Adultery is an injustice. He who commits adultery fails in his commitment. He does injury to the sign of the covenant which the marriage bond is, transgresses the rights of the other spouse, and undermines the institution of marriage by breaking the contract on which it is based. He compromises the good of human generation and the welfare of children who need their parents’ stable union (Catechism #2381).
There was one thing I wish Pope Francis had spoken about in Amoris Laetitia: adultery. Not simply to condemn the act, but to offer pastoral wisdom on how to avoid falling into it. Especially as culture increasingly normalizes sexual sin.
Throughout my lifetime, I have witnessed many marriages damaged or ruined by adultery. Some of these I have witnessed up close, others from a distance. I’ve known people on every side of the stories of betrayal: adulterous spouses, betrayed spouses, and those who were party to the adultery (and their spouses). Some happened early on in marriage, others later in marriage — even after 40 years. Of these, some have confided to me their agony and fall from grace, others their experience of betrayal, while still others have cut me off after their sin became known. Some were able to save their marriages from ruin, others not.
I’ve observed the spectrum of adulterous behavior, from sex-starved husbands who’ve sought out prostitutes to attention-starved wives who carry on “emotional affairs” with celibate or married men.
It was some recent news that I received from a longtime acquaintance, regarding her traumatic experience of marital infidelity, that made me decide today to write this post [I wrote this draft many months ago]. She said to me, and gave me permission to share: “I told [my husband] in a text just yesterday that my trust in our love is dead.” That’s really a powerful definition of mortal sin: the sin that kills covenant love and brings death. And while the adulterous acts of sexual infidelity are gravely evil in themselves, to me it is the pain and destruction they leave in their wake in countless others’ lives that is the far more hideous crime. Like the tsunami that begins as a hidden earthquake in the dark depths of the ocean, adultery unleashes pain and uncontrollable damage in many other people’s lives.
I will share a few simple insights here today. Nothing earth shattering. These are my thoughts on how, from my own limited view, such things seem to happen. Each story I have witnessed over the years is itself unique, of course, but there are some common threads. Hopefully what I share will help someone out there to avoid these traps.
“But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt. 5:28).
The wisdom of Jesus’ insight into the hidden origin of adultery is profound. Adultery begins deep within, hidden in the realms of desire and the secret deliberations of the heart. Most of the cases I have witnessed originated in what is often called an “emotional affair” or an “affair of the heart.” They began with the gradual — sometimes sudden — emergence of an emotional attraction that opens out into emotional intimacy between a married person and someone else. What may begin very innocently as a compassionate conversation with someone about a personal struggle suddenly transforms into an intense feeling of vulnerability and intimacy. A new door has unexpectedly opened deep within the heart, a door that previously was only open to a spouse. His imagination and her affection have suddenly been captured by this person, and they feel thrown off balance, questioning things they never thought were possible to question: Is this really happening to me? Is this even an option?
The rush of new feelings incite fear, confusion or even a strange and forbidden excitement.
The emergence of such powerful and unplanned thoughts, feelings and desires can be terrifying. In the beginning, it might seem best to deny — even to yourself — the existence of these new and unsettling feelings. It may seem best to ignore the dire warning signs that signal a dangerous line has been crossed. Yet, how one or both parties in this emotional affair respond at this early juncture — before the point of no return — is key in determining the future course of events. To not act decisively here is as good as fully consenting to the temptation.
St. John of the Cross says that if we stop the Enemy at the gates, before he gains entry, we can easily conquer him. But, to extend his analogy, if we allow the Enemy to board our ship, he will quickly overthrow our strongholds (the emotions), blind the eyes of the captain (the intellect) and seize control of the helm of the ship (the will). Temptation, once consented to, grows in power exponentially.
In our Catholic spiritual tradition, temptation is best resisted by exercising watchfulness, guarding the heart, and exercising custody over one’s thoughts. In a word, resisting temptation requires is to be prudent. In the case of temptations to infidelity in marriage, prudence offers several very specific helps.
Prudence makes us able to recognize that marital and celibate promises do not render us miraculously immune from the desire for intimacy with a “forbidden” other. I should not be shocked when I find myself attracted to someone who is not my spouse. Not only does this reveal my humanity, but it also is a call to renew my promise of exclusive love for my spouse. In every temptation is hidden a vocation to heroism, to raise our base animal instincts up to the dignity of sons and daughters of God.
Prudence makes us ready to admit our weaknesses and limitations, to confess our need for grace and for others’ support, and to avoid all that threatens to lead me into ruinous choices.
