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Which is better for families — traditional, religious gender roles or secular ones?

The 2019 World Family Map looks at faith and family across the globe to see how religion impacts relationships, fertility and violence.

SALT LAKE CITY — Two approaches to gender roles that seem opposite may both result in marital happiness.

When it comes to marriage, women are most satisfied if they are half of a religious couple embracing traditional gender roles — or if they are half of a secular, progressive couple embracing egalitarianism.

Women tend to be less satisfied, however, if their partnership straddles the ideological middle, according to new research.

Highly religious, traditional couples fare best, reporting the greatest satisfaction with their relationship and sex life. Those couples are a bit ahead of progressive, secular couples, and this pattern forms what researchers call a "J-shaped curve." Less religious or mixed-religious couples — whether they approach gender roles traditionally or are more egalitarian — form the dip in the J, reporting less relationship satisfaction.

Heather Tuttle

That's according to the 2019 World Family Map report, “The Ties That Bind: Is Faith a Global Force for Good or Ill in the Family?” The report was produced by the Institute for Family Studies and the Wheatley Institution at BYU. It focuses on how — or if — faith impacts couple satisfaction, fertility, domestic violence and infidelity in the United States and 10 other countries.

Researchers have disagreed on what religion brings to family in terms of well-being, some highlighting benefits and others pointing out its role in conflict. As the report asks, "Does religion foster solidarity — or fuel conflict and inequality? Today’s headlines suggest the answer is 'yes' to both." The report's findings suggest that religion plays a largely supportive role in families, with some room for improvement.

Explaining the J-curve, W. Bradford Wilcox of the Institute for Family Studies said both traditional and egalitarian couples may benefit from having "a clear model of what you'd like to see in your family."

"In their own ways, paradoxically, feminism and faith encourage men to engage in their families. You see a progressive, egalitarian husband being the new dad and doing a lot around the household and being engaged with his kids in a big way. And likewise you can imagine a faithful father being really engaged as well with his wife and children," said Wilcox, a co-author of the report.

How men and women behave within the two types of relationships and the roles they assume "look different" but provide great benefit to their families, he said.

Religiosity and gender equality and feminism "have been powerful" in calling out "the dignity of the person and the value and respect that should be there" in relationships, said Jason Carroll, Brigham Young University professor and associate director of the Wheatley Institution, during a briefing at the Brookings Institution Monday morning to introduce the report.

He told the Deseret News that highly satisfying relationships are those in which couples offer each other respect, whether for different, complementary traditional roles or for egalitarian roles.

Still, religion is not always a force for good in a relationship. The report says faith does not protect women from domestic violence, which study authors suggest religious leaders should address in their churches, synagogues and mosques.

"Religion is falling short of its potential as a protective factor" against domestic violence, said Laurie DeRose, adjunct professor at Georgetown University and one of the report's authors. DeRose noted that individuals suffer in silence and clergy often have little or no training in dealing with domestic violence and other negative aspects of relationships like infidelity.

Faith leaders should learn to address those issues because it "matters to the spiritual health of the congregation," she told the Deseret News. "They have abusers they need to help and abusees they need to protect and it doesn't look like they are actually doing either."

Faith, feminism and family

The report's chapters are written by an array of researchers and family life experts, based largely on data from the World Values Survey conducted by a network of social scientists in 100 countries, and the Global Family and Gender Survey. The latter is conducted in 11 countries: Argentina, Australia, Chile, Canada, Colombia, France, Ireland, Mexico, Peru, the United Kingdom and the United States.

The report focuses on heterosexual relationships in these 11 countries. A key theme in the report is that "relationships between faith, feminism and family outcomes are complex. The impact of gender inequality on contemporary family life may vary a great deal by whether or not a couple is highly religious, nominally religious or secular."

For example, men in secular relationships and women in highly religious relationships are more prone to embrace joint decision-making than their peers in less religious or mixed-faith couples, the report found.

Heather Tuttle

It also found that the positive impact of faith on relationship quality was "remarkably similar" across religions and "generally greater than for those reporting no affiliation or that are 'spiritual but not religious,'" the report said.

Wilcox noted, however, that religion does not have as much positive influence in more secular, developed countries, such as Australia, as it does in more religious countries, such as those in Latin America.

Married couples reported higher relationship quality than cohabiting couples, and the presence of children had an impact, too.

"Interestingly, couples with children in the home reported slightly lower levels of quality than couple without children in the home, perhaps reflecting the time and financial pressures on parents," the authors wrote.

The report also looked at gender roles. Couples who agree it's usually better if men take the lead working outside the home while women take the lead caring for home and family are described as "traditionalists," and those who disagreed are described as "progressives."

The report did not find a consistent link between these gender ideologies and relationship outcomes. "We found that gender progressives are somewhat more likely to share decision-making in their relationships than gender traditionalists. However, when it comes to relationship quality, gender ideology makes no difference for either men or women. Finally, for sexual satisfaction we find that traditionalists — both men and women — are more satisfied."

All the report's findings are stronger for women than for men, which makes some sense to co-author Spencer James, assistant professor in the School of Family Life at BYU. He cited 1950s marriages, typically designed "for the benefit of men, with women serving men," noting "all sorts of interesting advertisements of the time that are clearly sexist."

So as the country shifts to marriages "with shared orientation in everything that marriage and family life requires, it would make sense that women may report higher levels of relationship quality," said James.

Heather Tuttle

The report established only a correlation, not a causal relationship, between religion and relationship satisfaction.

"It is possible that simply being married is more important to highly religious women, which may raise their satisfaction ratings. ... It is also possible that respondents with different attitudes towards gender and religion have different expectations of marriage, including their sex lives. On the other hand, highly religious women may also enjoy higher levels of trust, emotional security and perceived permanence, which rebound to the benefit of their relationships," the report said.

Being part of a faith community may provide couples with a network that is supportive, "especially in times of trouble," the report found. Other groups can do that, too, including secular civil institutions, social networks in workplaces or neighborhoods and those that unite people through shared interests. "But perhaps many religions are able to provide more of these benefits in the same local congregation, at least for some people."

Family challenges

Even highly religious couples sometimes founder, despite the benefits that faith brings to family life, Wilcox said — and the report's findings on domestic violence show that.

The measure of domestic violence used in the report picked up not just physical hitting and sexual violence, but also controlling behavior. "For instance, if the husband was perceived by his wife to be overly controlling, but not physically violent, this index would pick that up," Wilcox said.

Still, he noted, 1 in 5 women overall reported experiencing interpersonal violence. And the same ratio of men, roughly 1 in 5, admitted doing it. "So it's a large minority," Wilcox said. And in this case, the report did not find statistically significant differences among the highly religious.

"It is the case, I think, that in many religious congregations, you don't hear pastors, priests, rabbis, etc., specifically addressing the issue of domestic violence from the pulpit. I think one thing that may be happening here is these are the topics that are either off the radar screen or are too hot to touch in some communities."

Another negative behavior in relationships — infidelity — is also less likely in couples with shared ideology, whether that ideology is commitment to a religion or to none at all, the report says.

On both ends of the ideological spectrum, couples are finding ways to get things done with shared decision-making and dividing tasks in ways that make sense to them as a couple, the report concludes.

Equality vs. equity is an important notion throughout the global report, James said. "If equality is sameness, then equity is fairness," he said. "Respect for other people's choices doesn't mean we have to make the same choices."