It’s hard for me to put into words what it’s like to be in an inter-faith relationship. In some respects it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done and in other ways it’s completely natural. If you had asked me 6 years ago if I would ever consider dating a non-Christian guy, I definitely would have said no, but it seems that Cupid has no knowledge of these things when he takes aim at unsuspecting passersby.
In college, I was the very devoted good girl. I didn’t drink, I didn’t party, and I went to church. In fact, I went to an Evangelical school where I was completely surrounded by good girls and boys who influenced me greatly to believe that there was only one kind of person I could marry: a Christian man. Of course, we were all obsessed with falling in love, but especially the girls who often came to my school just to get married. In fact, at one floor meeting led by our resident assistant, we were instructed to put together a list of things we want in a future husband, separated into three columns of needs, wants, and likes, and then we were encouraged to keep that list stored in a safe place. I kept mine on a bulletin board above my desk. Number one in the needs column: “A man who loves God.”
Well, things didn’t turn out as I planned. After graduation, I left the U.S. and moved overseas to learn about the world and its people, and then I met Jeremy. I was already a fairly liberal Christian whose faith was waning, but I could never have anticipated how radically my life was about to change.
At the start of our relationship, I was really upfront about my faith–in fact, I think I asked him outright what church he went to on our first date! At the time, as a noob to dating and a religious Christian American, I didn’t think there was anything wrong with that. He kind of laughed nervously and said he was an Agnostic-Jew; I laughed nervously and tried to deflect attention from my cultural insensitivity by quickly changing topics. Thankfully, that wasn’t the end of our first date. We actually got on really well together and by the end of the night, I really wanted to see him again. “I’ll just see where this goes,” I told myself.
Well, it went far–really far, four-years far–and in that time we’ve had to overcome a few things, the first being our pre-conceived ideas and our negative past experiences (this was mostly his struggle). For him, growing up as a religious minority in Australia was hard. He was always discriminated against at school and one of his ex-girlfriends had even tried to convert him. A lot of his previous experiences with Christians had been negative and my forwardness about faith had kind of put him on the defensive. Thankfully he liked me because it took about a year before he really believed that I wouldn’t one day wake up and want to convert him as well.
I was mostly okay with him being an Agnostic-Jew in the beginning (Jesus was a Jew, right?). I had never met any Jews before and I was already starting to question my faith so it seemed fine to me that he was too and that he came from a different background. What I didn’t anticipate though was people questioning me.
I knew it wouldn’t be easy to tell my family and friends, and once they found out I was seeing someone (I hid it for three months out of fear), the questions soon followed. At first it was innocuous stuff like one friend who excitedly exclaimed over the phone, “He sounds so great! And does he love Jesus?” “Um, that’s an interesting topic…” I replied. Yep, that’s how they found out. When I just came out and said it, there were a lot of “oh”s and then silence. A couple of my friends assured me that they trusted my judgment but many others considered my eternal soul to be in peril and it wasn’t long before the emails started.
Having people I loved tell me I was going to hell and that obviously my faith was not real was incredibly hard to hear. It broke my heart that people whom I had shared my most vulnerable moments with and trusted infinitely could then so brutally wound me. People would say things like, “I thought you knew better,” and, “Where are your morals?” The worst were emails that threatened to announce my “falleness” to the larger community because it was scripturally advisable that people were no longer duped by my “false faith.” This stuff continued for two years–two whole years of fearing what I would find in my inbox when I logged on in the mornings. Two years of crying under the covers and on bathroom floors, broken hearted and in complete distress over my ruined reputation and loss of community. I had been abandoned because I loved someone, not because I said something mean or did something illegal or hurt someone; it was all because I found someone, a best friend who filled my life with joy but didn’t measure up to that early list of needs.
This was quite horrifying for Jeremy, who as an Agnostic really struggled to see the value of a community that caused so much pain. He did everything he knew to cheer me up (this essentially means he made many solo, late night trips to the grocery store to buy me chocolate) and when nothing worked, he would hold me while I cried. When the emails became too much to bear, he started deleting them for me. When the emails didn’t stop, he blocked people for me (I asked him to). Like a good partner, when I didn’t have the strength left to defend myself or take action, he came to my aid and carried my sorrow for me.
Surprisingly, people kind of started giving up on me after two years. Emails started dropping off, Facebook friends started disappearing, and loneliness settled in. For the next year, Jeremy and I would really start getting to know each other and this is where the bulk of our religious understandings of each other were built. We started making a conscious effort to create space for each other’s traditions in our home; I cooked matzah balls for Passover and he put my Bible up on the shelf next to his Torah. I offered to attend service at the synagogue (which he politely declined because while he is culturally Jewish, he doesn’t feel a religious affiliation) and he agreed to attend church with me if I asked him to.
