never to enter the apartment uninvited. 

"I also told Steve to make several small connections with Kristina each day, no matter how busy or tired he was. A quick check-in call from work, a kiss or a hug when he walked in the door — these tiny gestures would make a big difference. After that, if he needed time alone, he was to say so nicely, and Kristina was to give him that space. 

"At last, they were ready for a frank exchange about religion. Mutual respect, knowledge, and the willingness to keep the dialogue open are essential when it comes to raising children of an interfaith marriage. This is especially true as the children get older and the issues become more complicated, such as whether to undergo ceremonies like confirmation or bar mitzvah. I assured Kristina and Steve that their newfound communication skills and mutual trust would help them make those difficult decisions.

"In our sessions, Kristina carefully described how entwined her faith and her culture were for her. Although Steve had been uneasy about having a Christmas tree, he softened, and decided that he loved Kristina too much to let it stand in the way. He also suggested that they buy a Hanukkah menorah. A month-long vacation in Venezuela after the holidays helped Steve appreciate the cultural and religious diversity that they could offer their son. 

"In a few months, they'll return to Caracas for Michael's baptism, to be followed by a naming ceremony at Steve's mother's synagogue. 'For now, we'll cobble together a set of traditions that stays true to both of our heritages,' Steve said. 'We want Michael to attend religious school, but we'll decide where and how once he's older.' Meanwhile, these two are confident that, by keeping their minds and hearts open for the harder decisions they know will crop up, they'll find the answers together." 

"Can This Marriage Be Saved?" is the most popular and most enduring women's magazine feature in the world. This month's case is based on interviews with clients and information from the files of Bonnie Eaker Weil, Ph.D., a psychotherapist in New York City and author of Make Up, Don't Break Up: Finding and Keeping Love for Singles and Couples (Adams Media Corporation). The story told here is true, although names and other details have been changed to conceal identities. "Can This Marriage Be Saved?" is a registered trademark of Meredith Corporation.

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