Does faith reduce divorce risk?Written by Glenn T. Stanton
What's inside this article
This article examines research on the relationship between faith and the divorce rate in the United States. While Canadian data may differ, the study reveals trends and principles that are relevant to the status of marriage in our country.
Religious belief and activity – particularly prayer – matter in important ways. They make a deeply practical difference in how husband and wife interact with each other in daily life.
Many Christians believe that the divorce rate among believers is on a par with that of the unbelieving world. That’s simply not true – particularly for those who take their faith seriously in both belief and practice. The best research from sociology’s leading scholars has established this fact time and again over the last few decades.
Recent research findings
Most recently, research conducted at Harvard University’s School of Public Health reveals that regularly attending church services together reduces a couple’s risk of divorce by a remarkable 47 per cent. Many studies, they report, have similar results ranging from 30 to 50 per cent reduction in divorce risk. Happily, this holds largely true for white, black, Asian and Latino couples.
Research conducted at Bowling Green State University, a major centre for groundbreaking family formation research, affirms this conclusion. A leader in this field, Professor Annette Mahoney of Bowling Green’s Spirituality and Psychology Research Team, reports from her decades-long research that a couple’s spiritual intimacy and church participation is “very, very important and undeniably a construct that matters” greatly in boosting marital happiness and longevity. Additional research conducted by Mahoney and her team demonstrates that marriages are stronger and happier when the husband and wife understand the deeper spiritual significance of marriage. These findings have remained consistent over many decades and across socio-economic differences. The Bowling Green team notes:
Three recent longitudinal studies tied higher religious attendance, particularly by couples who attend the same denomination together, to decreased rates of future divorce. These results imply that great depth of integration in a spiritual community can help prevent divorce.
Religious belief and practice
This is because religious belief and activity matter in important ways, making a deeply practical difference in how husband and wife interact with each other in daily life. It helps them manage their conflicts in kinder, more forgiving, and collaborative ways.
Adding to this research, scholars from the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University found that how often a couple attends church together has a strong impact on marital stability. The more often they attend, the stronger their marriage. The researchers report, “When both spouses attend church regularly, the couple has the lowest risk of divorce.” Moreover, couples holding more conservative Christian beliefs had a markedly lower risk than those with no or more liberal theological beliefs. Couples who marry in a religious service show a modestly lower risk of marital separation or dissolution than those who marry in a non-religious ceremony.
Unequally yoked couples – in which one spouse is a Christian while the other is not – are especially prone to divorce, affirming the Biblical charge against it. However, when the husband is the regularly church-attending, strong believer, the marriage is much more durable and happier than when the wife is the sole believer. Similarly, in equally yoked couples, there is a demonstrable marital benefit when the husband is the spiritual leader. This speaks strongly to the importance of the man’s spiritual leadership in the home, as a wife is generally more likely to follow and appreciate the husband’s leadership in religious matters than vice versa.
The faith benefit is strong even for couples facing serious difficulties in their marriage. Mahoney and her team explain, “Couples who belonged to the same denomination at the time of their wedding were twice as likely to reconcile as couples in religiously [different] marriages. Couples where either partner had converted to the partner’s denomination prior to marriage were four times more likely to reconcile” than those with no or dissimilar faith (emphasis added). That is a tremendously powerful marriage-strengthening dynamic for a relatively simple relational component.
Shared prayer life
Church attendance and shared belief are not the only protective faith factors. A couple’s shared prayer life is extremely powerful. A 2015 study discovered that husbands and wives praying together for each other individually and offering forgiveness for personal offenses has “significant positive” effects on marriage overall. It helps them deal with the troubles that naturally arise in marriage, making them both accountable to God, who tells us not to hang onto past hurts and to sacrificially love and forgive others.
The University of Virginia’s W. Bradford Wilcox boldly explains in his book Soul Mates that “shared prayer completely accounts for the association between church attendance and a happy relationship.” This means that prayer as a regular part of a couple’s relationship, according to this research, is the most important spiritual practice in relational success. This is equally true for Latino, Asian, black, and white couples. Prayer not only invites God into the relationship at times of unhappiness and struggle, but also helps the couple become more intimate and concerned with one another. Regularly sharing one’s thoughts with God in the presence of another is extremely intimate, perhaps rivalled only by physical intimacy. It binds people together. They both require great transparency and trust, enhancing the marital relationship.
