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A couple in a garden with a divine presence symbolizing the serene impact of God-based marriage.

The God Factor: Effect of Belief on Marriage

How does faith impact marriage? Studies reveal God as a central, unifying force in lasting unions.

What is the bonding element in enduring, faithful marriages? We have pursued answers to this million-dollar question for about 25 years in the American Families of Faith National Research Project. While the answers of the more than 250 wives and husbands we have interviewed have varied, many couples described their belief that their commitment to marriage was stronger when God was included as the “third cord” in their marriage. Amy, an Orthodox Christian wife, said:

 Two cords become united with a third cord, and you are strengthened with that third cord there. I think what comes [from] the religion in strengthening the marriage is that there’ll [still] be ups and downs, but you know you’re going to get through it.

Amy found strength in her belief that God was an integral part of her marriage, acting as a third interwoven cord in a three-strand rope, who helped her stay committed to her spouse throughout the various challenges and joys in their marital journey.

God and the Genesis of Marriage

A significant number of couples we interviewed expressed their belief that God played a pivotal role in originally “bringing them together.” These reports and narratives seemed to signify that they saw God as actively participating in their meeting and in their subsequent marriage. Mercy, a Baptist wife, spoke of how God’s continuous influence strengthened her and her husband in their relationship. She said, “Well, we believe He brought us together. So, He played a role in the start. And I don’t think that we’d be together anymore if we didn’t have God in the middle.”

Many couples reflected that during their marriage ceremony, their vows served as a reminder of God’s presence or approval, enhancing the enduring significance of those vows in their memory. When describing the importance of her marriage vows, Kira, a Lutheran wife, shared sentiments connected to the metaphor of a threefold cord:

[Marriage is] a covenant. It’s a covenant to each other, but more importantly, it’s a covenant to God. It’s a three [part union] that holds together. You take that third [part] out, and it falls apart. [T]hat’s … really defined our marriage.

Susan, a Methodist wife, recounted her experience of sensing the presence of God during her and her husband’s wedding ceremony: “It was so different than what we had imagined. It was so incredibly powerful. And it was just the love that was there. And whatever transformation happened in the church was really … a feeling of God’s presence.”

Whether it was their faith in God’s role in uniting them, the profound effect of involving God in their marital vows, the influence of feeling God’s presence during the wedding ceremony, or the simple act of recalling the sacred promises exchanged during the ceremony, including God in the genesis of marriage reportedly strengthened couples’ commitment to their union.

Ongoing Partnership with God

The women and men we interviewed further believed that God’s involvement in their marriages extended far beyond their wedding ceremonies. Shawn, a Baptist husband, said,

God is the center of our marriage. We desire that God would [always] be the center of our marriage so that our commitment to each other is an outgrowth of our commitment to Him. [It is about] faithfulness, fidelity, commitment, perseverance, [it is a] covenant. Our faith definitely influences [our views about each of] those.

Joseph, a nondenominational Christian father we interviewed at great length, said: 

[In] our family [we] are all oriented in the same way. Christ is King, He’s center, He’s what it’s all about…. Our faith informs our relationships and everything about us.

Ed, a Seventh-day Adventist husband, shared, “Our relationship with God is our motivation to work things out.” Like Shawn, Joseph, and Ed, many participants reflected that without the ongoing presence of God in their marriage, they would not have remained as deeply committed to each other—while many others conjectured that without God, their marriages would not have lasted at all. 

Belief in Marriage as “Something that Lasts”

Placing God at the center of their marriage was often interconnected with a belief that marriage can and should be enduring. Michelle, a Christian Scientist wife, explained, “I think that it’s impossible to separate our [faith and] beliefs and the institution of marriage.” Michelle’s direct statement that religion is closely connected with marriage was a view shared by many of the participants.

For several couples, their sacred belief that marriage should not be dissolved reportedly motivated them to work through their marital problems because (in a phrase repeated nearly 20 times) “divorce [was] not an option.” For others, a sense of peace and security in the relationship was a direct result of knowing that their spouse would not consider leaving the marriage barring infidelity or abuse. Andy, a Christian and Missionary Alliance husband, said,

Like we were saying before, what God put together, let no man put asunder. So I kind of think of our marriage as definitely a covenant to stay together and stay away from all those things that can put us apart. And so we try and keep our lives focused on God and the way that He would want us to be together and treat each other … the way He would treat us …

Couples’ marital commitment seemed to increase, and greater security was felt due to the belief that God opposes divorce except in extreme circumstances.

The Belief that Marriage Continues after Death

Another distinctive factor of religious involvement that appeared to bolster the commitment of some couples to the institution of marriage was their belief that marriage continues after death. For some, this belief was personal and not sanctioned by their religious denomination. In other cases, including couples from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as well as Orthodox Christian (aka Eastern Orthodox) couples, the belief in the “eternal bond” of marriage was doctrinal, institutional, and personal. A belief in “eternal” marriage reportedly unified couples in a shared objective and inspired them to strive towards this ideal. Julie, a Latter-day Saint wife, explained,

We believe that families are together forever, and we go to the temple and are sealed to one another so that we will be together forever, and I think that that’s Heavenly Father’s plan to have us be together forever. … That’s the common goal we have together, to be together forever, to keep that promise we made to each other: to be committed to each other and to be together forever.

