New research suggests that our own religious proclivities as well as our perceptions of our partner’s religiosity can have a significant impact on how we navigate the challenges of maintaining a committed relationship. The study, published in Personality and Individual Differences, indicates that religious individuals in the United States tend to engage in more efforts to retain their romantic partners, both by offering benefits and imposing costs. However, the specific mate retention behaviors vary based on whether religious individuals perceive their partners as religious or not.
Infidelity in romantic relationships can be emotionally devastating, and it often leads to the breakdown of trust and commitment. Understanding what motivates individuals to engage in behaviors aimed at keeping their partners faithful is a topic of great interest to psychologists and relationship experts.
Previous research has shown that religious beliefs and practices can strongly influence people’s attitudes and behaviors in various aspects of life. Many major world religions uphold marriage as a sacred bond, condemn infidelity, and prescribe severe penalties for adultery. These religious traditions often provide specific behavioral guidelines for preventing infidelity and maintaining a committed relationship.
The researchers were particularly intrigued by the idea that religious beliefs might shape how people attempt to keep their partners loyal and committed. They sought to explore whether individuals who consider themselves religious are more likely to employ certain mate retention behaviors and whether the perceived religiosity of their partner plays a role in this dynamic.
“For decades, researchers have documented what people say to, do to, and do with their romantic partners to prevent them from leaving their relationships or being unfaithful,” said study author Adam E. Tratner, the Director or Student Affairs at the Florida State University – Republic of Panama Campus. “These are called mate retention behaviors, which are categorized as either cost-inflicting (e.g., physically guarding or threatening your romantic partner) or benefit-provisioning behaviors (e.g., giving gifts and publicly showing affection).”
“Because many religions prescribe the use of specific cost-inflicting and benefit-provisioning behaviors in romantic relationships, I wanted to investigate whether religious people actually perform mate retention behaviors more often than non-religious people, and, more importantly, examine how the perceived religiosity of romantic partners influences mate retention strategies. For example, if you are a highly religious person but you think that your partner isn’t very religious, this could motivate you to perform even more mate retention behaviors to help maintain the relationship.”
The study involved a large sample of 680 adults from the United States, ranging in age from 18 to 76. The participants were recruited from both a psychology research pool at a university and an online platform called Mechanical Turk. To be eligible for the study, participants had to be at least 18 years old, currently involved in a long-term romantic relationship (lasting at least three months), and identify as heterosexual.
Among the participants, roughly 59% were female, and the majority self-identified as Caucasian American (74.4%). In terms of religious affiliation, the participants represented a diverse range of beliefs, with the largest group being Christian (80.2%). Other religious affiliations included atheist/agnostic (12.9%), Muslim (1.8%), Buddhist (1.2%), Jewish (1%), Hindu (0.6%), and some other religion (2.3%). Interestingly, almost 70% reported the same religious affiliation as their romantic partner.
The researchers conducted the study online and designed a survey to gather information from the participants. The survey included questions about demographics, religious beliefs, mate retention behaviors, and perceptions of their partner’s religiosity.
Participants who considered themselves more religious tended to engage in both cost-inflicting and benefit-provisioning mate retention behaviors more frequently. Similarly, participants who perceived their partners as more religious were more likely to engage in mate retention behaviors. This suggests that individuals may use their partner’s perceived religiosity as an indicator of their commitment to the relationship, influencing their own mate retention efforts.
Women, on average, engaged in more cost-inflicting mate retention behaviors than men when they perceived their partners to be highly religious. However, this pattern did not hold for men; there was no significant difference in their mate retention behaviors based on their perceptions of their partner’s religiosity.
These findings challenge our understanding of the relationship between religiosity and mate retention behaviors. While it was expected that religious individuals might use more cost-inflicting tactics to prevent infidelity and relationship dissolution, the role of perceived partner religiosity adds a layer of complexity.
“The results suggest that people who are more religious do perform cost-inflicting and benefit-provisioning mate retention behaviors more frequently in their relationships, but the frequency of mate retention behavior also depends on how religious they think their partners are, as well as the sex of the participant,” Tratner told PsyPost.
“On one hand, people who rated themselves as more religious (regardless of sex) and who perceived their romantic partners as less religious performed more benefit-provisioning behaviors, which means that they gave their partners more gifts and compliments and publicly displayed their relationship commitment more often. On the other hand, highly religious women performed more cost-inflicting behaviors when they perceived their partners as highly religious, which means that they vigilantly checked up on their partner’s whereabouts, threatened, and debased their partners more frequently.”
But the link between religiosity and mate retention behaviors does not appear to be a one-size-fits-all phenomenon. It can vary significantly depending on the cultural context in which the individuals reside and the specific religious beliefs and traditions they follow.
“We were surprised to find that, in our sample of North American participants, men performed more benefit-provisioning behaviors than women and women performed more cost-inflicting behaviors than men (on average),” Tratner said. “This pattern of sex differences is reversed in samples from other cultural contexts, such as Pakistan and Iran, which show that men generally perform more cost-inflicting behaviors than women.
“Additionally, higher religiosity was associated with more frequent cost-inflicting behaviors, particularly among highly religious men, in Pakistan and Iran, whereas our North American sample showed that highly religious women (but not men) performed more cost-inflicting behaviors. These different findings may stem from cultural differences in relationship maintenance behaviors that reflect the different religious traditions and social norms.”
While the findings shed light on the connection between religiosity and mate retention behaviors, the study used correlational and cross-sectional data, which means it cannot establish causation. It’s unclear whether religiosity directly leads to mate retention behaviors or if other factors, such as social conservatism or relationship satisfaction, mediate this relationship.
“As is the case with any cross-sectional survey study, there are limitations,” Tratner said. “One limitation is our reliance on self-report data for recording mate retention behaviors; we weren’t following these participants around with a camera, and so all we can hope for is that they accurately reported on their own relationship behaviors. Our study also would have a benefitted from a more dyadic approach in which we invite couples to participate in the study using more of a structured interview format so that we have more detailed responses from both parties, instead of asking just one person to report on themselves and their partner.”
“There are also some unanswered questions about how perceptions of partners’ religious beliefs could influence mate retention behaviors. For instance, most individuals in our sample reported the same religious affiliation and similar levels of religiosity as their partner. We suspect that people might behave differently if they have highly discrepant beliefs and different religious backgrounds, and so further research is warranted.”
The study, “Perceived religiosity of romantic partners moderates the relationship between self-reported religiosity and mate retention behaviors“, was authored by Adam E. Tratner and Melissa M. McDonald.