A religious upbringing may reduce divorce risk — but probably not for the reason you think

“Religious Marriage Paradox” says when to marry hinges on life and relationship choices, not chronology

Religious couples who marry young seem to buck the traditional wisdom that young marriages are nearly doomed to end in divorce. 

Some research finds marriages are more likely to last when couples wed around age 30,  which is becoming a national norm. But a new analysis for the Institute for Family Studies finds a religious upbringing seems to offer some protection against divorce for those who marry younger. 

This study suggests the differences stem from the fact that those raised in religious homes are less apt to cohabit before marriage, which is both extremely common and risky.

Though more than 7 in 10 U.S. marriages since 2010 follow a period of cohabitation, a recent Stanford University study found “premarital cohabitation has short-term benefits and longer term costs for marital stability.”

Using data from more than 53,000 women ages 15 to 49 in the National Survey of Family Growth from 1995 to 2019, demographer Lyman Stone and sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox found religious Americans are less likely to divorce even though they are more prone to marry in their 20s. 

The duo looked specifically at how religious upbringing impacts choices concerning family life, controlling for correlates including a woman’s education status, race or ethnicity, her mother’s educational attainment and whether the woman grew up in an intact family. The study focused on women because men were only recently included in National Survey of Family Growth data.

When they controlled for those variables, Wilcox and Stone found women who grew up in religious homes are 20% less likely to start cohabiting during a given year, compared to their peers who didn’t have religious upbringing.

“As a result, by age 35, about 65% of women with a nonreligious upbringing had cohabited at least once, versus under 50% of women with a religious upbringing,” the report says. “... Religiosity is associated with vastly greater likelihood of going directly from singleness to a married union, and generally at younger ages.”

Wilcox, who directs the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia and is a senior fellow of the institute, said his students assume waiting to marry until they’re close to 30 provides them “the best way to protect yourself against divorce.”

It’s an assumption widely shared by academics and journalists, he adds. “The religious marriage paradox is that religious Americans tend to marry relatively young in their 20s, but also tend to be less likely to get divorced.”

“What we essentially find is that women who are raised religious and marry directly in their 20s without cohabiting have comparatively low risk of getting divorced,” Wilcox said.

Leading to divorce

Teen marriage and cohabitation are factors known to raise the likelihood of divorce. Religion appears to play a role, too — probably because it impacts choices around relationship formation.

Before controlling for age at marriage and other factors, the report said women with a religious upbringing had a slightly lower likelihood of divorce, compared to those with a nonreligious upbringing. When Stone and Wilcox controlled for basic socioeconomic background and the woman’s education trajectory, those with a religious upbringing were about 10% less likely to divorce in the first 15 years of marriage, compared to those who weren’t raised with a religion.

Here’s a twist, though. When they looked only at marriages that were not preceded by cohabitation, they found religion didn’t have an effect, suggesting “most of the benefit of religiosity in terms of reducing divorce occurs because religious marriages are more likely to be direct marriages,” rather than marriages that follow cohabitation.

They found lower divorce rates for women who hadn’t cohabited even when compared to cohabiters with the same religious background who married at identical ages.

“Particularly for youthful marriages before age 20 or in the early 20s, cohabiting before marriage appears to be a major risk factor for divorce,” the report says.

The researchers say the “biggest effect religion has on union stability isn’t about what happens once a woman is married, but more about her relationship choices before marriage — the fact that she did get married, rather than start a series of cohabiting relationships. To the extent that the effects associated with religious upbringing are causal, they show that religiosity could dramatically reduce women’s experience of relationship instability in early adulthood.”

Wilcox said people don’t understand how unstable cohabitation is. Religion seems to steer a fair number of adults away from unstable residential unions toward marriage, which is more stable.

