Faith & Marriage: Research into marriage benefits—and costs

ReadTheSpirit welcomes back Ahead of the Trend columnist David Briggs. His last column was about growth in the Catholic church. Today, he writes about the economics of faith and marriage, including a researcher who asks:

‘Holy matrimony, Batman!
Why do the devout pay so much for marriage?’


The economics of relationships are shifting, and generally not in a positive way for the institution of marriage.

The recession, the rising financial independence of women and cultural shifts and technological advances that make single-parent families more acceptable and feasible are contributing to fewer people walking down the aisle.

Religious groups are not immune to these trends, but new research indicates faith is a powerful force slowing the decline.

Regular church attenders marry at higher rates, divorce at lower rates, are less likely to engage in extramarital sex and have more children than the general population, one new study found.

And highly religious individuals are most likely to hold up traditional models of marriage despite the financial costs involved, including the loss of income when one parent cares full time for children.

In a separate study, nearly half of married white women raising young children who attended religious services more than once a week were not employed. In contrast, just 29 percent of women with low to moderate levels of religious participation did not hold an outside job.

The two studies presented at the recent annual meeting of the Association for the Study of Religion, Economics and Culture provide insights into why people of faith are more willing to pay the high costs of marriage and raising families even in an economic downturn.

“Religious incentives play a central role in marriage decisions and should play a role in any economic model of marriage,” researcher Brian Hollar of Marymount University said in his presentation, “Holy matrimony, Batman! Why do the devout pay so much for marriage?”

The marriage benefit

There are unhappy and abusive unions, but research has indicated numerous benefits associated with married life. Married people, in general, live longer, are happier, have better mental health and are less likely to suffer from long-term illnesses or disabilities, studies have found.

Religious communities also may serve to “sanctify” marriages, endowing them with transcendent significance that can encourage couples to see their relationship in a favorable light, said researchers Frank Fincham of Florida State University and Steven Beach of the University of Georgia.

“Likewise, spiritual activities such as prayer may encourage greater focus on sustaining relationships and so increase positive behaviors in the relationship or enhance forgiveness or commitment,” they wrote in an article reviewing research on marriage in the Journal of Marriage and Family.

But these benefits may also come at an economic price.

From 2000-2010, white, married fathers ages 25 to 54 who attended church at least two to three times a month earned on average $50,900, or almost $20,000 a year more than similarly devout single men ages 25 to 54, Hollar of Marymount University found in his study using data from the General Social Survey.

However, devout married white women earned $27,100 a year during the same period, or $7,000 a year less than single women who frequently attended services.

In fact, high levels of religious participation may be associated with the enduring gender gap in wages, suggests a separate study of white married women with young children that uses data from the 2006 to 2010 National Survey of Family Growth.

Forty-eight percent of women who attended services more than weekly and 39 percent of women who attended services weekly were not employed, reported economists Evelyn L. Lehrer and Yu Chen of the University of Illinois at Chicago.

The study also found religious attitudes emphasizing traditional gender roles in raising families influenced labor market choices. Forty-three percent of married mothers from conservative Protestant denominations were not employed, compared to 28 percent of mothers from mainline Protestant denominations.

Yet, weighed against the religious capital accrued through their faith, it is a sacrifice many Americans are willing to make.

Faith & marriage linked to ‘human flourishing’

In examining General Social Survey data from 1972 to 2010, Hollar found decreasing rates of marriage across the board, but “a much more rapid drop-off” among those with lower ties to religion.

At any given age, Hollar found, “devout men are approximately 9.4 percent more likely to have married than non-devout men, and devout women are approximately 4.4 percent more likely to have married than non-devout women.”

Similarly, frequent church attenders were much less likely to divorce, Hollar reported.

“Religion has a very positive effect on family. It has a very positive effect on strengthening marriage and reducing the possibility of divorce,” Hollar noted.

And the sense of satisfaction is not just in the United States.

A study of adults in Great Britain, the Netherlands, Spain, Northern Ireland and Sweden found religious affiliation, religious attendance and marriage were all associated with greater happiness and satisfaction in life.

“Taken together, these three conclusions provide support among the people of contemporary Europe for Durkheim’s classic thesis linking the two institutions of marriage and religion with human flourishing,” researchers Emyr Williams, Leslie Francis and Andrew Village wrote in the journal of Mental Health, Religion and Culture.

That does not mean the pressures on marriage are going away. The wider array of choices available to women as their incomes rise and continued economic uncertainty among young adults, along with the greater acceptance of alternatives such as cohabitation and single-parent families, are having a significant impact.

But the potential financial costs or benefits are not all that matters in why people decide to get and stay married. Religious beliefs, including the idea of being part of a divinely ordained union, also can make a major difference.

(This column originally was published at the home of Ahead of the Trend, the website of the Association of Religion Data Archives. Reposted here with permission.)

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  1. Debra says

    Is “church” being used generically to include all faiths’ houses of worship? What about those who belong to a synagogue or to a mosque?

  2. David Crumm says

    Interesting question, Debra! We checked and the author of the study refers to church attenders throughout the research report. There is no sign in the report whether the question was broader than “churches.” However, given American religious demographics, a broad national study like this wouldn’t have had enough responders from other faiths to split out meaningful findings by faith groups. Across the landscape in a broad study, the non-Christian responders would have been too small in number.

    Having looked at this kind of research over many decades myself, my assumption is that the general findings about marriage would be applicable to regular participation in congregational life across the board. But, you’re right Debra, your question is a good one and, at this point, we don’t have the specific research on the other faith groups. If a grad student somewhere is reading David Briggs’ column today and happens on our exchange of comments, maybe someone will dig into this question.