Religion and Other Differences

This column of mine was published in 2004 in the “San Jose Mercury News” about religion and other differences in couples. I wanted to share it with our readers since it addresses a topic that's very important for many couples this time of year: partners of different religious faiths. If this isn't an issue in your relationship, I'd encourage you to consider other areas where you and your spouse have different beliefs and expectations during the holidays: Spending, entertaining, eating and drinking, visiting relatives? Surely there are some areas of difference, and these are opportunities to practice a new level of communication and understanding.

Q:  My husband and I are different religions (Jewish and Episcopalian) and we always have trouble at the holidays deciding what to do. He wants to do the Christmas thing and go to midnight mass, but I don't want to go, although I don't mind the tree and other traditions we have at home. This year one of our teen-age kids wants to go to church and the other doesn't, which is OK with us, except recently I read it's not good to have the family split over their family traditions. How can we make this work?

A: You may not realize it, but the entire family has the potential for creating an exceptional gift this holiday. It is the gift of communication, understanding, and —acceptance. The tension you experience is about values and spiritual beliefs. If any problem called for a family discussion, this is it.

Your greatest gift will be in the form of how you have the discussion. This may actually be more important than what the conclusions are. Your children are now old enough to engage in a family dialogue with you each want to do, why you want to do it and how important it is.

Everyone's mission during the discussion is to be 1) curious, 2) open-minded, and 3) non-defensive. That's not easy, so you might want to write down those three words to keep in front of you as a reminder. If all of you stay curious, open minded, and non-defensive during the discussion(s) you have the possibility of creating a solution that can work for everyone. Here's what you do after everyone believes they have fully expressed their values and concerns and it's time to make some decisions.

Make your suggestion in this format. “What I suggest is — and this suggestion works for me because — and it could (not should) work for others because —.” By including “why the suggestion works for me” this formula keeps each person from caving in too quickly to keep the peace. By including why “it could work for others,” the formula ensures that others' needs are also considered. Be sure to focus on why it could work for them. It's a big mistake to tell someone else why it should work for them.

This approach is harder than “laying down the law” and telling everyone what to do. The upside is developing a more thoughtful method to clarifying your own beliefs while understanding each other's.

The principle about “not having the family split over family traditions” sounds good in theory but doesn't take into account differences of values and how to discuss them. You have a chance to create an important family tradition this holiday-the tradition of great communication on sensitive topics. It's a tradition that can be called upon in other situations and grows more valuable each passing year.

You sound like you have started the groundwork for these kinds of discussions. I am encouraging you to develop them even more.

Happy holidays and good luck.

Until next time,
Dr. Peter Pearson

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Peter Pearson, Ph.D.

Dr. Peter Pearson, Ph.D., Relationship & Teamwork Expert for Entrepreneur Couples Pete has been training and coaching couples to become a strong team since 1984 when he co-founded The Couples Institute with his psychologist wife, Dr. Ellyn Bader. Their popular book, “Tell Me No Lies,” is about being honest with compassion and growing stronger as a couple. Pete has been featured on over 50 radio and television programs including “The Today Show,” "Good Morning America,” and "CBS Early Morning News,” and quoted in major publications including “The New York Times,” “Oprah Magazine,” “Redbook,” “Cosmopolitan,” and “Business Insider.”

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