Interfaith Marriages Suffer Higher Rates of Divorce

Celebrate Christmukkah? You might not want to read any further.

In this weekend’s Washington Post, Naomi Schaefer Riley, author of God on the Quad: How Religious Colleges and the Missionary Generation are Changing America, reported on the somewhat disturbing statistics involving interfaith marriages. The takeaway: “They fail at higher rates than same-faith marriages. But couples don’t want to hear that, and no one wants to tell them.”

How could this be? Aren’t we beyond this in 2010? After all, the most recent data shows that one-quarter of all United States households identify as mixed faith, and very few men or women in their early twenties say they even consider religion an important factor in choosing their future spouse.

Yet the research shows something else. A breakdown of the American Religious Identification Survey of 2001 reveals that men and women in interfaith marriages were “three times more likely to be divorced or separated than those who were in same religious marriages.” A paper published in the 1993 showed higher divorce rates for Catholic/Evangelical and Jewish/Christian unions.

So what? 1993 and 2001 that’s old news. Unfortunately, more contemporaneous studies show that even same religion couples with different attitudes towards how actively they should practice their faith have a harder time making a go of it, with a 2009 University of Texas statistical survey finding that marriages where the husband wants to attend services more often than his wife are also more likely to end with a visit to a divorce lawyer’s office.

The sociologists Riley interviewed for her article speculated that a number of factors were likely causing the higher divorce rate for interfaith couples. First, there is the obvious fact that people might say religion is not important to them, only to change their mind when confronted with a Christmas tree or Chanukah menorah in their own home, having a near-visceral reaction to a symbol that seemed innocuous till that very moment.

Another flash point involves surprise children. There are many cases of newlyweds agreeing to raise hypothetical sons and daughters in the faith of the other partner, only to renege when holding their newborn infant in their arms. As one now-divorced Catholic dad told Riley about his decision to baptize the daughter he had agreed to raise in his then wife’s Jewish faith, “If, God forbid, something happened to her, she wouldn’t be in heaven.”

Finally, there are cultural factors. Many religions are as much ways of viewing and interacting with the greater world, as they are ways of thinking about God. As one expert told Riley, religion is also “ideas about raising children, how to spend time and money, friendships [and] professional networks.”

So what do you think? Do you believe that in a world where married couples squabble over everything from who is doing more housework to how to manage money, religion is just one argument too many for some couples? Or do you suspect that there really is something to religious differences, and that some things are just insurmountable? Or do think this is just a load of bunk and intermarried couples are no happier or unhappier than anyone else?

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