Here’s a conundrum for you. In the USA, religious couples report higher satisfaction with their relationship. African-American couples are more religious than white couples. Yet African-American couples report lower relationship satisfaction than White couples. What’s going on here?
The answer, according to a recent analysis of the National Survey of Religion and Family Life (NSRFL), is that African-Americans would have even worse relationships if it weren’t for their religion.
The graphic shows how different groups map out in terms of average family religious activities – “praying together” – and relationship satisfaction. African-Americans are the most religious, yet report the lowest relationship satisfaction.
Teasing these data apart, the researchers (led Chris Ellison at the University of Texas) conclude that family religious activities have a positive effect, and that African-Americans would have even worse relationships if it wasn’t for the fact that they are so religious.
The details are a little bit technical, but basically when they chucked a whole bunch of variables into the model, which took account of differences in education, income, marital status and other things (but not religious activities), they found that African-Americans did not, in fact, have lower relationship satisfaction.
Then they added family religious activities in, and suddenly being African-American was linked to worse relationship quality. They concluded that the higher family religious activities of African-Americans were bumping up their relationship quality. Here’s W. Bradford Wilcox, one of the study co-authors:
“Without prayer, black couples would be doing significantly worse than white couples. This study shows that religion narrows the racial divide in relationship quality in America,” Wilcox said. “The vitality of African-Americans’ religious lives gives them an advantage over other Americans when it comes to relationships. This advantage puts them on par with other couples.” [Press release]
Now, although this is a reasonable conclusion, it is also something of a statistical sleight-of-hand. They didn’t actually show a statistical interaction. They’re inferring one, which is a bit dangerous. It’s also a weak effect – going all the way from ‘never’ to ‘more than once a week’ on the religious activities scale would only shift relationship satisfaction by 0.6 points on a 6-point scale. Even with all their variables in the model, they only explain 10% of the variation in satisfaction. And, of course, we don’t really know which way cause-and-effect is running.
But think about what it means if they are right. It means that the surest way to relationship satisfaction is to enjoy whatever it is that Whites have apart from education and money – high social status, I guess. But for African-Americans, religion acts as a kind social support to help them deal with their allotted place in society.
The researchers did also show one other effect of religion. When partners shared religious beliefs, they tended to be more satisfied. On the face of it, that’s not too surprising. You’d expect partners that shared beliefs and attitudes to have more in common, and so to get on better.
But turn it around, and you can see that couples who belong to different beliefs systems are inherently less likely to be happy together. And the effect is potent – partners whose beliefs are strongly different score 1.3 points lower in relationship satisfaction. They may be a great match in every other way, but those different beliefs about an intangible thing like your choice of god is enough to drag them down.
In other words, what we have here is strong, incontrovertible evidence of the fracturing effects that religious beliefs have on society. But somehow that conclusion didn’t seem to make it into the press release!
Ellison, C., Burdette, A., & Bradford Wilcox, W. (2010). The Couple That Prays Together: Race and Ethnicity, Religion, and Relationship Quality Among Working-Age Adults Journal of Marriage and Family, 72 (4), 963-975 DOI: 10.1111/j.1741-3737.2010.00742.x