Shiena is an East Indian anesthesiology resident in New York City. Her parents want her to marry an Indian man for cultural and religious reasons. Instead, she’s been dating an Italian Catholic bodybuilder for the last two years. But since he’s not Hindu, she hasn’t yet told her parents about the relationship, even though the pair is practically inseparable. “Every slice narrows the pie. Education, race, religion—it’s a small pool,” she said.
For SWANS (Strong Women Achievers, No Spouse) finding a partner who shares their religious tradition sometimes seems like an unnecessary burden. There are so many other qualities to match up, successful men and women told me in the course of interviews for my book, Why Smart Men Marry Smart Women: Are you attracted to each other? Is there career compatibility? Does he make you laugh?
If faith is peripheral—relegated to Sunday Mass, high holy days or family celebrations—most high-achieving men and women say shared religion is a bonus, but rarely a necessity. Some 74% of single high-achieving women and 77% of high-achieving men said they would be open to marrying someone of a different faith.
What does this mean for young Catholics? According to the folks I spoke with, it means a lot of hard choices.
“It’s not easy being a Catholic in the New York City financial world,” said Andrew, a 30-year-old Jesuit-educated asset management executive. “I’m looking for a smart woman with a strong sense of family, the importance of education, and a good sense of humor. Being Catholic would be a plus, but it’s really difficult to find everything.”
Andrew’s list is in keeping with other national surveys of men’s and women’s preferences in romantic partners. “Similar religious background” is, on average, listed as #14 of 18 characteristics, with traits and qualities like “good financial prospect” and “neatness” ranking as more important than shared faith. And while high-achievers in my survey ranked shared religion slightly lower than the average person, all these studies point to the fact that interfaith marriage is something most young Americans at least consider.
Michele, a strong Christian, active in her church groups, made the decision to compromise shared faith for a shared life when she met Brad in her mid 30s. Her religious community tried to dissuade her from pursuing the relationship since Brad wasn’t a practicing Christian, but after a lot of prayer, she said she made her decision: “I didn’t want him to convert. That wasn’t the point. I was in love with him and who he was. And he didn’t want me to change, either: He swore that if I stopped participating in my religion, I wouldn’t be the same person, either. He’s been very supportive.”
Looking back after five years of marriage, Michele said it was the right decision. “I wanted to be happy, I wanted [the guys I dated] to be of the same religion because it’d be easier, and I wanted them to improve my life and not take anything away from it. It wasn’t a big checklist—it wasn’t that he had to be six-foot-two and blond or anything like that. As soon as I took out the religion thing, there’s a lot of men out there, but you’ve got to be available–emotionally available.”
Indeed, among married high-achievers in my study, 41% of high-achieving married men and 37% of married high-achieving women said they married someone who is of a different religious background or faith–slightly higher than the national rates of interfaith marriage.
love with him and
who he was. And he didn’t want me to change, either.”
Life of Pie
So why is shared faith so low down on the list of preferences we have in our mates? Shiena is correct: There’s only so many ways you can slice the pie. But it’s a good idea for Catholics to think hard before entering a serious relationship with someone of a different religion. It’s more than just attending Mass: Our religion is a belief system, a way of life. Our trust in God and the rules of the Church guide our everyday decisions.
When faith is a central, guiding force, it shapes and changes the dating life of high-achieving men and women—and creates added challenges for successful women who have delayed marriage as they pursue their career.
Mary, a 33-year-old evangelical Christian, ministers to single women in a small parish in Houston, TX and said that she chose to work with unmarried women in their 20s and 30s because she knows how it feels to be “fish out of water amid all these families in church.” Mary said she often meets with women who are anxious and frustrated by their marital status: “I tell them it’s about God’s plan for you: Your life is not a failure if you aren’t married. Don’t be paralyzed by this.”
Times of Disillusionment
In college, Mary earned a degree in dental hygiene because it was the “safe thing” to learn a useful trade. In her late 20s, she decided to pursue her master’s in theology, and by 30, she and six girlfriends—three doctors, a lawyer, a professor and an accountant—were meeting regularly to support each other as they struggled to keep their faith strong as single, educated Christian women.
“All of my girlfriends have advanced degrees, and we weren’t meeting guys who were interested in us in our 20s. There were times of disillusionment, but we were just praying for God to work. And now, just a few years later, out of the seven of us in my original group, all but two are married.”
Mary said she and her girlfriends bonded over their frustrations. “Well-meaning people around us would tell us we were intimidating to men. We just didn’t think that was the case. What bonded us was a spiritual perspective—we were just going to continue to do what we were called to do.”
Now, she said she knows that remaining single until 33 was God’s plan for her. “Having been single and not getting married until my 30s gives me a voice with women. I gain a hearing with these girls because I was single for as long as I was.”
I’d love to hear your thoughts on the challenges and benefits of your faith in the dating world—and other aspects of my book, Why Smart Men Marry Smart Women (available for sale in the BustedHalo store).