SALT LAKE CITY — The more religious that married couples are and the more they engage in faith-related activities at home, the happier they say they are with their sex lives, according to a new study by researchers at BYU and Baylor University.
The findings, based on a nationally representative sample of more than 1,300 couples ages 18 to 45, are published in the journal Psychology of Religion and Spirituality. The study centered on whether couples consider their marriage sacred and how that view impacts satisfaction with their intimate interactions.
The findings run counter to a "common social narrative" that religion in a marriage kills the quality of sex, said study lead author Jeffrey P. Dew, associate professor in the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University. Instead, a higher degree of religiosity was found linked to more, not less satisfaction with the quality of sex in the marriage.
... religion is one of those things that will help people improve their relationship, which will lead as a byproduct to better sex. – Jeffrey P. Dew, associate professor in the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University
"Religion helps encourage people to improve their relationships overall. And a better relationship leads to higher reports of sexual satisfaction. That is really important, at least to me," Dew said. "In a hyper-sexualized culture, sex has almost become an end in and of itself. Well, religion is one of those things that will help people improve their relationship, which will lead as a byproduct to better sex."
"There's a myth out there that religious couples are asexual, that religious couples are going to have lower sexual satisfaction or in some ways impaired sexual relationships compared to nonreligious couples," said study co-author Brian Willoughby, also an associate professor in the School of Family Life at BYU.
Most studies that look at sexuality among religious couples find religion provides a "boost when it comes to well-being in the sexual realm of the relationship." What's different with this research, though, is the focus on "sanctification," which Willoughby describes as "imbuing the sexual part with religious significance ... a connection with God" that actually boosts sexual satisfaction.
The researchers asked specifically how happy married individuals are with their sexual intimacy. "A lot of things go into that. It's not just behavior, it's not just frequency, it's reflective of how we feel about the relationship," Willoughby said.
Often, he added, when couples aren't happy with their sex lives, there are other issues in the marriage.
Relationship "maintenance behavior" like spending time together in activities that reflect shared values, as well as low levels of conflict, lead to better intimacy. Do religious people often work harder on their marriage, especially if they think God has blessed it or wants it to endure? Yes, said Dew.
Most studies on sex and religion have looked at nonmarital sexual behavior, while this study looked specifically at the interplay of sex and religiosity within marriage.
Attending religious services does not create the positive impact found in the study. That a couple attends church together may not suggest both want to be there — nor does it increase sexual satisfaction. "There's a little more likelihood one spouse is sort of dragging the other. 'I am sitting in the pew with you for an hour, but I am not really engaged in this activity,'" Willoughby said.
"Praying together, reading religious text together, those indicate more of a joint value system" that links religious behaviors with satisfying sex, he said.
"It makes sense that when you're doing things together as a couple in the home, religiosity makes a difference. When you're doing that, you are establishing at some level a spiritual intimacy," said Dew.
The study did not show the same result for couples who are "unequally" religious. Shared values and degree of religiosity mattered.
The study found a sense of sanctification at the heart of the boost in satisfaction. "When religious married couples view their marital union as a divinely appointed relationship, various aspects of that relationship, including sexual intimacy, may take on spiritual characteristics," the authors wrote. "This may create a sexual sanctification mindset wherein sexual intimacy itself takes on divine importance and may help couples feel more satisfied with their sexual relationship."
They said it's possible that sharing religious activities could also increase "opportunities for emotional closeness. Such closeness may help foster improved physical intimacy and sexual satisfaction." Earlier research suggests religion may increase focus on each other; nurturing marital bonds within that framework may "shift therefore how spouses both think and act toward their spouse in ways that potentially enhance multiple aspects of the relationship."
A different focus
Often, Willoughby said, people focus on how often they engage in sex, rather than the quality of the relationship itself and how that improves or interferes with sex.
For the study, the researchers controlled for common factors that might explain differences, such as race and ethnicity, education level, marital duration, income and how many kids couples had at home.
But they could not control for different ideas of what constitutes good sex and Dew said part of the effect might be a different standard among religious couples for what counts as satisfying intimacy, compared to those who are less religious.
We’re not saying religiosity is end-all, be-all for sexual satisfaction. But for married couples, it’s at least part of the story. – Jeffrey P. Dew, associate professor in the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University
The couples were surveyed in 2009, but Dew said that does not decrease the study's validity, although adherence to organized religion has been waning somewhat in the last decade or so. While he said the effects are not massive, they are significant.
"Given that sexual satisfaction has a lot of variables that go into it, we're OK with that," Dew said. "We're not saying religiosity is end-all, be-all for sexual satisfaction. But for married couples, it's at least part of the story."
Some differences existed based on gender, Dew said. "For both men and women, greater marital sanctification was associated with higher levels of sexual satisfaction. For men only, joint in-home religious activities were also positively associated with their sexual satisfaction. That’s pretty simple. And I think it might be interesting to note that the more joint in-home religious activities that men (who are traditionally less religious than women) report, the happier they are with their sexual relationship."
Jeremy E. Uecker, associate professor of sociology at Baylor University, co-authored the study.