In my years of research on and work with Jewish-Gentile couples and the unique challenges they face, I never thought I’d have to ask, “What are your relational challenges during a pandemic?”
At the onset of COVID-19 in early 2020, the world was naively optimistic and then reactionarily pessimistic. Many thought (or wished) we’d only be driven inside for a matter of days. That hope soon became unrealistic. And as those days stretched to months on end, many then shifted to pessimistic doomsday predictions of crumbling institutions and toilet paper shortage. Near the top of that dismal list: the demise of marriage.
Media outlets stoked those expectations. Op-ed stories speculated that relationships would deteriorate from pressures related to job losses, school closures, shut-in orders, and a pervading fog of uncertainty. In August, The Daily Mail reported, “Divorce rates in America soar by 34% during the COVID-19 pandemic.” As a relationship coach to interfaith couples that already face a lot of challenges, these headlines worried me.
In the United States, researchers are just beginning to understand some sociological impacts from the COVID-19 virus. Unsurprising, there were less weddings (though maybe not as few as you think). In 2019, there were over two million marriages in the United States, and in 2020, that number dropped by 16%.1
Surprisingly, data from the Bowling Green Study also showed a remarkable decline in U.S. divorces. During the COVID-affected months of 2020, they estimated a 20% decline from 2019, a drop off of about 192,000 divorces.
Of course, some may argue the decline is partially attributed to delayed ability to file for divorce. But The Institute for Family Studies at the American Enterprise Institute2 reported two positive insights that go beyond the numbers. First, according to an American Family Survey, 58% of married men and women, between the ages of 18 and 55 said that they came to appreciate their spouse even more during the pandemic.3 Second, more than half of all husbands and wives said their commitment to marriage was deepened through the pandemic hardships.
These findings were unexpectedly good news–especially to me. In my decades of work with Jewish-Gentile couples, I’ve seen firsthand the disproportionate amount of relationship challenges they face–and that’s without a pandemic; in fact, Jewish-Gentile couples experience divorce or dissatisfaction at almost twice the rate of in-married Jewish couples.4
Family relationships are such an important aspect of any relationship, but for interfaith couples, they can add another level of complication. There’s pressure to navigate multi-cultural traditions, family obligations, personal preferences, intentions of making memories for children, and promoting healthy family relationships.
Social distancing restrictions complicates that. Holidays like Passover, Hanukkah, Christmas, and Easter, or lifecycle events like weddings, brises, memorials, and graduations look completely different, and can prompt emotionally-taxing decisions about balancing safety with celebration. Couples have to decide who to interact with or isolate from. Because of age or location, this can mean a couple only interacts with one partner’s family.
In their own relationship, interfaith couples can struggle to find harmony. Right now, as work and home blur together for many of us and our social circles tighten, there’s a greater yearning for ritual, helpful habits, and celebration to help break up the monotony. Finding ways to accomplish this in a way that honors the cultures of both partners can be a challenge.
I would have assumed (and many predicted), that being confined indoors, isolated from friends and family, and grappling with the difficulties caused by COVID would only serve to exacerbate the problem and drive that wedge deeper. But that didn’t happen. When faced with the pressures of a pandemic, interfaith couples have shown resilience and renewed dedication to working through their cultural differences.
I got to witness some of that resilience firsthand when I met Nina, a 69 year old Jewish divorcee who teaches children with disabilities. She had signed up for an online dating website and matched with Roger, 82. Right away, she found out he was a Gentile Christian. That signaled a huge cross-cultural barrier for her, and she was really disappointed. Nina told him, “I’m Jewish. I can’t be with you because you’re a Christian.” She wasn’t expecting Roger’s response: “I’ve always loved the Jewish people, because God has loved them so much!”
Nina had been spiritually longing for God, and his answer intrigued her. She and Roger began dating, and after several months, Nina decided that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah–and that she and Roger belonged together. They contacted me to help marry them in a ceremony that was both inter-culturally and spiritually significant, and safe amidst the pandemic.
A couple months ago, I got to marry them in a tiny ceremony under a cupola, with the Pacific Ocean as backdrop. Some people strolling past paused at the sound of Hebrew benedictions and Scripture readings from both the Torah and New Testament. And when Roger broke the ceremonial glass to punctuate the event, we sang “Mazal Tov” as the couple literally danced out into the afternoon sun. In that moment, I witnessed their resilience. They radiated joy in defiance of gloom, in the face of challenges, and against all odds.
Now, in the face of massive social upheaval, I’m more confident than ever. I know we can grow in our understanding of, appreciation for, and dedication to one another, whether with our partners, parents, children, friends, coworkers, or in our Jewish-Gentile relationships. The sentiment, “We can all get through this together,” can translate into something tangible that defies even the most dismal of projections.
Tuvya Zaretsky helps Jewish-Gentile couples navigate their unique challenges. If you’re looking for cross-cultural counseling to help you understand your partner and the challenges within your interfaith couple experience, email firstname.lastname@example.org, visit their website at www.JewishGentileCouples.com, and follow Jewish Gentile Couples on Facebook and Instagram.
1. Ben Steverman, “Divorces and Marriages Tumbled in U. S. During Covid, study shows“, January 5, 2021 Bloomberg.com News.
3. Ibid, from Desert News/ Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy
4. A. Claymar, “Interfaith Marriage: Defining the Issue, Treating the Problems.” Psychotherapy in Private Practice 9:2 (1991): 79-83. S.C. Eaton, “Marriage Between Jews and non-Jews: Counseling Implications.” Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development 22:4 (1994): 210–214.