Loyalty is the second strongest predictor of a long term, stable marriage. In other words, this is one of the most important features of creating a thriving, passionate marriage. We’ll see what the most important predictor is a bit later, but today we are going to focus in on why loyalty is so powerful and how to create more of it in your marriage — especially in areas that we commonly get derailed.

What Does Loyalty in Marriage Look Like?

What do you think about when you consider the idea of loyalty in marriage?

Turns out that loyalty is more than just staying faithful to your spouse.

Fletcher[i] gave a very helpful differentiation between minimum loyalty and maximum loyalty. Minimum loyalty is simply not betraying your spouse: not having affairs, not betraying trust, and not being dishonest. It’s the bare minimum: the baseline.

Maximum loyalty is “becoming one” with your spouse through long-term commitment, partnership and devotion. You can see that minimum is about what you do not do — the major taboos of marriage. But maximum is about investing into and pouring yourself into something very deeply.

Maximum loyalty is achieved through a sense of companionship and partnership based on[ii]:

    1. A shared vision for life: wanting the same things from life, valuing the same qualities and agreeing on important life issues.
    2. Joint life goals: having goals which matter to both of you which you can work towards, such as parenting, community or charity work, spiritual practice, joint business ventures and so on.
    3. Generosity: investing in your spouse through affection, time, gifts, acts of service etc
    4. Fairness: sharing workloads and taking joint responsibility for the relationship
    5. Openness, vulnerability and honesty

So it turns out there is a lot to this whole subject of loyalty, right?

The other beautiful aspect of loyalty in marriage is not only the commitment to the covenant of marriage, but to the personal growth that comes from marriage. You see, loyalty also implies that I am willing to improve my own character and to bring more of myself to the marriage and allow myself to be challenged to grow and develop as a person.

This brings a “richness and vitality that may be dormant” in the marriage[iii]. So loyalty is something developed both intra-personally (within myself) and inter-personally (between ourselves).

Benefits of Loyalty in Marriage

A loyal marriage is a strong marriage. Let’s go through some of the many benefits loyalty can bring to you and your spouse.

Satisfaction

Loyalty is an important mediating factor between the actions and interactions in a marriage. It also impacts the overall levels of happiness and satisfaction.

According to a study in 2004[iv], actions and behaviors such as displays of affection, agreement, intimacy and sex only positively influence marital satisfaction if love and loyalty are there as mediators. So doing these positive actions in marriage doesn’t necessarily lead to a happy marriage unless the underlying characteristics of love and loyalty are there.

This reality echoes the teaching of 1 Corinthians 13 — the most well known chapter on love in the Bible. That chapter profoundly underscores the reality that you can do all sorts of wonderful things but unless you are doing them in love, the actions really are meaningless. So this is a really good self-check to ask: yeah, I may be checking all the good husband boxes or all the good wife boxes, but is it really clear that these things I’m doing are saturated with love and loyalty?

So loyalty is the hidden link between all these good actions and real satisfaction. Now, loyalty can also lead to marital satisfaction directly. For couples who value loyalty and see devotion to each other as a priority in marriage, being happy with the loyalty displayed by your spouse is enough to create high marital satisfaction independent of any other factors[v]. This is also a great point from the research because it means we need to be willing to stop and notice and be grateful for the loyalty that we may already be experiencing but taking for granted. If we do, we can find contentment and satisfaction in any circumstances, and that’s a wonderful thing.

Long-term Stability and Commitment

A study in 1993[vi] interview 147 couples who had been happily married over 20 years and found that loyalty to the spouse was the second strongest predictor of a long-term and stable marriage.

We just wanted to note this so that you do not miss the significance of this subject of loyalty.

Now, I told you in the intro that we would let you know what the #1 predictor was: it is seeing marriage as a lifelong commitment.

Related concepts like close friendship and companionship were also in the top 10. So there is this constellation of factors in the top 10 that are all on the same spectrum of loyalty, commitment, oneness…all super-important to a lifelong, satisfying marriage.

Opening up about Loyalty

Once again we’ve created a bonus discussion guide for our much appreciated supporters. This one is one I am really excited about. It steps you through a really in-depth discussion with your spouse on things like what loyalty looked like in your family of origin, the times when loyalty was broken in your life, and what loyalty means to you today. If loyalty is something you want more of in your marriage— and it really should be— then this guide will help. You can get this by becoming a patron of The Marriage Podcast for Smart People.

