Aug 6, 2001

From the Archives

Born Again Adults Less Likely to Co-Habit, Just as Likely to Divorce

Americans are increasingly likely to engage in co-habitation prior to marriage, and those who do so have a higher likelihood of experiencing at least one divorce during their lifetime. Strangely, although born again Christians are less likely to engage in co-habitation, they are just as likely to experience a divorce. These are among the findings from a new study by the Barna Research Group of Ventura, California that examines the changing nature of household relationships in the U.S.

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Co-Habitation Is Increasingly Common

During the period during which they were single, one out of every three adults (33%) has lived with someone of the opposite gender, other than family members or relatives. Co-habitation is much more common among men (39% have done so) than among women (28%). Age is one of the most striking factors, though. Almost half (44%) of the nation’s adults under 35 – i.e. those in the Baby Bust generation – co-habited, compared to one-third (33%) of those in the 35 to 49 age bracket, one-quarter (24%) of those in their fifties and sixties, and just 1% of adults who are in their seventies or older.

A person’s faith leanings and commitment were clearly related to co-habitation. Among born again Christians, just 25% had co-habited. Among individuals who called themselves Christian but did not have beliefs that classified them as “born again,” 37% had co-habited. Forty-two percent of adults who associate with a faith other than Christianity had co-habited, while atheists were the most likely to do so (51%).

Among people who attend a Christian church of some type, 36% of Catholics had co-habited, compared to 30% among those aligned with a Protestant church.

Marriage Is Still the Norm

In spite of recent Census data showing that fewer Americans are getting married with each passing decade, the long-term view indicates that Americans are entering their first marriage at older ages, and that more than nine out of ten Americans eventually get married. An examination of data from nationwide interviews with a random sample of 7043 adults shows that although nearly six out of ten adults under 35 (58%) have yet to get married, that figure drops to just 14% among adults 35 to 49, and a mere 6% among people 50 or older. In other words, among people in the fifties and beyond, 94% have been married at least once. Among all people age 18 or older, 73% have been married at least one time.

But marriage is not as stable a relationship as it once was. Among the three-quarters who have been married, one-third has also experienced at least one divorce. The research identified three surprises in terms of who is most likely to get divorced.

  • Born again Christians are just as likely to get divorced as are non-born again adults. Overall, 33% of all born again individuals who have been married have gone through a divorce, which is statistically identical to the 34% incidence among non-born again adults.
  • While college graduates are typically more liberal in their political views and lifestyle than adults who lack such a degree, adults who have a college degree and have been married are comparatively less likely to get divorced. Thirty-one percent of college grads that have been married have been divorced versus 36% of adults who did not earn a college degree and have been married.
  • Residents of the Northeast and West are commonly noted for their more liberal leanings in politics and lifestyle. However, the region of the nation in which divorce was least likely was the Northeast. In that area, 28% of adults who had been married had also been divorced, compared to 32% in the Midwest, 35% in the South, and 38% in the West.

The research also indicates that while black adults are more likely than white or Hispanic adults to get divorced, the differences are miniscule. Overall, 36% of black adults who had been married had experienced a divorce, compared to 34% of whites and 32% of Hispanics. The study does indicate that blacks and Hispanics were nearly twice as likely as whites to have never been married. (Currently, only 21% of white adults have never been married, compared to 38% of black and 41% of Hispanic adults.)

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Children Raised Without Married Parents

Census data have revealed that about one out of every three children born in the U.S. these days is the child of an unwed mother. The data from the Barna survey also show that nearly one out of every four adults (23%) who has never been married has children living in their household. Overall, one out of every six households (17%) with children under 18 is headed by an adult who has never been married.

Perspectives On the Data

Anticipating some of the hostility and denials that emerge whenever his company releases new survey data showing that massive numbers of born again Christians get divorced, researcher George Barna provided additional details regarding the data. “The adults analyzed in the born again category were not those who claimed to be born again, but were individuals who stated a personal commitment to Christ, having confessed their sins, embracing Christ as their savior, and believing that they have received eternal salvation because of their faith in Christ alone. More than 90% of the born again adults who have been divorced experienced that divorce after they accepted Christ, not before. It is unfortunate that so many people, regardless of their faith, experience a divorce, but especially unsettling to find that the faith commitment of so many born again individuals has not enabled them to strengthen and save their marriages.”

Barna also said, “It seems clear that the rules concerning relationships and marriage are being rewritten by young adults. A majority of married Busters co-habited prior to their marriage. If the existing relationship between co-habitation and higher rates of divorce persists, we can expect to see a continued deluge of divorces in coming years, in spite of the fact that teenagers and college students have listed the desire to get married and stay wed to their spouse for the duration of their life as one of their top goals in life.”

Survey Methodology

The data concerning marriage and divorce is based upon a combination of seven independent, national random samples of adults totaling 7043 interviews conducted by telephone between January 2000 and July 2001. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the aggregate sample is ±2 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. The data regarding co-habitation is from a national survey conducted in February 2001 through telephone interviews with a nationwide random sample of 1005 adults. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the aggregate sample is ±3 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. All of the interviews were conducted from the Barna Research Group telephone interviewing facility in Ventura, CA. Adults in the 48 continental states were eligible to be interviewed and the distribution coincided with the geographic dispersion of the U.S. adult population. Multiple callbacks were used to increase the probability of including a reliable distribution of adults.

“Born again Christians” were defined in these surveys as people who said they have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today and who also indicated they believe that when they die they will go to Heaven because they had confessed their sins and had accepted Jesus Christ as their savior. Respondents were not asked to describe themselves as “born again” or if they considered themselves to be “born again.”

“Evangelicals” are a subset of born again Christians in Barna surveys. In addition to meeting the born again criteria, evangelicals also meet seven other conditions. Those include saying their faith is very important in their life today; believing they have a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs about Christ with non-Christians; believing that Satan exists; believing that eternal salvation is possible only through grace, not works; believing that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth; and describing God as the all-knowing, all-powerful, perfect deity who created the universe and still rules it today. Being classified as an evangelical has no relationship to church attendance or the denominational affiliation of the church they attend. Respondents were not asked to describe themselves as “evangelical.”

The Barna Research Group, Ltd. is an independent marketing research company located in southern California. Since 1984 it has been studying cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors. This research was funded solely by Barna Research as part of its regular tracking of the social, religious and political state of the nation.

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Co-Habitation, Marriage and Divorce
(base: 7043 adults 18+, national)*N=1005
have co-habited*have never been marriedhave been married% of those married who have ever been divorcedsample size
all adults 33%27%73%34%7043
born again Christians251981332901
non-born again adults393268344142
Age: under 35445842202426
Age: 35-49341486392155
Age: 50+18694362328

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About Barna

Since 1984, Barna Group has conducted more than two million interviews over the course of thousands of studies and has become a go-to source for insights about faith, culture, leadership, vocation and generations. Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization.

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