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Religion carries weight in decisions about marriage and kids

Published: Wednesday, Oct. 2 2013 5:20 p.m. MDT

Recent studies say those who place higher importance on religion are more likely to make decisions based on religious beliefs. How does religion impact the choices of believers when it comes to choosing a spouse and having kids?

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Lynn Jones was 15 when she started searching for "the one."

She said she prayed to God consistently, asking who her soul mate was and when she'd meet him. Jones always planned on getting married, but she just wanted it to be to the right person — the one God wanted, she said.

And then, one night at a Christian coffee house, an ant, so small and coy, crawled across the floor and largely reshaped Jones' life.

That ant pedaled over from the other side of the room where her future husband was sitting.

"I brought him his ant back," she joked, and that's how she met Eric.

Now, 34 years after marrying at the age of 20, the 54-year-old Jones is still enjoying her marriage.

Jones' consulting her religious beliefs in her quest for marriage isn't out of the ordinary. Based on a recent study published in The Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, experts say those who find religion important in their lives are especially likely to make decisions based on their religious beliefs.

And making choices about marriage and kids based on religion has hatched more happiness in the home, according the Portraits of American Life Study (PALS), which looked at religion's influence on decision-making. The study suggested marriages and relationships have been more successful and stable when partners consider their religious beliefs.

This comes despite a recent Gallup poll saying Americans feel religion is losing influence. The poll found 77 percent of those who attend church weekly, 72 percent of those who attend nearly weekly/monthly and 79 percent of those who attend less often all felt religion is losing its grip on people’s lives.

But religion's influence hasn't vanished, and many are still basing major life decisions on religious doctrine and tradition — including decisions about marriage and childbirth.

These decisions, it seems, are creating happier homes.

Wedding bells

Jones and her husband, Eric, worked together in ministries for a number of years before being married. It was that experience that helped her realize he was her future.

“We sort of tag-teamed well together," Jones said.

And, Jones said, she heard no disapproval from God, which meant she was on the right track.

“We just didn’t hear an absolute ‘no' (from God). And sometimes a ‘no’ is louder than a ‘yes,’ ” Jones said.

A team of researchers from Brandeis University analyzed religion’s influence on choices about marriage. After analyzing data from the first wave of research by PALS, the Brandeis study on religion's impact on decision-making found that those with reliance on religion are three times more likely to use their religious beliefs to make decisions on marriage.

“Religion seems to motivate people in unpredictable ways,” said Emily Sigalow, a graduate student at Brandeis University.

Sigalow saw both predicted and unpredicted outcomes from the study initially done by PALS. “It was predictable in that we found people who place more importance on religion allow it to have more influence in their lives,” Sigalow said.

One main example was the study found those with similar dimensions of religiosity — like their affiliation, commitment and beliefs — promote a greater degree of marital success and more stable marriages. Or, like in the case of Jones, happiness in the home.

The study, Sigalow said, showed religion is influential for most believers and it “didn’t matter if you were conservative Protestant, mainline Protestant or Catholic.”

But she was surprised by some of the findings. Sigalow didn’t find women to be more religious than men — a trend, she said, that is often brought up in discussions, in part because it goes against previous research.

The study also showed that having more than a high school diploma had a positive effect on marriage decisions. Respondents with education beyond high school were twice as likely to say religion influenced their marital decisions as those without a high school diploma.

Sigalow's analysis of the study showed that marriage between individuals with similar religions creates a more stable, satisfying and successful marriage, which, she said, is why believers often might search for someone of the same faith.

For Binyamin Jolkovsky, an Orthodox Jew from New York City and founder of JewishWorldReview.com, marrying outside of his religion was never an option.

“I believe those of the same faith should marry each other,” Jolkovsky said. “Not because those who marry outside of their faith are bigoted … but that shared sense of who they are is going to impact the person and make the marriage work in an easier way.”

Jolkovsky met his wife through a matchmaker, who was less “Fiddler on the Roof” and more “mutual friend,” as he put it. He said it was never an option to marry someone outside of the Jewish faith, and his marriage has been “100 percent” more successful because of it.

“Personality and looks obviously come first, but shared values are key to a successful marriage,” Jolkovsky said. “There are certain givens and expectations in a relationship. There are certain ways you want to raise your kids in a relationship. Some of the major and explosive issues come from religious beliefs.”

But interfaith marriage is increasing, according to Naomi Schaefer Riley’s recent book "Till Faith Do Us Part: How Interfaith Marriage Is Transforming America," released earlier this year. Riley's research showed 42 percent of marriages in America are between interfaith couples.

Though marrying someone outside of one’s religion isn’t a sign of abandoning the faith, wedding someone with similar beliefs offers easier solutions, Jolkovsky said. He added that even though some religions have varying degrees of belief — some worshippers are more traditional, while others are more lax — differences on core values in a religion can often lead to divergence and divorce.

“When you’re in the same faith," he said, “it allows for smoother sailing.”

Building a family

As Jones' marriage went on, she and her husband sat down to discuss having kids — including how many to have. After having two planned kids, they had another unexpectedly.

Though religion didn't play a large part in their decision of quantity, God and his desires were always in the back of her mind.

"You want to please God," Jones said. “There’s some decisions we make that fall into the realm where God gives you a little bit (of help). … Having children is sort of a natural course.”

Sigalow’s study surveyed couples who already had at least one child in the house and found those who placed more importance on religion were 2.7 percent more likely to decide how many kids to have based on their faith than were those who placed less importance on religion.

The research showed that religions with strong doctrines around childbearing — like Mormonism and conservative Protestantism — also offer social rewards for those who follow the traditions. Women in these religions tend to have high fertility rates, which Sigalow’s research identified as an incentive-based response.

Sigalow’s analysis also showed that Catholics were more likely to say religious factors influenced their decision on the amount of kids to have than mainline Protestants. Those who were widowed, divorced, separated or had a marriage annulled were also more likely to consult their religion when making a decision on how many children to have.

But, just like with marriage, Sigalow said the PALS study showed unpredicted outcomes.

“It just seems that religion motivates people in ways we don’t know a lot about right now,” Sigalow said. “There needs to be more for people to understand how religion operates and is a factor in people’s decision making.”

Impact of religious decisions

Although she was coy about offering an opinion on whether to follow religious teachings for making decisions, Sigalow said in an interview that religion’s influence on the decision-making process should be studied more.

For Emily Timbol, a religion blogger at The Huffington Post, it's not always important to make decisions based on religion. Timbol said she never really wanted kids, even though her religion calls for it.

“I like taking care of other people. I like kids,” she said. “But I don’t think you should have kids because you think it’s what you’re supposed to do."

It's about doing what works for you, Timbol said.

“If you’re Christian," she said, “you have to let the Holy Spirit and God show you what to do.”

And it's paid off for many families so far — like for Jones and her husband, who have been consulting their religion consistently throughout their lives.

Not long after the couple started dating, Jones' husband lost his hand. Jones is a breast cancer survivor. One of their daughters' "life was spared," after Jones received a "gut feeling" for her daughter not to head out to the mall with her friends, who were involved in a car accident later that day, Jones said.

"The Lord definitely helped us get through some tough times," she said.

For Jones, speaking to God and seeking his guidance is an important component of remaining happy and journeying on the right track.

“I don’t think you’re ever going to go wrong asking God what to do.”

Email: hscribner@deseretnews.com

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