has been considered wrong since
Robert Harper stated, “All known cultures have some limits on
extramarital sex relations and some means of enforcing such designated
taboos.” In an article in
American Sociological Review, Julia Brown found that 89% of societies
punished people involved in extramarital relationships.
Surprisingly, even a more recent survey in as unlikely a place as
Playboy magazine found in 1974 that an “overwhelming majority” was
opposed to extramarital sex. (Peterson, 1983)
In spite of this apparent universal disapproval, the frequency of
infidelity has been high for some time.
Although I have no recent data, a survey sited in 1983 found that
66% of men and 50% of women acknowledged sexual relations with someone
other than their spouse. (Peterson,
1983) A survey of Christianity Today readers in 1989 revealed that
28% had sexual contact outside of marriage.
Why the discrepancy between stated values and actual behavior?
For most people, infidelity is the result of disillusionment or
disappointment with their marriage, and lack of understanding regarding
what to do about it.
Infidelity is a pattern of behavior that seeks
Infidelity is a pattern of behavior that seeks
self-satisfaction at the expense of commitment to another.
It strikes at the core defining characteristics of marriage:
Two people determine to share themselves with each
other in a way that is unique to them and not shared by others.
They agree that the levels of trust and
accountability, expected of each other will be greater than found in any
other of their relationships.
They share physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual
intimacy, not found in other relationship.
Their relationship is permanent and unconditional.
Christians, marriage also constitutes a
commitment to God, to protect the unique relationship given to them.
Infidelity occurs whenever a person engages in a relationship with
another that violates these characteristics of marriage.
This happens when the new relationship results in a breakdown of
trust; develops intimacy with another that belongs in the marriage; when
experiences are shared with the new person that become more important than
the shared experiences in the marriage.
Infidelity can occur without sex.
Simply stated, marriage is a commitment to seek mutual fulfillment,
to make your own satisfaction contingent on your spouse’s.
The first steps taken when infidelity occurs are 1) to decide to
seek fulfillment through someone else and, 2) to decide to do this
secretly. In a sense,
whatever a person decides to give to a new partner outside the marriage is
taken from his or her spouse: time,
money, special experiences, confidences, or intimacies.
A person might experience a similar sense of betrayal if their
spouse becomes compulsively involved in alcohol, work, or various
activities. In these cases, the element of secrecy is usually not as
devastating, and there is not another person alienating the spouse from
Gender Differences in how Men and Women View Extramarital Relationships
There are some gender differences in how men and
women view extramarital relationships, although these are generalizations,
not true in every instance. Women
seem to be drawn into adulterous relationships initially through emotional
attachments, while men are more likely attracted sexually.
Interestingly, each gender tends to assume that the other is acting
out of the same motivation as they are likely to themselves.
Women assume that their husband has become emotionally attached to
another woman, when his interest may be primarily physical.
Men make the mistake of thinking that their wife’s relationship
with another man is safe if she shows no physical attraction to him.
(Psychology Today, Aug.1998) These
issues may need to be addressed in the recovery process in order that both
husband and wife can understand the development of the extramarital
Infidelity is always destructive.
Infidelity is always destructive, and often fatal, to
a marriage. It is possible to
avoid allowing infidelity to bring a marriage to an end, however.
God is a redemptive God. If
he can redeem people from sin with a capitol S, he can redeem specific
behaviors as well. God is also a healing God.
There is no hurt to great to be healed.
Redemption and healing always begin with a person acknowledging
their need, and accepting responsibility for what they have done.
Nowhere is this truer than in the case of infidelity.
adultery first requires that the betrayed spouse recover from the trauma.
Discovering the betrayal and anticipating the
potential loss of the person most important in your life causes great
distress. Unlike the trauma
of death, which has an end and can be compensated for by positive elements
in the relationship, infidelity undermines all that is good in the
relationship and the pain seems to have no natural end point.
Although not welcomed, death is to be expected at some point in a
marriage. Betrayal is not.
The victim of betrayal questions if the spouse ever loved them, and
if so, what they might have done to lose it.
It is as if the adulterous spouse has thrown dirt in the river of
their marriage contaminating the water behind them and before them.
To recover from trauma, a victim has a natural
tendency to go back to the traumatic experience, questioning, going over
details repetitiously: “What
did you do? Where? When? How
often?” The traumatized
spouse must go over the events until the emotional distress caused by them
becomes manageable. They must
reach a point where they feel there are no more surprises.
Often, the betraying spouse wants to get things over
quickly, after admitting to their infidelity.
