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How to cheat-proof your marriage, according to science

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Editor's note: This article is part of the Deseret annual Ten Today series, which explores the relevance of the Ten Commandments in modern life.

Touch your spouse regularly, like more than half of evangelical Protestants do, and you’ll be less likely to cheat.

Perform random acts of marital kindness every day, like 61 percent of baby boomers do, and you're also more likely to remain faithful.

And for the ultimate in high fidelity, talk about the relationship daily, like nearly a quarter of Mormons say they do.

The findings about how committed couples behave are from a new survey by the Deseret News about Americans' attitudes toward adultery. The poll, conducted by Y2 Analytics and YouGov from March 17-19, 2017, includes responses from 1,000 U.S. adults, an oversample of 250 Mormons and has a margin of error of 3.1 percent. The survey is a key component to the Deseret News' annual Ten Today project exploring the relevance of the Ten Commandments in modern life.

The poll shows that people who profess a strong religious faith are likely to employ science-backed strategies for staying faithful to each other, such as using non-sexual touch to facilitate bonding and countering the stress of daily living with frequent gestures of caring.

Few people, if any, enter into a marriage intending to cheat on their spouse. But the temptation to stray is so strong that some people have affairs even when the penalty for adultery is death, as it was in ancient times and still is in some cultures today.

Interactive graphic: What counts as cheating?

About 15 percent of women and one-quarter of men confess to being physically unfaithful, according to the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy. When you add people who tread into the "gray area" of infidelity, those figures climb by 20 percent.

But even then, that means the majority of married couples in America honor their vows, and with commitment and effort, you and your partner can be among them. Here are seven science-based strategies that can help ensure that your marriage is a high-fidelity relationship that lasts for a lifetime.

Establish goals and boundaries

Vice President Mike Pence has been both praised and mocked for his policy of not having dinner alone with a woman who is not his wife. Yet more than three-quarters of respondents in the Deseret News' poll said that having dinner with someone you are attracted to who is not your spouse is either "always" or "sometimes" cheating.

The practice that Pence calls “building a zone around your marriage” is a strategy that is often embraced by people of faith, including Hillary Cole, a mother of two and parenting blogger who lives in Charlotte, North Carolina.


Hillary and Bryan Cole pose for a photograph at Jetton Park Tuesday, April 12, 2017, in Cornelius, North Carolina. | Brian Blanco, For the Deseret News

In discussions about how to remain faithful to each other, Cole and her husband, Bryan, agreed not to open doors of opportunity that would allow infidelity to sneak in.

They promise to each other regularly "not to willingly put myself in a situation that would make cheating easy," Cole said. That might mean finding a new park or gym if one spouse starts noticing that another person there is attractive and noticing you, too. If it means driving a few miles out of the way, that’s nothing compared to how a poor moral decision might affect you, she said.

“When you make a decision to be unfaithful, you’re really making a decision to throw your life away, the one that you have right now. You might recover (from the infidelity), but you’ll never get that life back,” Cole said.


Hillary and Bryan Cole pose for a photograph with their daughters Hazel, 5, and Hannah, 8, at Jetton Park Tuesday, April 12, 2017, in Cornelius, North Carolina. | Brian Blanco, For the Deseret News

In the gray zone of infidelity that has widened because of technology, it’s important for couples to talk about what constitutes betrayal, relationship experts say. Couples that take it further — talking about temptations they come up against — may be able to keep flickers of interest from turning into flames. And such discussions allow couples to affirm their long-term goal of staying faithful.

In the Deseret News survey, 17 percent of people in a committed relationship said they talk about their relationship daily; 22 percent, a few times a week; and 14 percent weekly.

“One difference between humans and animals is that we have the ability to focus on the long run rather than the short run. We’re constantly making decisions about how much energy we invest in our immediate sense of well-being, versus our long-term well-being,” said Loretta Graziano Breuning, a California researcher on brain chemistry and author of “Habits of a Happy Brain.”

Couples who value long-term fidelity can benefit from a rule-of-thumb that Breuning recommends: “Don’t put yourself in a position where your short-term chemicals are going to be triggered."

Touch each other often

Physical intimacy helps make marriages strong. But non-sexual touching does, too.

The simple act of placing a hand on your partner’s shoulder or arm, or holding hands when you walk or watch TV can release oxytocin, the hormone that is responsible for trust and attachment, which glues couples together. Touch is so important to our emotional well-being that behavioral scientists have coined a phrase that describes what we experience when we don't get it: skin hunger.

