ADULTERY, INSECURITY, AND MARRIAGE
Photographers offer us stunning images of beautiful brides and handsome grooms smiling throughout pages of wedding photos. Indeed, weddings are a time of celebration for couples of all ages and for their families and friends who wish them well. Despite the high divorce rate, many couples find their marriage to be a source of satisfaction for a lifetime. The natural coupling of billions of adults and the common joy of having and raising children together reminds us of the vital role marriage plays in society.
Previously, I wrote about factors leading to divorce as well as elements of a strong relationship. A major cause of ruin and pain in a marriage is infidelity. According to Pew Research, the U.S. has one of the highest rates (84%) of all nations (median 79%) for people saying that having an affair while married is morally unacceptable.
The estimates vary but close to 25% of men and 20% of women have sex with another person while they are married (Russell and others, 2013). The damage of infidelity to the relationship makes sense and it is no wonder extramarital sex is a powerful predictor of divorce.
Unfaithfulness also hurts the one who committed adultery. Research shows that unfaithful partners suffer from lowered self-esteem and higher rates of mental health problems. Unfaithful partners struggle with guilt and depression.
STRONG AND WEAK RELATIONSHIPS
It is easy to see the strong bonds of affection that launch a happy couple on their wedding day. That bond-- that attachment to each other --may be a key in understanding a part of what happens when people become insecure in their relationships.
Attachment is usually thought of in terms of two characteristics (Anxiety and Avoidance), which develop based on the relationship between parents and their children. People in secure relationships have low anxiety. They feel secure and trusting and do not worry much. People who report an anxious attachment feel insecure in the relationship and are likely to worry a lot and be described as “clingy.” People who feel close to a parent or partner are low in avoidance. They want to be together. When the attachment between married partners is secure, each person develops a mindset that the other spouse is available to meet their needs.
V. Michelle Russell, Levi Baker, and James K. McNulty (2013) of Florida State reviewed some of the background on attachment and unfaithfulness that I wrote about above. Then they reported on the results of two studies that followed 207 couples in two U.S. states. The researchers recruited newlyweds that did not have a prior marriage or children. Most were Caucasian (their term) but there were a few ethnic minorities. The age of most husbands and wives was mid-20s. Their average income was between $30,000 and $40,000. The couples completed questionnaires over a few years (3.5 years in one study, 4.5 years in the other).
Some general findings describe the couples. They were husbands and wives who reported relatively high levels of marital satisfaction and sexual frequency. Wives and husbands scored similarly on a measure of anxious attachment. But husbands scored higher than wives on a measure of avoidant attachment.
What was the relationship between attachment and other factors?
Attachment anxiety was positively linked to avoidance and neuroticism.
Attachment anxiety was inversely linked to marital satisfaction. And those higher in attachment anxiety were lower in the personality traits of openness, conscientiousness, extroversion and agreeableness.
So what about infidelity?
1. Those who were high in anxious attachment were more likely to be unfaithful in their marriage. And this is different from previous research on dating couples where anxious attachment was not related to infidelity.
2. Avoidant attachment was not related to infidelity, which is also different from previous research on dating couples. For dating couples, those high in avoidant attachment were more likely to be unfaithful.
3. There is an important interaction. The researchers looked at the level of anxious attachment for both husbands and wives. It’s not just one’s own level of anxious attachment that is linked to infidelity. The risk of infidelity is high if either partner is high in infidelity.
Commitment is one of the important distinctions the authors mention as a likely candidate for why their findings about anxious and avoidant attachment are different for married couples compared to dating couples.
Relationships are complex. Several factors are in the mix for a happy and long-lasting relationship. Faith, commitment, personality traits, communication styles, values, sexual satisfaction, and a secure and loving relationship are factors contributing to a happy and long-lasting marriage.
Sharing the same religious faith is important. Christians highly value marriage but many of those relationships include infidelity. And many Christian marriages end in divorce. But faith can be a factor reducing divorce risk (Wright, Zozula, & Wilcox, 2012). I wonder if Christians are too complacent?
Understanding our own relationship-based insecurities is not enough. We must also be mindful of our partner’s sense of security.
Predicting the quality of marital relationships from dating relationships or cohabiting relationships has risks. Married couples are more highly committed to their relationship. Commitment is vital.
Counselors and psychotherapists would do well to carefully assess commitment and attachment along with other factors when relationship issues are the focus. And the differences between dating couples and married couples deserves attention.
OTHER POSTS TO CONSIDER
Gottman, J. M. & Silver, N. (1999). The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work: A Practical Guide from the Country’s Foremost Relationship Expert. New York: Three Rivers Press.
Russell, V.M., Baker, L.R., & McNulty, J.K. (2013). Attachment insecurity and infidelity in marriage: Do studies of dating relationships really inform us about marriage? Journal of Family Psychology, 27, 242-251. doi: 10.1037/a0032118
Wright, Bradley R. E., Christina Zozula, and W. Bradford Wilcox. (2012). Bad News about the Good News: The Construction of the Christian-Failure Narrative. Journal of Religion & Society 14, 1-19.