Marriages face many challenges, both from within the relationship and without. One serious threat to a marriage is the specter of adultery and most marriages that end in divorce do so because one or both people in the marriage had an affair. Knowing this, it seems important to attempt to understand adultery to build awareness around it so one isn’t caught flatfooted.When asked in a survey to define adultery or infidelity, not everyone was on the same page. Some thought infidelity meant penetrative sexual intercourse had to have occurred, while for others an inappropriate emotional connection with someone other than your spouse was transgression enough.
This disparity can itself become a cause of confusion and hurt because the differing standards of behavior implied by a couple’s understanding of “infidelity” may put them at cross purposes.
There may be a difference between what we think adultery is, and what God declares it to be. Asking what God means by “adultery” may be a good starting point in shaping our understanding. If marriage is something that God came up with, understanding the intention behind it and what can undermine it will shape our approach meaningfully.
What God brought together
When Jesus was questioned by the Pharisees about marriage and divorce, Jesus replied in Matthew 19:4-5 “Haven’t you read the Scriptures?” “That from the beginning the Creator made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
“Why then,” they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?” Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.” Matthew 19:7-9
Jesus was pointing out here that what God intended for marriage was for it to be a permanent union between two people. Adultery is an egregious breach that threatens the very unity of what God intended to be permanent, and it seems to be one of the exceptions that justify dissolving the marriage. That shows the seriousness of adultery.
Enjoy your spouse
Drink water from your own cistern, running water from your own well. Should your springs overflow in the streets, your streams of water in the public squares? Let them be yours alone, never to be shared with strangers. May your fountain be blessed, and may you rejoice in the wife of your youth. A loving doe, a graceful deer – may her breasts satisfy you always, may you ever be intoxicated with her love. Why, my son, be intoxicated with another man’s wife?
Why embrace the bosom of a wayward woman? For your ways are in full view of the Lord, and he examines all your paths. The evil deeds of the wicked ensnare them; the cords of their sins hold them fast. For lack of discipline they will die, led astray by their own great folly. – Proverbs 5:15-23
This passage, and many like it in the Bible, point to the exclusive nature of marriage. Your intimate affections – emotional and physical – are reserved for your spouse and aren’t meant to be shared with or enjoyed by anyone else. Marriage is used in the Bible to point to another reality – the relationship between God and his people.
In passages such as Ezekiel 16, the book of Hosea, and chapter 5 of the letter to the Ephesians, God talks of his relationship with us as a marriage, and when we are unfaithful to him by pursuing idols, that idolatry is called adultery. This image of marriage helps us to see why adultery is so important – faithfulness to our spouse matters, whether that’s the person to whom you’ve committed or to God who loves us with unending love.
Looking at a person with lust
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away.
It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell. – Matthew 5:27-30
Jesus ups the ante here – adultery isn’t just about penetrative sex with someone that isn’t your spouse. He’s saying here that it goes deeper and starts way before that, in the heart. With that in mind, sliding into someone’s DM’s (social media communication) is problematic behavior just like sliding into their jeans. The standard is set high, and each one of us is called upon to examine our hearts to see whether we are desiring to have what is not ours.
In the eyes of people
People’s ideas of what constitutes adultery may differ from what God thinks about it, and among ourselves, we may have quite different ideas about fidelity. Those who believe in God and want to hold his standards for all of life will seek their answers from God’s word.
However, each couple must have a frank conversation about boundaries – emotional, physical, and so on. This can happen during premarital counseling, or as part of ongoing conversation within the marriage to help keep one another accountable.
Some people are particularly sensitive to emotional boundaries, while others will be more aware of physical boundaries. When each spouse knows what the boundaries of the other are, and what marital faithfulness means for them, they can proceed on a mutual understanding.
Why do people have affairs?
People have affairs for a variety of reasons, and it can happen within happy marriages too. For a while, it was supposed that when an affair happens, it must mean that the person is unhappy in their relationship, or that there’s something very wrong in the marriage. However, adultery can and does happen in circumstances where that isn’t the case. Below are a few reasons why people have affairs.
Seeking adventure. The notion that ‘stolen water is sweet’ holds some appeal. Stolen kisses and furtive romance performed clandestinely can be exhilarating because it is passionate and unpredictable. A person may be drawn into an affair and remain in it because of the danger and excitement it brings.
The path not traveled. Some people get into an affair because they are pursuing something they left off earlier in life. It’s common for exes to connect via social media, hit it off, and find themselves wandering down memory lane and what might have been.
Lust. Affairs also do happen due to craving someone else sexually. The affair can take place after a pursuit, or it can happen simply because the opportunity presented itself. Workplace flings can occur in this opportunistic manner.
Revenge/anger. When the person you love hurts you, that anger can lead to different actions. When some people become angry, they want to do what will hurt their spouse the most, and that may be having an affair. Revenge is another powerful motive. To pay back a spouse that cheated, some will also cheat on their spouse.
Boredom. This may be connected to seeking adventure and opportunities presenting themselves, but affairs can happen not because there’s an issue in the marriage, but just because the person feels bored.
Dealing with adultery
When adultery happens, it can very well mean the end of the marriage when the truth emerges. An affair, however, can become a watershed moment for a marriage, creating an opportunity to have conversations that ought to have happened earlier. A marriage rocked by an affair can emerge stronger on the other side of it.
It’s important to recognize an affair for what it is. It isn’t a harmless flirtation, and it’s not true that it won’t hurt anyone (if they don’t know about it). Affairs inevitably take a toll on marriages, and it may be subtle or obvious. Ending the affair, whether you’ve been discovered or not, is a crucial step, as is talking with your spouse about what happened and why.
Facing accountability for one’s actions is important, as is doing whatever it takes to strengthen the relationship, whether through counseling, taking steps to end the affair and limit future opportunities – all that helps a marriage to recover. For the spouse who has been cheated on, it is up to them whether they want to extend forgiveness. That’s a tough step, but one that can help the couple to address what’s happened.
“Bound to a Broken Cup”, Courtesy of Congerdesign, Pixabay.com, CC0 License; “Divorce”, Courtesy of Stevepb, Pixabay.com, CC0 License; “Open Door to a Kiss”, Courtesy of Sciencefreak, Pixabay.com, CC0 License; “Wedding Bands”, Courtesy of Jeffbalbalosa, Pixabay.com, CC0 License
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