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How religion can help couples manage marital stress

Posted September 20

After she discovered her husband’s affair, Stacey Greene went through dozens of family photo albums and pulled out every picture showing the two of them together: smiling, hugging or kissing.

She put all these in one photo album and looked at it frequently — to remind herself that two-plus decades of marriage, four children and loads of happy times with a man she truly loved wasn’t something she could just throw away.

“My dad always taught me to look at the big picture,” she says. “I felt like ‘OK, we had 25 years of good marriage … what if we had 25 more years of a good marriage? What would this five months (of his affair) be out of a 50-year marriage? It would be a pimple; it would be a scar. It wouldn’t be what defines me.”

It took a long time to get to that point — through tears, therapy and step-by-step rebuilding of their relationship — but Greene, who has written a book about their story under the pen name, “Stacey Greene," says her faith in God, her underlying love for her husband and her belief in the sanctity of marriage were the only things that made that journey possible.

Dozens and dozens of studies back up what Greene anecdotally declares — that religion offers positive benefits to marriages, even stress-buffering effects during crises. But while that's true, it's not the whole story, experts say.

Careful, nuanced studies are needed to tease out which specific religious or spiritual beliefs and practices may be helpful (or even harmful) to couples — particularly during times of stress — because saying “religion protects marriages” is pretty vague, says Annette Mahoney, a professor of psychology at Bowling Green State University in Ohio and a leader in the field of religious psychology and family life.

“It’s like saying does ‘personality’ protect or insulate marriages? The answer depends entirely on the specific personality traits that each partner has," she told the Deseret News, "just as the role of ‘religion’ depends entirely on the specific religious/nonreligious beliefs that each partner may have about marriage and divorce."

Which is why social scientists are intrigued but still cautious about a recent paper that found religious couples were less likely than non-religious couples to divorce after the discovery of a pornography habit.

Much to learn

To illustrate just how much isn't known about the connection and impact of religion on marriage and family life, before Mahoney wrote a special section on religion/spirituality and marriage for the Journal of Family Psychology a few years ago, she searched several professional databases for studies in peer-reviewed journals containing the term “marriage.”

In the two main databases, she found 11,828 and 12,584 empirical studies across a 30-year span.

Yet in that same time span of 1980-2009, her search for studies that specifically tested hypotheses on the links between marital and religion/spirituality variables yielded only 131 studies, or 1.1 percent.

The huge lack of "focused, scientific inquiry" on such a rich, deep area of study was puzzling, Mahoney writes in a soon-to-be-published chapter, given how strongly many Americans feel connected to and participate in religious or spiritual practices and beliefs.

In a 2015 Religious Landscape Study, the Pew Research Center found that 66 percent of Americans still indicate that religion is “very” important to them, while another 25 percent say religion is somewhat important to them.

And according to the National Survey of Family Growth, 77 percent of mothers say religion is somewhat or very important to them in their daily lives.

Yet there’s still a gaping hole in how researchers, leaders and even individuals talk about and understand how religion impacts — for good and ill — the behaviors and outcomes of marital and family relationships, Mahoney laments.

Deeper questions

Currently, many studies use the factor of church attendance to study the impact of religion on a relationship. While that provides some data, Mahoney worries that it may prevent researchers from seeing whether marital benefits come from actual religious beliefs, or rather the social capital that comes from being involved with a religious group with associated resources, support, etc.

In one study among a diverse group of multiracial couples, Christopher Ellison, a distinguished professor of sociology at the University of Texas at San Antonio, found that while church attendance mattered, a far better predictor of marital quality was the belief in a "sanctified" relationship.

Such a belief means that the couple saw their relationship as "God-centered," and that they had frequent devotional activities in the home, separate from church attendance.

The concept of marriage "sanctification," as first measured psychologically by Mahoney and her colleague Kenneth Pargament, a professor emeritus of psychology at Bowling Green University, in 1996-97, means that the relationship is seen to have a spiritual dimension and significance.

Couples who believe in sanctification share a sense of purpose that goes beyond shared hobbies, self-interest, procreation, etc., Ellison explains. The couple may believe that God has a mission for their marriage, and perhaps even brought them together.

“There’s a special sense of purpose, a sense that the union is sacred and is something that the other partners value and would sacrifice their own interests for,” he says.

When couples score highly on the belief that their union is sanctified, they tend to score better on things having to do with that relationship, Ellison says. Couples mention and exhibit more positive emotions, more bonding, more time spent together, more constructive problem-solving, more compromise, less stonewalling.

Ellison has also found that a belief in relational “sanctification may offer benefits for couples under stress, (when) financial strain, work/family conflict, other things … can just eat away at the fabric of day-to-day life and make sustaining the quality of the relationship difficult.”

Religiosity and porn use

Maintaining relational quality can become even more difficult when pornography enters the picture, yet a recent paper found that religious individuals appear to be less likely to divorce after the discovery of a spouse's pornography use than their non-religious peers.

The report, presented in late August at the 111th annual meeting of the American Sociological Association by Samuel Perry, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Oklahoma, found that married Americans who began viewing pornography between a first and second survey wave of the General Social Survey, several years apart, nearly doubled their probability of divorce. The effect was even stronger for married women who began viewing porn.

