Managing conflict through dialogue: 4 interfaith/intercultural couples share their stories

Interfaith and intercultural relationships can bring individuals and different families and communities together. However, there is sometimes the potential for conflict when navigating difference.

There is also the risk of potential social isolation from either or both of the couple’s communities, and of wider conflict within families.

This is often brought about by fear of difference, notions of “dishonour” and anxieties around loss of cultural or religious heritage. In some communities, marrying outside one’s faith can be a real taboo.

However, despite the challenges, interfaith and intercultural relationships are becoming more common in England and Wales.

In 90% of cases of interfaith marriage, one spouse is Christian. With matches not involving a Christian partner however, cases of mixed marriage have stayed relatively the same across generations – except amongst “well educated” religious minorities where cases have halved.

Research on the topic has shown that mixed marriage is more common for:

  • Particular ethnic groups (especially Arabs)
  • People born outside the UK
  • Younger generations
  • People with higher levels of education

Over the pond in the USA, similar trends appear. In fact, 7 out of every 10 people marry someone from the same faith tradition. However, in comparison to previous generations, marrying someone of the same faith background seems to be less important than it was several decades ago.

Likewise, with intercultural relationships, nearly 1 in 10 people (9%, 2.3 million people) in the last census in England and Wales who were living together as a couple were in an inter-ethnic relationship.

This marked an increase from 7% in the previous census 10 years before. Research found that people of mixed ethnic heritage were the most likely (85% of cases) to be in an inter-ethnic relationship.

In the USA, intercultural marriage is also increasing, where data from 2015 revealed that 10% of all married people (11 million) are in an interethnic relationship.

So, given the place of such relationships, and the potential for conflict, how can we manage conflict and diversity in interfaith and intercultural relationships?

Dialogue: preventing and mediating conflict

Dialogue is a powerful tool to overcome conflict. But what exactly is it?

Two monologues do not make a dialogue.” (Jeff Daly)

Never a truer word said!

Dialogue isn’t simply “talking” or listening to simply speak your turn.

It’s instead a collaborative, introspective process where two or more people communicate their interests, needs and feelings in a safe space and actively, empathetically and compassionately listen to “the other” (KAICIID, 2022). 

In this safe space, people are free to air assumptions and views, as they try to break down misconceptions, stereotypes and assumptions to understand the other person(s) (KAICIID, 2022).

Through active compassionate listening we can break down assumptions, clarify misconceptions and understanding to build a sense of unity and work towards a common understanding and find new solutions to existing problems/conflict (KAICIID, 2022).

As such, dialogue is most definitely not:

  • Debate: we’re not here to “convince” the other person of our view
  • Advocacy: we’re not here to push a certain agenda but to share experiences and build solutions
  • Negotiation: whilst compromise is almost inevitable, the views of all participants are respected and needs of everyone taken into account – it’s the process that builds the outcome

Rather than debating a point, advocating for a specific agenda, dialogue instead promotes a culture of:

  • Respecting difference and celebrating diversity
  • Coexistence, cooperation and understanding
  • Empathy, cooperation and engagement
  • Respect, open communication and acknowledging/accepting different views

Dialogue is therefore a powerful means to build relationships, raise awareness and understanding of problems and resolve conflict.

Source: KAICIID (2022) “Interreligious Dialogue Resource Guide”, International Fellows Programme

For interfaith and intercultural couples, dialogue can critically:

  • Highlight and address any stigma faced as a couple
  • Navigate conflict and manage difference in a relationship, family and wider community
  • Teach the importance of respecting diversity and dialogue as a means of open, transparent communication

When sharing diverse traditions together, dialogue helps to therefore create harmonious hybrid spaces.

To look at dialogue in action, we reached out to various couples and looked at their experiences of navigating conflict and managing difference based on their different religious/cultural affiliations in their relationship, family and wider community through dialogue.

Here’s what they had to say!

George and Amanda: dialoguing through shared experience

George and Amanda live in Leicestershire (UK). George belongs to the Bahá’í faith and is Scottish. Amanda is atheist and English.

The couple have been married for four years and both have children from previous marriages.

Summary of findings:

Respect, curiosity and understanding enable dialogue and prevent conflict

Shared experiences enhance understanding and provide opportunities for dialogue.

