New research sheds light on the unifying and dividing influences that religion can have on marital relationships. The study has been published in Psychology of Religion and Spirituality.

“Religion is an extremely complex construct. However, much of the research on religion and relationships relies on limited measures and focuses only on the positive or the negative aspects and influences of religion,” said study author Heather Kelley, a PhD student at Brigham Young University.

“One thing the research has made clear is that religion both helps and harms relationships. A recent study proposed a system of dualities to explain why religion is both helpful and harmful (Dollahite, Marks, & Dalton, 2018). One of the proposed dualities was that religion both unites and divides families.”

“As scholars who study religion and family, not only were we interested in the practical implications of a better understanding of this duality, we were also motivated by the opportunity to employ a more complex model to this topic.”

“Our goal in this study was to explore the influence of religion on marital relationships through a multifaceted lens, using rigorous qualitative methods to explore how religion both unifies and divides married couples through religious beliefs, religious practices, and religious communities,” Kelley said.

The researchers conducted in-depth interviews with 198 religious couples regarding the role that religion played in their relationships. All the participants were adherents of either Judaism, Christianity, or Islam.

The interviews were then systematically coded to identify beliefs and practices that were described as being uniting or dividing.

Religious beliefs such as marriage being sacred and spouses being required to respect each other were frequently cited as unifying aspects of faith. Beliefs regarding sexuality and gender roles, on the other hand, were sometimes cited as being harmful to marriage.

Many couples said that religious activities provided them with opportunities to spend time together. But other couples said religious activities caused them to spend time apart.

“For highly religious couples, religion appears to have a predominately unifying influence, bringing couples closer through: (a) shared beliefs which provide a common ground and emphasize the importance of marriage, (b) shared practices which allow couples to spend quality time with each other and overcome difficulties, and (c) the support of their shared religious communities,” Kelley told PsyPost.

“However, religion was also identified as having a dividing influence, particularly when principles were misapplied or done in excess or when ideas regarding religious beliefs, practices, and community were not shared between spouses.”

The researchers found that the couples mentioned significantly more unifying beliefs and practices than divisive beliefs and practices. But this could be due in part to the religious makeup of the sample.

“This study focused on highly religious, intrafaith couples. More research is need on the unifying and dividing influence of religion among interfaith, marginally religious, and nonreligious couples. Additionally, there is a need for research on how religion unites and divides other relationships, including parent-child relationships and nonfamilial relationship,” Kelley explained.

The study, “Uniting and dividing influences of religion in marriage among highly religious couples“, was authored by Heather H. Kelley, Loren D. Marks, and David C. Dollahite.