Tips For A Kinder, Gentler Marriage: Share Your Spiritual Lives

Marriage is taking a hit lately. The number of new marriages declined 5 percent from 2009 to 2010. But those people questioning whether the institution can still work for them may want to have a little faith.
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Marriage is taking a hit lately.

The Pew Research Center recently reported that just 51 percent of U.S. adults are married, a record low, and that the number of new marriages declined 5 percent from 2009 to 2010.

But those people questioning whether the institution can still work for them may want to have a little faith -- or, even better, share faith with their partner.

Couples who pray together and share religious values are more likely to express affection and love, perform acts of kindness and be less critical of their partners, according to a study of 1,491 respondents ages 18 to 59 to the 2006 National Survey of Religion and Family Life.

Sanctification of marriage -- the belief of partners that God is at the center of their unions -- also was associated with kinder, gentler relationships, according to the study by University of Texas at San Antonio sociologists Christopher Ellison and Xiaohe Xu. Ellison and Xu reported the results at the recent National Council on Family Relations meeting in Orlando.

The bottom line: Faith matters in marriage.

"One of the findings that comes through loud and clear," Ellison said in an interview, is that couples who do in-home worship activities such as prayer and Bible study together are more likely to have loving unions.

Battling Demons

Not all religious beliefs and practices lead to happier marriages.

Those religious individuals who pull God on their side against their spouses are likely to experience more conflict, says psychology professor Annette Mahoney of Bowling Green State University.

And when marriages break up, people who strongly identify God as being at the core of their unions may experience "the dark side of sanctification," depressive symptoms and a deep sense of sacred loss when the relationship is unsuccessful, Mahoney said.

Recent research also indicates that other factors such as racial and economic inequality can create pressures on a marriage that even people with active faith lives may find difficult to overcome.

In a study presented at the recent joint meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion and the Religious Research Association, researchers Mark Killian and Steve Carlton-Ford of the University of Cincinnati found religious black adults reported lower marital satisfaction than religious whites. The lower rates of marital quality were despite the generally higher rates of religious practice among black partners.

"It would seem that structural inequalities, particularly the lack of cultural and economic resources, have a significant effect on the rates of satisfaction within the African American population," Killian reported on the study analyzing data from the Portraits of American Life Study.

Love Is Kind

In general, however, a great body of research indicates religion can play a positive role in healthy marriages.

In the last 30 years, slightly higher marital satisfaction has been found among partners who attend services frequently and share the same religious affiliation, according to Mahoney. She examined nearly 200 peer-reviewed studies on religion and family life from 1999 to 2009 in an article in the Journal of Marriage and Family.

Newer research shows that beliefs and actions such as praying privately for their partner, seeing marriage as part of a divine plan and engaging in religious activities together also are associated with happier, more loving unions, she said.

In addition, multiple studies show people who attend religious services frequently are less likely to perpetrate or be the victim of domestic violence, Mahoney said.

In their study, Ellison and Xu found that husbands and wives who prayed together and shared other religious activities in the home were significantly more likely to express affection, to perform small acts of kindness for one another, to compliment each other on the work they do around the home or as a parent and to refrain from criticism.

Sharing core spiritual values and believing God is at the center of their relationships also were predictive of kinder and more affectionate unions, the researchers found.

The findings make sense for several reasons, say researchers on religion and marriage. Ellison and Xu offer these considerations:
  • Shared religious values may contribute to intimacy, trust, empathy and mutual understanding.
  • Couples who pray and study the Bible together can reinforce religious commitments that may lead to more acts of routine kindness and forbearance in their daily lives.
  • Believing their relationships are sanctified by God can provide added incentives for expressions of loving kindness, compassion and affection among partners. The belief may also encourage partners to practice spiritual models of unconditional forgiveness.
As hard as it is these days to get people to the altar, the challenge for religious institutions goes beyond making sure couples get to the church, mosque or temple on time on their wedding day. The happily ever after part, the research indicates, also involves a commitment by couples to continue to share their spiritual lives with one another

David Briggs writes the Ahead of the Trend column for the Association of Religion Data Archives.

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