We started asking questions about each other’s theology and we both accepted that perhaps some of our ideas had not been as well-tested as we originally thought. We spent hours laughing about our stereotypes (I conducted a mock tele-evangelist program while cooking dinner; he suggested we ask people at the synagogue for advice on where to buy diamonds) and similar hours correcting each other on our unknowing insensitivity (his remark that the nativity scene is kitschy; my numerous comments on his big Jewish nose). Like any other couple, we worked through our differences with a dash of research, two cups of humor, and a pound of communication. Our third year was all about being a normal couple.
Our fourth year, we started talking about the future. By then we had decided to get married and we started talking about how this could work. I had long abandoned my religious affiliation–both out of disgust and also because I decided the title wasn’t fitting so well anymore–but my family and friends hadn’t. I asked a pastor friend of mine if he would marry us and I got the response I should have expected: “Kortney, I love you very much but what you are doing is a sin and I can’t support this decision. Maybe I could speak with Jeremy and ask him about his faith and his reasons for believing so…” Crossed that name off! By then it no longer hurt to be labeled. We talked with some people about being married by a rabbi–no dice. We’re not quite at the wedding stage yet (maybe this year?) but we’ve decided to keep it a fairly non-religious affair with maybe a chuppah and ketuba because I think they are awesome but no symbols, no officiants, no controversy. If we decide to invite people, we want everyone to feel welcomed without calling attention to our differences.
We’ve also started talking about children. People actually ask us about this a lot and they always seem surprised when I say, “Why can’t they be both?” I remembered a sweet professor I had in college who was Mennonite and married to a Catholic man–we were all so fascinated by how their marriage worked even though they largely fell under the same religious umbrella! I had onced asked this prof what they had agreed to with their kids and she said they rotated services every Sunday so the kids could experience both. That seems like a fine idea to me! We want our kids to get their bar/bat mitzvahs and learn Hebrew. We also want them to go to vacation Bible school and enjoy youth groups if they want. We don’t want to teach our children to believe one way, but we want to give them a safe environment to explore their options and grow to be caring, tolerant people. Do parents really want anything more than that?
We just passed our fourth anniversary and we’re now in our fifth year together. A few weeks ago, I caught up with an old college friend who warned me that people back home were talking about me and that people say I’m no longer a Christian. For the first time, it honestly didn’t bother me. I kind of laughed about it and said, “Well, it’s too bad these people don’t have the balls to just come and ask me about it but I don’t care. Let them believe what they want. My true friends know who I am.” My old friend smiled–it seems there are a few of us Christian rebels out there!
I’m done trying to convince people to change their views. At one point, when I was in the thick of it and desperate for validation, I was seeking out forums where I could argue my views. I usually walked away defeated, my emotions rendering me incapable of arguing persuasively, my victors empowered by their zealous faith. These days, I find myself comfortable in my more private faith and public relationship, and I’ve found myself as a kind of go-to encourager for people in similar situations. In the last two years, I’ve been approached by several fringe-friends and close friends from college who’ve been looking for advice and support in their similar lifestyle changes. It feels good to have turned my very public shame into a safe harbor for other people in the storm.
As I said, I don’t want to convince people anymore, but I do want to show people that their words have the power to kill a person’s spirit. I felt dead for those two years. I gained a ton of weight from eating my emotions, my blood pressure went through the roof whenever I received an unwanted email, I was depressed and needed to see a therapist, I couldn’t keep up with birth control, I couldn’t hold a job, and our relationship was strained. I was so unbelievably unhappy and depressed, stripped of my dignity by the hands of people who acted in God’s name. So many days I was just a walking shell of a human, completely empty inside, and other people did that to me.
If this is you, if you are in the storm and need a place to hide, I suggest you do a few things: first, remove any negative influences from your life. I don’t care if it’s your mom or your friend, it’s immeasurably harder to survive depression if your aggressors have such easy access to you. My quality of life was radically improved when we started deleting emails, blocking people, and removing friends from Facebook. Second, I would encourage you to find help and support somewhere. This is hard when your go-to support group is now attacking you, but don’t give up! Find a counselor, talk to your doctor, take comfort in books and spend some time outside. If a dog or a cat will make you happy, don’t think: buy one! Nothing makes me feel more loved than the unconditional love of a pet. Honestly, who else will wet themselves because they are just so happy to see you?! And finally, stay the hell away from happy-ending chick flicks and any other movie about families splitting up. Basically, I watched nothing but action movies for two or three years because I couldn’t handle seeing fictional happiness, with the exception of District 9 which I couldn’t finish because I was crying so much when the alien family got split up (I had to find out the ending through Wikipedia–still haven’t finished the movie).
Let haters be haters. Take care of yourself first.