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Religious and spiritual values and moral commitment in marriage: untapped resources in couples counseling?

The authors investigated the relationship between religious and spiritual values and moral commitment in marriage to further inform marriage and family counselors about the nature of committed relationships. Using a qualitative research design, they examined individuals' perceptions of moral commitment in their marriage and how their religious and spiritual values influence those perceptions. Narrative text was analyzed through an iterative process, involving constant comparison of emerging themes, and 6 categories materialized. Findings build on existing knowledge regarding the importance of moral commitment to marital health specifically as it relates to the counseling profession.


Our study examined the nature of commitment in marital relationships, particularly commitment associated with religion and spirituality. Commitment is most typically defined as feelings of permanency that are founded in attractions and constraints (Dean & Spanier, 1974; M. P. Johnson, Caughlin, & Huston, 1999; Leik & Leik, 1977). Moral commitment speaks to constraints. M. P. Johnson et al. (1999) defined moral commitment as "the sense that one is morally obligated to continue in a relationship" (p. 161). They suggest that there are three dimensions of moral commitment. First, there is moral commitment to one's relationship. This is the idea that the relationship should be permanent and that a long-lasting marriage involves following the rules. This dimension is reflected in many religious wedding affirmations, including life-oriented vows such as "as long as we both shall live" (Dollahite & Lambert, 2007). The second dimension of moral commitment involves obligation to a particular person. For example, spouses might say that they made a promise to their partner that a marriage would last forever, and thus, they will do all that is possible to honor this promise. The final dimension of moral commitment reflects a desire to be generally consistent and finish what one has begun. This dimension entails thoughts about the general acceptability of divorce.

According to Richards and Bergin (1997), religion tends to be "denominational, external, cognitive, behavioral, ritualistic, and public" (p. 31); spirituality tends to be "universal, ecumenical, internal, affective, spontaneous, and private" (p. 31). Spirituality and religion in couples counseling have been neglected resources until recently (Corey, Corey, & Callanan, 2003; Myers & Williard, 2003; Polanski, 2003; Richards & Bergin, 1997; Wolf & Stevens, 2001). According to Esau (1998), the therapeutic community and clients who are considered religious have experienced mutual suspicions toward one another. Counselors and psychologists lack training in the inclusion of religious and spiritual issues in therapy (Carlson, Kirkpatrick, Hecker, & Killmer, 2002; Richards & Bergin, 1997), which may account for this neglect. Esau used the term passively prejudicial to describe therapists' behavior when they ignore faith issues of their clients. Fear of imposing personal values on clients may hinder counselors from tapping into religion and spirituality in counseling (Corey et al., 2003; McClure & Livingston, 2000; Myers & Williard, 2003; Watts, 2001). However, just as practicing counselors are challenged to obtain the necessary competence in understanding the role of culture, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation, they must also demonstrate the ability to understand the role of religion and spirituality in client worldviews (see the American Counseling Association [ACA], 2005, ACA Code of Ethics, Standard C.5.).

Recently, the counseling profession has experienced a renewed interest in religion and spirituality (Clinton & Ohlschalager, 2002; Palmer, White, Chung, 2008). Rose, Westefeld, and Ansley (2001) found that
   many clients, especially the highly spiritual, believe that
   religious and spiritual issues not only are acceptable and
   preferable for discussion in therapy but also are important
   therapeutic factors, central to the formation of worldview and
   personality and impacting human behavior. (p. 69)

Some experts in the field have suggested that spirituality may be the fifth force in counseling (Morgan, 2007; Stanard, Sandhu, & Painter, 2000). Failing to address religious and spiritual resources during counseling may be neglectful and unethical (ACA, 2005, Standard C.5.). A few studies in the counseling literature reported the importance of including religious and spiritual values in marriage and family counseling (Watts, 2001; Wolf & Stevens, 2001; Worthington, 1990). Thus, as the counseling profession continues to incorporate discussions of religious and spiritual values, we suggest that counselors be aware of and understand that moral commitment (feelings of obligation) are an important extension of religious and spiritual values and, ultimately, might be important in understanding a couple's level of success.

Review of Literature

Although the literature has clearly defined dimensions of moral commitment, virtually no past studies have evaluated the extent to which each of these dimensions exists or the salience of each of these dimensions to more general thoughts of obligation in marriage (Hui, Lindsey, & Elliott, 2007; M. P. Johnson et al., 1999). Moreover, we found no studies examining sources of moral commitment. In the current study, we explored the various dimensions of moral commitment as a way to understand which obligation best shapes moral commitment. We also examined religious values as a potentially important source for moral commitment. Finally, we were concerned with the centrality of moral commitment to marital success and how the use of the construct of moral commitment in couples counseling might affect the therapeutic process.

