Imagine a new couple out on a Valentine's Day date. The young man and woman are both nervous, but the candlelit restaurant has created a calm, romantic mood. Orders placed with the waiter, they each take a deep breath, ready to dive into a new line of conversation.
"How often do you go to church?" the man says, as the woman's eyes widen.
If this scenario seems unlikely, it's because it is. Even during the contentious 2016 presidential election, people preferred political conversations to religious ones. Six in 10 U.S. adults (59 percent) told LifeWay Research in August they were more comfortable discussing their political views than their spirituality, compared to 41 percent who said the opposite.
Religious compatibility isn't a top-of-mind concern for many relationship seekers, who are often more focused on finding someone who likes the same television shows or outdoor activities.
Only 44 percent of Americans say shared religious beliefs are very important for a successful marriage, compared to 66 percent who say having shared interests, 63 percent who say a satisfying sexual relationship and 62 percent who say sharing household chores, Pew Research Center reported in October.
But while avoiding deep discussions about the value of prayer or arguments over the pope's latest proclamation may seem expedient on the dating scene, couples can struggle in the long term if they don't discuss faith from the start, according to recent research on religion and romance. The religious beliefs partners bring to a relationship affect how conflicts play out and the faith lives of their future children.
Drawing on shared beliefs
Religiously matched couples can draw on resources that would not exist without that spiritual bone during times of conflict or stress.
For example, they might choose to pause an argument to pray together, which many religion researchers describe as a valuable way to address hurt feelings.
"The best religious predictor of being happy in a relationship is praying together as a couple," said Brad Wilcox, who authored a recent analysis on minority couples and religion, to Christianity Today. "Taking your faith directly into the domestic sphere seems to reap real benefits for black and Latino couples."
Earlier studies support his conclusion, showing that joint prayer enables couples to focus on shared needs, rather than individual concerns.
A strong religious foundation can also sustain relationships through dark periods, such as the aftermath of an affair, as the Deseret News reported in September. Couples who believe their connection is sanctified, or centered on God, seem to have more success than other pairings in overcoming these difficult situations.
"Couples who believe in sanctification share a sense of purpose that goes beyond shared hobbies, self-interest (and) procreation," the article said, paraphrasing Christopher Ellison, a distinguished professor of sociology at the University of Texas at San Antonio. "The couple may believe that God has a mission for their marriage, and perhaps even brought them together."
In general, shared religious beliefs enable couples to comfortably bring religion into their relationship, facilitating conversations that are more difficult for others.
Eight in 10 U.S. adults in religiously matched marriages (78 percent) say they talk about religion "a lot" or "some" with their spouse, compared to 46 percent of faithful people who have a religiously unaffiliated partner, Pew reported.
Navigating religious tension
As Pew's study showed, religious discussions are less common in religiously mixed households, which holds consequences for romantic partners and their future children.
People who feel awkward sharing their religious experiences with their spouse may struggle to stay connected to their own spirituality, Pew reported. Adults in religiously matched marriages are more likely to believe in God, say religion is important to them, attend worship services regularly and pray more frequently than their peers in religiously mixed marriages.
More than 8 in 10 Protestants (82 percent) married to fellow Protestants are highly religious, compared to 58 percent of Protestants married to non-Protestant believers and 49 percent married to someone unaffiliated with a faith, according to the study.
The potential temptation to disengage from religion can be passed on to children of religiously mixed parents, resulting in higher rates of departure from faith communities.
"Americans raised in mixed religious households — where parents identified with different religious traditions — are more likely to identify as unaffiliated than those raised in households where parents shared the same faith (31 percent versus 22 percent, respectively)" reported Public Religion Research Institute in September.
This trend is especially pronounced among Catholics, researchers noted. One-third of adults raised to embrace Catholicism by one Catholic parent and one non-Catholic parent (34 percent) are religiously unaffiliated today, compared to 17 percent of people raised Catholic by two Catholic parents.
Religious differences don't always spell doom for relationships, but they can lead to arguments and tensions. Religiously mixed couples should be proactive about addressing the role faith will play in their family life, according to experts on religion and romance.
"Religion is a very, very big issue. If two people aren't on the same page, it can cause a crack in the foundation of the relationship," said Fran Walfish, a family psychotherapist, to the Deseret News in 2013.