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Religion Improves Marital Outcomes

Chart illustrating marital status in the Unite...

Chart illustrating marital status in the United States via Wikipedia - click image for large size

By Rabbi Allen S. Maller

The percentage of women living with a man in a sexual relationship almost quadrupled from 3 percent in 1982 to 11 percent in the 2006-2010 period. Yet in spite of many claims that were made in the 70′s and 80′s by liberal marriage councilors and others, this pre-marital learning experience did not result in lower divorce rates. Indeed, living together before marriage was counterproductive to a long-lasting union, particularly for men. For women, those who didn’t cohabit before their first marriage were more likely to survive to the 20-year marriage mark than those who did live together premaritally (57 percent versus about 45 percent, respectively).

First time marriages today for women only have a 52 percent chance of lasting to their 20th anniversary, according to a new large scale survey. That number hasn’t budged much in the past three decades of data collected as part of the National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG) the researchers wrote in the March 22, 2012 issue of the National Health Statistics Report. The results are based on interviews conducted between 2006 and 2010 with a nationally representative sample of 12,279 women and 10,403 men, ages 15 to 44. This same survey was also conducted in 1973, 1976, 1982, 1988, 1995 and 2002.

But there has been an “increase in the time spent unmarried among women and men. For women, there was a continued decrease in the percentage currently married for the first time — and an increase in the percent currently cohabiting — in 2006–2010 compared with earlier years.” The number of women in a first marriage decreased from 44 percent in 1982 to 36 percent in 2006–2010. Meanwhile, the percentage of women currently living with a romantic other increased from 3 percent in 1982 to over 11 percent now.

Currently, women also seem to be marrying at older ages than in years past, with the recent median age about 26 for women and 28 for men. This also should have lowered the divorce rate since teenage marriages have much higher divorce rates than people married in in their 20′s and 30′s.

The likelihood a first marriage would last at least 10 years was only 68 percent for women and 70 percent for men, in the most recent survey. Looking ahead 20 years the probability declined to 52 percent for women and 56 percent for men. Divorce rates have been fairly stable for more than thirty years, and these estimates are virtually identical to those found in the 1970s, the researchers noted.

Those who married in their teens, and those who married out of their religion were much less likely to reach their 20th anniversary compared with men and women who married in or tied the knot at age 20 or over.

Religious upbringing made a big difference in marriage outcomes. Women who reported being raised Jewish, Muslim and “other religions” had a 65 percent chance of having a 20-year or longer first marriage. That was followed by women raised Catholic (53 percent), and Protestant (50 percent). Only 43 percent of women raised with no religious affiliation made it to their 20th anniversary. Higher divorce rates for those raised in non-religious homes has been reported for over two generations. Since the percentage of people in surveys who state that they have no religious identity has been slowly increasing we might expect the divorce rate to rise even more in the next decade or two.

On the other hand, many religious people seem to be getting more traditional, and much of the super liberalism of the 70′s and 80′s seems to be fading. A 2009 study published in the journal Social Behavior and Personality examined New York Times wedding announcements from 1971 to 2005, and found that the number of brides keeping their surname was about 1 percent in the 1980s, rising to 9 percent in the 1980s and 23 percent in the 1990s, and then began declining to 18 percent in the early 2000s.

Another study, this one published in March 2011 in the journal Names: A journal of Onomastics, likewise used New York Times wedding announcements and found that women who had Catholic wedding ceremonies were least likely to keep their names, followed by Protestant and then Jewish women. Women who had non-religious civil ceremonies were most likely to keep their names, with 55.9 percent doing so. If the percentage of women getting married in non-religious ceremonies, and keeping their own names, declines in the next decade or two, prospects for good marital outcomes will improve.

Rabbi Meller’s web site is: rabbimaller.com

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