Interfaith Holidays and Conflict Resolution

Research shows that interfaith marriages are on the rise. So is family conflict.

Posted Nov 25, 2016

Maria*, like several of my clients, has been worried about the upcoming holidays. Not only does she have to balance three sets of parents (her husband's are divorced and remarried), but she also has to find a way to manage the fact that her family is Catholic, her husband's is Jewish, and, although she converted to Judaism when she married, this year her children want to have a Christmas tree.


While not technically an interfaith couple, since Maria has converted and her children are growing up in the Jewish faith, she is faced with what is a growing concern in the United States and elsewhere. Can any couple successfully bring together different religious belief systems?

Before we try to answer that question, it is useful to note that, according to a recent Pew Recent research survey, there is “a remarkable degree of churn in the U.S. religious landscape.”  The survey tells us that 34% of contemporary American adults have switched from the religion in which they were brought up, either to a different religion, to unaffiliated, or to non-believers.

This “churn” in the religious landscape has resulted in an increase in interfaith marriages, with 39% of American marriages since 2010 being between individuals of different faiths. Unfortunately, Darren Sherkat, a sociologist at Southern Illinois University, found that marriages between people of the same religious beliefs tended to have a better chance of lasting than interfaith marriages. But does that mean that you shouldn't marry a person of a different faith?

I think not. It simply means that you might want to brush up on your conflict resolution skills during the holidays. 

If you, like Maria and her husband, are attempting to juggle different family belief systems this holiday season, you are by no means alone. But even couples whose religious beliefs are in sync are bombarded by conflicting and noisy cultural demands. Children growing up in faiths that do not celebrate Christmas, as well as those Christian groups that do not practice gift-giving on the holiday, may have a hard time understanding why they are not allowed to join in the festivities practiced by their friends and touted on every form of media.

Parents and family on one or both sides may also have difficulty embracing decisions you and your partner have made. This can be extremely painful for everyone. Guilt, anger and rejection can flow in both directions.

They are almost universal. How you deal with these feelings will affect not only you and your spouse, but your children and your parents.

But in these days of political unrest, concerns about conflict over religious differences are not simply family affairs. How you and your partner, as well as your family, manage these disagreements on a micro level models something important to your children. Perhaps it might even model something to your parents. When Maria spoke with her mom about Christmas plans, she could hear the building tension in her mom’s voice. So she simply told her that they wanted this celebration to meaningful to her and to their children, and that they would very much like it if she could think about how to explain what it meant to her when they were together on Christmas day. “We might not celebrate the same things,” she said, “but we want the children to understand that we respect what is important to you.”

At the bottom of this post I have listed, besides references for the surveys I have described, several useful sources for helping you manage these conflicts. But here are some ideas that you might try, as well.

1. Respect your differences. (My colleague on the PT website, Thomas Plante, makes some very important points on this subject). Remember, you got involved in this relationship for a reason. See if you can find anything in your partner's beliefs that reflect some of the things you most value about him or her. Put those thoughts into words in a conversation, or even in a card that you give him or her, signed with love!

2. Keep your eye on similarities, which often hide behind apparent differences. The theme of lights and traditional foods and songs runs through many of the holidays that appear around the time of the winter solstice. Cultural and religious celebrations are about our attempts to find a way to live a caring and meaningful life - and this is a tradition and focus in every religion.

3. Create family rituals. They do not have to be complicated or even religious. Learn about the traditions of other religions than your own. Reach out to other religious communities and find out if you can attend any of their ceremonies. If nothing is available in your community, begin reading about and talking to your children and your friends about these other traditions.

4. Experiment, mix, and find what works for you. My husband, for example, likes to combine Christmas carols and Hanukkah music, so we can end up listening to "Little Drummer Boy" right after "Dreidel, dreidel, dreidel." We like it, but you might not. Find what works for your family, and search until you come up with traditions that soothe you and your partner together.

5. Know and accept that tensions will rise. Work on managing them together. This may mean sitting down and talking instead of arguing. It may be enough sometimes, though, simply to say that you both know that this is a difficult and confusing time of year. Take a look at the book Difficult Conversations, by Douglas Stone and Bruce Patton. It has suggestions that can help a lot right now. Another colleague on the PT website, Renee Garfinkel, also has several useful comments about arguing that you might want to look at.

6. And I said it once, but it’s so important that I will say it again: remember you got together despite - or maybe even because of - your differences. Remind yourself of what you loved about one another to begin with. And remember that conflict is a normal, even healthy part of any relationship, and learning how to resolving conflict is perhaps the most important part of maintaining and nurturing a healthy, satisfying long-term connection with another person. 

Differences are an important part of what makes any relationship work.

And in this time of confusion, doubt, and anxiety, I do believe that, if enough of us engage to find a way to live together with respect for difference, we will communicate something important to our children, our friends, our siblings, our parents, our colleagues—and maybe even our leaders.

Please let me know what you find helps you negotiate interfaith tensions. And I wish for us all a holiday season that marks the beginning of a time in which we are all better able to negotiate differences and find a way to live together in peace.

*names and identifying information changed to protect privacy


follow me on Twitter @fdbarthlcsw


Pew Forum America’s Changing Religious Landscape

Sherkat, Darren E. 2004. “Religious Intermarriage in the United States: Trends, Patterns, and Predictors.” Social Science Research, pages 605-625. offers a wide range of suggestions and discussions for partners of different faiths

8 Reasons My Interfaith Family Celebrates Hanukkah and Christmas by Susan Katz Miller (Huffington Post)

How do interfaith families navigate the holidays? By Laura Santhanam (PBS Newshour)

Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters by Douglas Stone and Bruce Patton