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They were the perfect couple - almost. At least they looked great together, especially in the early years of their marriage. Everett was handsome and personable; Brenda, beautiful, bright, and sophisticated. They even enjoyed religious activities together. That is, they both practiced the same faith, or at least we can say they went to church together.

Ironically, it was in church, while both were doing “churchy” things, that it happened - the big A: adultery. After five years of marriage and three children, the universal dream faded into the universal nightmare. The guilt and disillusionment, the efforts to hide, then the efforts to repair and restore. All were draining and eating away at an already anemic self-image. Then carne, as Brenda described it, “the feeling that somebody has pulled the chain, and your whole life is swirling dizzily into meaninglessness.” How on earth did it happen? Why?

With the soap operas doing a number on our collective psyches, adultery is hardly a subject to be discussed in hushed tones today. In fact, some would even question whether it's worth discussing at all, given its frequency of incidence in the “real world” of liberation ethics and self-actualizing philosophies. But not withstanding all the glib talk about meaningful versus boring relationships, adultery is still a sure road to heartache and human tragedy.

Role Reversal

In a rather unusual case of role reversal, it had been her husband who admired for his good looks and his leadership. He was considered a real winner around our little suburban church. He often taught classes and led out in group activities. Now he was corning to me in a state of near depression. He was ready to give up all his church responsibilities and even stop his evening classes at the university where he was studying toward a law degree. He was wrestling with two problems: What had he done to cause the failure of his marriage? And what should he do with his life now?

Everett was confused and terribly frustrated. Brenda had left the year before and had moved out of the state to live with her mother. They had corresponded, and even visited on occasion. Everett loved the children, and they beamed with delight whenever they saw him coming. Such occasions were now becoming more and more rare, and extremely painful.

“Pastor,” he said, “it's the parting from my own children! And Brenda, she's like a stone wall! She's not moving an inch toward me. I know I wasn't the perfect husband, but do I deserve this?”

Everett was right on both counts. He had been far from the perfect husband. But nobody really earns the kind of suffering he was going through, even when not necessarily “at fault.” Why, then, are there so many of us putting each other through such suffering? Everett and Brenda's case is worth looking at more closely because it's just typical enough to be meaningful to a lot of us. At the same time, there are some unique circumstances in this case that are of great interest.

Attitudes and Facts

Brenda’s whole being was out of the ordinary. Brenda talked and behaved as if it were Everett's problem. It was not the common, everyday blame placing. It was simply no longer her problem.

There was no distraught, abandoned-young-mother syndrome, no misunderstood-wife complaints. There was not even a tear for the “good times” they had shared. There was only the cool resignation of a woman with her mind made up.

Another facet of this story that is becoming all too usual was the setting in which it developed, the church – the ordinary conservative church. We had our kids and our grandmas, our cranks and our saints, just like everybody else. What we didn't have was a listening ear or a benevolent watchful eye that could have discerned what was happening to Everett and Brenda before it was too late. Right before our eyes we watched the stresses of early marital adjustment take their toll on our sweet young couple. We may have even contributed to the problem when we grabbed Everett for every chore he was willing to do, even when it meant leaving the children to Brenda for most of the day. God forgive us!

And what on earth were we thinking as we watched Brenda's growing attachment to Alex, who sang in the choir with her? They not only shared the same hymnal, but all too often rehearsed their parts together, and rode home together, since Everett didn't sing. We had to be blind not to see the displaced companionship developing between them. The big A? How could we be sure?


Brenda was willing to give their marriage another try – if certain changes could be forthcoming on Everett's part. During the ensuing weeks Everett had made a laudable effort to be the Prince Charming he thought she wanted. It had been worse than futile. Brenda became almost nauseated at his touch. Finally, they were unable to have even a civil conversation. The children sensed the tension, and often probed for some expression of hope that things might be better. But such was not to be the case.

My conversations with Everett and Brenda always began with their acknowledging the other's fine qualities and admitting their own frailties - but! Then there would follow the out-pouring of accusations about insensitivity and lack of communication, et cetera. Then came the expressions of regret and declarations of repentance but always at the bottom was the big remaining question: “Why can't we start over?”

Yet it soon became obvious that something had died - perhaps never to live again. For Brenda, it seemed to be the capacity to enter into a genuine spiritual and emotional intimacy with her husband. For Everett, trust and eventually affection passed away.

Tattletale Signs

No postmortem can ever really answer all the whys and wherefores of what happened to this marriage. Then perhaps we should take a closer look at the most obvious signs of trouble as we are able to discern them from the outside looking in.

