Two Sundays ago, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver both attended Mass at St. Monica’s Church in Santa Monica, California. But this time, they came alone, not together, as has been their usual pattern. Before Shriver learned of Schwarzenegger’s infidelity earlier this year, the couple and their four children were known to be frequent churchgoers at St. Monica’s.
The marital misbehavior of Schwarzenegger, a Roman Catholic, not to mention evangelical Protestants such as John Ensign and Mark Sanford, however, should not be mistaken for the norm among married men in America today, and especially for married men who are regular churchgoers. Although the institution of marriage in the United States has fallen on hard times in recent years—for instance, the marriage rate has dropped in half since 1970, even as the percentage of babies being born outside of wedlock more than tripled over the same time period—one surprising bright spot when it comes to married life in America is that sexual fidelity seems to be on the upswing.
According to research by the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, Americans have become less tolerant of marital infidelity over the last forty years, and somewhat less likely to stray over the last 20 years. For instance, in the 1970s, 63 percent of men and 73 percent of women said marital infidelity is “always wrong.” In the 2000s, 78 percent of men and 84 percent of women said that marital infidelity is “always wrong.”
Likewise, in the 1990s, 17 percent of married men and 11 percent of married women reported that they had been unfaithful to their spouses. In the 2000s, infidelity reports fell to 16 percent and 10 percent, respectively, among men and women.
Infidelity is even less common among men and women who attend religious services regularly. Married men and women who attend church weekly are about half as likely to report sexual infidelity, compared to their peers who never attend church, according to research by sociologist Amy Burdette at Florida State University and her colleagues.
Why is infidelity less common among Americans of faith? There are at least three reasons that religious Americans are less likely to stray.
First, Americans who frequent their local church, synagogue, or mosque are more likely to be exposed to marriage-friendly messages about the importance of sacrifice, forgiveness, and fidelity. Burdette’s research suggests these messages seem to hold particular power over the lives of Americans who accord high value to their tradition’s sacred text—be it the Bible, the Torah, or the Koran. For the strongest adherents, their faith teaches them that adultery is morally comparable to murder or theft, and that infidelity can put them on the road to Hell.
Second, couples who attend religious services together—Schwarzenegger and Shriver notwithstanding—generally enjoy higher quality marriages than those who attend infrequently or not at all. The association between religion and marital happiness is particularly strong for couples who pray together at home, probably in part because they believe that God is present in their marriage and has a plan for them and their families. And while marital happiness does not provide complete protection against an affair, it does reduce the odds that a spouse will stray.
Third, regular religious attendance situates spouses in social networks that tend to have high numbers of married couples who take their marriages more seriously than the population at large. Hence, regular churchgoers are able to get advice and support for their marriages, which can improve the quality of their married life.
As importantly, their marital conduct is often monitored by their religious peers. And spouses who break congregational marital norms by engaging in openly flirtatious behavior, not to mention an affair, can be formally sanctioned or otherwise stigmatized by members of their local church, synagogue, or mosque. In this way, religious peer pressure can be a force for the good, helping adherents to steer clear of a tempting colleague at work, family friend, or member of the household help.
All this matters because marital infidelity tends to exact a devastating toll on the quality and stability of family life. Research suggests, for instance, that couples who experience infidelity are more than twice as likely to divorce, compared to couples who remain faithful to one another. Children are also harmed, as a parent’s infidelity can shatter their faith in their parent. Indeed, on Wednesday, seventeen year-old Patrick Schwarzenegger went so far as to change his name on Twitter to Patrick Shriver.
Husbands and wives who wish to protect their marriage, and the emotional welfare of their children, should take note. No matter how tempting, the other (wo)man is not worth it. And for mere mortals, if not the Terminator, the church around the corner can be a crucial source of religious, moral, and social strength to steer clear of this temptation.
W. Bradford Wilcox is director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia and the author of When Marriage Disappears: The Retreat from Marriage in Middle America.