Bahá’ís for example are committed to interfaith work, so George and Amanda attend many events hosted by other faith communities and dialogue about their experiences as a couple of mixed faith background together

Gender segregation (not a Bahá’í practice) poses barriers for dialogue

In this case, the barrier was faced by a mixed-sex couple. Not being able to sit together at external events can mean that experiences and avenues for dialogue are restricted

Discovering shared values – not necessarily theological – is important as it allows for greater understanding and bonding

For example, whilst Amanda’s atheist position means she doesn’t buy into the theological aspects of the Bahá’í faith, she’s aligned with the majority of the social teachings and so Amanda and George have discovered they have a lot in common

Dialogue isn’t about trying to “convince” the other person of one’s beliefs

Proselytising is not a value of shared dialogue. As Bahá’ís are expressly forbidden in their own teachings to try and “convert” anyone, Amanda is comfortable taking part in many Bahá’í activities and events without feeling any pressure to change her views and beliefs.

George likewise doesn’t feel under pressure to try and make Amanda conform to what he believes or practices. This allows for genuine learning and respect of diversity

We mustn’t assume that interfaith relationships are more difficult to manage than intercultural ones

Each experience, sense of identity and relationship is unique!

George and Amanda feel that there’s sometimes more difference in being a Scottish-English couple than a couple of mixed faith background.

We should not assume anything!

Thao and Martin: building understanding through dialogue

Thao and Martin live in Stoke-on-Trent (UK). Thao is Vietnamese and Buddhist, whilst Martin is English and an agnostic/atheist.

The couple have been together for five years and both have children from previous relationships.

Summary of findings:

Dialogue is useful for overcoming language and cultural barriers and building understanding

This can range from everyday habits around food to religious practices, behaviours and norms. The understanding developed through such dialogue allows for respect and sensitivity of the other’s needs, thoughts and behaviours when helps prevent and overcome conflict.

With Thao and Martin for example, dialogue has helped them to understand each other’s diverse food tastes (including the contested issue of eating dog meat)

Understanding and respect through dialogue helps couples come to mutual agreements

This in term helps to create/determine safe hybrid spaces where both people in the relationship are free to live their religious beliefs and maintain cultural practices.

For example, Thao is happy with the Buddhist altar in her home and Martin understands the practices around respecting this sacred space.

When it comes to a range of topics such as faith and food, dialogue is also crucial in allowing couples to navigate the identities, needs and roles of blended families and the diverse identities of their children (including stepchildren in the case of Thao and Martin)

The role of dialogue is never complete

A relationship requires ongoing learning and discovery together.

Acknowledging that as a couple, dialogue as ongoing practice is healthy and necessary – as Thao and Martin have done – has enabled the couple to continue their dialogue journey together, to not only resolve but crucially prevent future conflict

A little bit of humour can go a long way!

Whether dealing with heavy complex issues or more lighthearted themes that both require practical navigation, humour allows a couple to lighten the mood, reflect and focus on the role of dialogue – to resolve and prevent conflict – and not to argue.

Dialogue is a healthy way to address conflict, arguing is not.

Humour allows a couple to calm a situation before it heads towards an argument and allow both people time to pause and reflect  

Karen and Martin: agreeing to disagree

Karen and Martin live in London (UK). Karen is British-Jewish and Martin is British-Christian (Anglican).

The couple have been married for 31 years and have two adult sons.

Summary of findings:

Dialogue isn’t about ending up with the same views!

It’s productive and healthy to agree to disagree.

In the case of Karen and Martin, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one area where (through dialogue) they have “agreed to disagree”. This prevents conflict around a complex issue and enables the couple to instead focus on their daily lives together.

No two people can ever agree on everything and so by dialoguing and coming to an agreement to “disagree” after understanding the other person, a couple can resolve conflict. Understanding the other is key, not agreeing!

Again: a little humour goes a long way to diffuse conflict

Not only does humour lighten the mood, it also enables the couple time to pause and reflect.

This enables them to know when/how to engage/disengage to manage conflict, for example making a light-hearted joke can clear the air and allow the couple to move on, whilst in other cases ongoing dialogue may be required if there is still a lack of understanding between the two.

More widely, Karen and Martin have found this useful when dealing with outside criticism/prejudice.

Knowing yourself can provide a confidence of self which enables you to know your identity, feelings and views

Such self-awareness in turn aids dialogue – not just as a couple, but also when engaging with friends and family.

Potential conflict arose from members of the family/wider community in the case of Karen and Martin, knew their beliefs, wants and needs as a pair, the couple can dialogue as a united unit with their families to prevent and resolve conflict

Don’t assume that the potential for conflict will be within the couple itself

Family and wider communities may also have views which can benefit from dialogue to prevent, diffuse and resolve conflict.

Karen and Martin found that most of the issues around their mixed faith relationship were related to people outside of the direct relationship.

It’s therefore important to consider where and who with dialogue is needed as a mixed couple outside, not just within, the relationship itself

Alec and Aron: managing attitudes to intersectional diversity

Aron and Alec have been together for over six years and live in London. Both originally Polish, Alec is Polish-American and Jewish and comes from an interfaith family. Aron comes from a Christian (Catholic) family and is non-practicing.

