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If You Were More Religious, Would You Have Stayed Married?

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With marriages feeling as disposable as Bic pens, one starts to wonder what keeps people together permanently so that "till death do us part" becomes more of a reality and not an unrealistic dream. This was a conversation that took place with a group of my girlfriends gathered together for the holiday season.

"Do you think Gary and you will always be together?" asked a friend.

"Yes," I said with a certainly that surprised even me. "He's religious."

That was my gut talking, not my brain.

My brain would have spewed out statistics and pointed out that we are vulnerable to divorce because we have been hit not only by health issues but by financial stresses after an employee robbed his company.

Yet my gut knows that his strong faith in religion guides and moves him to resist looking for escapism for the greater good of our family and work harder to get back on track or at the very least just give it time to. And it is no coincidence that he became religious during our marriage and hadn't been going to services while married to his previous wife.

"Couples who attend religious services several times a month are 35% less likely to divorce," said W. Bradford Wilcox, the director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia in his headline-making report.

This didn't surprise me. Nor did Wilcox's other findings.

"A newer study found that shared religious attendance and especially shared prayers were associated with higher marital happiness," he added. The number was 73% for couples who both attend religious services and 63% with one partner regularly attending.

One of the great ironies I hear as a divorce coach is how many couples say they are leaving their marriage in search of a "soul mate." Uh-huh. Get that. But do they get that this all- consuming quest for their soul mate often is easier to access when they are in a soulful place? A soulful place that encourages values such as listening, caring, patience, delayed gratification and generosity.

While my husband may find that connection in temple, I am more likely to find it in a spiritually-oriented yoga class I attend. One can access the divine in many places.

Yet these days, the modern definition of "soul mate" is not someone with flaws who is forgiven, understood and loved since the good outweighs the bad. No, instead a "soul mate" must be this impossibly perfect person with a dimpled-cheek cheerfulness who fills every need without ever annoying the other person with problems such as crying kids, a bout with insecurity, extra wrinkles or financial problems.

Is it a surprise that few are finding a soul mate that can last years or even decades? Those relationships are fleeting, and dare I say, soulless.

I've come to believe that we are a culture that doesn't allow people to have flaws. We are blind to our own and expect others to have none. Or as Matthew said, "Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in the other person's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eyes?"

Just hearing that sentence at a service may give someone the necessary kick in the butt to get back on track or at least be a little reflective. It's the repetition that also reinforces the values.

Many of my colleagues in the divorce business lament how too many throw in the towel too early. The pursuit of personal happiness at all costs has trumped the value of loyalty and commitment.

"Religion is one of the few institutions in society which requires and emphasizes introspection," says Glenn Sacks, the National Executive Director of Fathers and Families. "Too many divorces are initiated haphazardly and unnecessarily. Some of these marriages--not all, but some--could be saved and revived if the parties were more honest with themselves about their own failings, fairer and more realistic in their expectations for their partners, and more deeply concerned about the negative effect divorce often has upon children. These values--honesty, humility, forgiveness, and concern for others--are common religious values."

Brad Wilcox says the chasm was started when many Americans moved away from seeing marriage as a gateway to responsible adulthood which seeks to integrate sex, parenthood, economic cooperation, and emotional intimacy and veered precipitously towards this "soul mate" model which " sees marriage as primarily a couple-centered vehicle for personal growth and shared consumption that depends for its survival on the happiness of both spouses." Often at the same time.

"One problem with this newer model--which sets a high financial and emotional bar for marriage--is that many poor and Middle American couples now believe that they do not have the requisite emotional and economic resources to get or stay married," he said.

Sadly, as his study revealed, divorce went up for this group from 34 percent to 37 percent coinciding with a decline in religious attendance from 40 percent in the 1970s to 28 percent in this decade. The drop for college educated couples was only from 38 percent to 34 percent.

And no surprise, he also says that by going to religious services, these couples could have a support system and community that help them navigate problems and find solutions. Not always, but sometimes. And it's the sometimes that is worth fighting for or at least debating.

So if religion helps keep couples together, why are so many not connected to it?

My colleague, Dr. Mark Banschick, the author ot "The Intelligent Divorce," has an interesting theory worth sharing.

"In a post modern world we know that our religious leaders are just like us, flawed and at times, self serving," he says. "We are less able to accept the priest or rabbi as a "father" figure, which explains the popularity of Christopher Hitchens' book, 'God Is Not Great' and Richard Dawkins' 'The God Delusion.' Their perspective is that religion is fundamentally infantile, absurd and even dangerous.

But, says Dr. Banshick, we throw a precious baby out with the bathwater when so many people in America and Europe water down their commitment to faith.

"With less church attendance goes fewer marriages and a family undermining commitment to personal fulfillment above all else." he says. "Marriage and kids require a commitment to family life that is at least equal to the commitment to your happiness."

Yes, by accepting flaws, we become open to a deeper love and a more fulfilling one.

Even great religious figures like Jacob, King David, Martin Luther and Moses are often depicted as flawed. Perhaps this is to teach us that there is no dishonor in inadequacy, only in not reaching for better.

Earlier on in my marriage, I sometimes resented the inconvenience of my husband going to services every Friday night and Saturday morning. But now 15 years later, I have come to realize that this commitment shapes him and us and may insure that our son and future grandchildren have the benefit of an intact family.