No, civilization is not collapsing all around us. Marriage, the fundamental building block of society, is still strong — especially among devoted Christians. Divorce rates are lower than predicted and marriages are much happier than is commonly believed.
Shaunti Feldhahn, a Harvard alum social researcher and author, went on a myth-busting social science spree back in 2014, with her book The Good News About Marriage: Debunking Discouraging Myths about Marriage and Divorce. There, she reported the findings of her eight-year study of marriage and divorce.
The Good News — The Healthy State of Marriage
Perhaps due to the hookups in TV shows and the divorces of pop stars, many people believe that only 30 percent of marriages are happy. In reality however, that number is closer to 80 percent, Feldhahn discovered.
“Most people think most marriages are just kind of ‘eeh’ … just kind of rolling along,” Feldhahn told CBN News. “They’re shocked when I tell them that the actual average is 80 percent: 80 percent of marriages are happy.” Feldhahn added that if couples stay married for five years, almost 80 percent of them will be happy five years later.
Of course, many marriages do end in divorce — but not nearly as many as people think. It is commonly said that half of marriages end in divorce — but this number comes from a flawed projection. In the 1970s and 1980s, when states around the U.S. were passing “no-fault divorce” laws, the divorce rate skyrocketed. Worried researchers estimated that if the trend continued, the divorce rate would reach 50 percent.
“We’ve never hit those numbers,” Feldhahn explained. “We’ve never gotten close” to 50 percent, largely because the divorce rate dropped after the 1980s.
For first-time marriages, the study found that only between 20 and 25 percent end in divorce. It is an immense tragedy that between a quarter and a fifth of first marriages are destroyed in this way, but the fact that the divorce rate is considerably lower than the conventional wisdom provides a welcome silver lining.
Christians and Marriage
Perhaps it will come as no surprise that Christians who are devoted to their faith do not get divorced as often as non-Christians. After all, both the Old and New Testaments compare God’s relationship with his people to a marriage. “I hate divorce, says The Lord God of Israel,” while admonishing the Israelites (Malachi 2:16).
Many in and outside of the church have repeated the claim that Christians are as likely to divorce as non-Christians. In reality, Feldhahn reports, among churchgoers “a couple’s chance of divorcing is more likely in the single digits or teens.”
Of all marriages, Christian ones prove the most durable. According to Feldhahn’s research, the divorce rate among those active in their church is between 27 and 50 percent lower than among non-churchgoers.
Even before Feldhahn’s exhaustive study, researchers found that people who seriously practice a traditional faith — Christian or otherwise — have a divorce rate markedly lower than the general population.
As Crosswalk’s Glenn T. Stanton explains, “Couples who regularly practice any combination of serious religious behaviors and attitudes — attend church nearly every week, read their Bibles and spiritual materials regularly, pray privately and together; generally take their faith seriously, living not as perfect disciples, but serious disciples — enjoy significantly lower divorce rates than mere church members, the general public, and unbelievers.”
Bradley Wright, a sociologist at the University of Connecticut, found that 60 percent of people who identify as Christians but rarely attend church have ever been divorced, but of those who attend church regularly, only 38 percent have been divorced.
W. Bradford Wilcox, a sociologist at the University of Virginia, found that “active conservative Protestants” who regularly attend church are 35 percent less likely to divorce compared to the unaffiliated, while those who merely call themselves conservative Protestants are 20 percent more likely to divorce than secular Americans.
“Whether young or old, male or female, low-income or not, those who said that they were more religious reported higher average levels of commitment to their partners, higher levels of marital satisfaction, less thinking and talking about divorce and lower levels of negative interaction,” explained University of Denver professor Scott Stanley.
In his Oklahoma Marriage Study, Stanley also found that “these patterns held true when controlling for such important variables as income, education, and age at first marriage.” In other words, no matter the circumstances, people who are actively religious are more likely to enjoy marriage and less likely to divorce.
Why Christians Divorce Less
In Christianity, marriage is far more than a public contract agreed upon by two consenting adults. Indeed, it is the very symbol of God’s union with redeemed humanity. In Ephesians 2, Saint Paul compares the union of Christ and the Church to the union of husband and wife. Throughout the Old Testament, God speaks of passionate longing for His people, the Jews. In the Christian Church, He has redeemed a people for himself.
The Bible concludes in a vision of the new Heaven to come, the culmination of all good for the Christian Church. “And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.’”
This final glory is known as “the wedding feast of the Lamb,” the celebration of God’s union with redeemed humanity. The connection between redemption, joy, and marriage is ubiquitous throughout the Bible, from Hosea’s adulterous wife symbolizing Israel to Jesus’ parable of the wedding feast in Matthew 22. Besides the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, there is no more important Christian doctrine.
If devout Christians were to divorce at the same (or higher) rates as the general population, this would be a powerful critique of their faith. Perhaps it is only fitting that those who see the culmination of all joy as a wedding have stronger marriages.