If You Want a Happy Marriage, Experts Say You Should Go to Church

The more religious a couple is, the more satisfied they are likely to be in their relationship or marriage, according to new data by the Institute for Family Studies. Couples who attend church regularly and pray together are more likely to report being “very happy” or “extremely happy.”

In “Better Together: Religious Attendance, Gender, and Relationship Quality,” W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, and Nicholas H. Wolfinger, adjunct professor of sociology at the University of Utah, explain the correlation between religious observance and romantic success.

Romance by the Numbers

No matter which religion or Christian denomination a couple subscribes to, active church attendance boosts the likelihood of happiness. Wilcox and Wolfinger found that heterosexual couples where both partners go to church or where the man alone goes to church are happier, on average, than when neither partner goes to church or when only the woman does.

If both attend services together regularly, 78 percent report that they are “very” or “extremely happy.” If only the man goes to services, that number stays the same (78 percent). If, however, neither partner attends church, they are only 67 percent likely to report high levels of happiness, and that number drops even further  (59 percent) for couples where only the woman goes to services.

Why the Gender Gap?

When only one partner goes to church, it matters a great deal whether that is the man or the woman. This fact might be startling at first, but religious and romantic trends help shine some light on it.

“Perhaps women who are highly religious are more likely to look for spiritual communion with their partners than devout men, and to be disappointed when it is not forthcoming,” Wilcox and Wolfinger  speculate. Christian churches often teach that the man is the spiritual head of the home, so Christian women are likely to look for leadership in their husbands or boyfriends. This does not mean that the gal wants her guy to boss her around, but to set the spiritual tone of their relationship.

Another potential reason Wilcox and Wolfinger suggest is that “solo-attending women are more likely to be seeking religious help with a difficult relationship than are solo-attending men.” Relationship struggles might drive women—more than men—to attend church on their own. This would mean the woman’s attendance alone is more correlated with relationship problems than causing them.

A third explanation focuses on the male side of the equation, and fits with cultural trends. Wilcox and Wolfinger speculate that “men are especially likely to benefit from the normative and practical emphasis that religious institutions tend to put on family life and marital fidelity, insofar as men typically devote less time and attention to family life than women, and are more likely than women to be unfaithful.”

In general, men are less focused on their romantic relationships than women are. Religious services—especially in Christian settings—tend to stress the importance of a man’s commitment to his family. This might, as Wilcox and Wolfinger say, prove effective “in turning the hearts and minds of men towards their partner’s welfare and the relationship more generally.”

One final explanation of this gender gap lies in the women’s expectations. “It’s possible that religious participation increases women’s expectations of their partner’s behavior,” the authors write. “When these expectations are not realized—perhaps because the men in question are not themselves religiously engaged—the relationship suffers.”

Christianity, in particular, sets forth a clear litmus test for how grooms should treat their brides. Ephesians 5:25 sets the bar high, commanding husbands to “love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” This does not mean all husbands should be crucified for their wives’ sake, but they should be willing to give up anything for her. This ethic itself helps explain why men who attend church regularly are more likely to be devoted to their partners and to the relationship in general—it is an opportunity for them to model the love of the Savior.

The Importance of Praying Together

In addition to the gender gap, the study found  that couples who pray together are even more likely to be happy than couples who attend church together.

On average, 61 percent of couples who do not pray together are likely to report high levels of happiness, but when a man and a woman pray together in their relationship, their chances for deep happiness increase to 78 percent. This 17 percentage point difference is much larger than the happiness difference (11 percent) between couples who do not attend church (67 percent) and those who do (78 percent).

Wilcox and Wolfinger explain:

Joint prayer is likely to engender a heightened sense of emotional intimacy, communication and reflection about relationship priorities and concerns, and a sense of divine involvement in one’s relationship. However it works shared prayer is a stronger predictor of relationship quality than other religious factors in our statistical models. It is also a better predictor of relationship quality than race, education, age, sex, or region. Couples who pray together often are much happier than those who do not.

It doesn’t matter if you’re Methodist, Baptist, Lutheran, Catholic, Anglican, or non-denominational—the most important predictors for relationship success are church attendance and praying together. The couples who commune with God together stay together.