 

There’s a couple more benefits to loyalty we should look at before we explore common areas of conflicting loyalty and how to resolve them.

Loyalty Buffers Against Fear

This is an interesting study. Florian et al[vii] found that making participants think about frightening existential issues, such as death and mortality, caused them to report higher levels of commitment and loyalty to their spouse. Thoughts about loyalty and commitment then acted as a buffer, reducing participant’s fear of death.

The researchers concluded that a strong and loyal relationship helps reduce fears of death, since in relationships like this your sense of self has expanded to include the other person: so even if you die, part of your “self” lives on.

A loyal and devoted relationship also helps you find meaning and feel like your life has purpose, causing people to fear death less since their life has been meaningful. Here’s a quote from their study: “Unlike most other threats, the threat of death is inescapable, and support from close others cannot remove the threat itself. In this case, perhaps, the affirmation of one’s importance in others’ lives engenders feelings of meaning that render the prospect of death more tolerable.[viii]

I think what they were observing is that loyalty also facilitates the creation of legacy: leaving something behind that endures beyond the span of your own life.

Vulnerability and Conflict

Loyalty helps with vulnerability. No surprise there!

When you are in a loyal relationship with your spouse, one that emphasizes partnership and togetherness, this allows you to express vulnerability and respond to one another in positive affirming ways. This makes so much sense, right?

But it also helps the couple to manage conflict: high levels of underlying loyalty allow spouses to “use positive affect — positive emotions such as humor— to maintain calmness and flexibility, attack the issue and not the spouse, and notice opportunities for repair attempts rather than focusing on each other’s negative traits”[ix].

Conflicting Loyalties

While you and I may value loyalty as a top priority, we need to be aware that this is not always going to be easy. Let’s talk about three situations. The first one is not common to all marriages but I think the last two definitely are something that every couple has or will struggle with.

Loyalty Conflicts in Stepfamilies

In blended families there may be conflicting loyalties between your new spouse and children/family from a previous marriage[x]. When you’re trying to make this work it can be hard to know which side to come down on: do you support your spouse or your kids?

Couples should understand that creating a stable marriage and a stable home is the best way to help the children adjust to the new family[xi]. The couple should therefore aim to side with each other over the kids (especially when disciplining and setting rules) or other family members, as doing so will create stability and help the children’s wellbeing in the long run. Creating a new family dynamic and new family rituals can help strengthen the sense of family cohesion, helping couples see loyalty to the spouse and loyalty to the children as being the same thing.

What I see there is that it is really critical to embrace the whole package, not just focus on loyalty in one area especially or at the cost of other areas (e.g., protecting your biological kids vs. your spouse, or siding with your spouse over your biological children). The whole system needs to be embraced with loyalty.

Work-Family Conflict Can Be a Loyalty Issue

Loyalties can be divided between family life and successful careers. For example, demands from one area can make it hard to meet the demands from the other, leading to stress and conflict in both areas[xii]. We’ll actually be doing a full episode on this in the near future, so if balancing loyalty between family and work is an issue for you, stay tuned.

This can be especially true where one spouse has a very successful or prestigious job, or where they run their own business, making a healthy work-life balance difficult. But it can also be an issue for long-distance marriages and especially military couples, where the stay-at-home spouse may feel that their husband/wife is more loyal to their job or country than to them[xiii]. Those are really difficult issues to tease apart.

So how do you create more loyalty in the face of these kinds of challenges? Because it often feels impossible to back off from the work side of things.

One thing couples can do is to plan the time they do get together as effectively as possible so as to get the most satisfaction it, and also to make use of flexible working arrangements in order to reduce conflict. This is a time to be creative: can you work from home? Add a lunch date once a week? Reduce hours on Fridays?

Since joint goals and vision are a big part of loyalty in marriage, couples should also aim to make both spouse’s careers part of their joint vision for their lives. This way even when the job puts a strain on the home life, both spouses can still see it as being an important part of who they are[xiv]. They are both invested. So what would have to change for you to both feel invested in getting the business off the ground? Or established in that particular career? Or, possibly, for the career person: do you need to come up with a mid- or long-term strategy to move to a different career or position which is more honoring of the loyalty you feel towards your spouse? Are you both prepared to accept the sacrifices necessary to prioritize your marriage and family over your career?

