Shared religious beliefs and practices within marriage help couples prevent, resolve and reconcile marital conflict, according to a new study out of Brigham Young University.
According to the study, published in the October issue of Family Relations (vol. 55, issue 4), shared religious beliefs within a marriage act as a "safe container" for marital conflict. "Safe container" refers to a secure environment in which religious beliefs and practices can prevent and mediate marital conflict.
"The take-home message here is that couples who practice their faith together are more likely to have less conflict, to reach a mutually satisfying resolution if there is conflict and to remain committed to each other and the marriage when conflict does occur," said David Dollahite, co-author and professor of family life at BYU.
Prior studies on this topic have reported various ways couples prevent marital conflict, but this study explores specific ways religion can actually help prevent marital conflict.
"Other research has shown that more religious couples are happier and less likely to divorce," Dollahite said. "Our research hones in on the 'hows' and 'whys' – what religion specifically contributes to marital stability and satisfaction."
Dollahite interviewed 57 highly religious, middle-aged married couples from "Abrahamic" or major monotheistic faiths comprising Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Participating couples from New England and California were asked several questions regarding the influence and impact of religion on their marriage.
Dollahite and his co-author, Nathaniel Lambert, who was a research assistant at BYU when the study was conducted and is now a marriage researcher at Florida State University, analyzed the interview transcripts to discover the patterns. The researchers' findings suggest that religion influences marriage in three main conflict phases:
Phase I: Problem prevention – Couples reported that the influence of religion helped develop a shared sacred vision and purpose for their marriage and also improved some relational qualities within marriage.
According to the study, a shared vision among couples helps reduce marital conflict by decreasing stress levels in the marriage and unifying husbands and wives.
Several of the couples interviewed said they were inspired by their religious beliefs to develop qualities to improve their relationship and reduce marital conflict. Selflessness and unconditional love were among the qualities cited.
Phase II: Conflict resolution – According to the study, the three most common religious beliefs and practices that helped couples resolve marital conflicts were scriptural teachings, attendance at religious services and prayer.
Several couples said in a time of conflict, they turned to their sacred texts for guidance. They often found helpful examples of relating to each other, the study noted. Couples also said that their sacred texts provided a standard to measure themselves against and drew couples' attention away from trivial arguments.
Prayer was described by couples in the study as a way to alleviate anger and facilitate open communication.
Phase III: Relational reconciliation – Religious involvement seemed to help couples reconcile by increasing their commitment to the relationship and encouraging forgiveness.
For couples in the study, the commitment to relationship stability created a desire to reconcile with each other and work through difficult times.
"Religious belief encourages a sense of shared purpose;, prayer promotes better communication before, during, and after conflict, and religious practice promotes greater marital commitment and willingness to reconcile the relationship through mutual forgiveness," Dollahite said.
Dollahite is currently working with students at BYU on research aimed at showing how religion promotes fidelity and increases commitment within marriage, and also how parents and youth discuss religious questions.
Writer: Jane Putnam