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Want To Slash Your Risk For Divorce? Start Going To Church

The Federalist

February 14, 2024

Faith is bad for families. 

That is often the message that comes out of our pop culture, corporate media, and social media. A Daily Beast headline tells us “Religious Kids are Jerks.” The Nation asks, “Is Conservative Christianity Bad for Marriage?” and offers this answer: “Research Says Yes.” Online influencers like Pearl Davis suggest Christianity does little to stabilize marriage. Put another way, the culture offers up plenty of examples and arguments that would make you think the faith and family connection is generally a bad or inconsequential one.

But statistically speaking, cruel, repressed, and unhappy religious unions are the exception. The data shared in my new book Get Married is clear: Couples who go to church together typically have the happiest marriages and lowest risks of divorce. And, yes, we all know there are exceptions (e.g., the Duggars). 

I identify four groups who are “Masters of Marriage” in my book. One of them is “The Faithful.” The Faithful are religious believers who regularly attend church, synagogue, temple, and so on, several times a month or more. Their ties to their local religious communities and their faith generally endow their marriages and family lives with greater spiritual significance. Those who regularly attend church are most likely to be married (56 percent), compared to those who attend only occasionally (44 percent), and those who rarely or never attend (39 percent), according to Get Married‘s analysis of the General Social Survey.

Marriages among regular churchgoers are more stable too. The data tells us that Americans who regularly attend church are between about 30 and 50 percent less likely to divorce. They are also about 15 percentage points more likely to say they are happily married, compared to secular couples.

Why are religious marriages generally stronger? I focus on three “Ns” in Get Married.

First, messages about “norms” such as fidelity and forgiveness in religious congregations help forge stronger marriages. Hearing these messages, and seeing them lived out among fellow churchgoers, helps churchgoing men and women navigate the challenges of marriage and family life more successfully and protects them from making mistakes — such as picking up a bad drug or alcohol habit — that will destroy their marriage.

“Networks” also help. With neighborly interactions down, venues for finding friendships are, as my AEI colleague Daniel Cox has observed, increasingly only found in the workplace. People who regularly attend church find themselves at an advantage compared to those who don’t, plugged into a wider network of people able to help each other — from practical help like babysitting, to intergenerational relationships that offer different perspectives on the challenges life and love bring.

The “nomos” found in churches and other religious communities also makes for stronger unions. The sociologist Peter Berger described the collective endeavor that religion affirms through rituals and beliefs, rooting individuals to a sacred moral order, in terms of a “nomos.” This nomos, or belief in a higher power, has a positive effect on couples. It can help husbands and wives weather the storms of life, such as unemployment, illness, or an argument. This may explain why life satisfaction is highest, too, among those who attend a house of worship.

Specifically, in Get Married, I find that 55 percent of husbands who attend church services regularly with their wives are “very satisfied” with life; the number is 49 percent for wives. This falls to 27 percent of wives and 28 percent of husbands being “very satisfied” with life among the group of marrieds who do not attend religious services.

Moreover, the American Family Survey indicates that parents who are regular attendees at religious services are more likely to do fun things with their children, share regular dinners together, and do chores together as a family, even after controlling for factors like race, parental age, sex, education, and income.

Elite messaging about religion and marriage these days can be corrosive to the norms, networks, and nomos that help people build successful marriages. We know that financial security, happiness, health, and mental health are all better in stable married families. And most of the time, Americans who regularly worship at their local church are more likely to get and stay married — not to mention be happily married. 

The challenge for this Valentine’s Day, as we wrap up National Marriage Week, is to recognize that strong and stable families — including those supported by a faith community — may just be the ticket, statistically speaking, to not only being happy but advancing the common good. That is why it’s about time for the popular culture and corporate media to do a better job of covering the true character of the faith and family connection.

Brad Wilcox (@BradWilcoxIFS) is a nonresident senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and professor of sociology at the University of Virginia.

About the Author

W. Bradford Wilcox