African-American couples more likely to share beliefs; faith affects couples’ happiness, study says

Published: Friday, August 13, 2010, 4:00 AM

The Washington Post

True to the aphorism, couples who pray together stay together, study co-author Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, said. “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.

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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, of Bowie, Md., who attend First Baptist Church of Glenarden. “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, one will interrupt and say, “Let’s just pray,” Sade Dennis said. “Prayer is the great reconciler.”

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 Sanders, senior pastor at Third Street Church of God in 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.

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; 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.

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