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A Zen Look at Dating & Religious Beliefs

Susan Dunn, MA -- You're dating and your religious beliefs are different. How much difference does this make?

The answer is: Another person's religious beliefs are important to you to the degree they're important to you. This may sound like begging the question, but it's an important thing to "get."

Assuming you're looking for marriage, you need to make a "must have" and "can't stand" list. If certain religious beliefs go into either group, pay attention to them, because you won't be happy if they aren't there (or are and shouldn't be) and the relationship won't work in the long run.

Begging the question is what Zen is all about. The koan can mean you're asking a question no one knows the answer to, or that you don't need an answer to, or you know the answer as well as anyone, you just don't know it by reason (which is limited).

In the case of religious beliefs, the emotionally intelligent thing to do is to figure out what you want (work with a coach for clarity; it's worth it) and then experience the person.

Word your religious "must haves" and "can't stands" precisely. Do you mean adherence to a certain set of principals as espoused by a certain faith, such as being Methodist, or Buddhist? Do you need someone to agree with every word you say about it?

Or do you believe in certain spiritual principals which could be compatible with various faiths?

Does it matter to you more how the person argues their faith verbally, or how they live it in their daily actions and behaviors? Some people live in a way that's very compatible with certain faiths, though they may not officially belong to any religious organization.

Some religions require only faith; others require certain actions. Apply your emotional intelligence competencies as you date.

1. ZEN: "A tree that is unbending is easily broken." -- Lao Tzu
EQ Compet: Flexibility.

Use all your brains. You must feel how you feel around this person (see point number 2) and also think about what it is you're after at the deepest and broadest level so that you can have the flexibility to deal with another imperfect, not entirely predictable human being.

2. ZEN: "Only the supremely wise and the abysmally ignorant do not change." -- Confucius
EQ COMPETENCY: Understanding of people.

You have to allow for the fact that the individual may change. Few people make extreme changes in their core being and basic operating principals, but many of us make changes and adjustments in behaviors and thoughts. Get to know the person well enough so you have a sense of their core.

For example: If the person you're dating has murdered someone, I wouldn't stick around. If they were once an addict, have been in recovery for 20 years, and made sufficient personality changes, give it a guarded go. If they once kicked a dog and still talk about it with remorse, full speed ahead. (For more on this "how much baggage to accept on the midlife dating flight," read "Midlife Dating Manual for Women".

3. ZEN: "If you are too excited by joy, later you will have to cry." -- Tibetan saying.
EQ COMPETENCY: Reality-testing.

Roughly translated this means that it's best to go slow and find a person with a modulated response to you. Don't get so excited you aren't paying attention. Even soul-mates may disagree on how to load the dishwasher. How can you expect exact alignment in the articulation of a religious belief? Therefore, number 4.

4. ZEN: "We think in generalities but we live in detail." -- Alfred North Whitehead
EQ COMPETENCY: Impulse control

Take the time to get to know the person in little and daily ways. Someone can talk one way and act another. They can say they don't believe in abusing animals (or anything else) and still do it. Only time will tell.

5. ZEN: "Think with the whole body." -- Taisen Deshimaru

Oddly enough, thinking with the whole body is what intuition is about. The quickest and surest way to know whether it's a fit is to use your intuition (gut feeling, instincts). How do you know your gut feeling? From your gut! Your body sends you physiological messages.

Can you completely relax with this person? If so, there is deep trust, the foundation of lasting relationships.

Has your health deteriorated since dating them? If so, and there's no obvious physical cause, move on. Tricky because dating raises stress levels, which affect our immune system, which IS our health. Give it time. There's EUstress and there's DIStress. Know the difference. Work with a certified EQ coach.

6. ZEN: "We do not want churches because they will teach us to quarrel about God." -- Chief Joseph
EQ COMPETENCY: Constructive discontent.

When there are disagreements, figure out what you're really arguing about. If it's just semantics, it's just semantics.

It was in vogue, for instance, in the Renaissance to debate how many angels would fit on the head of a pin. This is hardly likely to play itself out in how the person lives their life. It's an intellectual exercise.

7. ZEN: "A mind all logic is like a knife all blade. It makes the hand bleed that uses it." -- Rabindranath Tagore
EQ COMPETENCY: Integrated self.

The interface between intellect and emotions.

Someone who engages in intellectual repartee about matters of the heart hasn't got it together, and you don't need to get-together with them. Wouldn't you rather be loved than understood, if it came to that (and it will)?

8. ZEN: "Beware, as they say, of mistaking the finger for the moon when you're pointing at it." -- John Cage
EQ COMPETENCY: Intentionality.

Date the person long enough to determine that when they talk about their religious beliefs, they have intention to follow them. In other words, they're not just repeating something they memorized, or just saying what they think you want to hear. Someone deeply in that delicious falling-in-love stage will do this. Haven't you? That's why we take our time.

9. ZEN: "The first sign of your becoming religious is that you are becoming cheerful." -- Swami Vivekananda
EQ COMPETENCY: Positive attitude, optimism.

IF you believe this is the test of "being religious," then Swami Vivekananda is the man for you. If you prefer a person with a positive attitude, as I do, and it comes with religious belief, better yet. (Studies show marriages are happiest when the number of positive comments about self, other, and relationship is 3x the number of negative comments.)

10. ZEN: "When a dog runs at you, whistle for him." -- Henry David Thoreau
EQ COMPETENCY: Common sense! When it feels right and good, go for it!

Ultimately it's difficult to live with someone who doesn't have your same values and priorities. SHAWNA discovered this when dating a man outside her faith. He loved her and was willing to convert, attending classes and services with her. She was troubled that even so, he didn't "believe" what she did. Growing up with a certain faith engrains it at a level that can rarely be approached when it's learned later in life. There's a huge time factor in there. This may or may not be unsurmountable. In SHAWNA's case it was. She couldn't feel he had, or ever would have, the same beliefs as she did.

TOMAS, on the other hand, fell in love with someone outside his faith, from another culture, and more than 10 years younger. "Still," he said, "we're two peas in a pod. I couldn't care less if she goes to a synagogue and I don't."

SAMIA married someone she met at her mosque, but problems began to spring up immediately. "I assumed too much," she said. "I thought we felt the same way about things, but it didn't live out the way I thought it would. I wish I'd given it more time. It's hard to think when you're that much in love." SAMIA found it was a difference that wouldn't work and they separated. In their case, their religious beliefs, in words, were a match, but they weren't lived out in ways that were compatible.

P.S. If you come from different faith backgrounds and plan to have children, work this one out ahead of time. It can be a bigee when the time comes.

Susan Dunn, M.A., Psychology, is an Emotional Intelligence Coach. Visit her site at for coaching, Internet courses, and ebooks on emotional intelligence for career, relationships, transitions, resilience, personal, and professional development. She is also the author of "Midlife Dating Manual." To receive a free ezine, contact her at: and put "ezine" for subject.

© 2007 Susan Dunn, M.A.

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