And women, but not men, who stopped looking at porn between survey waves had a reduced probability for divorce.

(Perry expects that for younger survey participants, it's likely they had been viewing pornography long before they got married, but their data only allowed them to conclude that "the group that either picked up porn or stayed with porn were more likely to be divorced by times 2, and that those who either avoided porn altogether or left it between waves had a lower likelihood of divorce.”)

However, those who reported attending church at least once a week were less likely to be divorced than those who said they were non-religious — a “rather surprising" finding, says Perry.

“My previous research on this topic, and that of others, showed that religious persons tend to experience the effects of pornography on their marriages worse than others,” he said.

They often feel increased guilt, shame and cognitive dissonance felt by religious porn users, while religious spouses are more likely to see porn use as infidelity and thus have their own increased hurt and shame.

“But while I think religion (plus) porn may lead to lower marital quality for couples, I think religion serves to protect marriages from divorce even when porn is present,” he continued. “Religious persons are more likely to have internalized pro-marriage values that discourage divorce as an option, and they're also more likely to be surrounded by a community that will urge them to fight for their marriage rather than end it.”

But that doesn't mean it's an easy process.

Richard Marks, a minister, marriage and family therapist and vice president of "Live the Life Inc.," a Christian-based marital education and strengthening organization based in Florida, has seen hundreds of couples on the brink of divorce — often because of pornography or adultery. Yet, after attending a "HOPE weekend," where couples learn how to rebuild trust, restore communication and remove relational pain, he's seen those same couples commit to doing what it takes to save their marriage.

"(Religious couples) do tend to stay together because their faith is an important part to them," Marks says. "They hang onto their faith and trust that they can make it through and that God can do something. Yet at the same time, (they) recognize that the offending partner has got to do what they've got to do to rectify (things). As a group they take their vows … the better or worse (part), more seriously."

Perry's working paper, which has not yet been peer-reviewed or published, has already drawn the ire of some who question the researcher’s decision not to control for self-stimulation, employment status or other factors that could also lead to marital problems, as well as not distinguishing whether “viewing porn” meant one time or 100 times, and what type of images were watched.

Religion-colored glasses

Yet, despite the chatter, the initial findings are not surprising for John Bartowski, a professor of sociology at the University of Texas at San Antonio, who points out two different ways to interpret the results.

The first way to read the study would be to look at religion in the context of community and how the religious community is more likely to be pro-family and pro-marriage and thus support and encourage efforts to preserve marriages.

Members of religious congregations often have access to resources such as Bible-study groups, addiction recovery meetings or pastoral counseling that may provide additional support for a struggling individual or couple.

Also, in those communities, while pornography use carries a stigma, perhaps the stigma of divorce still trumps the stigma of pornography use, he says.

However, what Bartowski said he found more interesting is the deeper question of how religious individuals see the person who is viewing pornography, he says.

In an environment focused on forgiveness and redemption, perhaps this paper shows that religious individuals are more likely to see pornography use as a “redeemable offense, both in a congregational situation and in a marriage,” Bartkowski said. “(People might say) ‘I know this is something you’re struggling with, but this is not who you are.’”

That belief, combined with the awareness of pornography's increasing availability and societal acceptability may make a religious husband or wife more patient with a struggling spouse — while still not condoning their behavior.

Churches as a whole are also becoming much more understanding of pornography as a growing problem, Bartkowski says.

“Religious congregations and denominations are wise, and I’d even saw shrewd enough to recognize that (pornography) may be something on which they have taken a long-term opposing stand toward,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean they’re going to immediately exile, excommunicate, keep at arm’s length those who are wrestling with this issue, or people who are dabbling in porn.”

In fact, preaching now is more understanding than ever, says Pastor Gary Gilley of Southern View Chapel in Springfield, Illinois.

"We try to make a real emphasis in the preaching that we’re all people that are fighting battles," he said. "We don’t always win those battles, but God’s grace is there, God’s people are there to help."

Another 30 years

Just a few weekends ago, Stacey and her husband Jimmy welcomed friends to their home for their 30th wedding anniversary party. Three decades before, they'd been married in the same backyard of what was then Stacey's parents' home.

Along with a video of their wedding reception, Stacey had the "kissy face" photo album prominently displayed.

"The (biggest) thing that helped get me through my crisis was the belief that if God can love a murderer or a thief, and if that horrible person can be saved … just simply by asking Jesus for the forgiveness and to come into his or her life, then God must truly love all of his children," said Greene, who was raised attending both United Methodist and Baptist churches. "I figured maybe I could love the sinner, but not the sin."

Greene is quick to add that she and her husband are not perfect, nor is their marriage. They still fight, but they make up quicker and communicate better. And no matter what, she’s committed to their marriage and to God, who she says gives her the strength to keep going — "I got at least another 30 (years) in me," she says with a laugh.

Even Jimmy, who goes to church with Greene but still isn't sure about his relationship with God, acknowledged the role of faith as a saving factor in their marriage, through a letter he wrote as the last page of Greene's book, "Stronger Than Broken."

"To my loving wife with her faith and forgiveness," Jimmy wrote.

"You did not let a great wrong end our family, which could have been shattered by my selfish act. Through your undying love you somehow saw the big picture to help both of us come together. Thank you for the love and the faith you had to believe in me."

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