In the United States, which has been referred to as the “great melting pot” for generations, it should come as no surprise that with all these different kinds of people has come practically as many ways of believing in a higher power.

What may be surprising is that all those faiths — religions, if you prefer — have crossed lines, much like the ethnicities from which they sprang. And that presents both promise and problems.

Promise in what that means for society as a whole, problems in what that can do to an otherwise solid marriage/partnership.

In a groundbreaking interfaith marriage survey conducted in 2010, journalist Naomi Schaefer Riley surveyed 2,450 Americans and found an interfaith marriage rate of 42 percent. One of the reasons for the rise, she says in an interview, is that we are getting married later in life and making more considered choices.

Data from the national General Society Survey — a sociological survey that collects data on demographic characteristics and attitudes of U.S. residents — reported that 15 percent of American households were mixed-faith in 1988. That rose to 26 percent by 2006.

When focusing on the institution of marriage itself, outside the specific faiths involved, Schaefer Riley found that interfaith marriages tend to be “generally more unhappy, with lower rates of marital satisfaction.”

They also are often “more unstable, with particularly high divorce rates when certain religious combinations are involved,” she writes in “’Til Faith Do Us Part: How Interfaith Marriage is Transforming America” (Oxford University Press), an outgrowth of her survey and a decade-long fascination with the interfaith phenomenon that stemmed from her own marriage. She is a conservative Jew and her husband is a former Jehovah’s Witness.

Her interviews, which included about 200 members of the clergy, as well as marriage counselors and interfaith couples, also suggested that few Americans are aware of the potential problems regarding interfaith marriage.

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“People tend to underestimate how important religion is going to be to them later in life,” she says. “We have an instinctual desire to shape our children.

“There wasn’t much difference, amusingly enough, between people in same-faith marriages and people in interfaith marriages arguing about religion. But religion affects things that affect our marriages: how we spend our time, how we spend our money and how we raise our children.” These are issues that can’t be addressed once, she says, “and then put in a drawer. These are (issues) that come up throughout the course of a marriage.”

Another factor in the health of a relationship, marriage or otherwise, is the growing trend toward switching religions. It’s safe to say that many Buddhists in America, for example, were not born into the faith.

Changing from Catholicism to Buddhism in a marriage that is seasoned could be like the Titanic hitting an unseen iceberg. Likewise, a partner who simply opts out of religion altogether, sometimes to become an agnostic or atheist — or, alternately, steps up the intensity of her devotion — will present a great challenge to the partner who remains steadfast within a specific faith and set of beliefs.

Yet, says Rev. Derek Davenport, a Presbyterian pastor at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, among the “thousands of” factors that could be considered when a couple stays together or splits, one sticks in his mind the most: words versus deeds.

“Couples who successfully navigate their differences often flip their words and their deeds,” Davenport says. “Our natural tendency is often to ‘agree to disagree’ and not discuss issues any further. The verbal claim is that everything is fine. In practice, one member does one thing and the other does something else. This creates two lives completely apart from one another.”

A healthier approach, he says, is to do the opposite. Some couples openly talk about their divergent viewpoints, which in practice can give them the freedom to build a life together.

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Chris Etling is the managing editor of the Arizona Daily Sun. He's worked for the Daily Sun since November 2009 and has lived in Flagstaff for 16 years.

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