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Inter-faith & intra-faith marriages

Divorce rates among mixed marriages:
Overview, marriage stability, some data.

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Overview:

A cynic in our office has a theory that marriages can be divided into four equally-sized groups:

bulletTwo groups, 50%, don't last. Couples separate and later divorce.
bullet25% of couples endure marriages which are almost totally lacking in intimacy; they co-exist in two solitudes.
bullet25% live in happy, mutually supportive marriages.

Also, separation and divorce do not seem to be good alternatives to staying together. Surveys show that there is little or no net gain in people's happiness several years after separation. Many get married again without sufficient introspection to be aware of their contribution to the breakdown of the previous marriage.

The rest of us like to think that this image is excessively pessimistic. But at least one of the values seems to be accurate: the Americans for Divorce Reform estimates that "Probably, 40 or possibly even 50 percent of marriages will end in divorce if current trends continue." 1

Conventional wisdom states that inter-faith marriages contain additional stressors that other marriages do not have. Thus the former can be expected to have an even higher failure rate.

The effect of religion itself on marriage stability:

The slogan "The family that prays together, stays together" is often seen on billboards and magazine advertisements. But this may not be accurate:

bulletThere has been much anecdotal evidence that has led to "unsubstantiated claims that the divorce rate for Christians who attended church regularly, pray together or who meet other conditions is only 1 or 2 percent". 2

bullet A recent study by the Barna Research Group throws extreme doubt on these estimates. Barna released the results of their poll about divorce on 1999-DEC-21. 3 It was based on interviews of 3,854 adults from the 48 contiguous states. The sampling error is within 2 percentage points. The survey found:

bulletDivorce rates among born-again Christians were much higher at 27 percent than for other Christian faith groups.

bulletAtheists and Agnostics have the lowest divorce rate of all: 21 percent.

bulletDivorce rates among Jews were highest of any religion sampled. In order of decreasing divorce rates were: born-again Christians, other Christians, and Atheists/Agnostics. More information.

bulletDr. Tom Ellis, chairman of the Southern Baptist Convention's Council on the Family said that for truly "...born-again Christian couples who marry...in the church after having received premarital counseling...and attend church regularly and pray daily together..." experience only 1 divorce out of nearly 39,000 marriages -- or 0.00256 percent. He doubts the accuracy of the Barna poll, noting that "Just saying you are Christian is not going to guarantee that your marriage is going to stay together." One must make a full commitment to God. 4 [Emphasis ours]

Why is the religious factor so destabilizing?

Scientific beliefs are generally based on observation and experimentation. Opinions can be debated and resolved. The belief with the best supporting evidence wins.  However, religious beliefs tend to be based on faith. For most people, their religious beliefs are an accident of birth: those born in Saudi Arabia will almost certainly mature to be Muslim adults; those born in Alabama will most likely become a fundamentalist or other Evangelical Christian. Whatever religion they grow up with is liable to determine their faith for the rest of their life. This can produce serious problems when two spouses come from different religious traditions:

bulletAn inter-faith couple typically follows a pair of religions that teach very different beliefs and practices about deity, humanity and the rest of the universe. Conflicts are not easily resolved. Many people believe that their religious beliefs were revealed by one or more Gods and/or Goddesses, and are thus absolutely true. Further, they believe that other religions were invented by humans and are thus lacking in validity. There is often no room to compromise without one spouse giving up some of their beliefs.

bullet Irresolvable conflicts often occur in intra-faith marriages as well. Although both spouses follow the same religion and revere the same religious text, their two denominations will often have different interpretations of important passages. Even within the conservative wing of Christianity, there is a range of beliefs about important religious topics. Both InterVarsity Press and Zondervan publish a series of books in which leading Evangelical Christian theologians explain their personal views on a specific topic, and critique each others beliefs. Each of the authors believes that their own belief is biblically based. Yet, their conclusions are at variance with each other. If theologians cannot resolve differences, it is doubtful that two spouses can.

