By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
Church pew togetherness and shared prayer impact whether 'I do' will go the distance
A research brief for the Institute for Family Studies says that whether a couple attends church together regularly indicates whether their marriage will last, regardless of what church they attend. But it's not an even risk/benefit if one attends. - photo by Lois M Collins
Couples who want their relationship to last might want to fan the ardor for their faith. Together.

That's according to a new research brief for the Institute for Family Studies that shows a couple's religious practices whether they go to church together and pray together regularly influences whether their relationship will last.

Shared prayer outside of meals, in particular, predicts relationship quality, according to the researchers.

"Part of the story here is about shared faith being a real resource for contemporary couples," said W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, institute scholar and co-author of "Soul Mates: Religion, Sex, Love and Marriage Among African Americans and Latinos."

The brief is based on some of the book's research, but while the book focused on Latinos and blacks, the brief looks at Americans in general. "We see that couples who share religious attendance and even more so pray together enjoy high levels of relationship quality. The latter point, about prayer, is one of the most powerful predictors of relationship quality, compared to virtually any other factor," he said.

Together in the pews?

If only one attends church, it does not present either benefit or risk to the relationship, as there are big differences depending on whether it's the man or the woman who attends.

Wilcox and co-author Nicholas H. Wolfinger, a professor in family and consumer studies and an adjunct sociology professor at the University of Utah, found couples who both attend religious services, or those in which the men alone attend, were the happiest. When just the woman goes to services, that degree of happiness is lacking they lag behind couples where neither attends services. Their findings refer to opposite-sex couples; they didn't have a large enough sample of same-sex couples to draw conclusions, they said.

Their research also revealed:

78 percent of men and women who regularly attend religious services as a couple or where the man alone attends consider themselves "very" or "extremely" happy.

Two-thirds of men and women in relationships where neither attend services say they are happy.

59 percent of couples where the woman alone attends call themselves very happy.

Wolfinger said the benefits of regular religious involvement extend well beyond the couple's relationship. People who go to church regularly are less likely to give birth out of wedlock. They have better relationships, whether married or not, and white couples are more likely to stay married. The other benefits cross racial lines. Infidelity is lower among people who are active in their faith, regardless of which faith.

Wilcox told the Deseret News that in church couples find a shared friendship network, which means supportive friends who are both models for fidelity and friendship and who are also "more likely to be available when someone loses their job or is struggling in the marriage or with the loss of a loved one."

"We know people are more likely to abide by social norms that are helpful for marriage like sexual fidelity when they have overlapping social networks," Wilcox said. "This is true whether you're religious or not. If your friends know your wife and your wife's friends, you are more likely to be faithful to a spouse."

Men tend to be less committed and more apt to be unfaithful. They are also "less likely to express themselves emotionally in relationships," Wilcox said. Because men are on average less likely to abide by certain social norms like fidelity, he suggested that any benefit religious practice gives men in that arena "might be in a sense more valuable to them."

As for the finding that women who attend church without their partner are less happy in the relationship, Wilcox listed a couple of theories. It could be that women struggling in a relationship might be more likely to seek out church community, so they were already less happy when they got there. It's also possible that women who go to church alone see their friends in church sitting by their spouses and perceive those couples together derive a real benefit to their relationship and life, so they become disappointed in their own relationship.

Why wouldn't that same effect be felt by men who attend alone? "The possibility here is that men don't get as many cultural cues from institutions to pay attention to their marriage or relationship, to sacrifice for their partner."

Shared prayers

According to their study, couples who pray together at least weekly or more are 17 percentage points more likely to say they are "very happy together."

Wilcox and Wolfinger said shared prayer is a "stronger predictor of relationship quality" than other religious factors, race, education, age, sex or region.

Wilcox said prayer may be particularly powerful because it is a way for couples to address the things that bind them together and also that concern them. He notes, as well, a "ritualistic power in prayer that likely fosters a sense of communion in the relationship, of being united in a deep and profound way." Besides that, praying together is a "symbol of mutual commitment."

But such joint prayer is not necessarily a common practice for American couples. The American Family Survey, a large national poll released in November by the Deseret News and BYU, found that about half of couples say they never pray together, outside of meals. Of those who do, fewer than three in 10 do so at least weekly. Only 11 percent said they pray together daily.

"I think for most people it's kind of exceptional," said Wilcox, who noted that shared religious practices may look different depending on the religion a couple practices. He said religious Catholic couples might pray the rosary together, while an evangelical couple might read the Bible together, for example.

The religion itself made no difference. The key, for both attendance and prayer predicting the well-being of a union, was the frequency.
Sign up for our E-Newsletters