A study published in Archives of Sexual Behavior suggests that belief in the sacredness of one’s relationship reduces one’s likelihood of cheating.
Many people encounter infidelity at some point in their romantic lives, and the behavior tends to be highly destructive for both partners’ mental health. While attempting to uncover possible predictors of cheating behavior, the social psychology field has established a link between religiosity and infidelity, although the precise nature of this relationship is unclear.
In an age where religiosity is declining and yet spirituality remains widespread, study authors Paige McAllister and colleagues proposed the need to consider a different predictor of cheating behavior. Instead, they suggested that sanctification — belief in the meaning or sacredness of certain aspects of life — might be a more relevant predictor of infidelity.
The researchers administered a survey to a sample of 716 American university students who were currently in committed relationships. Given the declining marriage rates in the US, the researchers wanted to focus on cheating within committed, yet unmarried couples. Accordingly, the sample included only students who reported being in an exclusive relationship but who were neither engaged nor married.
The survey measured relationship sanctification with the two items, “I sense God’s presence in my relationship with my partner” and “My relationship with my partner is holy and sacred.” As a measure of cheating behavior, the students were asked if, over the course of the semester, they had done anything they would consider to be “emotionally unfaithful” or “physically unfaithful.”
First, 21% of men and 16% of women said they had physically cheated on a partner throughout the semester. Emotional cheating appeared to be more prevalent, with 30% of men and 28% of women reporting that they had emotionally cheated.
As McAllister and team predicted, the students who scored higher in sanctification were less likely to have cheated emotionally and also less likely to have cheated physically on their partners — even after controlling for self-control, excessive alcohol use, and religiosity. Further analysis found that sexually permissive attitudes mediated this link between sanctification and cheating. As the authors report, “higher levels of sanctification were associated with less permissive sexual attitudes and, in turn, less likelihood of cheating.”
This finding, the authors say, offers a peek into the process through which sanctification exerts its diminishing effect on cheating. They suggest that sanctification offers a type of “cognitive protection” that leads people to avoid attitudes that may encourage cheating.
Interestingly, the researchers also found a link between religiosity and increased cheating behavior — which is out of sync with most previous findings. They suggest that this effect does not necessarily mean that religion is associated with more cheating, but rather that it is religious behavior in the absence of sanctification that is linked to infidelity. The authors explain, “when one accounts for sanctification, the residual variance explained by religiosity (i.e., outward religious behavior such as church attendance) actually does correlate with more cheating behavior.”
The study offers evidence that sanctification is a relevant concept that can be explored within relationships outside of marriage. The authors discuss the need for future researchers to develop a measure of sanctification that is specific to relationships outside marriage.
The study, “Sanctification and Cheating Among Emerging Adults”, was authored by Paige McAllister, Elena Henderson, Meghan Maddock, Krista Dowdle, Frank D. Fincham, and Scott R. Braithwaite.