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Irene and Brad had been dating a year and a half when they began to discuss how they would raise children should they one day settle down. That's when the New York couple first realized they might have a problem: She wanted to raise kids in her faith, Judaism, but he figured their kids would be Catholic, like him.
"He seemed surprised that it was important to me," she says.
Still, without a resolution, the two 30-year-olds recently moved in together, with plans to get engaged. "It's something that needs to be talked about and will be talked about," Irene says. "I don't expect it to be an easy conversation."
Nor should she. How to raise kids in an interfaith marriage can be a difficult and emotionally wrought conversation, but if it's not worked out before the arrival of children, it can lead to major conflict. "This is a very serious topic and can later destroy a marriage," says Sharon Gilchrest O'Neill, a marriage and family psychotherapist in Mount Kisco, N.Y., and author of A Short Guide to a Happy Marriage. Yet it's a talk that needs to happen -- early and often -- according relationship experts.
With the number of interfaith marriages on the rise, Irene and Brad are not alone. Just over 33 percent of people in the U.S. were married to a person of another faith, according to 2010 figures from the National Opinion Research Center. That's up from 2006, when 31 percent of people were in an interfaith marriage, and 26 percent in 1973.
While there aren't any figures on how many of these couples discussed the issue before getting a ring, it's one of the more important discussions an interfaith couple can have. "By no means should you consider even getting engaged without having an idea of how your faiths will mesh in the raising of future children," says Andrea Bonior, a Bethesda, Md. psychologist who treats women going through life transitions, and a psychology professor at Georgetown University. Along with money and sex, religion is one of the hot-button topics that can easily cause conflict in a marriage, she adds.
For that reason, a couple should start bringing up their feelings as soon as "you start to feel you're part of each other's daily lives," Bonior says. "Too many people wait and think it will work itself out. They don't think ahead, and that's why they end up in my office."
An agreement should be reached before the engagement, she says, and include very specific details such as how the holidays will be celebrated -- even down to the decorations on the mantle -- what religious milestones or ceremonies will be recognized, which church or temple the family will attend, and how often.
A common attempt at compromise -- exposing the kids to both religions and letting them choose one when they are older -- can work in some situations, but can also backfire, Bonior adds. "Sometimes kids can't deal with the ambiguity," she cautions.
O'Neill advises partners to tackle the conversation at the same time they talk about other family preferences, such as having children, how many, when, and whether there will be a stay-at-home parent. Differences can be negotiated with the help of a minister, rabbi or therapist, she adds.
Getting outside advice, in the form of classes for interfaith couples, helped Jennifer, 32, and her husband, David, 34, decide to raise their son Jordan, now 9 months, in Jennifer's Jewish religion. "It was great, because it forced us to talk about it," says Jennifer, who lives outside Chicago in Lombard, Ill.
David, who was raised Catholic, and is baptized and confirmed, recognized that he could still share parts of his faith with Jordan by attending Easter, Christmas and other services with his parents, while still bringing his son up amidst Friday night candle lightings, matzo balls and menorahs.
Though the chats can be wrenching or even awkward, if a pair can arrive at a mutually agreeable pact, that's a good indicator of their ability to communicate, negotiate and compromise -- all keys to a successful marriage, O'Neill says.
"If people can be team players with each other," she says, "That just makes the marriage even stronger."