Infidelity is Not “For Better or Worse”

There’s some serious planking going on here.

I wasn’t going to write about the Ashley Madison scandal. I figured enough bloggers were doing that.

But the reaction I’m seeing from some Christian leaders has my blood boiling. For people who passionately tout the sanctity of marriage and denounce the evils of the sexual revolution, you’d think they’d be at least somewhat livid at the scores of Christian men who were caught spending hundreds of dollars on a website to elicit an extra-marital affair.

Instead, it’s all, “We should forgive them” and “What about grace?” and “Let’s examine our own sins first.” And when the wives–who have been horribly deceived and betrayed–come forward to seek a divorce, the same leaders have responded with, “Hey. You pledged to marry him for better or worse.”

But infidelity is not “for better or worse.” 

  • Worse is when one of you gains an extra sixty pounds.
  • Worse is when you have a mental breakdown and have to send your kid to live with relatives for a week.
  • Worse is when one of you decides you’re no longer Christian.
  • Worse is when you move out of state twice in less than two years.
  • Worse is having sex only five times in one year.
  • Worse is being unemployed for three years.
  • Worse is losing a baby.
  • Worse is having to confront your spouse about possible alcoholism.
  • Worse is having postpartum depression for two years.
  • Worse is spending your first anniversary at the funeral of your father-in-law, who died from a stroke. At age 49.
  • Worse is getting a phone call saying that your mother-in-law’s house is in foreclosure and being auctioned off next week.
  • Worse is when your spouse hasn’t slept in 36 hours and is making everyone miserable with his crankiness.
  • Worse is when your spouse is away for weeks on end and you raise the kids by yourself.
  • Worse is admitting to your spouse that you’ve been thinking about suicide. Again.
  • Worse is being asked by your spouse if you’re safe enough to be around the children.
  • Worse is waking up and wondering if your marriage will last until your next anniversary.

This is some of the “worse” my husband and I have experienced within eight years of marriage. It’s the stuff of life. It’s weight gain and sickness and family issues and bad moods and changing expectations. That’s what we mean when we stand at the altar and take each other “for better or worse.” It’s so we don’t run out the door the moment the honeymoon ends.

To me, applying “for better or worse” to infidelity is just plain insulting. Because my husband and I didn’t stand before God and pledge to never gain an extra pound. We didn’t pledge to always keep a sunny disposition. We didn’t promise to never burn the dinner, or to always be patient with the kids, or to have sex three nights per week. However, we did promise to “forsake all others.” We made a covenant vow before witnesses to become one flesh. To cherish and protect each other. To allow only the other person to meet our most intimate emotional and physical needs.

Making a cutting remark on a bad day doesn’t break the covenant. Being angry at your spouse for forgetting to pick up the kids or take the trash to the curb doesn’t break the covenant. But sleeping with other people does. Which is why Jesus declared marital infidelity grounds for divorce. Serial adultery isn’t a “worse” to be tolerated or absolved. It’s a deal-breaker.

Now, if a person decides they want to continue a relationship with a spouse who cheated and then repented, that’s their prerogative. What I’m objecting to are these pastors giving wives the “better or worse” speech after their husbands broke their covenant vow to forsake all others. What a slap in the face, especially in light of the cheaters’ excuses:

“I was bored and curious.”

“My wife was depressed and didn’t want sex anymore.”

“I wanted to try new things. She didn’t.”

“I’m not attracted to her anymore.”

“It was an escape from the stress of my job and home life.”

I have yet to hear a single pastor publicly address these men and say, “That’s tough, buddy. You married her. For better or worse!”

These pastors aren’t talking about forgiveness; they’re talking about absolution. They quote verses at the families devastated by the desecration of their marital covenant, telling them to remove the plank in their own eye before attempting to remove the speck in the cheater’s eye. But they’ve got it backwards. An occasional bad attitude is a speck. Infidelity is a plank. And those women have every right to grieve, to rage, to demand nothing less than absolute, contrite repentance.

The Apostle Paul said that anyone who claimed to be a Christian but engaged in sexual immorality ought to be thrown out of the church. What are we doing when we, as the church, demand forgiveness without repentance?

