Faith in Marriage

Is a common spiritual bond critical to marital health and happiness? As the number of mixed-faith marriages surges, knowing the answer becomes more urgent.
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Security in Faith

When Liz Hammer began dating her husband, Brian, at 21, in some ways it was an improbable pairing. Liz was bubbly and outgoing, Brian quiet and reserved. At a party she was apt to work the room while he sat off to the side, deep in a one-on-one conversation. In one major way, though, they were very much alike. Both had been raised in religious homes where belief in God was the bedrock of their lives. Both had gone to a Christian college, where they'd met. Both had known that they would marry someone equally devout. "My relationship with Christ was so much a part of who I was, there was no way I could be married and not share it," says Liz, now 43. Eighteen years of marriage and four children later, faith remains the foundation of the bond between Brian, a litigation consultant, and Liz, a stay-at-home mother in Santa Monica, California. It is, she says, "the springboard from which we make all our choices and decisions."

Faith -- belief in the judgment and authority of a higher power -- can have a powerful positive influence on the marital bond, research has shown. David Popenoe, PhD, professor of sociology at Rutgers University, in New Brunswick, New Jersey, and codirector of the National Marriage Project, sees being "answerable to a higher authority" as "vital" for a strong marriage. In part, faith has this power because belief in God often also means a belief that marriage itself is sacred. The conviction that, as Liz Hammer puts it, "this is a commitment we made before God, so divorce isn't an option" can give couples both emotional security and an incentive to keep their relationship strong.

"There's never the anxiety that we'll have a deal-breaking argument," says Hammer.

"And if we're frustrated, we know that we have to work it out."

The idea that religious conviction helps a couple navigate rough spots is echoed by others. "There are times when I lose patience with my husband and feel free to be short with him," says Beverly, a 37-year-old mother of three in New York City and an Orthodox Jew. "But on Yom Kippur [the Jewish Day of Atonement], I ask his forgiveness for those times. Having to say 'I'm sorry' -- and to admit that I haven't been as good a wife as I'd like to be -- requires me to swallow my ego. These moments force us to have a very different kind of conversation than we would have if we were just going out to dinner."

In addition, faith helps hold couples together by encouraging selflessness and stressing the need to give as much as one takes. "We know that for love to last, it must evolve from romantic love, which is the basis for many marriages, into something more mature and less selfish," says Gary L. Hansen, PhD, professor of sociology at the University of Kentucky, in Lexington. "Faith may help couples make that transition." The result: unions that not only are enduring but satisfying. One survey of 161 men and women published in 2003 in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion found that inner religious commitment coupled with church attendance was associated with a reduced tendency to engage in extramarital affairs, or "mate poaching."

Continued on page 2:  One Marriage, Two Faiths


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