Church attendance doesn’t merely increase marital happiness and relational health. It is also associated with the likelihood of being married in the first place; church attenders get married at markedly higher rates. Professor Wilcox explains that “for men and women of all races and ethnicities, attending church regularly increases the odds of marriage by at least two-thirds.” African-American men and women are 46 to 51 per cent more likely to be married if they attend church regularly. The same measure for Latino men is 62 per cent more likely and 58 per cent for white men.
Effects of faith on marriage
Clearly, it is proven by many measures that marriage and church attendance go together in profoundly important ways. For couples who desire happy, fulfilling and enduring marriages, vibrant faith participation is as positively consequential as nearly all other beneficial factors.
While it is not fully understood why faith practice affects
marriage so positively, the author of the Harvard study offers a nice roundup of some of the
most widely held possibilities. Namely, regular church attendance and religious
- Reinforce a couple’s understanding that marriage is a sacred
thing, larger than the couple, and must ideally last for a lifetime.
- Reinforce Biblical teachings against divorce, pornography,
and marital infidelity.
- Reinforce the nature and importance of marital love,
sacrifice, and attending to your spouse’s needs.
- Put couples in contact with numerous resources – encouraging
friends/peers and marital education – that help them prepare for and strengthen
marriage as well as resolve inevitable conflict. (Wilcox found that
encouragement and advice from church friends accounts for more than half of the
marital benefit of church attendance.)
- Increase many other important measures of personal health
and well-being as well as a deeper sense of meaning in life, all things
generally associated with greater marital happiness and protection against
Faith does matter. It makes a difference in all areas of life, including marriage. It is important that leaders and members of every church know this, as well as all marriage counsellors. It’s one of the most powerful secret weapons for marital happiness and longevity – and this should no longer be a secret to anyone.
Glenn T. Stanton is the director of global family formation studies at Focus on the Family in Colorado Springs.
Tyler J. VanderWeele, “Religion and Health: A Synthesis,” concluding chapter in Michael Balboni and John Peteet, (eds.) Spirituality and Religion within the Culture of Medicine: From Evidence to Practice (Oxford University Press, 2017).
Mohammed K. Fard, et al., “Religiosity and Marital Satisfaction,” Social and Behavioral Sciences 82 (2013): 307-311.
Vaughn R. A. Call and Tim B. Heaton, “Religious Influence on Marital Stability,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 36 (1997): 382-392.
Jonathan R. Olson, et al., “Shared Religious Beliefs, Prayer, and Forgiveness as Predictors of Marital Satisfaction,” Family Relations 64 (2015): 519-533.
Annette Mahoney, et al., “Religion in the Home in the 1980s and 1990s: A Meta-Analytic Review and Conceptual Analysis of Links between Religion, Marriage and Parenting,” Journal of Family Psychology 15 (2001): 559-596.
Prabu David and Laura Stafford, “A Relational Approach to Religion and Spirituality in Marriage: The Role of Couples’ Religious Communication in Marital Satisfaction,” Journal of Family Issues 36 (2013): 232-249.
Barbara H. Fiese and Thomas J. Tomcho, “Finding Meaning in Religious Practices: The Relation between Religious Holiday Rituals and Marital Satisfaction,” Journal of Family Psychology 15 (2001): 597-609.
Joe D. Wilmoth, et al., “Marital Satisfaction, Negative Interaction, and Religiosity: A Comparison of Three Age Groups,” Journal of Religion, Spirituality and Aging 27 (2015): 222-240.
Evelyn L. Lehrer and Carmel U. Chiswick, “Religion as a Determinant of Marital Stability,” Demography 30 (1993): 385-404.
W. Bradford Wilcox and Nicholas H. Wolfinger, Soul Mates: Religion, Sex, Love and Marriage among African Americans and Latinos (Oxford University Press, 2016).
You can find the original article at The Witherspoon Institute.
Originally published on March 22, 2018, by The Witherspoon Institute. Reprinted with permission.
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