We examined the relationship between mate fidelity and breeding site tenacity during a 5-year study of the black turnstone, Arenaria melanocephala, a socially monogamous sandpiper breeding in subarctic Alaska. We tested the predictions of several hypotheses regarding the incidence of divorce and the benefits of fidelity to mate and breeding site. Interannual return rates to the breeding grounds (88% for males, 79% for females) were among the highest yet recorded for any scolopacid sandpiper, and 88% of returning birds nested on their previous year's territory. The annual divorce rate was only 11%, and mate fidelity was significantly linked to fidelity to territory but independent of sex and year. Males arrived in spring significantly earlier than their mates and interannual fidelity was influenced by the relative timing of arrival of pair members. Reunited pairs had significantly higher fledging success than new pairs formed after death or divorce. The incidence of divorce was unrelated to reproductive success the previous year, although birds nested significantly further away after failure than after a successful nesting attempt. Sightings of marked individuals suggested that members of pairs do not winter together, and breeding site tenacity provides a mechanism through which pair members can reunite. We reject the 'incompatibility' hypothesis for divorce in turnstones, and our data contradict predictions of the 'better option' hypothesis. Alternatively, we propose the 'bet-hedging' hypothesis to explain the occurrence of divorce, which transpires when an individual pairs with a new mate to avoid the cost of waiting for a previous mate to return. Such costs can include remaining unmated, if the former mate has died, or experiencing lower reproductive success because of delayed breeding.