Resolve Conflict by Changing Perspective

Dear Dr. Hurd,

My sister is a Catholic. Several years ago she married a wonderful man who happens to be Jewish. I don’t think I’ve ever known a happier couple—until now. She is pregnant, and they’ve started to argue constantly and vehemently over the religion of their child. I really do fear for the future of their relationship. Is there anything I can say to either of them?

Dear Reader,

It’s surprising that an issue this volatile wasn’t resolved beforehand—but, for whatever reason, it apparently wasn’t. Now we have to look for some solutions.

First, your sister and her husband need to take a time out. Call it a verbal ‘cease-fire’ or whatever, but it needs to stop immediately. They’re not enemies. Though they may feel very deeply that they’re major adversaries (ideology can do that to people), they’re not. They have the same interests, and the sooner they accept this fact the sooner they can get on with resolving the matter.

This cease-fire is really up to them. You can’t orchestrate or mediate it, especially as a family member. A professional might be able to help them, but whether they go this route or not, they both have to be willing to put specific arguments aside and start from scratch. A few days or weeks NOT discussing the subject will probably help. If they make it through that, they’re halfway there.

Step two is to reframe the conflict; in other words, to look at it from a different perspective. The issue is really one of values. People who subscribe to a religion do so because they believe in a certain set of values. So the question for your sister and husband to ask each other—and themselves—is, ‘What values do we have in common?’ I’m not an expert in Judaism or Catholicism, but I’ll bet they have some key values in common. One of them is probably honesty. Another might be keeping your word. Still another might involve respecting the property of others. I also hope that somewhere within that shared value system is productivity and self-responsibility.

The point is that they certainly have many values in common, so they can start with what they agree on. Do they disagree on what rituals to take part in? Maybe so. They can get to that later. But if the fighting is ever to stop, they have to first spend time on points of agreement. Otherwise there’s no motivation for resolving anything else.

Where a lot of people go astray in these situations is how they frame the conflict. If they frame it as, ‘Do we raise little Suzie or Donny as a Catholic or as a Jew?’, they’re doomed to disaster. On the other hand, if they frame it as ‘What values do we share in common?’, then there’s some hope for resolution. Forget rituals and family pressure. For the good of their children they must concentrate on the values they want them to adopt. They can then reach common ground by asking themselves what each of these religions has to offer—in terms of schools, traditions, or whatever—to help them achieve these values.

On the surface, it might seem that it would have been better if your sister and her husband agreed on choice of religion. I’m not so sure. If both parents were the same religion, they might not sufficiently think through the issue of values. It’s important, with or without religion, to be aware of what principles you hold, and why. It’s not healthy to depend on any institution or anyone else to do your thinking for you. You can select whomever or whatever you consider important to guide your thinking, but you still have to come to your own conclusions—especially when taking on the responsibility of raising a child. So, a little conflict for your sister and brother-in-law might actually be good, provided they manage that conflict, and the resulting dialogue, in a healthy and rational way.

We have to be realistic here. More than ever, young people today are deciding for themselves what they think of matters such as religion. By the time the child your sister and her husband are fighting over turns eighteen (and maybe even sooner than that), he or she might have formed conclusions that are at direct odds with what was taught. So is all this torment worth the destruction of their existing relationship?

Teaching a child a certain set of values, whether under organized religion or not, is no guarantee of anything. Does this suggest that a parent shouldn’t even try? Of course not. Communicating quality values (AND practicing them) is one of the most important responsibilities a parent will ever have. But if anyone believes that raising a child Catholic, Jewish or anything else guarantees lifetime adherence to that exact point of view, they’re sadly mistaken.

Reason must triumph over ideology. In other words, if your future niece or nephew grows up in an atmosphere of conflict over religion, you can be certain that he or she will have little or no regard for that religion. And what’s really sad is that some valuable principles and ideas—honesty, integrity, respect for self and others—can be overlooked in the process. Is fighting over religion worth that price?