Charles, an Orthodox Christian husband, similarly shared,

I guess one thing that distinguishes … [the] Orthodox conception of marriage is that it’s not … until death do us part. Marriage is made in heaven. … So, our marriage is ideally an eternal thing, an eternal bond, and we will be married, we will stand married, on the last day.

In the deeply held beliefs of Julie, Charles, and others like them, remaining together eternally is not merely a matter of chance but a focal aspiration. Presumably, achieving everlasting happiness together in heaven can only be attained if both partners can become faithfully devoted to each other and to God in the present.

Religiosity Provides a Sacred Purpose for Committing to Marriage

There was a recurring connection between deep religious commitment and the perception of marriage commitment as sacred among many couples. Linda, a Quaker wife, shared, “To me, that was an important part of [religion], to see marriage as a lifetime commitment. [M]aking our lives work with one other person is really a powerful idea and a powerful calling.” 

David, an Orthodox Jewish husband, spoke of the tallit katan and its tzit tzit—an article of clothing worn by Orthodox Jewish men—and explained how the sacred garment served to remind him of the commitment that he made to his wife. He said,

[It’s] sort of a T-shirt … the purpose of which is to [help the wearer] not be led astray, or sexually be distracted. If your eyes are straying on other women, you’re supposed to look at the tzit tzit and remember that there’s a higher purpose and that there’s something else I’m supposed to be doing. And it’s related to my wife, of being faithful to my wife.

Angie, a Muslim convert and mother of two, similarly felt that her faith protected her and her husband from extra-marital affairs. Angie’s parents had divorced over mutual infidelity years before, making Angie especially sensitive to this issue. Angie explained, 

My husband knows my worst fear before we got married [and before I was Muslim] was that I would divorce. I’ve seen a lot of men that when things get tough, they take off. [I was afraid] that my husband would leave or I would leave, an affair, whatever…. But now, I can sit here and look you in the eye [and tell you] I have no fear that my husband will have an affair. I know him, I know he lives his religion.  

Angie’s husband Omar shared the following narrative in his interview that yielded insight into why Angie displayed such confidence in his fidelity. He said,  

At work, our offices look out onto the parking lot. Every morning, all the engineers gather into this one guy’s cubicle at 7:45 and say, “Ah, look what she’s wearing. She looks good!” Typical, it’s a normal thing between guys. But by saying these things, you are degrading that woman, you are gossiping. Knowing that these things will be written [in my heavenly book] prevents me from [participating], and from that, your entire behavior is changed. [Instead], you are sitting in your office doing your work, which is what you are supposed to be doing.

Omar had previously offered a detailed explanation of his religious belief that our misdeeds will be written in a personal book of life that will one day be opened before the world and that this belief keeps him in constant check and helps him to remember and focus on his wife, his marriage, and his God.    

Religion Provides Perspective that Helps Couples Stay Committed during Difficulties

Marital meaning was frequently discussed in conjunction with difficult times, even poignant times, that wives and husbands had faced together. Wives and husbands we interviewed frequently spoke of how including God in their marriages gave them perspective so that they could get through difficult times. Michelle, a Christian Scientist wife, said,

We’ve been married over 19 years, and sometimes your spouse drives you crazy, but you love him. And sometimes, you just have to see him as God sees him. Not sometimes, all the time, actually. [You must remember] the set of wonderful qualities that you married him for … never lose that. … [I]t just helps you get over the tough spots.

Sophie, a Presbyterian wife, spoke of how her faith and experiences with God gave her the strength to push through hardships in marriage:

The commitment to sticking with it is definitely promoted with this belief [in the sanctity of marriage]. Through thick and thin. And my belief in God, my actual experience of God at those times is what carried me through to stick with it, to stay the course.

Rashaad, an African Methodist and father of three, stated, 

I believe that my faith [has] made me love my wife a lot more. We are very different. If it weren’t for faith, I probably would have run a long time ago. [I’d have said], “You don’t want to do what I want to do. We just don’t see eye to eye. I’m gone.” But when you believe in God … yes, the boat still gets to rockin’, but the Bible says, “In me you can weather the storm.”

Conclusion

A defining characteristic of most of the couples we interviewed was that when storms and difficulties struck, when the minor chords of life seemed to resound, instead of turning to a “cold and broken” isolation, these women and men in imperfect but exemplary marriages found ways to draw closer to each other and to God. Phrased differently, when heavy loads pulled on their marital rope, the three cords of wife, husband, and God did not disintegrate but united to synergistically bear marriage’s inevitable challenges.

About the authors

David Dollahite

David C. Dollahite, Ph.D., is professor of Family Life at BYU, co-director of the American Families of Faith project, and co-author of Strengths in Diverse Families of Faith.

Loren Marks

Loren D. Marks, Ph.D. is professor of Family Life at BYU, co-director of the American Families of Faith project, and co-author of Religion and Families. Wheatley Institute, Faculty Fellow

Laura McKeighen

Laura McKeighen is the Outreach Director for the American Families of Faith Project.
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