Married Couples Who Attend Church Services Together Are Less Likely to Divorce: Study

Volunteers at Willow Creek Community Church of South Barrington, Illinois, hold up care packages made for prisoners for Christmas, December 6, 2015.
Volunteers at Willow Creek Community Church of South Barrington, Illinois, hold up care packages made for prisoners for Christmas, December 6, 2015. | (Photo: Courtesy of Willow Creek Church)

Married couples who attend church services together are more likely to live longer, are less likely to be depressed, and less likely to get divorced, according to a new study conducted by a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health. 

The study, titled "Religion and Health: A Synthesis," conducted by Tyler J. VanderWeele, professor of epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health, noted that religious service attendance is connected to "better health outcomes, including longer life, lower incidence of depression, and less suicide," the Institute for Family Studies noted on Tuesday. 

According to the study, religious service attendance is also "associated with greater marital stability — or more specifically, with a lower likelihood of divorce."

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"We of course cannot measure all aspects of spirituality," VanderWeele told The Christian Post in an interview on Thursday when asked how he might respond to the criticism that since spirituality cannot be empirically tested one shouldn't credit religious service attendance with so much power.

"The questions [the researchers ask] concern an individual's own assessment of their spirituality; or sometimes they will ask about frequency of prayer. But spirituality is obviously vastly more complex than that. It is possible that there may be some unstudied aspect of spirituality that is powerfully related to health, but if so this would require further research to establish," he said.

Married couples who attend religious services are 30 to 50 percent less likely to get divorced than those who do not, the study asserts. Such couples are also nearly 30 percent less likely to be depressed and, over a 16-year follow-up period, were shown to have significantly lower risk of dying.

The study consisted of only older women interviewees, but numerous other studies have been done on this topic measuring both men and women, young and old, and show similar results, VanderWeele said.

Though some might criticize the marital stability data by suggesting that those contemplating divorce might be more likely to stop attending religious services, the researchers took that into account.

By looking into the timing of changes in religious service attendance, VanderWeele said, "we were able to control for this possibility, and the results persisted: those who attended religious services were 47 percent less likely to subsequently divorce."

"Religion is, of course, not principally about promoting physical health or decreasing the likelihood of divorce, but about communion with God," he said, and efforts to commune with God have "profound implications for numerous other aspects of life, including health and marriage."

While Christians understand and interpret the word "religion" and everything it entails differently than academic researchers, the operative definition VanderWeele posits for the study is: "the pursuit of complete human well-being: physical, mental, social, and spiritual."

Taken together, "religion is about both communion with God and the restoration of all people to their intended state of complete wholeness and well-being. The evidence suggests that it can indeed accomplish both," he said.

The communal aspect of religion is particularly powerful, the study noted.

CP asked VanderWeele if he found that in light of the many positive health outcomes they discovered if the data shows that in order for marriages to thrive they need a religious community of some kind.

"The statement concerned specifically the health outcomes for which we have done research on multiple dimensions of religion and spirituality, and service attendance was unquestionably the strongest predictor," VanderWeele said. "We have not yet looked at self-assessed spirituality and marriage outcomes, so it may again be the strongest predictor there, but we do not know yet.

"The religious community provides social support, a constant reinforcement and reminder of the religious teachings, family programs, and a communal worship and experience of God. I would not say that good marriages need a community to thrive, but it certainly does help!" 

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