Religiousness and Infidelity: Attendance, but Not Faith and Prayer, Predict Marital Fidelity

By Atkins, David C.; Kessel, Deborah E. | Journal of Marriage and Family, May 2008 | Go to article overview

Religiousness and Infidelity: Attendance, but Not Faith and Prayer, Predict Marital Fidelity


Atkins, David C., Kessel, Deborah E., Journal of Marriage and Family


High religiousness has been consistently linked with a decreased likelihood of past infidelity but has been solely defined by religious service attendance, a limited assessment of a complex facet of life. The current study developed nine religiousness subscales using items from the 1998 General Social Survey to more fully explore the association between religiousness and infidelity. Interestingly, logistic regressions using currently married participants (N = 1,439) demonstrated that attendance, but not faith, nearness to God, prayer, and other religious attributes, was related to infidelity. Exploratory analyses also found that individuals with high religious importance but low attendance were more likely to have had an affair and weak evidence that marital happiness moderated the association between religiousness and infidelity.

Key Words: general social surveys, infidelity, religiousness.

"You shall not commit adultery" (Exodus 20:14; New English Bible). The major monotheistic religions (i.e., Christianity, Judaism, Islam) promote fidelity and explicitly prohibit infidelity in marriage, and in this same vein, the majority of individuals believe infidelity in marriage is wrong (Johnson et al., 2002). Past research has consistently shown an association such that more religious individuals are less likely to have had affairs compared to the less religious (Alien et al., 2005; Atkins, Baucom, & Jacobson, 2001; Edwards & Booth, 1976; Liu, 2000; Treas & Giesen, 2000). Yet, in all of the previous research on infidelity, religiousness has been measured solely by attendance at religious services, a very limited assessment of a rich and complex facet of life. This raises a host of questions: Are there nuances in the association of religiousness and infidelity that attendance fails to capture? Is the negative association found in past research specific to attendance or is attendance merely acting as a proxy for other religious variables? If further dimensions of the religious life were assessed, would attendance show the strongest association with infidelity out of a variety of religious factors? The present research focused on precisely these questions.

Most Americans share the expectation that married couples will remain sexually faithful to their spouse (Johnson et al., 2002; Treas & Giesen, 2000), yet there is a disconnect between this common expectation and the not uncommon occurrence of infidelity. In a nationally representative sample, Wiederman (1997) found that 23% of men and 12% of women reported an affair at some point in their marriages, and 4.1% of men and 1.7% of women reported having engaged in infidelity within the past 12 months. Likewise, Choi, Catania, and Dolcini (1994) found that 2% of a nationally representative sample of American couples reported having engaged in infidelity within the past 12 months. Moreover, these figures are almost certainly conservative estimates, as rates of infidelity can be notably higher when anonymous survey methods are used versus faceto-face interviews (Whisman & Snyder, 2007).

When infidelity occurs, it is often associated with a number of deleterious outcomes for marriages and individuals. Research shows that infidelity is positively associated with divorce (Atkins et al., 2001), including one prospective study showing that earlier infidelity raises the likelihood of later divorce (Previti & Amato, 2004). Moreover, infidelity is associated with poor marital quality (Glass & Wright, 1977; Previti & Amato; Spanier & Margolis, 1983), which itself is a predictor of divorce. Research also supports links between infidelity and psychopathology such as depression and symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (Cano & O'Leary, 2000; Gordon, Baucom, & Snyder, 2004). Infidelity not only has implications for individual psychological health and strength of relationships, it also has increasingly been implicated as a transmission route for sexually transmitted infections including HIV/AIDS (Finer, Darroch, & Singh, 1999).

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