The Religion of Couples, Relationship Quality, and Health
Do couples who pray together really stay together?
You’ve seen it written on bumper stickers and church marquees: “The family that prays together stays together.”
Although you might think that the catchy phrase just has a nice ring to it or that it’s part of a religious marketing strategy to motivate the masses to make it to worship services, a study done by a UTSA sociology professor shows that those families who regularly devote time to prayer and other religious activities indeed share a stronger family bond.
The study concentrated on the religion of couples and its association with relationship quality, says Dean’s Distinguished Professor of Social Science Christopher Ellison of the Department of Sociology. Specifically, the study examined whether the responding partner believed that the relationship was God-centered, whether the partners shared core religious or spiritual values, and whether the partners engaged in regular devotional practices such as prayer or scriptural study outside of weekly worship services.
“Those three indicators of a couple’s religion were fairly robust predictors of relationship quality,” Ellison says, adding that the survey studied adults ages 18 to 59, with equal subsamples of African Americans, Latinos, and non-Hispanic whites. “Most surveys simply don’t have enough Latinos or African Americans to allow us to make reliable comparisons across these ethnicities, so this project was designed to overcome this problem.”
Religion, Race, Ethnicity and Relationship Satisfaction
Previous studies have found that, on average, African Americans— and to a lesser extent, Latinos—tend to report less relationship satisfaction than non-Hispanic whites. When Ellison initially examined his data, however, he didn’t find racial and ethnic disparities in relationship satisfaction. What he did discover was that couples from different racial and ethnic backgrounds differed vastly in terms of their investment as a couple in religious commitments and activities.
“On average, African Americans (and, to some extent, Latinos) were much more highly engaged than non-Hispanic whites in their weekly devotional activities and were much more prone to perceive that their relationship was God-centered,” he says. “Once we started comparing the black and white couples who were similar on these measures of religiousness, we quickly began to see that African Americans and Latinos had lower levels of relationship satisfaction compared to non-Hispanic whites.”
“One plausible interpretation of these results,” Ellison says, “is that, on average, African Americans and Latinos might be faring significantly worse in terms of their relationship quality if they were not as involved with religion.”
Religion and Health
Another area of interest for Ellison is the role of religion in shaping mental and physical health, including longevity. One study included more than 20,000 adults of all ages from around the United States. “We found that, compared with non-attendance at services, regular religious attendance is associated with significantly lower mortality risk,” he says. Ellison has also investigated religious influences on numerous other outcomes, including mental health. This work links religious practices and beliefs with greater life satisfaction and lower levels of depression and emotional distress.
A major portion of Dr. Ellison’s research agenda is focused on trying to identify explanations for the apparent religion-health connection. One potential factor is that more religious people engage in lower levels of problem drinking, smoking, and other negative or risky health behaviors. Research has also found that more religiously active persons tend to be more proactive with their health, getting annual medical checkups and utilizing preventive health care services. “They often want to take care of their family and watch their kids and grandchildren grow up.” Thus far, however, lifestyle factors do explain the religious differences in health and mortality risk.
In one strand of research, Ellison has also studied the role of religious congregations and communities as sources of friendships and social support networks. Religious groups offer social outlets and formal programs for members, which can promote physical and mental well-being. In addition, informal exchanges of goods and services, information, and emotional support among church members can have a direct bearing on mental and physical health and even longevity. But, according to Ellison, the associations between religion and health cannot be reduced merely to social relationships within religious communities, either.
Part of the explanation may also involve the influence of religion on psychological resources. Studies by Ellison and others have shown that, on average, more religious persons tend to enjoy higher global self-esteem, as well as feelings of mastery and a sense of meaning and purpose in life. Ellison also points out that, “For many persons, religion is a key source of positive emotions and beliefs, such as forgiveness, gratitude and humility. Religious individuals also tend to cope more successfully with stressful events and conditions, ranging from financial strain to death of a loved one, than other persons.”
Although most studies have reported desirable health effects of religiousness, Ellison also emphasizes the need for a balanced approach to the topic, noting that some aspects of religion can undermine mental and physical health. For example, some religious traditions discourage members from seeking medical care. In addition, Ellison has found that “Individuals who experience troubled relationships with God and chronic religious doubts can suffer adverse mental and physical health effects. Negative interactions within the congregation may also take a toll on the health of members.
Ellison, who joined UTSA in Fall 2010 after a 19-year career at The University of Texas at Austin, specializes in the sociology of religion, health, family, and racial and ethnic relations. His research focuses on the implications of religious involvement for mental and physical health and mortality risk; religious variations in family life with particular attention to childrearing, marital and relationship quality; and the role of religious institutions, practices and values among racial and ethnic minority populations in the United States, among other topics.
To date, he has published two books and 160 peer-reviewed academic journal articles and book chapters, as well as other miscellaneous writings. He has also received more than $3.5 million in grant funding from the National Institute on Aging, National Science Foundation, National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, and various private foundations. In 2004, Ellison was recognized by the Institute for Scientific Information as a Highly Cited Author, reflecting the frequency with which his work has been cited by other scholars.
Ellison is co-editor of “Religion, Families and Health: Population- based Research in the United States,” published in 2010 by Rutgers University Press. He currently serves on the editorial boards of several major journals in sociology and other areas, including Social Forces, Social Science Research, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, and several others.