“I think these findings are a departure from the conventional wisdom that I’m exposed to nowadays. And I do think they speak to the way in which people who are marrying directly, especially today in their 20s, have a more deliberate approach to dating and marriage that makes them more careful about finding a spouse they think is going to be good for the long term,” said Wilcox. “In pursuing that strategy, they’re probably less likely to slide into a series of cohabiting relationships that can make them more cynical about the possibilities of lifelong marriage and can also leave them with the kind of relationship baggage that can affect the stability of their future marriage as well.”

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Teens, 20s and 30s

When it comes to divorce risk, age of marriage is extremely important for women who were raised religious and who cohabited with their partner before marriage. They have “very high divorce risks if they marry before age 20, but the lowest risks of any group of women who marry in their 30s.”

Among women with nonreligious backgrounds who cohabit, the researchers note that delaying marriage into the mid-20s may reduce the divorce risk, but delaying it past 30 doesn’t lower the risk and could increase it. The finding, they note, is similar to research by University of Utah sociologist Nicholas Wolfinger, who noted greater marital stability for those women if they marry in their late 20s. 

For religious women who didn’t cohabit, there’s greater risk of divorce for teen marriages, but how much the bride’s age matters levels off in the early 20s. “Religious women who marry directly have the same likelihood of divorce if they get married at age 20-24 or age 25-29, with a modest increase in their 30s,” they wrote.

They note a similar tend for nonreligious women who marry without cohabiting, but caution that the sample size is small, the error margins larger.

“These results suggest delaying marriage doesn’t always make it more stable. If marriage is delayed by cohabiting instead, divorce risks are higher: Nonreligious women with prior cohabitation who married in their late 20s or 30s have the same or higher divorce rates as nonreligious women who married ... without cohabiting first, in their early 20s. Postponing marriage by substituting cohabitation may not reduce divorce risks,” the report says.

Stone and Wilcox say their findings suggest a “sweet spot” for marriage: early 20s for direct-marriers and late-20s for cohabiters. Postponement beyond that age does little for marital stability, judging by the national survey data they used. 

What they can’t say for sure is how religion fosters more stable marriages. They ask: Do people stay married because faith frowns on divorce? Does religion provide institutional or community support? Or does it lead to better romantic pairings? 

“The main thing we were saying is that there’s no divorce penalty for getting married in your 20s” for women with a religious background who didn’t cohabit first, said Stone, a research fellow at the Institute for Family Studies, chief information officer of the population research firm Demographic Intelligence and adjunct fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

Myth busting

Stone said they wanted to view religion, age of marriage and cohabitation against the backdrop of three pretty well-traveled marriage myths:

  • Religious people can say what they want, but, at the end of the day, they’re hypocrites: Their marriage, family formation and divorce behaviors are like everyone else’s.
  • If you just postpone marriage to a later age you’ll be more secure and mature and less apt to divorce.
  • Cohabiting before marriage is like a trial marriage to work some things out before the big day, making marriage more stable.
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Stone said the fact that those raised with religion are definitely less likely to cohabit and more apt to marry directly shows religious convictions appear to influence behavior in “a pretty important way, skewering the first myth.” 

While divorce differences aren’t enormous and are sensitive to what studies control for, in general, “religious people do seem to get divorced somewhat less. So it turns out that religious people aren’t just wild hypocrites. Their beliefs about marriage, sex and divorce do seem to motivate more stable, romantic unions,“ Stone said.

And while delaying marriage beyond the teen years reduces divorce risk, the effect is not linear, said Stone. “It’s not like the longer you delay marriage, the lower your likelihood of divorce. Particularly for people who marry directly, there’s no benefit to delaying marriage beyond their early 20s. And it’s possible that the risk of divorce may even rise for these marriages in their 30s. But in general, it doesn’t seem like delaying a direct marriage reduces divorce risk. The only groups that really see reduced risk from delaying marriage longer are cohabiters. But cohabitation itself predicts divorce and that leads to the third myth, that cohabitation is no big deal for marriage.”

The Institute for Family Studies report says cohabitation is quite a big deal, said Stone, who noted that the marriages they studied were relatively recent, taking place in the 1980s-2000s.

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