BYU Professor’s Research Finds Religion Matters to Family Relationships

Contributed By Marianne Holman Prescott, Church News staff writer

  • 3 November 2015

David Dollahite, professor in BYU’s School of Family Life, gives the Virginia F. Cutler lecture on October 22.  Photo by Marianne Holman Prescott.

Article Highlights

  • Religion can strengthen or curb a family’s connection.
  • A couple with similar religious views often has a shared purpose, a commitment to permanence, and a greater willingness to forgive.
  • Children reported “religious conversations” as the most meaningful faith activity.

“We need to continue finding ways to inspire and empower the rising generation to create high quality families of faith, especially in a culture increasingly suspicious or weary of religion.” —Dr. David Dollahite, BYU professor

“There are so many great blessings that occur in the lives of marriages and families of those who live their faith,“ David Dollahite, a professor in the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University, said.

“Many people will tell you the two most important parts of their life are their family and their religious beliefs. And I love getting people to talk about what matters most to them,” Dr. Dollahite said during the 51st Annual Virginia F. Cutler Lecture held in the Spencer W. Kimball Tower on the Brigham Young University Campus on October 22.

The lecture series is named in honor of the late Virginia Farrer Cutler, who served as a dean of BYU’s College of Family, Home, and Social Sciences. This year’s lecture, hosted by the School of Family Life, focused on the ongoing national research done for the American Families of Faith Project.

Sharing from his experience growing up in a religious home, Dr. Dollahite told of how his upbringing in the Episcopal Church—by a mother who was raised Catholic and a father who was raised Southern Baptist—helped him recognize the important connection between faith and family.

“Faith and family life has been a part of my life since before I was born, from all of my life to the present moment,” Dr. Dollahite said.

After joining The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints when he was 19, he served a mission to New England, where he again had experiences that solidified his interest in family and faith.

The question he finds most satisfying to study is “What are the ways … that are most likely to lead to happy, high quality marriages and families?”

Religion is an incredibly powerful part of many marriages and homes—with the ability to strengthen or curb a family’s connection, he said.

“It is important for us to find out those ways that living your faith is most likely to lead to happy, strong families and those ways to be religious that you might want to avoid if you want to have a strong family,” he said.

The American Families of Faith project takes a look at different religions and how faith influences families. Image from web: http://AmericanFamiliesofFaith.byu.edu.

Dr. Dollahite spent the hour sharing the background and some of the findings of the research he and his coleader, Dr. Loren D. Marks, another professor at BYU, along with many other contributors, have done over the past 14 years. Together they have conducted in-depth interviews with 200 families—about 500 people—from around the nation from a variety of faiths.

“When you get people talking about things that they care about, it is amazing to see how they open up,” he said. “And it’s amazing how much people live their faith.”

Many studies show the association of religion with various aspects of marriage and family life, but there is still much to learn about how faith works in families and why religion matters, Dr. Dollahite said.

“Our mission is to explore the nexus of religion and family relationships in order to discover and share ways of being religious that facilitate human joy as well as relational quality and stability,” he said.

For the first phase of the project, researchers looked at 200 families—150 American Christian religions, 30 Jewish, and 20 Muslim—all recommended by their religious leaders. The families live in 17 states in all major regions in the U.S. All of the families had married parents, ranging in ages from 20s to 60s from all different social-economic backgrounds. On average, the couples had been married 20 years and were middle-aged.

Researchers asked married couples about the ways their faith and family lives are linked and how they thought their religious beliefs, practices, and communities influenced their marriages and family lives.

Using a variety of qualitative approaches, researchers analyzed the data in four main sections—religion and marriage, religion and parent-child relationships, youth religious identity and spiritual development, and family religious processes.

Focusing his remarks on only some of the findings, Dr. Dollahite shared how religion helps couples avoid, resolve, and reconcile after marital conflict.

“Religion has an impact on all levels,” Dr. Dollahite said. “When problems occur, religion helps resolve those problems.”

When a couple has similar religious views they often have a shared purpose, a commitment to permanence, and a greater willingness to forgive.

Sharing the example of how praying—both together and separately—can be a unifier between couples, Dr. Dollahite spoke of the unity that comes as couples “feel they can turn to God and receive help and guidance.”

Religion also plays a part in the reconciliation process. As individuals identify grace and forgiveness from their God, they are likely to do the same for those around them.

“Couples spoke of different ways their religious beliefs, practices, and communities influenced how they thought about their marriage,” Dr. Dollahite said, adding that an overarching theme of his research identified religious couples felt marriage is “something more.”

Couples who looked at marriage as a “sacred union” often see marriage as a divinely approved covenant with a lifetime commitment. Couples who consider God a part of their marriage reported “God an author of the marriage” or “God is present in the marriage” and looked at their relationship as a triad between the couple and God. Their beliefs promote fidelity within relationships.

On the topic “religion and parent-child relationships,” Dr. Dollahite said researchers looked at how parents and children talk together about religious issues. When asking about faith activities in the home, children reported “religious conversations” as most meaningful.

“Families rated religious conversations as the most meaningful and the second most frequent (after grace and meals) religious activity when compared with 19 other religious activities,” Dr. Dollahite said.

Researchers found ”youth-centered“ conversations—those that allow youth to talk freely and ask questions while parents listen—most effective. When parents talk too much or give demands without explanation, the conversation can lead to youth feeling annoyed, mad, uninterested, or less likely to initiate conversation in the future. As parents involve youth they tend to be more engaged and interested, enjoy the conversation, and are more likely to initiate a conversation in the future.

“It was surprising how many youth had a strong relationship with God,” Dr. Dollahite said. “There is a large number of youth with a deep and meaningful relationship with God.”

These conversations help as parents help youth develop their own religious identity and values, which often lead to greater devotion and sacrifice.

“We need to continue finding ways to inspire and empower the rising generation to create high quality families of faith,” Dr. Dollahite said. “Especially in a culture increasingly suspicious or weary of religion.”

To read more about the American Families of Faith project, visit americanfamiliesoffaith.byu.edu.