Our review also included an examination of covenant marriage studies (Sanchez, Nock, Wilson, & Wright, 2006). Covenant marriages are legally recognized in Louisiana, Arkansas, and Arizona. Some 30 other states have considered covenant marriage legislation in recent years. Covenant marriages make premarital counseling a requirement, and in these marriages, couples can only divorce for adultery, abuse, abandonment, or imprisonment. Thus, moral commitment seems to be implicit in this marriage type. However, to date, no studies compare moral commitment in covenant marriages and standard marriages, although studies do indicate that couples in a covenant marriages are more religious and more communicative than couples in standard marriages (Sanchez et al., 2006).

The absence of research about and practical application of commitment in marriage caused us to question whether counselors are truly accessing religious and spiritual resources as these are related to commitment in marriage. We explored the literature in other related fields and the scant literature in the counseling field to begin to unravel the relationship between religious values and moral commitment in marriage and how that relationship may be useful in counseling married couples. We wanted to examine firsthand from individuals how religious values influence their notion of commitment in their marriage. We see this as a first step in appreciating more comprehensively the ultimate importance of moral commitment to marital longevity and success, which may have powerful implications for counselors working with couples. We also believe that this study continues to build on recent works that are broadly concerned with how religious experiences mold a sense of purpose in marriage (Dollahite & Lambert, 2007; Fincham, Stanley, & Beach, 2007; Goodman & Dollahite, 2006; Mahoney, Pargament, Murray-Swank, & Murray-Swank, 2003).

It has been suggested that commitment is paramount marital capital (Dollahite & Lambert, 2007) and perhaps even more important to marital success than positive affect or effective communication (Gottman, 1994; Love & Stousy, 2007). However, even as those interested in preserving marriage tout commitment as a source of strength, few scholarly works have empirically examined the influence of commitment on marital success (Brandau-Brown & Ragsdale, 2008; Manning, 2005). An even more understudied subject concerns sources of commitment, and although it is commonly assumed that religious experiences are highly influential to commitment in marriage, we found virtually no studies that examined this relationship (Dollahite & Lambert, 2007; Goodman & Dollahite, 2006; Mahoney et al., 2003).

The Relevance of Moral Commitment to Marital Health

In the past, scholars have suggested that moral commitment is more important to marital longevity than to marital health and that moral commitment without attraction-based commitment can lead to long-lasting but unsuccessful marriages (M. P. Johnson et al., 1999; Stanley & Markman, 1992) because moral commitment speaks only to obligation in marriage. Past studies found that successful couples consistently framed their commitment in terms of attraction instead of obligation (Brandau-Brown & Ragsdale, 2008; M. P. Johnson et al., 1999; Stanley & Markman, 1992). These findings were consistent with the social exchange perspective espousing that ultimately, for marriages to continue successfully, spouses must believe that there are more rewards than costs in their relationship (Becker, 1960). According to Worthington (1990), marital stability refers to a sense of commitment to the relationship, while marital quality is associated with intimacy, communication, conflict resolution, and level of hurtfulness in the couple's relationship.

Christian-based conservative marital scholars and activists have long suggested that obligation, which is central to moral commitment, is relevant to both marital longevity and success (Doherty, 2001; Spaht, 2002), and the constructs of obligation, conflict, and work in marital relationships also contain positive stories of forgiveness and affection (Fincham et al., 2007). This group noted that moral commitment is steadfast and immovable. Thus, when couples think of their marriage as a permanent investment to which they have greatly contributed, they can also find immense value and rewards in their marriage (Doherty, 2001). Some religious organizations have appealed to this line of thinking and suggested that obligation and working at marriage bring about goal-centered, sanctified, and rewarding marriages (Mahoney et al., 2003).

The Link Between Religious Values and Moral Commitment

Some research indicated that religious values were predictive of marital success and longevity (Dollahite & Lambert, 2007; Goodman & Dollahite, 2006). Religion is said to give one's life rationale and purpose (Johnstone, 2007), and through marriage, religion can lend central meaning to lives (Mahoney et al., 2003). Because of religious values, couples often come to "make sacred" (Pargament & Mahoney, 2005, p. 180) their marriage, seeing it as qualitatively set apart from all other-worldly relationships (Eliade, 1957). Religious values can also cause couples to feel that God is an active third party in their marriage, and thus, because couples become accountable to God, these marriages are given the utmost attention (Mahoney et al., 2003).

Religion is said to be most predictive of success when couples share religious values and religious experiences (Dollahite & Lambert, 2007; Wilcox, 2007). The literature suggests that to embark on a marriage wherein the couple's religious values will be mutual, women often bring men onboard prior to marriage by sharing their faith and beliefs (Hui et al., 2007). Once married, a couple can access religious values as a "safe container" for marital conflict (Lambert & Dollahite, 2006, p. 442). Spouses who share religious values can often put conflict into perspective and mutually agree to work through problems that arise in marriage. Finally, religious values can cause couples to think of religion as a marital road map of sorts, providing them with guidelines for sexual relations, gender roles, and self-sacrifice within marriage (Mahoney et al., 2003).

