Are religion and marriage connected?

Maddi Behrens and her husband, Nate Behrens, have known each other for about two years. They dated for a year and a half in total, then recently got married in November 2021, shortly after graduating from BYU. (Photo courtesy of Maddi Behrens)

Editor’s note: This story appeared in the February 2022 edition of The Daily Universe Magazine.

Maddi Behrens, 22, and her husband, Nate Behrens, 24, have known each other for about two years. They dated for a year and a half in total, then recently got married in November 2021, shortly after graduating from BYU. 

People outside of Utah might argue they are too young to get married, but BYU School of Family Life professor Alan Hawkins said the average age for people to get married in Utah is about 23.

So while their story sounds normal for most people living in Utah or who are familiar with Utah’s specific culture, it might not sound so normal to people in other states. In the rest of the country it is more common for people to get married in their late 20s and into their 30s. Why is Utah different?

There’s one big reason: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Does religion in Utah affect marriage rates?

University of Utah family and consumer studies professor Nicholas Wolfinger is a social demographer who specializes in marriage and divorce.

He helped write a book published in 2006 titled “Utah At The Beginning Of The New Millennium: A Demographic Perspective.” Wolfinger and Vincent Kang Fu, adjunct professor of sociology at the University of Utah, wrote chapter four titled “Marriage and divorce in Utah and the United States: convergence or continued divergence?”

In the chapter they wrote, Wolfinger and Kang Fu said there is not direct evidence of the influence of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on marriage patterns in Utah. However, there is evidence of Utahns marrying at younger ages than the average people in the United States and Utah women of all ages are more likely to be married than other Americans. Although there isn’t exact data, Wolfinger believes religious proclivities in Utah have fostered a pro-marriage social climate.

Data from the Utah Department of Health shows marriages and divorces in the state of Utah as well as the United States from the year 1990 to 2018. Over those 29 years, the marriage rates in the state of Utah have been much higher than the national average, but the divorce rates were equal to or slightly higher in Utah than the national average.

Wolfinger said the number of members of the Church in Utah does play into the high marriage rates in the state. He said Utah has among the highest rates of married college students: elsewhere it’s more common for people to get married after graduation.

Maddi Behrens and her husband, Nate Behrens, have known each other for about two years. They dated for a year and a half in total, then recently got married in November 2021, shortly after graduating from BYU. (Photo courtesy of Maddi Behrens)

Religion’s effects on marriage 

According to Hawkins, highly religious couples are much less likely to divorce. Hawkins’ research is focused on educational interventions and public policies to prevent unnecessary divorce and help couples form and sustain healthy marriages and relationships.

Wolfinger said people who attend religious services regularly are more likely to get married.

The idea of being religious having a connection to marriage isn’t specific to Latter-day Saints, but according to Wolfinger, Latter-day Saints have high rates of participation. “They go to church regularly and participate in other ways. And so that is correlated with a high rate of marriage,” he said.

The fact that highly religious couples are much less likely to get divorced, and people who attend religious services are more likely to get married, shows there is a clear correlation between religion and marriage.

Why is it that religion and marriage are so connected? The Behrenses said there’s no doubt religion played a huge part in their beliefs and ideas of marriage. 

Maddi Behrens said her knowledge and belief in the Church and the gospel of Jesus Christ has made marriage a bigger deal to her than it probably would be otherwise.

“We know that it’s eternal, and it’s not till death do us part,” she said. “This is our forever.”

Marriage’s impact on Church members

Although marriage in the world’s view is changing, the importance of marriage and family plays a big part in the Church, and the idea and trends of marriage look a bit different in the Church than elsewhere.

Both Maddi and Nate Behrens agreed their upbringing in the Church had a major impact on their idea of marriage and why they chose to get married. 

Nate Behrens said having a knowledge of the gospel and how God’s plan works helped him have a more sound concept of what it really means to have a lasting marriage and the principles required to establish a relationship that will last for eternity. 

One of the major changes in marriages throughout the past several years is it has become more voluntary, Hawkins said. Marriage used to be something expected for someone’s life at a certain point, but that’s no longer the case in today’s world. It’s more of a personal choice, he said. 

Maddi Behrens said if it weren’t for their strong religious beliefs, she thinks she and Nate would have started living together and would have been doing everything they do now, just without the commitment of marriage. But because of the way she was raised and what she was taught, she has an understanding of the importance of the commitment of marriage, not just cohabitation. And that’s why she and Nate chose to commit to marriage. 

“It’s important so that you can have a companion through life and have a family and get all the blessings from that, and it’s what Heavenly Father has asked us to do,” she said. 

Infographic created by Kenzie Holbrook

In the Church, it’s a commandment to get married and have a family, which might be why a lot of Church members choose to get married seemingly quicker than other people who don’t have that belief. 

How marriage has changed

Marriage has undergone a lot of changes over the years, and there are signs pointing to more changes to come in the future.

Hawkins says there is a nine-syllable word used for marriage these days: deinstitutionalization. 

“Fifty years ago, it was a pretty strong institution that kind of ordered our life cycle, our life force and what we did,” Hawkins said. “Now we’re in a situation where marriage means a lot of different things to a lot of different people.”

Hawkins expects the trend of deinstitutionalization to continue. He said he thinks society will transform someday to not expect marriage to order our lives. “It’s just going to be one of those lifestyle features out there that some people take on, and others don’t,” he said. “So it’s going to recede and its importance to our society.”

Hawkins thinks it will be easy to see a substantial increase in the number of people who choose not to marry, get married later in life or choose to not have children in marriage. But Hawkins said he hopes all the predictions he has for the future of marriage in society are wrong.

“​​Maybe we’ll see a renaissance. Maybe we’ll get to this threshold and look over the horizon and say, ‘Whoa, wait a minute, there’s a lot to marriage that we’re giving up,’” he said.

Utah’s marriage and divorce rates

According to the Utah Department of Health’s public health data resource, the marriage rate in Utah has seen a fairly consistent downward trend in marriages since 2002. Between 2015 and 2017 the rate spiked.

The divorce rates have also seen a downward trend with an average rate of around 4,000. Marriage and divorce rates are going down everywhere, not just in Utah.

On the bright side of things, even though the rates are declining, Hawkins said the people who are getting married tend to have more stable marriages. This likely has something to do with Hawkins’ idea that marriage in today’s society has become more voluntary. 

The data shows less people getting married, and less people getting divorced. According to Wolfinger, the divorce rate is at a 40-year low. Is the reason why there is less divorce because there is less marriage, or could something else be playing into it?

Wolfinger says one reason the divorce rate has gone down over the years is because people are waiting until they’re older to get married. “People who get married very young have higher divorce rates,” Wolfinger said. 

Utah is following the national trends of marriage and divorce, but it’s different in the sense that people are getting married at a much younger age in Utah, according to Wolfinger. Although generally people who marry young have high divorce rates, active members of the Church tend to have lower divorce rates. 

Even after that has been accounted for, Wolfinger said the rates are still down. He said it’s impossible to know for sure why the rates are going down, but one guess he has is this: “The kinds of people who don’t marry now who used to marry, are the kinds of people who are more likely to get divorced.”

Wolfinger concluded that even with fewer people getting married, “the majority of people still aspire to marriage, and indeed will get married.”

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