- The number of interfaith couples is increasing: 20 percent of Gen Xers have interfaith parents, compared to 27 percent of Millennials.
- Interfaith couples report poorer psychological health and experience pressure from their parents to marry someone of a similar faith.
- Involvement in, and importance of, religion markedly declines amongst children raised by interfaith parents.
Interfaith relationships are increasingly common. According to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center, 27 percent of Millennials were raised by parents with two different religious backgrounds. This is a marked increase from 20 percent of Gen Xers, 19 percent of Baby Boomers, and 13 percent of the Silent Generation who were raised by parents with two different religious backgrounds.
Today, 25 percent of U.S. marriages involve couples of different religions. Such that, 15 percent of marriages involve one partner who is religious and one who is unaffiliated, such as atheist or agnostic. And approximately 9 percent of marriages involve partners of differing religions, such as one Protestant partner and one Catholic partner.
Because more people are choosing interfaith relationships than ever before, couples may be asking if and how they can work. Every couple’s relationship is unique and the variables which affect their long-term success are complex. Luckily, research in psychology reveals some of the unique challenges that interfaith couples might face.
Challenges for Interfaith Relationships
Both relationships and religion tend to be good for your health. Several studies, for instance, reveal people who are married, rather than single, tend to live longer and experience greater physical and psychological health. In fact, patients who had undergone a coronary artery bypass graft were 2.5 times more likely to still be alive 15 years after their surgery if they were married, rather than single.
Similarly, people who are religious tend to live longer. Religion often discourages behaviors that are detrimental to people’s health, such as excessive alcohol and drug use. Religion also tends to foster greater psychological support via spiritual, social, and emotional connections amongst couples and with members of a church, for example. So being in a relationship with someone who is similarly religious may benefit each partner’s physical and mental health.
Being in an interfaith relationship, however, may be a significant source of stress for couples. In a study published in Sexuality and Culture, researchers Siham Yahya and Simon Boag surveyed young people regarding their parent’s feelings towards interfaith relationships. They found young people perceive significant prejudice towards interfaith couples and face pressure from family to date someone of a similar religion as themselves.
To better understand the potential stress interfaith couples may experience, researcher Kareena McAloney analyzed data from the United Kingdom’s Household Longitudinal Study. This longitudinal survey collected data from 17,800 people in Britain, 80 percent of which were married or in a civil partnership. In the longitudinal study, participants reported various information, including their own religion, their partner's religion, and their psychological health. Psychological health was assessed via 12 questions regarding the amount of psychological distress participants experience, such as how much sleep they lose because of worry, how unhappy or depressed they feel, and whether they are unable to overcome difficulties.
Findings from the United Kingdom’s Household Longitudinal Study revealed that 79 percent of participants were in a relationship with someone of a similar religion. Eighty-seven percent of Christians were partnered with other Christians and 68 percent of non-Christians were partnered with non-Christians. Forty percent of people who reported no religion, such as atheist or agnostic, were partnered with someone else who reported no religion. Thus, the 21 percent of interfaith couples represents a comparatively small, yet significant and growing, portion of relationships in the UK.
Most importantly, findings from the longitudinal study revealed differences in psychological well-being for couples. People in a relationship with someone of different faith experienced poorer psychological well-being than people in a relationship with someone of similar faith. This effect was small yet significant.
Although the study did not explore potential reasons why interfaith couples experience poorer psychological health, it may due to the unique challenges that people might face when partnering with someone of a different faith. Interfaith couples, for instance, may not have a shared religion as a support for emotional and social connectedness. Interfaith couples may also experience cultural clashes and pressure from family, both of which have been linked to marital dissatisfaction and depression in previous studies.
For interfaith couples who decide to have children, they may avoid cultural clashes, such as whether to attend church or which religious holidays to celebrate, by disengaging from religious practices. According to a Pew Research Center survey, when couples are of the same religion, 77 percent are highly involved in religious practices, such as attending church and praying regularly. But for interfaith couples of two different religions, this number drops to 54 percent. And religious involvement plummets to 13 percent for interfaith couples where one partner is religious and the other unaffiliated.
In a similar vein, the Pew Research Center also found that religion was less important to children raised by interfaith couples. Whereas 43 percent of people raised by similarly religious parents said religion was very important, only 30 percent of people raised by interfaith parents said it was very important. If one parent is religiously unaffiliated, only 9 percent of their children said religion was very important.
Interestingly, most children of interfaith couples report their parents not arguing much about religion. And people tend to believe that other variables, such as similar interests and satisfying sex, are more important to a successful marriage than shared religion.
Much more research is needed to better understand the familial and relationship outcomes of interfaith couples. Early studies suggest interfaith couples may face unique challenges in regard to the role of religion in their lives, familial and societal support, and whether to raise their children in religion.
McAloney, K. (2013). Inter-faith relationships in Great-Britain: Prevalence and implications for psychological well-being. Mental Health, Religion, & Culture, 16(7), 686-694.
Pew Research Center (October 26, 2016). One in five adults were raised in interfaith homes: A closer look at religious mixing in American families.
Yahya, S. & Boag, S. (2014). “My family would crucify me!”: The perceived influence of social pressure on cross-cultural and interfaith dating and marriage. Sexuality and Culture, 18, 759-772.