African-Americans derive the most benefits from that connection because they are significantly more likely than whites or Latinos to pray together and attend church together, offsetting other socioeconomic factors tied to lower relationship quality – a finding dubbed the "African-American religion-marriage paradox," said W. Bradford Wilcox, a sociology professor and director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia.
He is co-author of the new study, "The Couple That Prays Together: Race and Ethnicity, Religion, and Relationship Quality Among Working-Age Adults," which appears in theAugust issue of the Journal of Marriage and Family.
"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."
The same is true, to a lesser extent, for Latino couples, he said.
But religion may not always benefit couples. Couples holding discordant religious beliefs and those with only one partner who attends religious services regularly tend to be less happy in their relationships, the researchers found.
Being on different pages religiously is a source of tension for couples across racial and ethnic lines. "That may be due to less time spent doing things together," Wilcox said, "or having different values about child rearing, alcohol use or any number of things."
A substantial body of research has shown that relationship quality tends to be lower among racial and ethnic minorities, and higher among more religious persons and among couples in which partners share common religious affiliations, practices and beliefs, explained the study's lead author,Christopher G. Ellison, a fellow of the U.Va.-based National Marriage Project and a professor of social science at the University of Texas at San Antonio.
Wilcox and Ellison co-wrote the study with Amy M. Burdette, assistant professor of sociology at Florida State University.
The study uses data from the National Survey of Religion and Family Life, a 2006 telephone survey of 1,387 working-age adults (ages 18 to 59) in relationships, funded by the Lilly Endowment and designed by Ellison and Wilcox.
The overwhelming majority of respondents were married (89 percent), with a somewhat lower rate among the racial and ethnic minorities.
The respondents reported high levels of relationship satisfaction (4.8 on a 6-point scale), but African-Americans reported being significantly less happy than whites. However, after controlling for age, education and income, the racial differences disappear.
Blacks reported higher levels of church attendance, both with and without their partners. Forty percent of black respondents reported that they attended services regularly as a couple, compared to 29 percent of whites, 31 percent of Mexicans or Mexican-Americans and 32 percent of all respondents.
Blacks were also significantly more likely than the other groups to report shared religious activities like prayer or scriptural study. That difference is probably driving the relationship improvements more than shared church attendance, Wilcox noted.
"The closer you get to the home, the more powerful the beneficial effects," Wilcox said. "It makes sense that those who think about, talk about and practice their beliefs in the home, those who bring home their reflections on their marriage, derive stronger effects from those beliefs, especially compared to those who simply attend church weekly.
"I think forgiveness is probably a pretty key dimension to the link between shared religious practice – prayer in particular – and success in the relationship," Wilcox said. In past studies, forgiveness has been found to be a key influence on the success of relationships, home life and even workplace happiness.
Previous research linking religious involvement to improved relationship quality has ascribed the connection to three factors, Wilcox explained.
First, religious communities typically promote ethical behavior (the Golden Rule, forgiveness) that helps define appropriate relationship conduct, encourage partners to fulfill their familial roles and responsibilities, and handle conflict in a constructive manner.
Second, family-centered social networks found in religious communities offer formal and informal support to couples and families, from financial help to models of healthy relationships, to advice from an elder about how to discipline a difficult child.
Third, religious belief seems to provide people with a sense of purpose and meaning about life in general and their relationship in particular, which increases resilience to stress.
That's particularly important for blacks and Latinos, Wilcox said, because they are more likely to experience "poverty, xenophobia, racism, neighborhood violence, underemployment, or similar factors that can stress a relationship."