August 28, 2009
With the American divorce rate at 50%, psychologists want to know how they can help improve marital satisfaction. For my doctoral dissertation, I chose to study the impact of religion on this question, adding my project to a rapidly growing body of psychological research. This area of investigation has grown because 87% of Americans have a religion, and religiosity is closely associated with health and happiness. Last winter, readers on InterfaithFamily.com participated in my survey examining religion and marital satisfaction. I would like to sincerely thank everyone who expressed interest and support, participated, and commented. I am excited to be able to share the results with InterfaithFamily.com readers.
The American religious landscape breaks down to about 50% Protestant, 20% Catholic, 2.5% Jewish, and less than 1% Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu, Quaker, and other religions. The religious mix of America lends itself to an interesting phenomenon: the interfaith marriage. In particular, rates of Jewish interfaith marriage in the United States have skyrocketed over the last few decades. In 1970, for example, about 8% of married American Jews were in interfaith marriages. In the 1980s, this number climbed to 37%, and today it is estimated that 50% of married American Jews are in interfaith marriages. The vast majority of American Jewish interfaith marriage is between Jews and Christians.
Ultimately, 365 Jewish and Christian people from around the United States completed this study. They were predominantly Caucasian, heterosexual, and between 21 to 30 years old. Of the study participants, 213 were in homogamous marriages; this means they were married to people of the same faith: either Jewish-Jewish or Christian-Christian marriages. Christian-Jewish heterogamous marriages or interfaith marriages, represented 152 of the participants. There were two main findings in this study.
First, both groups were satisfied with their marriages. The study found absolutely no difference in marital satisfaction between people who were married to partners of the same faith, and people married to partners of a different faith.
This is an interesting finding because it seems to herald a new trend in the psychological research in this area. There is a body of research supporting the idea that homogamous marriages tend to be happier than heterogamous ones, but some recent research like mine finds no difference. Perhaps this is the trend of the future. I am hoping it means Americans are becoming less suspicious about, and more accepting of, other religious views. Perhaps the more heterogamous our society becomes, the more we are forced to re-examine our assumptions about others.
Moreover, much of the other research in this area has actually been done on the same data. This study and its InterfaithFamily.com participants represent quite literally a brand new perspective on this subject.
Of course, this is not the complete picture; it is only a small slice of the bigger psychological research pie. For example, among the many touching and elucidating comments left by participants was the common note that this study did not examine childrearing practices and views. This is because the measures used in this study did not include these types of questions. In research, it is important to use measures which have been statistically validated to prove that they work. Unfortunately, to maintain validity, these measures cannot be altered.
We can only speculate how adding questions about childrearing might have affected this study's results. For example, if the definition of "marital satisfaction" included an item such as "My spouse and I disagree about childrearing practices" or "When my spouse takes my child to church/temple, I feel left out," perhaps this study would have detected a difference in marital satisfaction between homogamous and heterogamous marriages. Then again, maybe there still would have been no difference! This is an area that future psychologists can investigate. Building upon others' research so that the layers add up and up and up is what psychology is all about.
The study revealed a second surprising finding. Both the respondents in same-religion marriages and those in interfaith marriages had a high level of religiosity, responding that they considered themselves to be strongly religious. To put this in context, other research finds that more than a third of religious Americans consider themselves to be strongly religious, more than a third consider their affiliation to be weak and about a tenth view their affiliation strength as somewhere in the middle.
As with the first finding, there is room here for speculation. For example, what about participants' spouses? Because individuals rather than couples were surveyed, spousal strength of faith could not be added to the equation. Though helpful, it is probably not sufficient to know only one partner's strength of faith. For example, if a member of a heterogamous couple is religious and this contributes to his/her marital satisfaction, it might reduce conflict if the partner did not have a similarly strong attachment to his or her faith. In other words, even if one member of a heterogamous couple has a high strength of faith, that person's partner's low strength of faith might contribute, or even be the basis of, marital harmony. Exploring this issue with information from only one member of a couple leaves an empty space. Again, this is an area for future research.
Ultimately, this study comments positively on the state of American marriages today. It can be seen as a sign of progress that religiously heterogamous marriages are no longer necessarily less happy than religiously homogamous ones. Of course, only future research can elucidate whether or not this continues to be a trend. No doubt InterfaithFamily.com readers will continue to be on the forefront of this issue.