The religious model of marriage and family appears to boost the odds that young adults can marry before 30 without increasing their risk of landing in divorce court.
The new marriage norm for American men and women is to marry around the age of 30, according to the U.S. Census. Many young adults believe that marrying closer to age 30 reduces their risk of divorce, and, indeed, there is research consistent with that belief. But we also have evidence suggesting that religious Americans are less likely to divorce even as they are more likely to marry younger than 30. This paradoxical pattern raises two questions worth exploring: Is the way religious Americans form their marriages different than the way marriages are formed by their more secular peers? And do religious marriages formed by twenty-somethings face different divorce odds than marriages formed by secular Americans in the same age group?
The answer to that last question is complicated by the role of cohabitation in contemporary family formation. Today, more than 70% of marriages are preceded by cohabitation, as Figure 1 indicates. Increased cohabitation is both cause and consequence of the rise in the age at first marriage. But what most young adults do not know is that cohabiting before marriage, especially with someone besides your future spouse, is also associated with an increased risk of divorce, as a recent Stanford study reports.
So, one reason that religious marriages in America may be more stable is that religion reduces young adults’ odds of cohabiting prior to marriage, even though it increases their likelihood of marrying at a relatively young age. Accordingly, in this Institute for Family Studies research brief, we explore the relationships between religion, cohabitation, age at marriage, and divorce by looking at data from the National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG).
Researching Religion and Family
To address the questions addressed in this research brief, we merge data from the National Survey of Family Growth from 1995 to 2019, using responses from over 53,000 women ages 15 to 49 to recreate their individual-level family histories. (We focus on women because men were not included in the NSFG until recently.)1
The NSFG included two important questions about religion: first, the respondent’s current religious affiliation, and second, what religion they were raised in. Current religious affiliation is not a very informative variable for understanding how religion influences family life because, for example, marriage might motivate people to become more religious (or cohabitation might motivate people to become less religious). But religious upbringing (measured by a woman’s reported religious denomination “in which she was raised” around age 14) occurs before the vast majority of marriages or cohabitations, so is not influenced by them.
Thus, we explore how religious upbringing influences family life. Young adults don’t choose what religion they’re raised in, so this is about as close as we can get to what researchers call “exogenous” treatment, meaning something like experimental conditions. But because religious upbringing could be correlated with many other variables, we also include some important controls: a woman’s educational status in each year of her life (i.e., enrolled in high school, dropped out, enrolled in college, college graduate, etc.), her race or ethnicity, her mother’s highest educational attainment, and whether she grew up in an “intact” family. We also control for survey wave and decade.
Does Religion Influence Marriage and Cohabitation?
In the 1960s, about 5% of newlyweds cohabited before marriage. In the 2010s, it was more than 70%, an enormous increase. After incorporating the effects of control variables, Figure 2 shows2 that in a typical year of life, about 5% of nonreligious women ages 18-49 who have not yet married or cohabited will begin a cohabiting union. That figure is nearer 4% for women with a Christian upbringing, nearer to 3% for women with a non-Christian religious upbringing (i.e., Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses as well as Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and others), and about 4% for religious women on the whole. In other words, after controlling for a variety of background factors, women who grew up religious are about 20% less likely to begin a cohabiting union in any given year than their non-religious peers. As a result, by age 35, about 65% of women with a non-religious upbringing had cohabited at least once, versus under 50% of women with a religious upbringing. Not only does religion reduce the odds that young adults cohabit, it also increases the odds that they marry directly, or without cohabiting first.
Figure 3 illustrates3 the links between religion and what we call direct marriages, that is, marriages that did not include premarital cohabitation. The trends depicted below in Figure 3 show up in similar form for all marriages, but direct marriages are particularly important because they are a closer proxy for the “traditional” relationship pathways promoted by many religions.
For women with a non-religious upbringing who have not yet married or cohabited, about 1% are likely to begin a direct marriage in a given year. For religious people generally, it’s a little more than 1.5%. But for women with Evangelical Protestant or Non-Christian Religious upbringings, the rate of entrance into marriage is over 2%: this is twice the rate of entrance into “direct” marriage. By age 35, about 28% of women with a non-religious upbringing had entered a direct marriage without cohabiting, compared to approximately 43% of women with a religious upbringing. In other words, religiosity is associated with vastly greater likelihood of going directly from singleness to a married union, and generally at younger ages.
Overall, then, religion greatly influences the nature and age of relationship formation. Young women raised in a religious home cohabit less, but they marry more, and especially earlier: in this sample tracking marriage patterns over the last 40 years, women with non-religious upbringings wed around age 25, religious women wed generally around age 24, and women with Evangelical Protestant upbringings wed around 23.5.
Does Religion Influence Breakup and Divorce?
Earlier marriage is a known risk factor for divorce. Premarital cohabitation is too. Since religiosity tends to motivate earlier marriage but less cohabitation, the effects on divorce are not easy to guess. What we really want to know is: conditional on getting married, do religious people get divorced less?
The answer appears to be yes. Without controls for age at marriage or an indicator for premarital cohabitation, women with a religious upbringing do have slightly lower likelihoods of divorce. As shown4 in Figure 4, the annual divorce rate among married women with a nonreligious upbringing is around 5%. For religious women, it’s around 4.5%. The effect is clearest for Catholic and Mainline Protestant women, and less clear for Evangelical Protestant women. Overall, if we control for basic socioeconomic background and a woman’s educational career trajectory, the typical marriage of a woman with a religious upbringing is about 10% less likely to end in divorce within the first 15 years of marriage than the typical marriage of a woman with a non-religious upbringing.