Although some researchers noted that religious values are an important source of success, longevity, and obligation in marriage, little is known about how couples evaluate the centrality of their religious values to their marital well-being (Dollahite & Lambert, 2007; Goodman & Dollahite, 2006; Mahoney et al., 2003). Most past studies relating religious values to marital success were based on quantitative indicators for religious experiences, such as frequency of church attendance (Goodman & Dollahite, 2006; Mahoney et al., 2003), and these indicators failed to capture the complex ways in which religion shapes goals or beliefs for marriage or marital quality (Goodman & Dollahite, 2006). These studies also found that couples who believed their marriage to be sacred or sanctified and those who believed that God was actively involved in their marriage tended to have high marital satisfaction and communicated well. Thus, believing that God is active in one's marriage becomes relevant to the extent that this belief can prompt couples to conceptualize their marriages as set apart from the mundane (Eliade, 1957). Still, there is a lack of knowledge about how religious values themselves are central to marital health (Goodman & Dollahite, 2006).

Some authors believe that religious values are predictive of moral commitment in marriage (Doherty, 2001; Goodman & Dollahite, 2006); however, virtually no scholarly works have empirically examined this relationship (Dollahite & Lambert, 2007; Fincham et al., 2007). Although we agree that past literature is fully supportive of the idea that religious values foster marital quality, we also believe that there is much to be learned about this relationship. It is our goal to build on the previous literature by specifically adding to the knowledge base regarding religious and spiritual values as a source of moral commitment in marriage.

Conceptual Framework

As we conducted our survey and our interviews, social constructionism framed our thinking and way of working with the participants. As researchers and counselors, we adopted a "not knowing" (Anderson & Goolishian, 1988) approach to our study, which is consistent with mixed research. The theoretical stance of social constructionism served two purposes: (a) to allow us to observe what surfaced from the language the participants shared and the relationships they described and (b) to help us understand the realities they created with their spouse relevant to marital commitment.



The design of our study was mixed methods research, whereby "a researcher or team of researchers combines elements of qualitative and quantitative research approaches (e.g., use of qualitative and quantitative viewpoints, data collection, analysis, inference techniques) for the broad purposes of breadth and depth of understanding and corroboration" (R. B. Johnson, Onwuegbuzie, & Turner, 2007, p. 123). The rationale for using this particular design was based on the framework of a Rationale and Purpose model (Collins, Onwuegbuzie, & Sutton, 2006) in which we identified four rationales for designing mixed research studies: participant enrichment, instrument fidelity, treatment integrity, and significance enhancement. The rationale for using mixed methods in our study was significance enhancement. We hoped to reveal richer meanings and implications as a result of combining quantitative and qualitative methods, using an Internet survey format for the quantitative component of the study and using qualitative, phenomenological strategies to yield increased awareness of how individuals define commitment in their marriage. Once the survey responses were analyzed, we believed that further analysis of the written comments of the participants would yield more complete results. In addition, interviews were conducted with eight participants to reveal even richer findings. Additional themes and findings would not have been revealed without the mixed research approach; therefore, it was critical for the qualitative analyses to follow and build on the findings of the quantitative analyses. The richness of the data using the mixed research methods will inform the profession more accurately of what the participants believed about their notions of commitment in marriage.


The total sample for our study was a convenience sample of 163 graduate and undergraduate students from counseling departments at two universities in the southwestern United States who chose to respond to our survey. Participants were asked to identify themselves as married; engaged to be married; single; divorced; in a committed same-sex relationship; in a committed relationship, but not married; have never been in a committed relationship; previously in a committed relationship; or other. For this current research study, we narrowed the sample to those participants identifying themselves as married and heterosexual. Our study addressed commitment in marriage, and in the state in which the study took place, this excludes same-sex unions. Forty-six percent of the participants described themselves as married. Individual participants were chosen rather than couples to reduce bias in the findings.

Most of the respondents were female (90.7%). Realizing early in the study that the gender issue might be seen as a limitation to our data collection, we forwarded the survey to a professor in the Health and Kinesiology Department at one of the universities. We asked the professor to send the survey to the students in that department, which historically includes more male than female students. Nevertheless, the percentage of male participants did not increase as a result of this effort. The ethnic breakdown of the participants was as follows: African American (8.0%), Caucasian (72.0%), Hispanic (14.7%), mixed ethnicity (2.7%), and other (2.7%). Ages of the participants ranged from 18 to 25 (8.0%), 26 to 30 (25.3%), 31 to 40 (25.3%), 41 to 50 (26.7%), 51 to 60 (13.3%), and 61 to 70 (1.3%) years. (Percentages for ethnicity and age do not total 100% because of rounding.) Participants were also asked to self-identify their religious affiliations. Although we did not specifically seek out a Christian sample, with the exception of 10 participants who described themselves as other than Christian (Muslim, Pantheist, Unitarian, agnostic, unaffiliated, and no answer given), the remainder indicated a Christian affiliation or background (see Table 1).


The Couples Commitment Inventory (CCI) was used to explore the attitudes, perceptions, and beliefs of individuals regarding the concept of commitment in romantic relationships. The questions in the inventory were initiated in a previous investigation (Kirk, Eckstein, Serres, & Helms, 2007). On the basis of information gleaned from Kirk et al. (2007) and from a review of the literature (M. P. Johnson et al., 1999), we developed our own initial list of questions and then refined this list as we worked together to create a survey of 11 questions relevant to individuals' understanding of their own attitudes about commitment in romantic relationships. Aside from the demographic information, the survey questions were open-ended, and participants were asked to respond by writing their answers in a text box provided in the Internet survey. The last question on the survey asked participants to include their telephone number if they were interested in participating in a telephone interview at a later date.

Data Collection

A survey company ( was used to set up the CCI in an Internet format. Participants received an e-mail requesting their participation in the survey and directing them to the link provided to take the survey. An electronic mailing list in a university department was used to send out the survey to some students. Others received the survey by means of their professors who were willing to forward the survey to their students. Our survey generated 75 responses from married participants, which was an acceptable number for our study given that we reached saturation of ideas with the 75 participants. The informed consent assured participants that their responses were anonymous and confidential. The survey company collected the survey responses and aggregated them into an EXCEL file. Personal e-mail addresses of participants were not reported to us. In addition to completing the Internet survey, 11 participants provided their phone number at the end of the survey indicating a willingness to be contacted for a telephone interview. Eight participants were reached for the telephone interviews, which were conducted by the third and fourth authors to gather more descriptive and detailed information about participants' ideas regarding commitment and marital quality.

Data Analysis

The survey company provided an EXCEL file of the results of the participants' responses to the survey items, and we were able to identify the descriptive statistics relevant to our study. The data revealed the following important demographics of the participants: ethnicity, age, religious affiliation, and marital status. We used these data to assist us in making decisions about the direction that our study would take. Most important, we found that 46% of the participants were individuals who were married, and we decided to focus on these participants and the two questions relevant to religion and spirituality and marital commitment with this smaller sample. After determining our sample and our research questions, we began to look at the narratives written by participants regarding their thoughts about religion and spirituality and marital commitment.

In phenomenological studies, the researcher seeks to learn more about participants' values regarding certain phenomena and the meaning they give to those phenomena (Moustakas, 1994). The qualitative part of our research design was inspired by the precept that knowledge is socially constructed (Berger & Luckman, 1966). We used open-ended questions in our survey to encourage participants to express their views in their own words, writing as much or as little as they wanted. The process of our research was largely inductive as we generated meaning from the participants' responses. As we collected and analyzed data in the various phases of our study, we agreed to bracket our own experiences to better understand the experiences of the participants. Bracketing is the suspension of the researchers' previous understandings of their own experiences and the review of the literature relevant to the research questions (Denzin, 1989; Nieswiadomy, 1993). Bracketing allows the researchers to look at data from a fresh perspective minimizing their own biases, cultural factors, assumptions, and hunches about the meaning of the participants' views (Fisher, 2009).

As we organized the data for the qualitative analysis, we found that two survey questions in particular explored the role of religion and spirituality in marriages: "In what way, if any, is your concept of commitment related to your religious/spiritual beliefs?" and "How would or do you define commitment in your relationship/marriage?" We found the responses to these particular questions to be rich in intensity and emotional content, and for this study we decided to narrow our investigation to these two questions and to focus our study on the views of the married participants regarding their spiritual and religious values and their notion of commitment in marriage.

These two CCI survey items were analyzed qualitatively. Participants typed their responses in text boxes and were not limited to the number of words they could include. Therefore, many participants shared extensive thoughts and feelings regarding their perceptions of commitment in their marriage. The open-ended responses were analyzed using the method of constant comparison (Glaser & Strauss, 1967). One of the researchers (i.e., first author) organized and prepared the data for analysis by printing the responses for the two survey questions and creating a packet of responses for each researcher. Next, each member of the research team (i.e., the four authors) read and reread the responses (Glaser & Strauss, 1967), highlighting key words and phrases and separating them into units of meaning. This process generated many noteworthy statements and gave each researcher a general sense of the participants' ideas and overall meanings. Each team member then began a detailed analysis by collapsing the material into categories and eliminating similar or identical statements or phrases. As new noteworthy statements emerged, they were compared with previous statements so that like expressions were grouped together and categories were identified.

After each team member categorized all of the responses, we met to compare individual results. As a group, we discussed how the categories would be represented in the qualitative narrative. Through discussion and further reading of the literature, we identified areas of commonality and differences in our individual analyses. Categories were collapsed and subthemes and patterns emerged during these meetings, and consensus was reached as to how to define the categories. We then constructed an EXCEL file using color-coding to denote each category and assigned the 75 responses to the appropriate categories. Some responses fell into more than one category. The initial interrater approach to data analysis, coupled with the revisiting of the raw data, may have increased the overall trustworthiness of the findings (Lincoln & Guba, 1985).

The last phase of our investigation included an analysis of the notes from the participants (n = 8) who took part in a more detailed discussion of their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors regarding the concept of marital commitment. We found that the telephone interviewees' responses strengthened the data collected in the survey results, and we were able to glean more specific examples of commitment in marital relationships for our study.


The descriptive data were enhanced by the qualitative aspect (or perspective) of our study and are integrated throughout the Results section. The findings of our study indicated that participants categorized themselves into six groups regarding their perceptions of how their spiritual and religious values informed their notion of commitment in marriage. Although most participants categorized themselves in one of the six groups, some participants fell into two or more of the groups. These six categories are (a) commitment is related to religious beliefs; (b) commitment has little or no connection to religious beliefs; (c) commitment is related to spirituality, but not to religion; (d) commitment is a promise to God or to a spouse; (e) commitment is abiding by God's guidelines; and (f) commitment is related to the notion of determinism or God's will.

Commitment Is Related to Religious Beliefs.

More than half of all married respondents (n = 39, 52%) reported that their perception of commitment was related to their religious beliefs. Participants who categorized themselves in this way were Baptist, Catholic, or simply Christian, with Baptists being most likely to self-identify with this category. When asked to define their commitment, the majority (n = 28, 72%) of these respondents framed their commitment as moral commitment, discussing obligations associated with being married. Although the themes in discussions of moral commitment were similar to M. P. Johnson et al.'s (1999) themes, having to do with obligation to the relationship or to a spouse or the acceptability of divorce, there were no clear patterns linking specific religious affiliations with these themes. Participants (n = 14, 19%) who defined their commitment in terms of obligation discussed obligations made to a spouse. For example, Mary (all names used in the study are pseudonyms), an African American in her 50s and a self-proclaimed Baptist, said about her moral commitment: "I define it as an understanding between the both of us that our marriage vows are sacred. I believe that our actions must be based on what is good for the relationship rather than good for the individual."

Nine comments regarding moral commitment had to do with obligation to the marital relationship. For example, Elizabeth, a Caucasian in her 50s and a self-proclaimed Southern Baptist, noted that moral commitment meant "To have and to hold from this day forward, in sickness, in health, for richer or for poorer, till death us do part." Finally, five participants said that commitment was about the acceptability of divorce. For example, Jake, a Caucasian in his upper 20s and a self-proclaimed Christian, said, "Marriage is forever, divorce is not an option. The word divorce is not even uttered in our household."

Respondents in this category also reported passionately that their notions of commitment could essentially not be separated from their religious values. For example, Jennifer, a Caucasian, in her upper 20s and a self-identified Christian, said, "It [commitment] has everything to do with my spiritual beliefs. I believe God has to be a part of marriage or it won't work." Also, when Carly, another Caucasian in her upper 20s and a self-identified Southern Baptist, was asked about how her commitment was related to religious or spiritual beliefs, she responded, "in every way. I did not enter my marriage half-heartedly or without much thought and prayer. I know that my marriage is a spiritual union between my husband, Jesus, and myself." Interspersed with the notion that religious values are at the heart of commitment were the ideas that a sacred covenant exists between a man and a woman and God, that God abhors divorce, and that God intended for couples to stay together no matter what the circumstances.

In the telephone interviews, participants who stated that they were not affiliated with a particular church referenced their "Christian upbringing" or "Christian beliefs" as representative of their ideas about moral commitment in marriage. That is, they believed that God intended marriage to be an obligation for a lifetime. In fact, the only reasons noted for obtaining a divorce were infidelity, abuse, addictions, and life endangerment. Reasons noted by participants that would not be acceptable for obtaining a divorce were irreconcilable differences, falling out of love, boredom, physical illness, leaving your spouse for someone else, unhappiness with your spouse, and any other relational problems. One interviewee made it clear that marriage is "not about love, but rather commitment."

Commitment Has Little or No Connection to Religious Beliefs

Few participants (n = 7, 9%) said they thought there was only a small connection or no connection between religious values and commitment. All of these participants were female and identified with Catholicism, Pantheism, Unitarian Universalists, or did not note a religious identification. Also, these participants did not frame their commitment in terms of obligation, but instead characterized commitment in terms of open communication, trust, and work on the part of each spouse. A common theme among this group was that religious backgrounds had indirectly affected participants' concepts of commitment. For example, Sylvia, a Caucasian in her upper 20s and a self-identified Catholic, said about the lack of connection between religious experiences and commitment:
   The Church has not been a significant part of my life and has not
   been a factor on how I define commitment. The culture I was raised
   in (large Italian Catholic family) did have a huge impact on my
   views of commitment. So ... although religion did not directly
   impact my views of commitment, it may have indirectly from my
   parents and grandparents modeling their beliefs of commitment,
   which [were] shaped by the Church.

Others indicated that their marriage began with a religious focus, but over time, commitment in marriage was more about devotion to a spouse. For example, Linda, a Caucasian, 40-something Catholic said, "Our concepts of commitment probably started as a religious commitment, but have grown to a realization that our lives are so enmeshed that we truly could not continue to have the same lifestyle without each other." Finally, one participant stated that she had not given much thought to a possible connection between religious values and commitment.

Commitment Is Related to Spirituality, But Not to Religion.

When asked in what way, if any, commitment was related to religious or spiritual beliefs, four participants noted that their concepts of commitment were connected to spirituality instead of religious values. Three of these participants were self-identified Christians, and one was Catholic. Comments related commitment to simply "doing the right thing" to humankind or to general faithfulness. These participants also framed moral commitment in terms of obligation to a spouse or to the relationship. However, in discussing obligation, these participants talked about openness and availability to spouses. Whether participants saw little or no connection between commitment and religion or a connection between spirituality and commitment, the emphasis in their constructs of commitment related more to the human spousal relationship, emphasizing such things as trust, open communication, and physical and emotional availability rather than God-focused commitment.

Commitment Is a Promise to God or to a Spouse

When asked if commitment was related to religious beliefs, seven spouses indicated that for them, commitment was connected to a promise they made to God or to their spouse. Five of the seven noted that commitment was a promise they made to God, with three of these five spouses also noting that their commitment was connected to religious beliefs. Regarding promises made to God, two others did not talk about the connection between their commitment and religious beliefs, but talked instead about God's distaste for divorce. For example, Melanie, a Caucasian in her 40s and a self-identified Methodist, said,
   I know that God is God and that He abhors divorce. I promised
   before God and everybody that I would be the wife and life partner
   to my husband. I can disappoint people, but I don't want to
   disappoint God.

Among participants who indicated that commitment was a promise made to God, three noted that they used Christ's love for them as something to emulate in their own marriage and used the word covenant to describe the relationship between God's devotion to them and, in turn, their commitment to their marriage. For example, Michelle, a 30-something Caucasian and a self-identified Methodist, said about her commitment in marriage:
   You learn about the covenant commitment. God wants us to be
   committed to each other like He is to us. Woman should serve the
   man, but man should treat the woman like Christ treated the church.
   We both have to respect each other and love each other the way
   Christ loves us.

And Paul, a Caucasian in his 50s and a self-identified Baptist, said, "As Christ loved the Church, we are also to love and be committed to each other."

Discussions about how commitment was related to religious beliefs mirrored discussions about definitions of commitment for these spouses. All of these spouses framed their commitment in terms of obligation. In discussing obligation, these participants articulated more than any other group that moral commitment was about following the rules.

Commitment Is Abiding by God's Guidelines

Twenty-one (28%) of our 75 participants noted that their commitment was directed by the guidelines that God established for marriage. Guidelines included one man and one woman for life, the general unacceptability of divorce, the Bible as an authoritative source for direction in marriage, and patterning married love after the love that God shows those who seek him. Not surprisingly then, over half (n = 12, 16%) of these 21 participants defined their commitment as a moral commitment, relating commitment to obligation. However, when these individuals further elaborated on their moral commitment, they noted that obligations were relevant to relationships or spouses instead of beliefs about the acceptability of divorce. For example, Samantha, a 30-something Caucasian and self-identified Presbyterian, said that her commitment was related to God's guidelines, "I am called to honor the commitment that I have made. The Bible is our guidebook on how to live our lives." And when elaborating on her notions of commitment in her own marriage, she said,
   This is a vow we have made with each other to be devoted and
   faithful for the rest of our lives to one another through both good
   times and bad. This is not out of duty or obligation, rather it
   stems from mutual respect and unconditional love.

Participants in this category were self-identified Southern Baptist, nondenominational Christian, Methodist, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Catholic or Roman Catholic, with no one of these religious affiliations seeming to be more represented than the others.

Commitment Is Related to the Notion of Determinism or God's Will

Similar to the need to adhere to God's guidelines for marriage was the idea that marriages are willed by God. Five participants indicated that their marriage was willed by God, noting that God had a hand in bringing them to meet their spouse, that it was "His intention," and that God continues to be actively involved in making their marriage work. For example, Michelle, a Caucasian, 30-something, self-identified Christian, said, "I think God brought us together. Our paths crossed too many times while in college and out with others. I think it was His intention for us to find each other when the timing was right." And Sarah, a Caucasian in her 30s with no noted religious affiliation, said,
   My marriage has occurred because God wanted it. God made me the way
   He wanted me and my husband the way He wanted him. Remembering this
   makes me remember that I need to let my husband be his own person
   and helps me "get along" in the relationship. We consciously
   practice staying away from religion, but God-consciousness is one
   of the reasons we remain together.

There were no clear patterns between religious identifications and the belief that God determines marriages. Individuals falling into this category were self-identified Baptist, nondenominational Christian, Presbyterian, and no affiliation. Some of these participants associated the role of religious values with commitment, and they described their moral commitment in terms of the relationship to their spouse. Others framed their commitment in terms of attraction to their spouse or working at communication. For example, Julia, a Hispanic in her 30s and a self-proclaimed nondenominational Christian, noted, "Since being married to the same man for over 20 years, commitment truly means clear, open, responsible communicator and [being] a great listener. Finally, this perspective also entailed the idea that God's purpose is to keep the marriages together for life, and that with the exception of relationship violence, divorce is not an option.


Do Religious Experiences Matter to Moral Commitment?

The majority of participants in our sample (n = 64, 85.3%) indicated that there was some connection between religious values and commitment in their marriage. This finding is consistent with other past findings that revealed most couples do attribute at least some of their marital health to religion (Goodman & Dollahite, 2006). Perhaps what is more interesting about our study is the number of participants in the total sample who attributed no connection between religious values and commitment in marriage (n = 7, 9%) or attributed marital health to spirituality instead of religion (n = 4, 5.3%). These findings somewhat surprised us, given the religious nature of our sample, the region of the country from which our sample was derived, and the fact that many participants in our sample noted having a Christian upbringing. In addition, similar past studies reported having smaller percentages of participants of total samples who believed there was no connection between religion and marital health (Goodman & Dollahite, 2006). Our findings are consistent with recent Pew Forum on Religious and Public Life (2008) survey findings that depict substantial national shifts in people moving away from the organized religion of their socialization (especially Catholicism) toward a lack of religious affiliation or toward spirituality rather than religiosity. Thus, although it is commonly assumed that religious values inform moral commitment, there may also be a growing tendency for some couples to think there is little connection between the two.

We also noted that participants who told us that there was no connection between religious experiences and marital commitment tended to frame their relationships in more humanistic terms not related to moral commitment, often discussing honesty, communication, and trust as paramount to commitment and marital health. Although these participants were not asked directly about the quality of their marital relationship, many stated that their marital success was based on egalitarian gender roles, shared interests, and understanding each other's personal goals in life.

Previous studies have suggested that couples who can articulate specific ways in which they feel God is working in their marriage can also cite more precise ways in which their marriage is valued and successful (Goodman & Dollahite, 2006). Our sample was composed of a number of spouses who believed that religious experiences could not be separated from their thoughts of moral commitment or that their moral commitment in marriage was God directed. Moral commitment among these spouses was framed in terms of obligation to a spouse or marital relationship. These spouses said that their moral commitment came from examples of Christ's love and sacrifice and the covenant relationship that God has with his followers. Several of these spouses also talked about God's distaste for divorce.

Participants who were interviewed by telephone were asked more specifically about the quality of their marital relationship. These interviews revealed that those who saw a strong connection between religious values and moral commitment felt that religious values directed their every step in marriage. Telephone interviewees noted that because they saw God in all aspects of their relationship, they were calm and centered in their marriage.

Essentially, what we found was a tale of two marriage types, wherein an important constituency can be categorized as having more humanistic marriages, and a larger group was highly influenced by religious values, articulating specific ways in which religion directs their moral commitment in marriage. From the available data, we do not presume that one marriage type is better than the other. However, we do note that participants who credited religious values as a source of marital strength deemed commitment as more central to their marriage.

Is Moral Commitment Relevant to Marital Quality?

An important interest of our study was to begin to understand the extent to which moral commitment matters to marital quality. Although we clearly note that our study represents the embryonic stages of this understanding, it is an important first step at gaining more insight into the relevance of moral commitment. As we pointed out earlier, much of the past literature suggested that moral commitment is more important to marital stability than to marital health, and in fact, moral commitment can be detrimental to marital health without personal commitment or feelings of positive affect toward a spouse (M. P. Johnson et al., 1999). However, some Christian-based marital scholars and activists (Markman et al., 2004) have noted that moral commitment is relevant to marital health because it promotes thoughts of permanency and value in one's marriage.

Recently, others have also stated that constructs of obligation in marriage need to be reevaluated with more focus given to positive stories of obligation (Fincham et al., 2007). It is interesting that we found that couples who identified religious values as central to their moral commitment also tended to frame obligation in marriage in positive terms. Obligation was more often discussed as willing commitment made to a spouse or a relationship, with participants elaborating on positive affect toward their spouse. However, among those who saw religious values as an important source of moral commitment, a smaller but important group also said that obligation in marriage was about following the rules and God's distaste for divorce. Our study by no means comprehensively evaluates the relationship between moral commitment and marital quality. However, we do note that moral commitment or obligation in marriage is socially constructed and that participants who see their religious values and moral commitment as inextricably linked tend to construct positive ways of viewing obligation in marriage.


Interpretation of the current study's findings should take into account the study's limitations. The first limitation is the self-report nature of the study. When a self-report assessment is used for data collection, several confounding factors may influence participants' responses. Some participants may fear that their identity will be disclosed and, therefore, hesitate to be completely honest. Others may believe that the researchers have an idea of socially desirable responses to the items and may select responses based on this belief. In addition, because this was a self-report questionnaire on the Internet, there was no interaction in this stage of the research between the researchers and the participants. To compensate for this limitation and to produce richer results, we conducted telephone interviews with some participants (n = 8).