The couple met in Poland while studying and moved to the UK together in 2018. 

Summary of findings:

Dialogue is not a static linear process

Dialogue is important throughout a relationship as it can help navigate change as peoples’ practices and identities change over time.

For example, as Alec started to observe a tech-free Shabbat, dialogue between Alec and Aron enabled them to navigate how they would approach weekends at home. Aron learnt to appreciate the meaning of Shabbat for Alec and both Alec and Aron are able to enjoy tech/tech-free activities in line with their beliefs – creating new memories and spaces in their home and as a couple.

Dialogue must be inclusive and recognise intersectionality

Same-sex interfaith couples face multiple challenges which need to be understood holistically in dialogue with faith and cultural communities.

Whilst Alec and Aron haven’t faced huge amounts of stigma as a couple, they have navigated different challenges such as observing Shabbat and attending (Christian) weddings on a Saturday and Alec being excluded from attending weddings due to the fact that they’re a same sex couple.

These are two very different challenges and as such their experience needs to be recognised as a multi-faceted one, and approached accordingly.   

Dialogue is critical in addressing anticipated (not simply existing) conflict and barriers

The time for dialogue isn’t (just) when there’s conflict!

In fact, by engaging in dialogue beforehand, couples can prevent conflict, particularly when facing multiple challenges such as stigma and exclusion as both a same-sex and interfaith couple.

As Alec and Aron wish to marry, they have identified the important role of dialogue and how this will enable them to communicate with faith leaders and hopefully find the community for them when the time comes to marry.

This will enable clear communication and hopefully save time and eliminate potential sources of discrimination as early on as possible.

Dialogue is a bonding process

By engaging in dialogue together, couples learn to appreciate their partners’ beliefs and experiences. By then sharing these experiences together, mixed couples can grow together, as they share new memories and appreciate their partners beliefs.

Both Alec and Aron have learnt about each other’s beliefs and traditions through dialogue – including shared experiences – which has enabled them to understand each other better.

This has brought them close together as a couple and enabled them to create their own mixed sacred “home” together.

Getting started: dialogue “do”s and “don’t”s

Remember: dialogue isn’t always easy but it’s a powerful tool.

To start, here are 10 key principles to guide you through the process:

1. Establish a safe space: ensure people feel “safe” to express their views. A safe space is where difference is appreciated, confidentiality is key and there is a moderator present to guide the conversation if required

2. Agree the main purpose is to learn: dialogue isn’t about debating or “convincing” the other person about your views, it’s about learning about “the other”

3. Use appropriate communication skills: speak clearly and politely and do not interrupt or dominate the conversation!

4. Set ground rules: establish what the red lines are and stick to the rules – this will avoid stepping into what’s known as the “danger zone” and provide consistency

5. Take risks: be honest, express your feelings, share your personal experiences (remember: you speak only for yourself) and confront perceptions

6. Remember that the relationship comes first: whatever happens remember that the aim of the dialogue process is to build understanding and cohesive relationships

7. Do not avoid difficult issues: the further you go, the more you’ll achieve. Aim for sustainable change – which is never easy but well worth the time and effort!

8. Gradually address the difficult questions and gradually depart from them: address challenging issues step-by-step to ease into the issue. Likewise, do not dwell on them

9. Expect to be changed: through empathetic listening you’ll learn about others’ views and experiences. Don’t come to the dialogue with generalisations about identity and be open to change

10. Bring the change to others: live the change you see, take on board what you’ve learnt to promote unity and peace!

Source: KAICIID (2022) “Interreligious Dialogue Resource Guide”, International Fellows Programme

Through dialogue, interfaith and interfaith unity is possible. So, why not give it a go!

As so beautifully said: “The shining spark of truth cometh forth only after the clash of differing opinions” (‘Abdu’l-Bahá).

Credits and thanks:

KAICIID (2022) “Interreligious Dialogue Resource Guide”, International Fellows Programme

Thank you to all participating couples, the KAICIID team and to Matthew Pointon.

This article has been supported for publication as a part of the KAICIID Fellows Programme, which aims to provide opportunities for individuals to engage in research and scholarship in interreligious dialogue and related areas as part of their professional development and learning. The work undertaken has been conducted by external actors.

The views, opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in the article are strictly those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the International Dialogue Centre (KAICIID) or its Member States.

The International Dialogue Centre (KAICIID) does not guarantee the accuracy of the data included in this article neither the International Dialogue Centre (KAICIID) nor its Member States will accept any liability in connection with these data.

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