They must develop empathy for what the betrayed spouse is
experiencing, and be willing to live with the pain of guilt, until genuine
healing can occur. In
addition, the betraying spouse may learn something about them self in the
questioning process. They may begin to see their own motives, vulnerabilities, and
selfishness. If both spouses
can tolerate and control the emotions involved, they may come to a joint
understanding of how the infidelity occurred, signaling the beginning of a
more substantial level of recovery.
Trauma recovery requires support.
Usually the guilty spouse is reluctant to allow others to know, but
it is essential that the betrayed spouse have someone to talk to other
than the person who has betrayed them.
While the trauma victim needs repetitious questioning and examining
in order to master the trauma response, they also need time to turn their
focus away from the trauma. They must realize that there is more to their life than their
marriage. They need to
realize God’s ability to enable them to transcend the trauma.
It is important for the victim to develop a determination to
survive. If the offending
partner senses that he or she has destroyed their spouse by what they have
done, they may lose their will to return their energies to the marriage.
They may even go back to the extramarital partner they have left,
thinking that is all they have left.
It is important for both spouses to dwell on sources of genuine
hope: Relationships are not
built or destroyed by single events.
God is involved in their marriage because it is his creation and he
does not want it to be destroyed. God
has brought good out of the worst forms of evil and catastrophic events
(the crucifixion). False
conclusions must be countered with more accurate ones.
For example, a betrayed spouse might believe, “Because my wife
has lied, I can never trust her again.” or “I’ve been hurt so badly,
I can’t forgive.” Often,
both spouses believe that an extra-marital relationship equals marriage
In order for a
marriage to have any hope of survival when an extramarital relationship
threatens it, the involved spouse must recognize that the relationship is
wrong and be willing to end it.
There is often a desire to
minimize the pain, make a partial separation, or take care of the new
object of their affections. None
of these can be done, if the marriage is to be restored.
The involved spouse must sever all contact with his or her
extramarital partner, at least to every extent possible.
Sometimes some continued contact is unavoidable (such as when the
partner is a coworker). Depending
on the extent of the relationship and how much the marriage is valued,
even these situations may require radical action.
I have known of people who have left jobs and moved to different
communities to preserve their marriage.
Even if the spouse is willing to sever contact, his or her partner
may not be willing. They must
be willing to inform the spouse of any further contact, including its
frequency, nature, emotions, and how it was handled.
It is normal for a betrayed spouse to distrust their husband or
wife following infidelity. The
spouse who has betrayed cannot demand trust, or suggest that distrust
equals a lack of love. It
must be accepted as part of the recovery process.
At the same time, the betrayed spouse cannot realistically expect
their husband or wife to suddenly return their affections to them.
While the path they have taken is wrong, it is a long journey back
to the point where their emotions are fully invested in each other. When infidelity occurs, boundaries are inverted:
the offending spouse draws a curtain around the extramarital
relationship to keep it private, and begins to share intimacies with his
or her partner, while gradually excluding their spouse.
Recovery involves reversing this pattern, opening up the
extramarital relationship to the spouse, and redefining the boundaries of
Reasons the Couple was Vulnerable to Infidelity
effectively with the immediate threat to the marriage that an extramarital
relationship poses, and getting beyond the trauma of the event, focus can
be placed on dealing with the reasons the couple was vulnerable to
infidelity. Often the biggest obstacle at this point is emotions.
One spouse is struggling with emotional attachment to two people.
The betrayed spouse is feeling a mixture of anger, hurt, and fear. Both spouses usually have a tendency to focus on the past or
the future, when they must focus on the present.
It is a difficult time for either spouse to be objective, but it is
important for them to evaluate themselves and their relationship, and to
make changes. Infidelity is
usually a symptom of a weakness in a person or marriage, which can be
Dissatisfaction Within the Marriage
almost always indicates that there is not an effective way to communicate
dissatisfaction within the marriage. Some
married couples fight often, but only alienate each other.
Some are disengaged. There
may be an assumption that voicing dissatisfaction is unacceptable, or that
it indicates an inadequate marriage.
All social systems, large and small, require a vehicle for change.
Marriage requires that each spouse learn to “speak the truth in
love” with each other (Ephesians 4), something that may require a great
deal of outside assistance.
In order for evaluation and change
to take place, each spouse must move beyond assigning blame, and accept
responsibility for what they must contribute to the change process.
What is true of all marriage problems is especially true of
infidelity: blame is a
dead-end. It leads nowhere.