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Inter-faith marriage divorce data and opinions:

Vera Lawlor, from The Bergen Record in Hakensack, NJ., wrote that inter-faith marriages have a failure rate that is 50% higher than same-faith marriages. She does not cite a source for this datum. Since the rate for all marriages is on the order of 50%, this would imply an almost 75% failure rate for inter-faith marriages -- 3 chances out of 4. 5

Emmanual Clapsis writes:

"Controversy abounds on the topic of survival rates, but the best studies show a higher survival rate for single faith marriages than [for] interfaith marriages." 

This may be due to differences in marital satisfaction. He states that several unidentified studies agree that religiously mixed marriages are less satisfying than single-faith marriages. 6 One was a nationwide survey conducted in the 1970's. One factor may be that when spouses follow separate religious traditions, an opportunity for companionship is reduced. 

Esther Perel, an inter-faith marital therapist, referring to Jewish - Christian marriages, wrote in New York Magazine:

"The difference isn't just between Moses and Christ. You're dealing with issues of money, sex, education, child-rearing practices, food, family relationships, styles of emotional expressiveness, issues of autonomy -- all of these are culturally embedded." 7

A 1993 study published in Demography showed that members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) were the least likely of all faith groups to divorce: After five years of marriage, only 13% of LDS couples had divorced. But when a Mormon marries a non-Mormon, the divorce rate was found to have increased more than three-fold to 40%. Similar data for Jews were 27% and 42%. 8

Another old study published in 1993 by Evelyn Lehrer of the University of Illinois at Chicago, found that at the five-year point in marriage:

  • About 20% of marriages between two mainline Christian denominations are divorced.
  • About 33% of marriages between a Catholic and an evangelical are divorced
  • Over 40% of marriages between a Jew and a Christian are divorced. 9

A study published in 2009 by Margaret Vaaler, Christopher Ellison and Daniel Powers of the University of Texas at Austin found that other risk factors for divorce were:

  • A husband who attends religious services more frequently than his wife, and
  • A wife who is theologically more conservative than her husband. 9

These factors would apparently be significant even if the couple were of the same denomination.

Egon Mayer, a professor at Brooklyn College, published another study confirming that inter-faith couples experience higher divorce rates. Referring to the case where one spouse abandons their religion and adopts their spouse's faith, he wrote in USA Today:

"When you bury something that is really important to you, all you're doing is building up a kind of pressure within the family relationship, which becomes a source of tension, which ultimately becomes a time bomb. If there's any reason why intermarriages break up, it's because of that time bomb." 7

References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. "Divorce statistics collection: Summary of findings so far," Americans for Divorce Reform, at: http://www.divorcereform.org/
  2. "Fresh Thinking Needed on Divorce Issues," Jesus Journal, at: http://www.jesusjournal.com/
  3. "Christians are more likely to experience divorce than are non-Christians," Barna Research Group, 1999-DEC-21, at: http://www.barna.org/
  4. John Rossomando, "Born-Again Christians No More Immune to Divorce Than Others, Says Author," CNSNews, at:  http://www.cnsnews.com/
  5. Vera Lawlor, "Is it OK for those of different faiths to wed?," The Bergen Record, Hakensack, NJ., 1999-MAR-11. See: http://www.bergen.com/
  6. Emmanual Clapsis, "The challenge posed by mixed marriages," at: http://www.voithia.org/
  7. Quoted in: "Dating strategies: Why not intermarry," JewishDatingAndMarriage.com, at: http://www.jewishdatingandmarriage.com
  8. Bob Mims, "Mormons: high conservativism, low divorce, big growth - 3/99," Salt Lake Tribune, 1999-MAR-6, at: http://archives.his.com/smartmarriages/
  9. Naomi Schaefer Riley, "Interfaith marriages are rising fast, but they're failing fast too," Washington Post, 2010-JUN-06, at: http://www.washingtonpost.com/

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Copyright 2002 to 2011 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2002-MAR-20
Latest update: 2011-JAN-28
Author: B.A. Robinson

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