Prudence empowers us to acknowledge that we are just as capable of succumbing to temptation as anyone else. Those who feel invulnerable and invincible, or who are naive to their own limits, are more likely to risk playing with fire, getting burned and burning others. Arrogance, presumption and naiveté all go before the fall.
Prudence makes us ready to construct wise and strong physical and emotional boundaries in our relationships with the opposite sex. I won’t text her, I won’t drink with him, I won’t be alone with him, I can’t listen to his intimate struggles because doing that makes me vulnerable to…
Prudence makes us prepared to recognize and act on any warning signs that signal a door in the heart — reserved only for my spouse — has been opened to someone else: he’s on my mind all the time, when I’m with her all I want to do is make her happy, when he’s with his wife I feel jealous.
Prudence makes us ready, when we are tempted, to seek counsel from someone with whom we can be radically honest about absolutely everything. This is a person who can also hold me accountable and help prevent me from being seduced by the allure of secrecy, of lies and of rationalizations. If you feel tempted to avoid such honesty and accountability, it’s a really bad sign.
Lastly, prudence keeps us committed to being honest and transparent with our spouse. As an older gentleman I know, who has been married for many decades, once said to me: “When you can’t look straight into your wife’s eyes when she asks you for a straight answer, something is wrong.”
Without the exercise of such prudence, one is quite certain to fall victim in temptation’s hour.
Marriages threatened by the temptation of adultery are often — but not always — beset by various life-stressors not being addressed by the couple in a healthy and consistent manner. Exhaustion, constant conflict, financial instability, emotional distance, being overwhelmed, feelings of isolation or insecurity. These, if not attended to and resolved, can render a spouse vulnerable to the entrance of a new relationship, to someone who seems able to solve or alleviate my present problems. Like young lovers blinded by infatuation, forbidden love is easily susceptible to flights of fantasy or to idealizing a person who has brought into my life something new and positive. She appreciates my humor, he thinks I am attractive, she needs me, he understands me. This “the grass is greener” mindset is exceptionally powerful as delusions go, but of course it never yields what it promises.
But the grass ain’t always greener on the other side,
It’s green where you water it.
This fantasy, if left unchecked, grows like mold in the dark. Flirtatious behavior, frequent texting, long conversations, a secret rendezvous or brief sexual encounters can quickly proliferate. Then, after one incautious decision, the secret is broken and the truth is finally revealed. Though great damage has already been done, now a second crucial moment of decision arrives. Will I face the terrible truth? Will I repent of my sins? Will I work to restore and heal what has been harmed in my marriage and family life? Or will I rationalize what I have done, harden my heart and betray the oath on which I first built my marriage and my family?
In the Garden of Agony, Jesus counseled His weary-with-grief apostles: “Watch and pray that you may not undergo the test. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matt. 26:41). The greatest spiritual guards against falling in temptation’s hour are prayer, devotion to the Virgin Mary, frequenting the Sacraments, especially heart-rending Confession, and relying on a community of support from those who share a commitment to the sanctity of lifelong marriage. Those who try to go it alone will fail.
And as the best defense is a good offense, a healthy marriage is the best inoculation against temptations to infidelity. A married couple must remain grounded in their love for one another. They must choose the other every day as their life’s highest priority, and embrace the inevitable trials and temptations that attend marital life as the royal road of love that alone leads to God. Being faithful to your spouse requires not just avoiding temptations to infidelity, but stoking the fires of love that God entrusted to both of you on your wedding day. The words addressed to parents and godparents at a baptism apply well to husbands and wives on the day they are married:
This fire is entrusted to you to be kept burning brightly. You have been set afire by Christ. May you keep the flame of love alive in your hearts. When the Lord comes, may you go out together to meet him with all the saints in the heavenly kingdom. Amen.
When I face Christ in judgment, I know the first thing He will ask me is to see my wedding ring for an inspection to see if I allowed that fire to refine its gold.
I will end with a quote from 3rd century theologian Tertullian’s letter to his own wife. Here he describes the “good offense” of a Christian marriage.
How beautiful, then, the marriage of two Christians, two who are one in home, one in desire, one in the way of life they follow, one in the religion they practice … Nothing divides them either in flesh or in spirit … They pray together, they worship together, they fast together; instructing one another, encouraging one another, strengthening one another. Side by side they visit God’s church and partake God’s banquet, side by side they face difficulties and persecution, share their consolations. They have no secrets from one another; they never shun each other’s company; they never bring sorrow to each other’s hearts … Seeing this Christ rejoices. To such as these He gives His peace. Where there are two together, there also He is present.