Research: Religious Americans less likely to divorce
The average American couple marries, according to the U.S. census around the age of 30. Many young adults believe that forming unions closer to this age reduces their risk of divorce and, indeed, there is to research consistent with this belief. But we also have evidence to suggest that religious Americans are less likely divorce, even though they are more likely to marry younger than 30.
This paradoxical pattern raises two questions worth exploring: Is the way religious Americans shape their marriage different from that of their more secular peers? And do religious unions formed by people 20 years of age and over face different odds of divorce than those formed by lay Americans of the same age group?
The answer to this last question is complicated by the role of cohabitation in contemporary family formation. Today, more than 70 percent of marriages are preceded by cohabitation, as shown in Figure 1. The increase in cohabitation is both a cause and a consequence of the increase in the average age. at the first marriage. But what most young adults don’t know is that living together before marriage, especially with someone other than your future spouse, is also associated with increases risk of divorce, like a recent Stanford to study reports.
One of the reasons that religious marriages in America may be more stable is that they reduce the chances of young adults cohabiting before marriage, even though they increase their likelihood of marrying at a relatively young age. With this in mind, we have explored relationships between religion, cohabitation, age at marriage and divorce by examining data from the National Family Growth Survey (NSFG).
Does religion influence marriage and cohabitation?
To answer this question and others, we have merged The data of the National Family Growth Survey (NSFG) from 1995 to 2019, using responses from more than 53,000 women aged 15 to 49. After controlling for a variety of contextual factors, women who grew up in religion are about 20% less likely to enter into a cohabiting union in any given year than their non-religious peers. By age 35, about 65% of women with a non-religious education had cohabited at least once, compared to less than 50% of women with a religious education.
Not only does religion reduce the chances of young adults living together, it also increases the chances of what we call direct marriages or unions that did not include cohabitation before marriage. The trends illustrated below in Figure 3 are in a similar form for all marriages, but direct marriages are particularly important as they are a closer indicator of the “traditional” relational pathways promoted by many religions.
In other words, religiosity is associated with a significantly higher probability of moving directly from celibacy to marriage without prior cohabitation, and generally at younger ages.
Overall, therefore, religion greatly influences the nature and age of relationship formation.
Does religion influence breakup and divorce?
Early marriage is a known risk factor for divorce. Cohabitation before marriage is too. Since religiosity tends to motivate earlier marriage but less cohabitation, the effects on divorce are not easy to guess. What we really want to know is: do religious people divorce less?
The answer seems to be yes.
Without controls for age at marriage or an indicator of cohabitation before marriage, women with a religious education have slightly lower odds of divorce. As shown in Figure 4 below, the annual divorce rate among married women with a non-religious education is around 5%. For religious women, it’s around 4.5 percent. The effect is clearer for mainline Catholic and Protestant women and less clear for Evangelical Protestant women.
Overall, if we control for a woman’s basic socio-economic background and educational career trajectory, the typical marriage of a woman with a religious upbringing is about 10% less likely to end in divorce in Canada. during the first 15 years of marriage than the typical marriage of a woman. with a non-religious education.
Adding controls for age at marriage yields roughly the same results, suggesting that even though religious people marry younger, their divorce rates are still somewhat lower. But it may just be that religious people cohabit less, resulting in fewer divorces. (For more details on this point, see the complete research file here.)
Figure 5 above answers three specific questions: What is the effect of cohabitation before marriage? What is the effect of age at marriage? And what is the effect of religious education?
Starting with cohabitation before marriage, directly married women tended to have lower divorce rates than women of the same religious affiliation and age at marriage but who married after cohabit. This was especially true for religious women who married before the age of 25.
For women who marry after age 30, the relationship appears to reverse, although estimates are less reliable. Corn particularly for marriages of young people before the age of 20 or in their early twenties, cohabitation before marriage appears to be a major risk factor for divorce.
Age at marriage matters too, but in different ways depending on the group. (Still here, see the research brief for more details.)
What are the takeaways, then?
Among some groups, it is commonly accepted that delaying marriage until your late twenties or early thirties reduces the chances of divorce, as greater maturity results in a more judicious choice of mate. There is some truth to this. However, the life directions associated with a delayed marriage are often also associated with (and even the cause of) greater acceptance of cohabitation before marriage, which is also linked to a higher risk of divorce.
The net result: Lifestyles that motivate early marriage, such as religiosity, do not necessarily create the higher odds of divorce usually associated with early marriage, as they discourage cohabitation.
Our results also suggest that religion promotes relationship stability by moving young adults away from cohabitation, which is very unstable, and towards marriage, which is much more stable.
Figure 6 provides a simple illustration of the risk of divorce or breakdown by year, by type of union.
The effect of cohabitation on marriage is indeed statistically significant, since cohabitation before marriage increases the odds of divorce by about 15%. But the greatest effect of religion on the stability of the union is not what happens after a woman is married. It’s more about her relationship choices before marriage — the fact that she do get married, rather than starting a series of cohabitation relationships.
What remains unclear is How? ‘Or’ What religion can promote more stable marriages. There are three main possibilities: Religion can make people “make lemons out of lemonade”. It can provide people with institutional or community support. Or it could positively affect the quality of romantic couples.
The first explanation is simple, although pessimistic. The second possibility is that religion actually changes the experience of marriage. Religious communities could provide institutional support for married couples, through mutual aid, community or pastoral interventions, even material or financial support in difficult times.
Finally, religion can change exactly who women marry in important ways.
First, women of faith can access a larger and more marriage-friendly pool of potential spouses in church and related community settings.
Second, religion could change the criteria women have for selecting partners. Knowing that cohabitation is disadvantaged and desiring the companionship of a committed union, religious women might more actively seek “husband material” earlier in life than other women.
Third, religion could change the dynamic between partners in important ways. Faithful women may seek spouses who share values, beliefs or practices important to marital stability. Sharing these values could reduce the potential for conflict on the road.
It is difficult to say exactly which of these factors is at work. But one way or another, our research suggests that waiting to marry until age 30 doesn’t always increase your chances of forging a stable marriage. Especially for religious men and women who avoid cohabitation, our analysis of NSFG material indicates that they can get married in their 20s without increasing their risk of divorce.
The result of all this is that the religious model of marriage and family seems to increase the chances that young adults will be able to marry before the age of 30 without increasing their risk of ending up in divorce court.
Lyman Stone is a researcher at the Institute for Family Studies, chief information officer of the demographic research firm Demographic Intelligence, and an adjunct researcher at the American Enterprise Institute.
W. Bradford Wilcox is Director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia and Principal Investigator at the Institute for Family Studies.
The complete research file is available here.