In the Deseret News survey, 62 percent of couples in a committed relationship said that they kiss, hug or touch daily; 26 percent said they do this a few times or once a week. Among members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Saints, the numbers were higher: 70 percent said they affectionately touch each other daily.

Sonja Lyubomirsky, a psychologist and professor at the University of California, Riverside, recommends that couples consciously increase the amount of non-sexual touching in their relationship.

“A pat on the back, a squeeze of the hand, a hug, an arm around the shoulder — the science of touch suggests that it can save a so-so marriage. Introducing more touching and affection on a daily basis will go a long way in rekindling the warmth and tenderness,” Lyubomirsky wrote in her book “The Myths of Happiness.”

And Tiffany Field, director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami School of Medicine, has found that when husbands massage their pregnant wives, both partners reported less anxiety, anger and depression, and their relationship improved.

The frequency of sex, of course, matters, too. In the Deseret News poll, 4 percent of committed couples said they are intimate daily; 30 percent, a few times a week; and 22 percent weekly. Among Mormons, the daily number is identical to the national average, but figures are slightly higher elsewhere: 38 percent a few times a week, and 28 percent weekly.

But it's the youngest couples who are having the most sex: Eight percent of millennials say they make love daily, compared to 2 percent of baby boomers.

You get bonus points for looking deeply in each other’s eyes after a hug or a cuddle. Sustained eye contact facilitates bonding, so much so that it’s been suggested that strangers can fall in love after staring intently in each other’s eyes for four minutes.

Do sweat the small stuff

Research has found that major life events, such as being fired or promoted, or experiencing the death of a loved ones, comprise a danger zone for marital unrest.

But smaller, everyday stressors can also eat away at a marriage, Breuning said, because of how the stress hormone, cortisol, works in our body.

Cortisol is the “fight-or-flight” chemical that our adrenal glands release when we are afraid or stressed. And you don’t have to be facing bankruptcy or unemployment to feel stress; something as minor as your spouse habitually leaving the cap off the toothpaste or the toilet seat up can be perceived as stress by your brain, particularly if this is a longstanding issue between you and your spouse.

“When that chemical is flowing, you’re going to think your partner is a threat. You’re going to go around with this constant sense that he’s the enemy,” Breuning said. “And suddenly, in daily life, the good-looking stranger is the person who’s going to rescue you and the person you’re with is the tiger who’s going to eat you.”

The high-fidelity couple, then, should strive to be mindful of each other’s feelings, even when it involves seemingly minor things, and actively work to avoid causing each other unnecessary stress.

And in addition to being especially in tune to your marriage when you're experiencing a major life event, watch out for the "9s."

A birthday that ends in a "9" — like 39 or 49 — is often followed by life-changing behaviors such as signing up to run a marathon or starting an affair, a 2014 study suggests.

Make your marriage, not your children, the center of the family

Some research has shown that satisfaction in marriage declines after a couple has children, in part because spouses have less time for each other when juggling the demands of parenting.

John Rosemond, a psychologist and syndicated parenting columnist, says there’s a bigger problem — that the American family has become child-centered, to the detriment of both children and parents.

“The marriage is the most important relationship in the family and that should be clear to the children. Husband and wife should pay more attention to one another than they pay to the children (an infant being a temporary exception),” he writes.

Research suggests that many spouses who stray do so in search of emotional intimacy they’re not getting at home. Paying more attention to each other helps solve that problem.

Moreover, when the marriage is the most important thing in the family, the children’s behavior improves, and the parents’ stress level — remember cortisol? — goes down, Rosemond said in an interview.

“When children are paying attention to adults, children obey. When children obey, the stress level in the house is minimal; it’s non-existent,” Rosemond said.

(But parents shouldn’t worry that having children will cause them to stray or divorce. In fact, having children makes it less likely that you’ll divorce, and the more children you have, the more likely you stay together.)


Hillary and Bryan Cole pose for a photograph with their daughters Hazel, 5, and Hannah, 8, at Jetton Park Tuesday, April 12, 2017, in Cornelius, North Carolina. | Brian Blanco, For the Deseret News

Embrace the novel

If dinner and a movie is your standard date night, upgrade it to action — not an action movie, but an exciting activity. Novel activities, such as riding a roller coaster or participating in a new sport, feed dopamine, and you will subconsciously associate the excitement you feel doing the activity with your marriage.

Newlyweds are often advised to schedule time for each other by setting a weekly date night. But to increase the chances that you and your spouse are faithful to each other over the long haul, forego dinner and a movie, pursue something exciting and physically challenging.

