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Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia
As the overall divorce rate in the U.S. has somewhat leveled or even declined in recent years, that rate for one particular group of Americans—the middle-aged and older—has continued to climb. Indeed, the authors of a new study on the impact of religious service attendance on divorce and remarriage remark that this particular divorce rate has actually doubled from 1990-2010. Given that most Americans profess some kind of religious faith, and that religious faith oftentimes has a strengthening impact on marriage, the authors—who hail from Boston and Harvard Universities—seek to assess how church attendance might impact rates of divorce and remarriage for Americans in mid to late life.
The researchers open by explaining why their study is particularly useful. “Prior research has mainly focused on early-life divorces,” they write. “There is limited evidence on subsequent re-marriage among the increasingly growing group of late life divorcees. . . . With late-life divorce rate doubling in recent years, there is a need to better understand divorce and remarriage for mid- and late-life women.” Religious service attendance, they speculate, may operate in one of two ways to keep marriages together: first, by “promoting strong marital bonds, happiness, and stability”; and second, by “operat[ing] as a barrier to divorce.” “Despite many qualitative studies that have examined religious participation, affiliation and marriage,” the authors continue, “the quantitative assessment of the joint effects of religious service attendance and religious affiliation on marriage is currently unclear.” Hence, the researchers undertake to examine this question among two groups, Protestants and Catholics. They have two hypotheses: 1) “frequent religious service attendance is associated with lower subsequent odds of divorce or separation; and 2) frequent religious service attendance is associated with higher likelihood of remarriage.”
To conduct their study, the researchers use data from the Nurses’ Health Study, which collected relevant information from nurses ages 30-55, first in 1976, and with follow-ups every two years. The survey began asking questions on religious service attendance in 1992, with follow-up data on that particular question available every four years until 2010. The participants were asked how often they attended religious services or meetings, with answers including, “more than once a week, once a week, 1-3 times per month, less than once per month, never or almost never.” The researchers used only those women who identified themselves as being either Protestant or Catholic, weeding out a small number of other religious affiliations. They also measured self-reported divorce, separation, widowhood, and remarriage during the period 1996-2010, and controlled for a number of health factors which may also have had an impact on both church attendance and marital quality. They were left with a dataset of 66,444 women.
The findings should give encouragement to any already attending church on a regular basis. “Compared to women who never attended religious service,” the researchers report, “those who attended services more than once per week were 42% less likely to get divorced, or 47% less likely to get either divorced or separated.” These women were also less likely to be depressed, to be childless, and to smoke, and they drank less than those who never attended religious services. The effect of regular attendance on risk for divorce was higher for Catholics than it was for Protestants.
When examining the data for remarriage, the researchers discovered that their second thesis was not entirely borne up. “Women who attended religious services once per week or more, and who were widows in 1996, had significantly higher likelihood of remarriage . . . but those who were divorced or separated did not.” There was, furthermore, “perhaps some indication that Catholics regularly attending religious services were less likely to remarry than Protestants when results were aggregated over divorced, widowed, and separated women.” In their discussion, the researchers summarize their rather robust findings:
[N]urses who attended religious service more than once per week had a 50% lower likelihood of subsequent divorce or separation, compared to those who never attend. Among widowed nurses, those who attended services more than once per week had a 49% higher likelihood of remarriage, compared to those who never attended services. However, for divorced or separated nurses, religious service attendance was not significantly associated with the likelihood of remarriage.
These effects were all greater for Catholics than for Protestants.
In speculating why these findings might be true, the researchers point to higher marital satisfaction and stability amongst frequent church-goers, combined with a reduced likelihood of marital infidelity and a strong teaching against divorce. The researchers point to a number of possible limitations of their study, not least of which is that their data set is primarily Caucasian and of a higher socioeconomic status, but also reaffirm that the cohesiveness of their data should mean that although their results are not generalizable to a broad public, they are particularly valid for their group.
What these findings might suggest is the importance of religious faith to marital stability, and the necessity of getting Americans back to church to bolster that stability and bring the divorce rate back down in mid- to late-life Americans.
(Shanshan Li, Laura D. Kubzansky, and Tyler J. VanderWeele, “Religious service attendance, divorce, and remarriage among U.S. nurses in mid and late life,” PLoS ONE 13.12 [December 3, 2018]: e0207778, Web.)