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Unfaithful: Confronting adultery in Christian families

Written by Claire Callaway

“I remember when I was in kindergarten, and I had a friend whose parents had broken up,” says Sarah,* a sophomore. “I asked my mom if she and my dad would ever get a divorce, and of course she said no. It was so surprising because they both loved God — they still do. Neither of them expected it to happen.”

—Fractured Trust—

Sarah’s parents divorced when she was eight after her father had an affair. He was a musician and toured frequently with his bands. “[My mom] trusted [my dad] even though he was gone a lot,” Sarah says. “My dad used that opportunity to make a mess of a lot of different things in his life. He got addicted to alcohol. They were fighting all the time . . . And then one day he left, and it wasn’t like he was going on tour. He was gone. Then there was this girl that he was living with. I didn’t understand what was going on . . . I didn’t understand that he had cheated on my mom.”

Both of her parents wanted the marriage to work, but her father’s addiction and repeated infidelity prevented any real reconciliation. “He tried to get his life back on track after that, but it didn’t happen for such a long time,” Sarah says. “There was trust that couldn’t be there ever again.”

After the divorce, members of her church who had gone through similar difficulties supported Sarah and her mother. “There were all these people telling me that God was my father, and that He would be faithful and not lie and love me unconditionally,” Sarah says.

In many ways, Sarah’s view of God was solidified though this difficult period. “Right after my parents divorced, I remember writing this poem about there being a storm inside of me, and how there were all these things ripping me in different directions, and I didn’t know what to believe or who was right and who was wrong,” Sarah says. “The turning point was ‘But God.’ That was a huge thing for me. That became such a central thing in my life that I associate the word ‘father’ more with an idea of God than I do with my dad. Some people would think that’s sad in a way, but I think that’s beautiful that something could be so redeemed.”

While this redemption has provided her with a deeper understanding of God, the pain from her parents’ divorce has given Sarah a more serious regard for marriage. In her view, Christian marriages should be more stable than non-Christian ones, and she is disappointed that this is so often not the case. “I wish that we took seriously that loving each other is laying down our lives for each other,” she says. “I wish we would see that in marriage there is so much beauty in being able to give things up to God and struggle with each other and love each other even when you don’t feel in love with each other.”

—Confronting the Brokenness—

Lydia,* a sophomore, was also profoundly affected by adultery, although she didn’t learn that until about a year ago. “A really big puzzle piece . . . was missing that fit into the whole picture of my parents’ divorce,” she says. After struggling with their marriage for several years, Lydia’s parents divorced when she was 12 years old.

“My dad has a really severe porn addiction that was detrimental to their marriage,” Lydia says. “My mom tried so many things to stop it . . . And one day, I’m not sure how far before the divorce, my mom was looking through his trunk for some stuff and she found a box of things that were very obviously not hers that he had tried to hide. That’s how she found out about the affair he was having.”

Even though Lydia’s mother still wanted to make their marriage work, her father decided to file for divorce. “My mom could have been a better wife in a lot of ways,” Lydia says. “But she was a saint compared to him. And my dad divorced my mom, not the other way around . . . In a lot of ways [my parents] weren’t reconcilable because my dad needed a lot of help that he wasn’t seeking.”

Since then, Lydia has been forced to confront her father’s brokenness. “There are a lot of secret things about my dad, a lot of things he has shame for, but he just lets it run wild,” says Lydia. “He doesn’t hide [his problems] very well. It was just this box that was shoved in the back of his car . . . It’s almost like he wants to be found out. Maybe it comes to a point with these really deep sins, where you can’t talk about it, but you almost wish someone would just confront you and help you, because you’re so deep in it yourself that you don’t know where to go to let go.”

Lydia feels that it was ultimately her father’s overpowering shame that prevented her parents from staying together. Moreover, her parents avoided seeking help, even from their church, because the nature of their struggle was too sensitive. “I’m not sure it would have been different if the church had been involved, because that would have meant dealing with all of my dad’s problems, and I don’t think that’s something that my parents would have been comfortable with,” she says.

