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Couples who share religious practices tend to be happier than those who don't, study says

By Donna St. George
Thursday, August 12, 2010; B01

African American couples are more likely than others to share core religious beliefs and pray together at home -- factors that have been linked to greater happiness in marriages and relationships, according to a study released Tuesday.

In what is described as the first major look at relationship quality and religion across racial and ethnic lines, researchers report a significant link between relationship satisfaction and religious factors for whites, Hispanics and African Americans. The study appears in this month's issue of the Journal of Marriage and Family.

True to the aphorism, couples who pray together stay together, said study co-author W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, and "African American couples are more likely to have a shared spiritual identity as a couple."

The study found that 40 percent of blacks in marriages and live-in relationships who attended religious services regularly had a partner who did the same, compared with 29 percent of non-Hispanic whites and 29 percent of Hispanics.

White couples, in general, reported greater relationship satisfaction than other groups, presumably because of income and educational advantages, the study says. But the racial gap lessens when religious similarities come into the mix.

"What this study suggests is that religion is one of the key factors narrowing the racial divide in relationship quality in the United States," Wilcox said.

The strongest difference-maker for couples was spiritual activities such as praying or reading the Bible at home. "Praying together as a couple is something that is very intimate for people who are religious," Wilcox said. "It adds another level of closeness to a relationship."

Such findings bear out in the four-year marriage of Sade and Charles Dennis, who live in Bowie. "Our relationship with the Lord has definitely been the glue that has held it together," said Sade, 34, an author and artist.

Sometimes the couple prays by phone as Charles commutes to his job as an accountant, or as Sade is just waking up and Charles reads her a devotional from his BlackBerry. At times of disagreement, when one can't see the other's point of view, one will interrupt and say: "Let's just pray," Sade said.

"Prayer is the great reconciler," she said. The Dennises attend monthly fellowships as part of a couples ministry at First Baptist Church of Glenarden.

In the whirlwind of daily life, prayer is also a moment to connect, she said. "We pray over every important milestone," she said. "We just really feel that God is the third person in this marriage. It's me, Charles and the Lord."

Cheryl J. Sanders, senior pastor at Third Street Church of God in Northwest Washington and a professor of Christian ethics at Howard University, said that with marriage in apparent decline, it is important to know what works in a relationship. "I welcome that kind of information," she said.

Deenice Galloway, 54, said faith has helped her marriage span 30 years, as she and her husband have raised two children in Bowie. "You have to use your faith to work through a whole lot of ups and downs and difficult moments," she said. "It makes it a whole lot easier."

Still, the study shows that religion did not have positive effects for all.

When one partner attends services regularly and the other does not, relationship satisfaction is lower.

Two nonreligious partners are more content together than partners with different practices, the study says.

"When couples do things together -- whether it's bird-watching, playing tennis or attending church -- they tend to do better," Wilcox said, and "when they don't share these activities, particularly when they are important, couples are more likely to suffer."

Still, experts such as Frank Fincham, director of the Family Institute at Florida State University, question whether the "active ingredient" that leads some couples to report greater satisfaction is really faith-based.

Fincham suggests maybe it's not religion but something else about the people who embrace it, or some other activity that couples do together.

The study's results are based on a recent analysis of a 2006 U.S. survey of 1,387 adults ages 18 to 59. Nearly 90 percent were married, and the others were living together.

The authors noted limitations of the study, such as relying on interviews with one partner rather than both. They controlled for income, age and education but not for other factors that might lead to relationship satisfaction, such as personality traits.

The Rev. James E. Terrell, pastor of Second Baptist Church in Northwest Washington, said that among his members he has observed shared beliefs as a source of marital unity.

"People seem to do better when they think there is a spiritual aspect to their marriage," Terrell said. That includes services and praying but also "seeking the Lord in terms of resolving problems and differences," he said. "Without a doubt, it helps to keep a marriage together."

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