What are we doing when we call adultery a speck to be overlooked?

22 responses to “Infidelity is Not “For Better or Worse”

  1. Wow April. Not many comments here. Not sure what that means? I have been married for 36 years—my only marriage—never cheated a single time—except in my heart like Jimmy Carter. That list of yours sounds about normal for marriage to me. So, people were running off to Ashley Madison to escape from “normal”—huh? I agree with your pastor silence conclusion. I am all over the daily news like a duck on a June bug, and I have heard damned near nothing as far as pastor comments go—although the news indicated Josh Duggar was on the list twice—as if I really care—never followed those people. I share a measure of your angst.

  2. Paul Bohannan was an anthropologist who made marriage and divorce his field of study. A student asked him about countries — like Italy at that time — which did not permit divorce and he replied “A society which has no grounds for divorce is a society which has no standards for success in marriage.”

  3. These pastors aren’t talking about forgiveness; they’re talking about absolution.

    If I might be so bold as to offer an alternate term: From what I can see, these pastors are talking about condoning adultery. It doesn’t even rise to the level of absolution. Absolution, as far as I understand it, requires not only confession but penance — making amends in some fashion, if only through ritual. The cheating husbands aren’t even being made to do that. They just say that they’re sorry, make a sad face, and expect to be taken back like it never happened. And there are clergy who support them in this farce.

    Thank you so much for this article. It’s the first of yours that I’ve read (I found it through Julie Anne Smith at SSB), but you write with amazing style, and your honesty is very compelling. I hope to read more from you if I have the time.

    • I read this a couple days ago. I really appreciate the author’s sincerity and frustration. That said…

      I’m not sure the author sees how some of the church’s teachings have contributed to the problem. When you’re telling women that they have to remain pure until marriage and have enthusiastic sex every time the man wants it to prevent adultery, it only feeds men’s sense of entitlement. In other words, the church keeps putting the responsibility on women to keep men from straying…not on men to honor their vows. So of course they stray…and then people like the author feel shocked and confused. It sounds like she’s waking up.

      She calls these serial adulterers Christian. There are some who wouldn’t agree. It’s possible these men are masquerading as Christians in order to get another pass from the pastor. All he has to do is claim weakness and beg for forgiveness, and the pastor will encourage the poor betrayed wife to stick around.

      The church has become far too safe for narcissists.

  4. My ex gave me a dis-ease that I had a severe reaction to the treatment of…ended up crippling me for life–then since “no one wants to be married to a cripple” the divorce came. Turns out he was hiding his homosexuality behind our marriage. So I didn’t end up with much out of that experience, except a broken body and having to work through a great deal of distrust of men, marriage and love. I cannot be responsible for another’s behavior, and I cannot accept such bad behavior in my life. I shudder to think what bad surprises await my daughters in there marriages, since their father was such a difficult, lying, individual.

  5. Thank you for this post, April. While I do absolutely believe that we have a Lord who works miracles in the reconciliation and restoration departments, and that He always responds to sincere repentance, I’m so tired of seeing adultery (and abuse) treated as if they’re somehow on the same level of problems and issues that every married couple faces. They aren’t. It needs to stop.

  6. I completely agree with this article. Moreover Jesus said that he really understands if you want to have a divorce after adultery (Matthew 5). There is nothing wrong if you want to work out your marriage after adultery but you shouldn’t be spiritually guilt tripped to do it.

  7. Oh my gosh. I’m doing my best to keep it together. We’re going through some of the ‘worsts’ you mentioned…and yes. And there are lots of these little ‘specks’ that do eat away at our emotional/mental stability of our marriage…but THE FOUNDATION is fidelity. That we’re committed to each other – and only to each other. It’s the one thing that keeps it all together – that we’re yoke-fellows – we’re a team – no matter what happens or how bad the worsts become.

    I hope you start experiencing ‘better’ soon!

    I’m new to your blog, but I would love to read some more about your experience with depression and its effect on marriage. Right now, I feel we’re just trying to keep our noses above the flood of my depression and impulses to self-harm…even with counseling and meds it has been so hard on our relationship. Fidelity really has been the life-preserver in this situation.