These are tough but honest conversations that some of us need to have.

Family vs. Spouse Loyalty

Finally, loyalties can be torn between your spouse and your family of origin. Everyone has a strong attachment bond to both their parents and their spouse, and so conflict between them, or even having to choose which to spend time with, can be hard to deal with and really difficult to balance[xv]. Marital conflict can arise if one spouse supports their family of origin over their husband/wife, or a spouse may resent their husband/wife for putting them in a position where they have to pick a side.

In my opinion, spouses should always aim to side with each other and support one another over their family, but you also need to be sensitive to the fact this can be hard and can feel like you are betraying your family[xvi].

There are some aspects of this that are good to be aware of. Families develop norms and ways of acting over many years, which they come to see as fixed: everything from how they talk to each other to how they celebrate holidays etc.

These norms and rituals can be hard for the new spouse to adjust to. Refusal to change these norms once married can lead to a spouse feeling that their husband/wife is being more loyal to their family than to their marriage. For example, refusing to change a Christmas tradition by saying “that’s just how we do things” or justifying a parent’s behavior by saying “that’s just how she is”. Those kinds of comments indicate loyalty to your family over loyalty to your spouse.

One specific way that spouses can remain loyal to each other is to see these norms as no longer being set in stone, and making an effort to accommodate the new spouse into the family norms, or setting up new norms and traditions of their own[xvii]. Sometimes you need to have a discussion with your family as well to help them understand how or why you are wanting to change norms that you’ve accepted in the past.

So loyalty is something that can be challenging to navigate, and certainly takes time and effort to maintain. But: don’t forget, it is a top 2 predictor of creating a lasting, satisfying marriage. So it is worth figuring out.


References:

[i] George P. Fletcher, Loyalty: An Essay on the Morality of Relationships (Oxford University Press, 1995).

[ii] Elizabeth Fawcett, ‘Helping with the Transition to Parenthood: An Evaluation of the Marriage Moments Program’, All Theses and Dissertations, 2004 <https://scholarsarchive.byu.edu/etd/1135>.

[iii] Blaine J. Fowers, Beyond the Myth of Marital Happiness: How Embracing the Virtues of Loyalty, Generosity, Justice, and Courage Can Strengthen Your Relationship (Wiley, 2000).

[iv] Jane R. Rosen-Grandon, Jane E. Myers, and John A. Hattie, ‘The Relationship Between Marital Characteristics, Marital Interaction Processes, and Marital Satisfaction’, Journal of Counseling and Development : JCD, 82.1 (2004), 58–68.

[v] Rosen-Grandon, Myers, and Hattie.

[vi] David L. Fenell, ‘Characteristics of Long-Term First Marriages.’, Journal of Mental Health Counseling, 1993.

[vii] Victor Florian, Mario Mikulincer, and Gilad Hirschberger, ‘The Anxiety-Buffering Function of Close Relationships: Evidence That Relationship Commitment Acts as a Terror Management Mechanism.’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 82.4 (2002), 527.

[viii] Florian, Mikulincer, and Hirschberger.

[ix] Jill D. Duba and others, ‘Areas of Marital Dissatisfaction Among Long‐Term Couples’, Adultspan Journal, 11.1 (2012), 39–54.

[x] Kay Pasley and others, ‘SUCCESSFUL STEPFAMILY THERAPY: CLIENTS’PERSPECTIVES’, Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 22.3 (1996), 343–57.

[xi] ERIN L. KELLY and others, ‘Getting There from Here: Research on the Effects of Work–Family Initiatives on Work–Family Conflict and Business Outcomes’, The Academy of Management Annals, 2 (2008), 305–49 <https://doi.org/10.1080/19416520802211610>.

[xii] Jennifer DeNicolis Bragger and others, ‘Work-Family Conflict, Work-Family Culture, and Organizational Citizenship Behavior among Teachers’, Journal of Business and Psychology, 20.2 (2005), 303–24.

[xiii] Daniel J. Canary and Marianne Dainton, Maintaining Relationships Through Communication: Relational, Contextual, and Cultural Variations (Routledge, 2003).

[xiv] Fawcett.

[xv] T. E. Apter, What Do You Want from Me?: Learning to Get Along with In-Laws (W. W. Norton & Company, 2009).

[xvi] Apter.

[xvii] Apter.