Religion and the high cost of marriage

  • Article by: DAVID BRIGGS
  • Updated: May 15, 2013 - 1:05 PM

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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.

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