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How Being Religious Affects Your Relationship Choices

The direct effect of religion on individuals’ relationship choices is limited.

Key points

  • There has been a decline in marriage rates in many parts of the world.
  • Secularization alone does not seem to explain how changing attitudes towards religion are moderating relationship formation. 
  • Religious institutes should strive to create a welcoming and inclusive environment for all individuals, regardless of their marital status.
How Being Religious Affects Your Relationship Choices
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The institution of marriage has undergone changes over time. In recent years, there has been a decline in marriage rates in many parts of the world. This decline has been attributed to a number of factors, including changes in social attitudes, economic factors, and increased access to education and opportunities for women.

The Effect of Religion on Individuals’ Relationship Choices

Along with these reasons for the decline of the marriage institution, many have suggested the decreasing importance of religion and the rise of secularism as a potential mechanism (2). Across the world, the record number of individuals choosing to not get married and reduced fertility have been attributed to the diminishing role of religion, among other reasons (3, 4).

Marriage is a social institution that has been a part of many religious traditions for centuries. It is often seen as a sacred union between two individuals, and is often celebrated with religious ceremonies. In many religions, marriage is seen as a way to establish a strong family unit and to provide a stable environment for children to grow up in.

Indeed, many religious societies place high importance on modesty and traditional values, preferring marriage over singlehood or unmarried parenthood. Extra-marital sex is also viewed negatively (1). Conversely, non-religious individuals are more often characterized by openness to singles and a widespread movement away from religious values that form the basis of familialism, possibly explaining the relatively higher share of never-married individuals.

A comparison of other Catholic societies also provides useful insight here. In Quebec, a researcher named Laplante [7] argues that a diminishing influence of Catholicism, together with the institutional rigidity of the church, pushes individuals away from marriage and towards being single or cohabiting. Parallel patterns have been observed in Spain [8] and Latin America [9].

However, in Mexico, where Catholicism is the dominant faith, this explanation does not hold to explain the overwhelmingly reduced rates of marriage and increased rate of cohabitation (5). People are still religious, but perhaps exactly because they are religious, they don't want to marry in order for them to be able to separate from their partner in case they are unsatisfied with the relationship. This means that while religion is related to marriage, it also carries the opposite mechanism in which religion (or religious environment) pushes individuals outside of marriage. This might explain why in Italy, researchers Vignoli and Salvini [6] provide evidence to suggest that despite a society rooted in Catholicism, the direct effect of religion on individuals’ relationship choices is very limited.

These mixed findings only mean that secularization alone cannot explain how changing attitudes towards religion are moderating relationship formation.

Moderating Factors

Across the globe and in all major world religions, it is possible to identify processes of liberalization that may also moderate religious-identifying individuals’ decision to get married. For example, young evangelicals in the U.S. are more likely to have more liberal attitudes on premarital sex and cohabitation [10], although they are still religious. Muslim [11] and Jewish [12] women and men are also negotiating the ever-growing role of feminism in their societies and communities.

Even in highly conservative Hindu society [13], where marriages are traditionally arranged by caste at a young age, and in Ultra-Orthodox Jewish society in Israel [14], challenges are being made to the hegemony that demands lifelong marriage at a young age. The liberalization of attitudes regarding marriage is occurring at the community and personal level, as well as at the leadership level.

The Response of Religious Institutes

Religious institutes have responded to the decline in marriage in various ways. The response of religious institutes to the decline of marriage depends on the specific beliefs and practices of each institute. Some have adapted their teachings or practices to reflect changing social attitudes and to better support individuals who are not married. Others have focused on strengthening the institution of marriage and promoting its importance in religious communities.

Notably, and in part in response to the increasing number of young people choosing to leave the Catholic church, the Vatican has shown leniency in regard to relationship-related matters in recent years [15]. The LGBTQ community, single parents, and more have received more attention, and more inclusive attitudes have been applied.


While the effect of religion on relationship choices is quite complex and comes with various moderating effects, it is important for religious institutes to recognize that singles are just as valuable and deserving of support and care as anyone else. They should be treated with respect and provided with opportunities to participate in the life of the religious community. Religious institutes should strive to create a welcoming and inclusive environment for all individuals, regardless of their marital status.


1. Lavee, Y. and R. Katz, The family in Israel: Between tradition and modernity. Marriage & Family Review, 2003. 35(1-2): p. 193-217.

2. Lesthaeghe, R. and J. Surkyn, Cultural dynamics and economic theories of fertility change. Population and development review, 1988: p. 1-45.

3. Lesthaeghe, R. and L. Neidert, The second demographic transition in the United States: Exception or textbook example? Population and Development Review, 2006. 32(4): p. 669-698.

4. Wang, W. and K.C. Parker, Record share of Americans have never married: As values, economics and gender patterns change. 2014, Washington DC: Pew Research Center, Social & Demographic Trends Project.

5. Esteve, A., et al., The Expansion of Cohabitation in Mexico, 1930-2010: The Revenge of History?, in Cohabitation and Marriage in the Americas: Geo-historical Legacies and New Trends, A. Esteve and R. Lesthaeghe, Editors. 2016.

6. Vignoli, D. and S. Salvini, Religion and union formation in Italy: Catholic precepts, social pressure, and tradition. Demographic Research, 2014. 31: p. 1079-1106.

7. Laplante, B., The rise of cohabitation in Quebec: Power of religion and power over religion. The Canadian Journal of Sociology, 2006. 31(1): p. 1-24.

8. Adsera, A., Marital fertility and religion in Spain, 1985 and 1999. Population Studies, 2006. 60(2): p. 205-221.

9. Esteve, A., R. Lesthaeghe, and A. López‐Gay, The Latin American cohabitation boom, 1970–2007. Population and Development Review, 2012. 38(1): p. 55-81.

10. Farrell, J., The young and the restless? The liberalization of young evangelicals. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 2011. 50(3): p. 517-532.

11. Mir‐Hosseini, Z., Muslim women’s quest for equality: between Islamic law and feminism. Critical inquiry, 2006. 32(4): p. 629-645.

12. Levitt, L., Jews and Feminism: The Ambivalent Search for Home. 2013: Routledge.

13. Sharma, A., Feminism in India-A Fractured Movement. History, 2015. 4(2).

14. Zion-Waldoks, T., Politics of Devoted Resistance Agency, Feminism, and Religion among Orthodox Agunah Activists in Israel. Gender & Society, 2015. 29(1): p. 73-97.

15. Smith, B.H., The church and politics in Chile: Challenges to modern Catholicism. 2014: Princeton University Press.

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