As each spouse becomes involved in the change process, they can
begin to evaluate their love (and their spouse’s love) by their efforts,
rather than emotions. This
gives hope, at a time when neither spouse feels they can ever feel the
same about the other. An
important part of the recovery process is to see the difference between
mature love and immature love. Infidelity
can be seen as a regression to the excitement and pleasure of “falling
in love”. This beginning
phase of marriage is important, but not sufficient for the progression of
marriage through more difficult phases.
Rather than develop the qualities required for mature love, such as
found in I Corinthians 13, a person may be tempted to find a new partner,
because being in love is less demanding than committed love.
The person involved in an extramarital relationship needs to be
frequently reminded of the fallacy of comparing an extramarital
relationship to a married relationship.
The marriage experience is much more complex.
It involves the mundane as well as exposure of the most
unattractive aspects of our nature. Extramarital
relationships often don’t move from the idealization to reality,
something that is inevitable if the relationship is to continue.
It is said that only 10% of people who leave their spouses for
another, wind up staying with that person.
It may not immediately feel good to turn away from
what the extramarital relationship and all that it offers.
But rebuilding the marriage provides satisfactions that can be
obtained no other way: permanence, a depth of love that comes only through
adversity, and the experience of God’s grace in a most tangible way.
Statistics indicate that if a person chooses to abandon the
marriage for what appears to be the less difficult route of divorce, he or
she is more likely to make the same choice in subsequent marriages.
Deciding to remain married is most effective if viewed as a
commitment not only to spouse, but also to God, and to the marriage as a
major part of God’s purpose for your life.
This is often followed by realization that satisfaction is not
generated so much by what you get out of marriage as by what you can do
for your spouse. Giving
really can be more satisfying than getting.
Sometimes the adoption of the role of serving a spouse begins with
guilt or fear of losing them, but becomes rewarding in itself.
signal a person’s dissatisfaction with themselves.
signal a person’s dissatisfaction with themselves, rather than their
partner. They may want to feel different or be different.
As we marry and grow older, it is easy to stereotype our self and
our spouse. Another person
may see something in you that your spouse has overlooked.
It may appear that the potential to become funnier, more
interesting, more attractive, or more important, resides with that person,
rather than within yourself. Change
sometimes involves coming to grips with our own feelings of inadequacy,
and deciding how to deal with them.
Recovery from Infidelity
infidelity involves husband and wife restoring each other as the core of
While this sounds obvious, we often don’t realize how far we can
stray from the value placed on each other at the beginning of marriage.
Besides conflict and selfishness, a spouse can be lost in an array
of inherently good things that come into our lives, including children,
service, and friends.
it isn’t realistic to return to the “in love” phase of marriage,
each person needs to communicate to the other that they are of primary
importance, through action and words.
an obvious necessity if recovery from infidelity is to last. While not desirable, problems less significant than
infidelity can go unresolved, or make do with a superficial level of
requires the real thing. Forgiveness
is a commitment rather than an emotion.
Forgiveness is not a one-time event.
It is a repeated process that may be mental more often than verbal,
forgiving the offender each time the thought of his or her offense occurs.
Although forgiveness is not the same thing as forgetting,
forgiveness involves a commitment to avoid dwelling on the offense;
perhaps replacing painful and anger-inducing thoughts about the infidelity
with positive thoughts. Forgiving
infidelity involves some specific things, such as not bringing up the
adulterous behavior whenever it is useful, not refusing to ever trust
again, and not keeping distance from the offending spouse indefinitely.
Obviously, this kind of forgiveness is not easy.
The best source is the experience of God’s more comprehensive
forgiveness through Christ.
Forgiveness is desirable, but
reconciliation is unlikely and sometimes not advisable.
Sadly, there are situations in which forgiveness is desirable, but
reconciliation is unlikely and sometimes not advisable. Repetitious
infidelity may result of deviant character development, such that a person
thrives on dishonesty and taking advantage of others. Some people derive a perverted satisfaction from having
secret relationships, accumulating sexual conquests, or deceiving their
spouse. Infidelity can also
be a result of sexual addiction, a condition in which sexual gratification
is sought compulsively, in a frequency or manner not available in the
marriage. Unlike the person with deviant character development, the sex
addict generally feels remorse at some point, but feels helpless to stop
the behavior. While the
prognosis for treatment of sexual addiction is better than for
narcissistic and antisocial personalities, these conditions must be
diagnosed and treated individually, if there is to be any hope that
infidelity will cease.
is every married person’s worst nightmare.
Betrayal may be the worst of human experiences.
It is important to remember that Jesus experienced betrayal
himself, and through it he made redemption available to us.
Following his lead, and with the necessary responses, it is
possible to find redemption following infidelity as well.