A recent Mississippi State University (MSU) study was conducted to find possible reasons for marital longevity, particularly among African American couples. Keri Collins Lewis reports on the research done by MSU professors Tommy M. Phillips, assistant professor in MSU’s School of Human Sciences, and Joe D. Wilmoth, associate professor in the School of Human Ecology at Louisiana State University, who focused on long standing married couples in historically black churches in Mississippi. Overall, African-American couples believed that their marital success is attributed to faith, with specific denotation to help from God more than any other category.
The self-assessed questionnaire used in the study contained open-ended questions and forced-choice questions, the first of which asked both spouses together for the top reason their marriage endured. The results were “God/Jesus” first (51%), then love (31%), and good communication (23%) third. God, or Jesus, is recognized by more than half of those studied as the enduring factor in marriage. In a society that is becoming increasingly secular, this is not to be taken lightly. Later questions asked individually further explain this point. Spouses were asked separately whether faith was important to their marital longevity, upon which 93 and 94 percent of husbands and wives respectively agreed “faith was a very important factor.” Regarding prayer, 88 and 97 percent of husbands and wives respectively pray one or more times per day. And church attendance: 91 and 99 percent attend once or more per week.
Marriage and Religion Research Institute has published research from the General Social Survey which shows marriage is highly valued among many who practice their faith. In the Mapping America series number 82, “The Personal Importance of Being Married” by Religious Attendance, it states, “Adults who attend religious services at least weekly are more likely to report that being married is personally very important to them than those who worship less frequently.” The data used in the paper is collected from the General Social Survey (1972-2006), and concluded that 60.5 percent of adults who attend religious services more than once a week view marriage as very important. The people who take marriage more seriously are indeed people of faith and it is incumbent upon those who practice faith to see marriage succeed, both personally and in others.
There are two possible arguments against the veracity of this study. One is that this finding is representative of only 71 couples. However, while this study is small, it is valuable because of its focus. Dr. Phillips’s study states most previous studies on black couples have been “problem-oriented” with little exploration of marital longevity. A second critique may by that the research targeted black churches instead of the black population as a whole. Critics might therefore see this study as biased and discredit the results. However, as Lewis uncovers from Dr. Wilmoth, this method was with good reason: “‘When we looked for ways to find African-American couples with long-standing marriages, we discovered the most reasonable way to contact them was through their churches,’ Wilmoth said. ‘We believe our sample is reasonably representative because almost 90 percent of African Americans identify themselves with a church, and those who are married are even more likely to attend.’” Since a majority of married black couples attend church, it is logical and practical to focus on finding couples in the church, and to consider the results of this study informative as to reasons for marital longevity.