Religious couples who marry young seem to go against the traditional wisdom that young marriages are almost doomed to end in divorce.
Some research shows that marriages are more likely to last when couples marry around the age of 30, which is becoming a national standard. But a new analysis for the Institute for Family Studies reveals that religious education appears to offer some protection against divorce for those who marry younger.
This study suggests that the differences stem from the fact that people raised in religious homes are less likely to cohabit before marriage, which is both extremely common and risky.
Although more than 7 in 10 marriages in the United States since 2010 have followed a period of cohabitation, a recent study from Stanford University found that “cohabitation before marriage has short-term benefits and long-term costs. for marital stability ”.
Using data from more than 53,000 women aged 15 to 49 in the National Family Growth Survey from 1995 to 2019, demographer Lyman Stone and sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox found that religious Americans are less likely to divorce even though they are more likely to marry in their 20s.
The duo specifically examined the impact of religious education on choices about family life, controlling for correlates including a woman’s educational status, race or ethnicity, level of education of her mother and whether the woman grew up in an intact family. The study focused on women because men were only recently included in the National Survey of Family Growth data.
When controlling for these variables, Wilcox and Stone found that women who grew up in religious homes are 20% less likely to start cohabiting in any given year, compared to their peers who did not. had religious education.
“As a result, by the age of 35, around 65% of women with a non-religious education had cohabited at least once, compared to less than 50% of women with a religious education,” the report said. “… religiosity is associated with a much greater likelihood of moving directly from celibacy to a married union, and generally at a younger age. “
Wilcox, who heads the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia and is a senior researcher at the institute, said his students assume that waiting to get married until they are nearly 30 provides them with “the best way to protect yourself against divorce”.
This is a hypothesis widely shared by academics and journalists, he adds. “The paradox of religious marriage is that religious Americans tend to marry relatively young in their twenties, but also tend to be less likely to divorce.”
“What we’re essentially finding is that women who are raised in religion and marry straight into their twenties without cohabiting have relatively low risk of divorce,” Wilcox said.
Lead to divorce
Marriage and cohabitation among adolescents are factors known to increase the likelihood of divorce. Religion also seems to play a role, probably because it has an impact on choices about forming relationships.
Before controlling for age at marriage and other factors, the report found that women with a religious education had a slightly lower probability of divorce than those with a non-religious education. When Stone and Wilcox controlled for basic socio-economic background and a woman’s educational trajectory, people with a religious education were about 10% less likely to divorce within the first 15 years of marriage, compared to those with no were not brought up with a religion.
Here’s a twist, however. When they looked only at marriages that were not preceded by cohabitation, they found that religion had no effect, suggesting that “most of the benefits of religiosity in terms of reducing divorce. occur because religious marriages are more likely to be direct marriages, rather than marriages that follow cohabitation.
They found lower divorce rates for women who had not cohabited, even compared to cohabitants of the same religion who married at the same ages.
“Particularly for marriages of young people under 20 or in their early 20s, cohabitation before marriage appears to be a major risk factor for divorce,” the report says.
The researchers say that “the biggest effect of religion on the stability of the union is not what happens after a woman is married, but more her relationship choices before marriage – the fact that she did it get married, rather than starting a series of cohabitation relationships. To the extent that the effects associated with religious education are causal, they show that religiosity could significantly reduce women’s experience of relationship instability in early adulthood.
Wilcox said people don’t understand how unstable cohabitation is. Religion appears to move many adults away from unstable residential unions into marriage, which is more stable.
“I think these findings deviate from the conventional wisdom to which I am exposed today. And I think they’re talking about how people who get married directly, especially now in their twenties, have a more deliberate approach to dating and marriage that makes them more cautious when it comes to finding a match. spouse who they think will be good for the long haul, ”Wilcox said. “By pursuing this strategy, they are probably less likely to slip into a series of cohabiting relationships which can make them more cynical about the possibilities of a lifetime marriage and may also leave them with the kind of relationship baggage that can affect the stability of the family. their future marriage too.
Teens, 20 and 30 years old
Regarding the risk of divorce, the age of marriage is extremely important for women who were brought up in religion and who cohabited with their partner before marriage. They have “very high risks of divorce if they marry before the age of 20, but the lowest risks of any group of women who marry in their thirties.”
Among women of non-religious origin who cohabit, researchers note that delaying marriage until their mid-20s may reduce the risk of divorce, but delaying it past 30 does not reduce the risk and may increase it. The finding, they note, is similar to research by University of Utah sociologist Nicholas Wolfinger, who noted greater marital stability for these women if they marry in their late twenties.
For religious women who have not cohabited, the risk of divorce is greater for adolescent marriages, but the importance of the age of the bride stabilizes in their early twenties. “Religious women who marry directly have the same likelihood of divorce if they marry between 20 and 24 or between 25 and 29, with a slight increase in their 30s,” they wrote.
They note a similar trend for non-religious women who marry without cohabiting, but caution that the sample size is small, the margins of error larger.
“These results suggest that delaying marriage does not always make it more stable. If marriage is delayed by cohabitation instead, chances of divorce are higher: Previously cohabited non-religious women who married in their late twenties or thirties have divorce rates the same or higher than those of non-religious women who got married … without first cohabiting, in their early twenties. Postponing marriage by substituting cohabitation may not reduce the chances of divorce, ”the report said.
Stone and Wilcox say their findings suggest a “great place” for marriage: in their early 20s for straight-married couples and in their late 20s for cohabitants. Deferment beyond that age does little for marital stability, judging by the national survey data they used.
What they cannot say for sure is how religion promotes more stable marriages. They ask: Do people stay married because faith disapproves of divorce? Does religion provide institutional or community support? Or does it lead to better romantic couples?
“The main thing we were saying is that there is no divorce penalty for getting married in their twenties” for women of religious descent who did not cohabit first, Stone said, researcher at the Institute for Family Studies, chief information officer of demographic research firm Demographic Intelligence, and associate researcher at the American Enterprise Institute.
Stone said they wanted to see religion, age of marriage, and cohabitation in the context of three fairly common marriage myths:
- Religious people can say whatever they want, but at the end of the day, they are hypocritical: their marriage, family formation and divorce behaviors are like everyone else.
- If you simply put off marriage to a later age, you will be more secure, more mature, and less prone to divorce.
- Cohabiting before marriage is like a trial marriage to sort things out before the big day, making the marriage more stable.
Stone said that the fact that those who grew up with religion are certainly less likely to cohabit and more likely to marry directly shows that religious beliefs seem to influence behavior “quite significantly, disrupting the first myth.”
While the differences in divorce are not huge and are sensitive to what studies control, in general, “religious people seem to divorce a little less. So it turns out that religious people are not just savage hypocrites. Their beliefs about marriage, sex, and divorce seem to motivate more stable romantic unions, ”Stone said.
And while delaying marriage beyond adolescence reduces the risk of divorce, the effect is not linear, Stone said. “It’s not like the longer you delay marriage, the less likely you are to get divorced. Especially for people who marry directly, there is no benefit in delaying marriage beyond their twenties. And it is possible that the risk of divorce increases even for those marriages in their thirties. But in general, delaying a direct marriage doesn’t seem to reduce the risk of divorce. The only groups who really see a reduced risk of delaying marriage any longer are cohabitants. But cohabitation itself predicts divorce and this leads to the third myth, that cohabitation is not a big deal for marriage.
The Institute for Family Studies report says cohabitation is big business, said Stone, who noted that the marriages they studied were relatively recent, taking place in the 1980s and 2000s.