Like Sarah, Lydia views marriage with more gravity because of her parents’ ordeal, and she says Christians should set an example for successful marriages. “I believe that marriage is sacred,” Lydia says. “Marriage should be a relationship that grows and gets better and the love gets deeper and deeper . . . and God has to be the foundation of your relationship, or it will very likely fall apart. You have to go into it knowing that it’s a compromise and that there will be times that you will want to end it. But if you push through, then it will be one of the most rewarding things you can do.”

—Cracks in the Foundation—

First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes life. After pledging their lives to one another, two people find themselves in situations they never truly anticipated. Their house is filled with screaming children, and they dread the monthly mortgage bill, working overtime just to get by. Eventually, they realize they have been drifting apart, but don’t know what to do about it.

These circumstances can make a marriage particularly susceptible to infidelity. Dr. Tim Muehlhoff, professor of communications at Biola and author of Marriage Forecasting, offers some insights into the causes of adultery. “You go home to your second job — that is, raising kids, dealing with your wife, fixing the toilet,” Muehlhoff says. “Your spouse has heard all of your jokes before. Then suddenly, you go to work and you’ve got that person that you don’t live with who thinks all your jokes are funny. You’re infatuated by them because you don’t really know them. You know your spouse backwards and forwards. But there’s mystery to this person, and it’s really attractive.”

An overly hectic lifestyle, and consequent lack of rest, chips away at the foundation of a marriage, according to Muehlhoff. Connecting with God regularly is crucial to a healthy relationship, because “if your soul is fatigued, your defenses are down, so you’re more susceptible to an affair,” Muehlhoff says.

Other factors come into play as well. According to Dr. Rob Lister, an assistant professor of biblical and theological studies at Biola, a lack of accountability to fellow Christians is often another precursor to adultery. Without the support this accountability makes possible, it becomes easier to give in to the temptation of infatuation.

While rest and accountability are important, at the end of the day, the success of a marriage is built on a healthy focus on God, as well daily patience and perseverance. “On one hand, we’re connecting our marriages to the gospel,” Lister says. “Our marriages are little mirrors of Christ’s love for the church. But we must also do the nitty-gritty detail work of building a relationship together.”

Couples must establish practical steps for combating the temptation to walk out of a deteriorating marriage. Muehlhoff suggests avoiding the negative views of sex and marriage that are prevalent in the media. Largely because of media’s influence, modern culture has cheapened the idea of marriage and taken faithfulness too lightly, freely allowing one or both spouses to seek fulfillment elsewhere when their marriage goes awry. Muehlhoff also cautions again living beyond one’s means, because financial trouble is one of the most common sources of stress on a marriage.

If a couple fails to take those practical steps and falls into infidelity, Lister emphasizes the importance of immediately seeking support from the church community. “The church is a place for sinners, a place for broken people,” he says. “It should be a place where sinners of all stripes feel welcome to come for counsel, encouragement, nourishing — to be helped along by other sinners who are deeply in love with the grace of Christ.”

According to Lister, the first step to forgiveness and restoration is to remember that all people are sinners. In that sense, every person has broken a much greater vow with God. But whereas the human capacity for unconditional forgiveness is often limited, God’s grace has no limits, regardless of the sin committed against him. “Operating with the cultural mindset, [Christ] would have divorced his bride a long time ago,” Lister says. “But he persists in love, fidelity, care and provision of his bride in spite of our many adulteries.”

Furthermore, Lister says, God’s grace does even more than simply forgiving individual sins: Through his forgiveness, God also makes possible the restoration of other relationships. “The good news is,” Lister says, “that if our sins against God may be forgiven, then in a horizontal dimension it is possible to experience healing, forgiveness and reconciliation as well.”

*Names have been changed to protect privacy

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