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For Your Marriage

Marriage Today covers current trends and research pertaining to marriage and family life in today's world.

Religious Faith Plays Crucial Role for Minority Couples

When couples share “core religious and spiritual values,” and “practice in-home devotional activities such as prayer or Scriptural study,” they tend to be more satisfied in their relationship, according to a just-published study. It found that these religious factors fulfill a uniquely important role for many U.S. African-American and Hispanic couples.

This research provides “an important window to the crucial role of religious faith for minority couples,” the study says. One of its three co-authors, W. Bradford Wilcox, said that “African-Americans derive the most benefits” from a religious connection “because they are significantly more likely than whites or Latinos to pray together and attend church together.” Wilcox is a University of Virginia sociology professor and directs the National Marriage Project there.

The strong promotion of “familism” and other traditions supportive of the family by the religious communities that are dominant among U.S. Hispanics also was noted by the study. Familism is the conviction that “one’s family should be accorded a high priority.”

The realization that religious factors can offset other socioeconomic factors that may lessen a sense of satisfaction for many black couples has been dubbed the “African-American religion-marriage paradox,” Wilcox said. The new study indicates that a high rate of religious connection among blacks “narrows the racial divide in relationship quality in America,” he added.

The study’s lead author, Christopher Ellison, discussed the influence of a religious connection in reducing the damaging effects of other, negative stresses on a marriage. He is a professor of social science at the University of Texas at Austin and a fellow of the National Marriage Project.

Ellison noted, on the one hand, that a substantial body of research shows that relationship quality tends to be lower among racial and ethnic minorities. However, relationship quality tends to be higher among more religious persons and couples who share common religious affiliations.

The new study, titled “The Couple That Prays Together: Race and Ethnicity, Religion and Relationship Quality Among Working Age Adults,” appears in the August 2010 edition of the Journal of Marriage and Family. The study report also was posted on the National Marriage Project’s website.

The study indicates “that racial/ethnic differences in relationship quality would be even larger than they are if not for the higher average levels of religiousness among African-American and Hispanic couples,” the report says.

If “The Couple That Prays Together” casts light on the benefits of a religious connection for all couples, especially minority couples, it is noteworthy for other reasons as well. It examines what a growing body of research reveals about the reasons couples benefit from shared religious values and practices. Moreover, it challenges religious groups to ask themselves “how religious communities and the social relationships within them may nurture and sustain” couples.

In addition to Ellison and Wilcox, Amy Burdette, a sociologist at Mississippi State University, was a study co-author. Their research focused on data derived largely from married persons in the 2006 National Survey of Religion and Family Life, funded by the Lilly Endowment and designed by Ellison and Wilcox.

How Couples Benefit from Religion

Why do couples benefit from a religious connection? Wilcox called attention to previous research indicating that religious communities typically promote ethical behavior – the Golden Rule; the value of forgiveness — that encourages couples to fulfill their family roles and responsibilities or to handle conflict constructively.

He said previous research also suggests that family-centered social networks in religious communities offer formal and informal support to couples and families in dealing with daily life’s concrete demands.

Moreover, Wilcox continued, past research has reported that religious belief seems to provide people with a sense of purpose and meaning, benefitting their life in general and their relationships.

That is important for blacks and Latinos, Wilcox said, since many members of these groups experience “poverty, xenophobia, racism, neighborhood violence, underemployment or similar factors that can stress a relationship.”

In-Home Devotions Are Important

“The Couple That Prays Together” noted a variety of ways religion and religious values enter into a couple’s life together. A man and woman may, a) be members of the same religious denomination, or, b) jointly attend religious services, or c) pray together at home, or, d) beyond all that, more simply share core beliefs and values.

Previous research has accented the benefits couples reap from belonging to the same denomination or from “joint religious participation or similarities in participation patterns,” for example. However, “The Couple That Prays Together” found that “couples’ in-home devotional activities,” along with shared core religious beliefs or convictions, hold unique value at this time in history. It showed that blacks are much more likely than non-Hispanic whites to report shared family religious activities like prayer or Scriptural study.

Wilcox commented, “The closer you get to the home, the more powerful the beneficial effects” of religious values. It makes sense that those who think about, talk about and practice their beliefs in the home, those who bring home their reflections on their marriage, derive stronger effects from those beliefs, especially compared to those who simply attend church weekly.”

“The Couple That Prays Together” was described as the first major study to compare religion and the quality of relationships across America’s major racial and ethnic groups. The authors recommend that future research investigate further the ways “religious factors contribute to relationship quality in the increasingly diverse American society of the 21st century.”

About the author 
David Gibson served for 37 years on the editorial staff at Catholic News Service, where he was the founding and long-time editor of Origins, CNS Documentary Service. David received a bachelor’s degree from St. John’s University in Minnesota and an M.A. in religious education from The Catholic University of America. Married for 38 years, he and his wife have three adult daughters and six grandchildren.