In a previous post, I addressed whether faithful Orthodox singles should date non-Orthodox people, and mentioned the difficulties associated with it. Today’s topic is whether to marry them.
There is a range of possible outcomes when marrying the heterodox. The best outcome is for the boyfriend/girlfriend to convert before the wedding, out of their own will and preferably for the reason that they believe that it is necessary for the salvation of their soul (tho access to Greek food is also an acceptable answer). That way, the marriage starts off with the important issues of practicing a religion and what to raise the kids already settled. You can go about the business of creating an intentional family culture.
Sometimes the non-Orthodox spouse converts down the road. I’ve heard of the heterodox converting because they wanted to be able to commune with their children and I’ve also heard of deathbed conversions. Whatever the reason for the conversion, it will not come about from being nagged or bullied in to it. Patience and the loving example of the spouse will lead to a better outcome.
But we also have stories of couples where the Orthodox person was at almost every service before the wedding and after the wedding they gradually stopped showing up to church very often.
Life is unpredictable. Some people are married for 40 years when one of them decides to switch confessions. Or becomes an atheist.
For those contemplating marrying someone not Orthodox, there are two main questions that need to be answered. One, what is the Orthodox person’s attitude toward the non-Orthodox person’s beliefs, and what is the non-Orthodox person’s attitude towards Orthodoxy and the Orthodox fiance?
If the non-Orthodox spouse is hostile towards Orthodoxy (or any other core value of the other person), married life will likely become hell. Watch out for signs of being henpecked into doing something you do not want to do or are made feel like an object of derision because of some beliefs not shared. Unfortunately some people are willing to compromise on this because they are scared of being single. Well, to them I say stop believing the myth that being single is the worst thing that can happen to you. Being married to the wrong person is much worse.
If the heterodox fiance is more indifferent than hostile, the Orthodox fiance should consider where they are entering a marriage expecting that the other person to change. You don’t want to become the boor in the previous example, the one that abuses the spouse because of values not shared. Even if that wouldn’t be the case, the Orthodox spouse should consider whether they can be themselves around their finance.
A marriage where you cannot be your unguarded self – hiding pieces of your heart from your spouse- will not be a happy or harmonious one. It is a very painful thing to break off a relationship with someone you love, but I think it would be even more painful to be yoked to someone and for the rest of your life every day hope in your heart that they will convert.
If, as we Orthodox believe, marriage is for our and our spouse’s salvation, are we entering a marriage where we can truly help our spouse become their best self (and vice versa)? The average person gets married without really understanding the level of work and sacrifice entailed. People get married because they have been “in a relationship” for a while and it just seems like the next step. Do most couples take the time to talk about shared vision? Probably not. But if you’re Orthodox, and religious in general, you should have a better understanding that marriage is about living for your spouse (and resulting children).
In Greek services, the couple is crowned with wreathes, symbolizing martyrdom. Marriage is for putting to death of the ego, of selfishness. I’m not saying that marriage is all doom and gloom once the first few months’ or years’ elation is gone. But in order to have a good marriage you do need to be with someone you can respect and love in order to instinctively put them first. And you want the same from your spouse.
Therefore, I do not presume to tell anyone what they should do. In an ideal world, the Perfect Orthodox Man would become Orthodox Boyfriend who would become Orthodox Husband. The reality is, men come along with whom we could have happy marriages, even if they aren’t practicing Orthodox. For those who undertake such endeavors, I say good luck. Personally I like Kh. Nicole Damick’s advice to her daughter in mind: Date the heterodox, but don’t marry anyone who isn’t Orthodox by the wedding day. Sadly, with most people, there is going to be too wide of a chasm to ever bridge the differences in lifestyle, character, and worldviews. In dating you risk getting your heart broken, and being Orthodox does not help your prospects one little bit. It’s worth waiting for the person that shares your core values.
I also loved the advice that my friend Carrie S., veteran heterodox dater, has on the topic. She has graciously allowed me to share a letter with you.
My advice is to follow your heart and trust your gut. Here’s how I recommend doing that: Ask yourself the following questions about yourself, without any consideration of your partner. Be honest, even if you don’t like the answer or the implications of the answer.
- What are my expectations of my partner with regards to faith? Do I expect him to share mine or not? If not, how do I expect him to treat my faith? There are several options… non-Orthodox but participates weekly by attending services/events with you, non-Orthodox with sporadic participation, like Christmas and Pascha, or completely non-participant in all aspects of the faith.
If you chose non-Orthodox but participates weekly by attending services/events with you, then ask yourself these questions:
- How will I feel not sharing communion with my partner? How will I feel during feast days, knowing my partner does not share my joy?
- On whose faith will the marriage be based? Will I be comfortable compromising my faith for my partner’s faith/non-faith? How will any future children be raised? How will they come to understand why there is a difference of faiths in the marriage? (Side note: during this time I noticed that all of my friends who were raised in houses where the parents did not share a faith were indifferent towards religion. Totally anecdotal and unscientific, but it scared the shit out of me, especially if part of the purpose of having kids is to raise them to love and fear God.)
If you chose non-Orthodox with sporadic participation, ask yourself the questions above, plus these questions:
- How will I feel if I am unable to pick the days my partner participates in my faith? Will I grow to resent the fact my partner doesn’t share my faith? What is my long-term expectation, really?
If you chose completely non-participant, ask yourself the questions above, plus these questions:
- Am I willing to live a lonely spiritual life; meaning one I cannot, nor will I ever be able to share with my partner? Will it bother me that my future children will want to adopt my partner’s attitude towards faith since it is the easier route?
- Is this the life I really want for myself? Is this the life God wants for me?
Okay, so when you get through those questions, then I think it’s important to ask yourself the following questions specifically about your partner:
- Is my partner willing to discuss faith with me? Does my partner exhibit anger and/or resentment towards faith in general? Does the topic of faith feel taboo?
- Is my partner willing to spend time with my church friends outside of church activities, e.g. dinner or game night, etc. (One of my ex boyfriends never wanted to meet my friends. Or spend time with them. Or do anything I wanted to do in general. But if he specifically doesn’t want to meet church friends, it’s a pretty good indicator that he’s hardened to church in particular.)
I think the purpose in asking those questions is to gauge whether there is an open heart or not. If he is unwilling to discuss it it’s a big clue and indicative of where his heart is. Paying attention to these clues could have saved me a lot of heartbreak. At the same time, if the guy is willing to talk about faith openly and come with you, I would ride it out and see where it goes.