Interfaith wedding planning: What you need to know

Clinton's 2010 nuptials took place in front of 400 guests at the Astor Courts estate in New York, built originally for John Jacob Astor IV. The bride wore Vera Wang (who was in attendance) to her $5 million affair, which boasted a 5-foot, gluten-free wedding cake. Genevieve de Manio/Getty Images

So you may have talked about it on your first date or your third or your tenth. It didn't seem like a big deal then -- or maybe it did -- but now it's suddenly a really big deal. You're getting married and you and your partner's religious backgrounds are different.

How do you cope with such differences on top of all of the other planning you're doing? How do you dream up a ceremony and reception that will make everyone happy? Or is that a goal you should completely abandon -- and go after "just don't offend" instead? And what about after the wedding: how do interfaith couples find relationship success together?

These are just some of the questions an increasing number of Americans face as more interfaith couples wed. In the 1950s, just 20 percent of marriages in the U.S. were interfaith. These days, the rate of those weddings has increased to 45 percent, according to a recent national survey commissioned by the polling firm YouGov which appears in the book "'Til Faith Do Us Part: How Interfaith Marriage is Transforming America."

But the answers don't have to be elusive if you're deliberate ahead of the wedding (something that's probably a little more important than combing Pinterest for the perfect place card design).

Starting the interfaith conversation

So, where do you start? Rev. Walter Cuenin, Catholic chaplain and coordinator of the Interfaith Chaplaincy at Brandeis University, recommends assessing how important your religious traditions are in your lives. Do you go to church or synagogue regularly? Is your faith part of your everyday life? Or do you never practice your faith -- or only on holidays? These are things couples should consider as the wedding planning proceeds, because they can be important later on. Young people, Cuenin noted, often aren't that active in their religious communities, but as they age, they often return to their roots. With that in mind, he said, "It's important to talk about that stuff early on."

But how do you start talking about it? You're preparing for your nuptials, right? Begin by making decisions that reflect your religious background in your interfaith service. If you are serious about your faith and your fiance is not, or vice-versa, Cuenin explained, your ceremony should reflect those beliefs.

Creating your ceremony

To create a ceremony that stays true to you and your fiance's beliefs, Rabbi Devon Lerner, author of "Celebrating Interfaith Marriages: Creating Your Jewish/Christian Ceremony," suggests letting your beliefs come through in a variety of ways with your ceremony. Among other things, your choice of officiant, venue, ceremony format and language -- and even your wedding program can be a vehicle for reflecting your and your fiance's backgrounds.

Watch Lerner's tips for planning your interfaith ceremony, in the video below.

A warning: not everybody may be pleased with your interfaith ceremony. But as Lerner points out, that's also true of ceremonies in which the couple shares the same religious tradition. She says couples should set aside nervousness about what people will expect because it's likely going to be something no one expects. She explained, "When you create a service that has both elements (of your and your fiance's traditions) in the ceremony, everyone usually enjoys it. They're also not expecting anything in particular. It's not going to be all one or the other. It's going to be something unfamiliar to them."

Diffusing fears, dealing with conflict

But what about the fear of the unknown? It can be a concern for many family members. Munira Lekovic Ezzeldine, author of "Before the Wedding: Questions for Muslims to Ask before Getting Married," suggests couples start interfaith service conversations with their parents and loved ones with open communication, but acting as one. She said, "As a couple, be a unit when making decisions, so parent's can't cause interference in the marriage."

Read more of Ezzeldine's work on intercultural and interfaith marriage

Ezzeldine added that planning a ceremony is often where precedents can be set between couples and their parents. "It starts in the beginning with planning the wedding and will continue into the marriage -- where you live, how you raise your children, etc. You need to be on the same page as a couple. You need to work together to figure out what is best for the new family you are forming as a couple."

If you do have a combative relative, Cuenin recommends addressing the controversy openly. "Sit down and have a serious conversation about it. Explain to them, 'This is our life now, we really need your support'," he said. "If you talk in that mode, you can help them."

Lerner suggests diffusing fears by letting parents in on your process -- but not allowing control of it. She suggests ahead of the big day, parents weigh in on the ceremony plan and other reverent parts of the wedding. "It's really rare for the parents to have some major objection," Lerner said. "Bottom line is they love you and they want the best for you and that they want your wedding to be for you. Even if it's hard for them, they know that it's your life and they won't stop loving you and they won't do anything to make you upset on your wedding day."

Life after the "I dos"

But what about after the "I dos" are said and life as an interfaith married couple really begins? A majority of the experts consulted for this story said conflicts usually arise between couples when children are born.

A couple Cuenin consulted broke off their engagement because they couldn't make a decision about what tradition their child would be raised in. He said, "Interfaith weddings are challenging for long-term success because the more you have in common the easier it is."

But one way to work toward achieving long-term success in the parenting department, Lerner recommends, is to pick one tradition and stick with it in order to reap, among other things, the benefits of a religious community. She said, "If you are together on your decision, the kids will get that."

Cuenin also recommends making sure the child understands the parent's tradition they're not being raised in, as well. He said, "It'll teach them to be open-minded."

Getting perspective on your upcoming marriage

Looking ahead to your life in an interfaith marriage, a look back at how far interfaith marriage has come to be accepted may be a comfort. Cuenin recalled, "Years ago (interfaith marriage) was very, very rare. Now with the world the way it is, people travel, people move. It's the way the world is today. ... It's a change that people are just beginning to get used to... An interfaith couple...is really a sign of what God wants from this world. People of different faiths different cultures, different races can live together in harmony and peace."

  • Amanda Cochran

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