At the judge's office Brenda and Everett had been looking past each other while they waited for the judge to finish shuffling, then perusing, the sheaf of papers before him. It was a sad and solemn affair. Watching this couple dissolve their vows that said “ …for better for worse … till death do us part.”

The judge was speaking. “Is there any accusation of adultery?” Questioningly, almost plaintively, for the first time, their eyes met. For an agonizing split second, before returning to neutral, two souls seemed to reach out to each other and plead, “Don't let it be so!”

Then came the answers: “No, sir.” “No, Your Honor.”

Just as their real union began long before they stood before the marriage altar, so their divorce came long before that sad day in the judge's chambers. But for them, the only acceptable grounds for divorce was the Biblical provision of adultery.

Had there or had there not been such unfaithfulness in their case?

Dimensions of Marriage

A good place to start answering that question is to try to understand better what adultery means. And of course, that involves a clear understanding of what really constitutes marriage. Marriage occurs in three dimensions:

  • Process. This involves courtship and engagement. During this period, areas of compatibility are discovered and explored. Personality meshing begins, and the conditions for intimacyare developed .
  • Act. The act of marriage is the formal recognition of the bearing of the community upon the couple, and the reciprocal responsibility of the couple to the community. In a religious ceremony God is invoked to honor the union and to bless it. (It might be argued that the marriage act is really the sexual coming together of the couple.)
  • State. The process of personality meshing and the achievement of intimacy does not culminate with the wedding (or even the wedding night).

The state of marriage is itself a never-ending process of growth and sharing. Contrary to some widely held wisdom on how marriage depersonalizes the individual, the highest expression of what humans were intended to be is developed in marriage. The interdependence of a healthy marriage is not the lessening of the individual, but the releasing of the often stifled springs of love and commitment that causes a society to endure. We become our fullest selves in marriage. Beyond this, we expand into the lives of others in a most profound way. So what, then, is adultery?

Components of Adultery

In Old Testament times, adultery was considered the sin. It was listed in the Decalogue between murder and theft. Such crimes, which were thought to be particularly threatening to the well-being of the nation as a whole, were punishable by public stoning or burning. It is interesting to note that in some ancient cultures the offended husband might forgive the adulterous wife. But not so with Israel, “because the marriage bond is divinely sanctioned and an offense against God cannot be pardoned by man.”

At its root, the word adultery implies the adding of a foreign element with the effect of weakening or diluting the original substance. The substance of marriage is those bonds of admiration, affection, and commitment achieved on the most intimate level between a man and a woman. It involves a delicate interlocking of the total personalities of both individuals.

One more definitive statement is necessary here to deal with the question of what sexual intercourse is all about. What is its purpose aside from the obvious end of procreation? We must recognize that God could have devised a far less emotionally involved method of fertilization for us, just as He did for some lower animals. There is one other almost equally obvious function of our sexual expression: unitive affection. The fellowship and companionship resulting from physical oneness was also incorporated in this act.

Rather than quibble over an either/or approach to these two purposes of the sex act, take them both as universal givens. Understanding the Biblical intent for the preservation of humanity and an orderly society, we see that God intended men and women to bring forth children into an atmosphere of love and security. This means a commitment that goes far beyond the feelings or the problems of the moment. This being the case, we may conclude that sex is a sacred and purposeful act properly experienced only within the bonds of marriage. Adultery is the violation and weakening of those bonds.

In Reflection

Now let's get back to Brenda – and Alex. There was much speculation around our little church as to what really went on between them. One thing was clear and undeniable: Brenda allowed another man to take the place of her husband in her confidence and affections. But perhaps more important than all of this was the fact that Brenda did “pull the plug” on all hope for her marriage. When hope dies in a marriage, it leaves a most repulsive corpse. Sometimes it seems one can hardly wait to “bury” the remains in the divorce court.

Yet the hope of humanity lies in the human capacity to change and to forgive. In his classic book Identity: Youth and Crisis, Erik Erikson says: “One may use the term 'vital virtues' to connote certain qualities which begin to animate man pervasively during successive stages of his life, hope being the first and the most basic.”

Erikson discusses one other “vital virtue” pertinent to our discussion: “As to youth and the question of what is in the center of its most passionate and most erratic striving, I have concluded that fidelity is the vital strength which it needs to have an opportunity to develop, to employ, to evoke, and to die for.”

Perhaps we should also put labels on all those frivolities and indiscretions that so often lead to infidelity: “Warning! This behavior could be fatal!”

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