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(p. 742) Psychotherapy with Interfaith Couples 

(p. 742) Psychotherapy with Interfaith Couples
(p. 742) Psychotherapy with Interfaith Couples

Susan S. Needles

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Subscriber: null; date: 20 September 2017

I am a graduate of Smith College School for Social Work and am a licensed clinical social worker. For more than 20 years I worked therapeutically in mental health agencies, eventually developing a small private practice. I trained in an analytic institute and finished that course of study after four years.

The Niche Practice Activity

Interfaith couples counseling is a complex undertaking that involves two people falling in love who come from different worlds. They may be from the same country, or not. They may share a common language. They do not share the same religion. They do not share the same ethnicity. What they share are feelings of love and strong attachments for each other. But given their differences, it is within this multiplicity of universes that we must struggle to find a way to bridge the gaps for them to develop a lasting and trusting bond with each other.

I live and work in New York City. For many years I have had a part-time practice while I have had another job. My interfaith couples niche practice has been in my apartment across the street from Lincoln Center. This location is central for patients and large enough for me to have group meetings. I have sometimes been contacted by couples from distant cities. To work together we have used the telephone and Internet-based communications. If I were to work long term with one of these distant couples I would arrange to see them in person at some point during the treatment. It was not difficult to convince a couple to make a trip to New York City.

The history of my niche practice began when I was the director of a large mental health clinic in East Harlem, where there were many Spanish-speaking patients. I hired a psychologist from (p. 743) Argentina to work with some of our monolingual population. He features in my finding my way to my niche practice of working with interfaith couples, predominately Christian and Jewish. I was unaware of the fact that he was at the time studying to be a rabbi. He was working with interfaith couples in his training (as a rabbi) and suggested that I could do this kind of work too (and, he thought, better than he could as I would be “more neutral”).

He asked if I would be interested. I was very enthusiastic and said I would love to do the work. I had become fascinated by the topic of identity. I would listen to our patients in the waiting room have lively discussions (all in Spanish) about where they were from (many different countries in Latin America).

Developing an Interest and Training in this Niche Activity

The introduction made by Marcelo, the psychologist, was to the Union of Hebrew Congregations. That organization was for the most liberal arm of Judaism, Reform Judaism. They were developing a program of “outreach to interfaith couples” and I became the person who did the couple workshops for them. I had a brief training in the issues by a woman who was a cantor and herself a convert to Judaism. She had some knowledge of the issues and I was given some workbooks. I think more than anything, though, I learned from the couples themselves.

I ran groups for this organization for six or eight weeks and we had on average four or five couples participate. In addition, once the groups were over, couples sometimes sought me out for therapy—individual and/or couple therapy. I was paid my fee or I billed their insurance company when feasible. Most of the time this form of couple therapy is not reimbursable as neither person is being treated for a psychiatric disorder.

It is entirely possible to build this niche program through religious institutions—synagogues, churches, mosques. Couples themselves can lead you to their institutions. They are very eager to resolve their issues so they can move on with their lives. It might be necessary to involve the extended family. I have found with Indian families that even though they have the same religion, they may have different degrees of religiosity, which can cause a great deal of conflict.

Joys and Challenges Related to this Niche Activity

What is satisfying about this work is that you are working with people who are in love and eager to engage and work out their conflicts. On the other hand, when they can’t, it is heartbreaking. The groups are very dynamic and each one is different. At the outset of a group, I would never know how it would develop—which members would aid the process of reconciliation and which ones would hinder it. That took a few sessions to realize, so there was some suspense. In a way, I began to (p. 744) understand that I needed to accept liking the riskiness of the process or the adventure of it. It can, however, be challenging to find the time to meet with eight or ten busy young people in a group for a period of many weeks.

Business Aspects of this Niche Practice

My interfaith couples practice occupied a small portion of my total practice; in its most active times it represented about 25%, with the remainder of my time spent providing general mental health treatment services to adults and children. When I did workshops I was paid a lump sum. These usually generated more work because some of those group members wanted to see me about other issues. They paid me out of pocket or their insurance was billed.

It could very well be in the future that this service will be marketed as a premarriage workshop through clergy. For example, Roman Catholics require the Pre-Cana. In fact, I have attested for those couples who had to go to Pre-Cana as this was considered equivalent. In this case fees are paid directly by the participating couples.

Developing the Niche Activity into a Practice Strategy

I believe there is a growing population for this kind of work and therefore a need for it. The population may have different names: Instead of Jewish/Christian it may be Muslim/Christian or Hindu/Christian.

As long as the population shifts and young people meet and fall in love, especially in urban centers, there will be a great need for them to find a way to understand each other. They will also require extra assistance in creating a way for their less open and more rigid extended families to accept their choices. Therapists who undertake this work must know a great deal about different cultures and how to tread carefully.

When I began my niche activity I contacted religious leaders and social institutions such as community centers to get my name out. I wrote a brochure that explained what I did. I volunteered to speak at community meetings. Once there was an Internet I developed a website. These are all ways to build your practice; as well as speaking at local professional organizations. Many social workers (themselves interfaith) have said they wanted to do this work when I presented my work. I replied that they should; it is amazing how folks want to do this but don’t.

(p. 745) For More Information

The following websites provide useful information:!resources/; (Chicago area); and (Washington, DC area).


Cotner, J. (2003). Wedding blessings: Prayers and poems celebrating love, marriage and anniversaries. New York: Broadway Books.Find this resource:

    Gruzen, L. F. (1987). Raising your Jewish/Christian child: How interfaith parents can give their children the best of both their heritages. New York: New Market Press.Find this resource:

      Mayer, E. (1985). Love & tradition: Marriage between Jews and Christians. New York: Springer.Find this resource:

      McGoldrick, M., Giordano, J., & Garcia-Petro, N. (2005). Ethnicity and family therapy. New York: Guilford Press.Find this resource:

        Miller, S. K. (2013). Being both: Embracing two religions in one interfaith family. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.Find this resource:

          Petsonk, J., & Remsen, J. (1988). The intermarriage handbook: A guide for Jews and Christians. New York: William Morrow.Find this resource:

            Rosenbaum, M. H., & Rosenbaum, S. N. (1994). Celebrating our differences: Living two faiths in one marriage. Shippensburg, PA: Ragged Edge Press. (p. 746) Find this resource: