I’m not a particularly religious person. However, through my research on religion in the United States, I’ve found that high levels of commitment are typically associated with strong family bonds, greater levels of marital stability, and greater levels marital happiness. In fact, studies have shown that high levels of religious commitment among spouses can reduce the odds of marital infidelity. Moreover, several studies have found that high levels of religious commitment among spouses can reduce the odds of divorce.
The argument advanced by these studies is fairly simple: when couples share time together at religious services, they also build a stronger interpersonal connection with one another. Moreover, this interpersonal connection becomes stronger when it is enshrined in a belief system that frames marriage as a sacred bond between two people. It is thought that the strength of these bonds protects against affairs and divorce.
A wrinkle exists in this research, though. The wrinkle is this: few studies have considered the role that religious commitment plays in a marriage after extramarital sex has occurred. Thus, the following question can be asked: do high levels of religious commitment reduce the odds of divorce following an affair?
In 2013, sociologist Alfred DeMaris used data from the Survey of Marital Instability Over the Life Course (MILC) to address this question. The MILC contains nationally representative information on more than two thousand married individuals in the U.S., with the specific goal of studying the stability of their marriages, and the factors associated with that stability, as their marriages progress. Through his study, DeMaris found that very religious couples were more likely to divorce after an affair in comparison to less religious couples. He suggested that this was probably due to the elevated sense of marital desecration that very religious couples experienced, which made it difficult to recover their marriage.
While DeMaris’ conclusions seemed plausible, I had some reservations about his methods and his arguments. When carrying out his analysis, DeMaris did not account for the fact that very religious couples are less likely to engage in extramarital sex than less religious couples. And what’s more, DeMaris framed very religious individuals as incapable of forgiving their cheating spouse. This seemed odd to me, particularly because most religions emphasize the importance of unconditional love and forgiveness.
With these reservations in mind, I coauthored a study with sociologist Shannon N. Davis that framed both extramarital sex and divorce as a long process of marital dissolution. Through this framing we were able to consider the level of religious commitment among couples before extramarital sex occurred, the effect that religious commitment had on the odds of extramarital sex occurring, and the effect that religious commitment had on the odds of divorce after extramarital sex had occurred.
We also used data from the Survey of Marital Instability Over the Life Course. Our findings were somewhat surprising. We confirmed that high levels of religious commitment reduced the odds of marital infidelity occurring in the first place. Moreover, we found that very religious couples were less likely to seek a divorce than less religious couples after marital infidelity had occurred. Indeed, we found that couples who were very religious before the occurrence of marital infidelity were better able to save their marriage because they were generally happier in their marriage, regardless of the occurrence of an affair.
I suggest caution when considering these findings, though. Our research focused on couples who belong to the “baby boomer” generation. It may be that subsequent generations, such as “generation X” and “millennials” think of marriage in quite the same way. This could further complicate the relationship shared between religious commitment, marital infidelity, and divorce.