Another limitation includes the sample itself, which was predominantly female (90.7%) and consisted of graduate or undergraduate university students from the same geographic area. Although we attempted to include more male participants by using an additional group of students, that strategy did not increase the percentage of male participants in our study. In addition, more than 50% of the participants were over 30 years of age, and more than 40% were over 40 years of age; therefore, our sample did not include younger married couples in their 20s. The results may have been different had the sample been more representative of the various age groups.

The particular geographic location could be considered to be a part of the Bible Belt and may account for the high number of married participants who related their commitment to their religious values. The location could also account for the majority of participants being Christian rather than representing a range of religious affiliations. Although the marital relationship of the participants appears to be Christian based, it was not our intent to explore the constructs of the Christian faith in marital commitment; rather these data emerged from the particular sample we surveyed. In addition, we uncovered a significant number of participants who specified spirituality or humanistic reasons for their marital commitment. Future research might include a purposeful sample of participants from various religious perspectives. Finally, the telephone interviews were limited to participants who agreed to participate and who could be contacted, which may also represent a limitation of the study.


Although it is commonly assumed that religious values are central to marital success, only recently have scholars started to delve into studies that are designed to better articulate this relationship (Dollahite & Lambert, 2007). We see this study as a contribution to this literature and to the research in the counseling field on commitment in marriage. In particular, the findings allow us to begin to understand the relationship between religious and spiritual values and moral commitment in marriage. To date, no studies were found that have been directed at specifically exploring how religious and spiritual values affect this presumed key element of marital capital (Dollahite & Lambert, 2007). Finally, because questions in our survey were open-ended, we were able to elicit detailed responses about specific ways in which religious values guide moral commitment in marriage. We also see the study as a contribution to the scarce literature, particularly in the counseling field, related to moral commitment (M. P. Johnson et al., 1999). Although for almost two decades, it has been assumed that obligation in marriage is less important than attraction, we found that spouses can socially construct obligation in ways that demonstrate positive affect. This could be particularly meaningful for counselors working with married couples as they construct new meanings in their marital relationships through the therapeutic process.

We also note that religious values as well as marital experiences can be transformative (Mahoney et al., 2003) and should not be thought of as being formed in linear progression (Fincham et al., 2007). Perhaps what is most central to marital health then is the reality spouses create as a result of their beliefs, experiences, and interactions. Religion and spirituality may be untapped resources for counselors to uncover in working with couples to create more hopeful marital narratives. If marriage counselors are going to help couples access these resources, they must be trained to do so. Mattson (1994) stated that society is placing more emphasis on religious issues, that some clients are requesting Christian counseling, and that some students in academic settings are expressing an interest in being trained as Christian counselors; however, the religious aspect is often left out or avoided in courses for training counselors. Although Christian counseling only addresses one religious perspective, a more encompassing perspective by Pate and Bondi (1992) is that the question for counselor educators is not whether religious beliefs in general will be an important part of the focus on client diversity in graduate counseling programs, but how to include counselors' consideration of clients' religious values in the curriculum.

We hope that our study invites counselors to think about how religious and spiritual values and the notion of commitment might fit into their work with couples. Our results from the population surveyed indicated that these two constructs are closely related, and other authors suggested that clients believe that religious and spiritual values are important in their lives and should be included in counseling (Carlson et al., 2002; Rose et al., 2001). Religious and spiritual values may indeed be an untapped resource in marriage counseling to be used in the context of helping couples define the nature of their commitment and what it means to each partner.


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Judith A. Nelson and Sheryl A. Serres, Department of Educational Leadership and Counseling, Amy Manning Kirk, Department of Sociology, Sam Houston State University; Pedra Ane, private practice, The Woodlands, Texas. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Judith A. Nelson, Department of Educational Leadership and Counseling, Sam Houston State University, PO Box 2119, Huntsville, TX 77341-2119 (e-mail:
Religious Affiliation of Married Participants

Self-Identified Religious Affiliation                  n

Christian                                              14
Baptist                                                12
Catholic                                               10
Nondenominational Christian                             7
Methodist                                               4
Lutheran                                                2
Lutheran-Missouri Synod                                 1
Protestant                                              3
Southern Baptist                                        3
Presbyterian                                            2
Church of Christ                                        2
Unitarian                                               2
Roman Catholic                                          2
Pantheist                                               1
Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints (a)     1
Fellowship of the Cowboy Churches                       1
Assembly of God                                         1
Muslim                                                  1
Agnostic                                                1
No affiliation                                          1
No answer given                                         4

Note. N = 75.

(a) The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
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Author:Nelson, Judith A.; Kirk, Amy Manning; Ane, Pedra; Serres, Sheryl A.
Publication:Counseling and Values
Geographic Code:1U2NY
Date:Apr 1, 2011
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