“If you do things with your partner that are novel and challenging and interesting, then there’s a kind of excitement that goes with that — a positive excitement — and you associate that with the marriage,” said Arthur Aron, a professor of psychology at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.

"The more challenging, the better — up to a point. You don't want to be failing together," he said."

Aron, along with Gary Lewandowski of Monmouth University in New Jersey, has studied the human desire for "self-expansion" — the accruement of new knowledge and experiences — and how a long-term partner helps. Their research indicates that, conversely, a lack of challenging experiences within the relationship may make partners more susceptible to infidelity, as explained in one study:

"If a person believes that the current relationship has the potential to provide self-expansion in the future, there is little reason to leave the relationship or seek alternatives. Conversely, if the relationship appears to have little ability to provide self-expansion in the future, an individual may likely be motivated to seek self-expansion through an extradyadic relationship."

Hang out with happily married friends

Aron is currently a visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley, which happens to be where he met his wife, Elaine, nearly 50 years ago. The couple are renowned for the 36 questions they developed, which are believed to lead to greater intimacy. (They include "If you could change anything about the way you were raised, what would it be?" and "When did you last sing to yourself?")

Answering the questions together is one way that couples can become closer, but another way to cement their bond is to answer them with friends, Aron said.

"Having strong friendships with other couples is really good for the relationship, in part because it is supportive, and it gives you something novel and interesting to do," Aron said.

In their book "Two Plus Two," Geoffrey Greif and Kathleen Holtz Deal say that couples who share friends tend to be happier, and that the relationship between newlyweds is strengthened when they spend time with other couples. "A study of couples married an average of 20 years found similar results: Couples whose friends supported their marriage felt more satisfied with and committed to each other," Greif and Deal wrote.

Pray for your partner

If you’re wanting a better relationship, pray — not just for the relationship, but for your partner.

Frank D. Fincham, director of the Florida State University Family Institute, has studied the effects of prayer on relationships, and found that praying for positive things to happen to a partner strengthens a relationship in ways that merely thinking positive thoughts about a partner does not.


Hillary and Bryan Cole pose for a photograph at Jetton Park Tuesday, April 12, 2017, in Cornelius, North Carolina. | Brian Blanco, For the Deseret News

In a study of unmarried people who were in committed relationships, those who were assigned to pray for their partner’s well-being were less likely to have cheated than those who had been asked to think positive thoughts.

“We think it affects the goal structure in people’s daily lives,” Fincham said. “It brings to mind the longer-term perspective, to look beyond the immediate.”

You might also want to say those prayers in church.

Fincham's research has found that, out of nine factors related to faith, only regular church attendance is predictive of marital faithfulness. "Interestingly, self-perceived nearness to God coupled with lack of religious attendance predicted greater infidelity," Fincham and co-author Ross W. May wrote.

This could spell trouble for the 34 percent of poll respondents who answered "never" when asked how often they attend religious services.

Show appreciation, in word and deed

When M. Gary Neuman, author of the book "The Truth About Cheating", asked people why they cheated on a spouse, the majority of men said that in addition to dissatisfaction with their sex life, it was because they didn't feel appreciated by their wife; the majority of women also cited a lack of appreciation, along with poor communication.

"The easiest practical thing you can do is to make sure that you're sending appreciative and thoughtful gestures," Neuman, an ordained rabbi and Florida psychologist, suggests. "At least two times a day, you should initiate a thoughtful, loving gesture — something that says I appreciate who you are," he said.

Fifty-five percent of respondents in the Deseret News survey say they're already doing that at least once a day. Twenty-one percent said they make it a point to do something like making coffee or filling the car with gas a couple of times a week.

Here, the baby boomers emerged as the most thoughtful, with 61 percent making an effort to perform thoughtful gestures for their partner every day. (The millennials came in at 49 percent.)

If you're the recipient of such a gesture, it's important that you express thanks, Neuman said.

"Successful couples focus on the positives and diminish the negatives," he said. "And it doesn't have to be both of you." One spouse can start being more appreciative, and their partner is likely to follow, Neuman said.

He also suggests that couples spend a minimum of a half-hour of uninterrupted time together daily — "uninterrupted" means after the kids are in bed. Couples who do so are significantly happier than those who don't, he said. And aim for at least two hours alone with your spouse on the weekend or a date night, with three topics off limits: money, work and kids.

"It's not what got you here; it's not what's going to sustain you," Neuman said. When a couple's conversation is reduced to money, work and children, they can lose each other emotionally, "and unfortunately, there are other people willing to admire us and have intellectual conversations with us," he said.