Thank you for this excellent question regarding fidelity in marriage. I apologize that it has taken so very long for me to get around to posting an answer!
The question of fidelity in marriage touches the hearts of many. Our society has glamorized adultery to the point that many people no longer see it as sinful. And, unfortunately, so many people have bought into that lie and commit adultery with very little thought of the consequences for themselves or the many people affected by it. What remains are many families torn apart and many people deeply wounded by the effects of that sin.
When a husband cheats on his wife or the wife on her husband, there is a great deal of hurt. The wounds go deep and do not heal easily! There is no way to advise a person from the outside without knowing the details of a particular situation. But I will comment that whenever possible, God desires reconciliation in marriages.
I realize that this is hard advice for us to swallow, coming from a society which rejects the notion of sacrifice. But reconciliation is the path to freedom, just as Christ reconciled the world to God through His death on the Cross – and won for us freedom from sin and death. But, of course, just as Christ sacrificed for us in order to forgive us our sins, reconciliation between persons always involves some form of dying to self.
Forgiving a husband or a wife who has cheated on you is huge! It would not be easy at all. Once that trust has been broken, it is very hard to rebuild. And if that person continues to cheat on you, it becomes almost impossible to rebuild the trust. To do so would definitely involve personal sacrifice.
But, I’d like to add that I don’t believe that a person should open the door to being used by someone else. Since that trust has been broken, it needs to be rebuilt somehow. Somehow the person who has broken the trust has to prove himself (or herself) to the other. And there needs to be good (sound and Christ-centered) counseling along the path of healing of a damaged marriage. This all takes time – the great healer!
So what do you do in practical terms when your spouse has cheated on you? You may or may not be able to reestablish your marriage. The will to do so must be there on both parts. If both persons agree to try again, I believe there needs to be a time of rebuilding the broken trust. I really recommend a period of “courtship” should take place for several reasons.
First of all, there is the question STDs, which is a real reality in this day and age! One in four people, sexually active, are carriers of an STD. There are over fifty different STDs now known. Some of them – not just AIDS – are killers! Many of them lead to infertility. Skin to skin contact is all it takes to acquire certain deadly STDs. For example, genital warts can be transmitted just by skin contact (you don’t have to go all the way!) and can lead to infertility and cervical cancer for women. This STD, genital warts – the street name for Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) – kills more women each year than AIDS, yet is rarely ever discussed.
So a time of medical testing should take place. And a virus like HIV can take up to three months before a test will show positive for its presence. This time of medical testing is also a great opportunity for the spouse who has been unfaithful to prove himself or herself to the other. Self-denial and sacrifice is a building block to a good marriage. Abstinence is a great way to demonstrate this virtue, and to build it!
Secondly, and more closely touching the heart of the issue, a time of courtship is a time to rekindle the love that has been hurt (or lost) through infidelity. This should be a time of romance and rediscovering each other. The more seriously both spouses take this opportunity to prepare to reenter into marriage, the greater the success of the marriage will be once it is fully reestablished.
Thirdly, this is the time for initiating counseling, which may go on for a long time, even after you get back together. Usually infidelity is a symptom of an already ailing marriage. This is the time to get to the heart of the issues and work them out. It is important to have a good Christian counselor who understands the Christian meaning of marriage and can support the Church’s teachings in his or her counseling. Anything less than that can leave you more messed up than you began!
Fourthly, this is a time for recommitting yourselves, individually and as a couple, to the Lord. Pray together. Grow in your faith together. Find some program or retreat geared to help rebuild marriages, or that explore the meaning of marriage. Saturate yourselves in God’s word and the Church’s teachings. When your hearts are reunited to God’s laws and in conformity with God’s laws, reconciliation and rebuilding your marriage will be perfectly natural.
What do you do if your spouse will have nothing to do with this? What if they are willing to do some, but not all? What if they have no regard for religion or faith? Well, you will have tough slugging ahead. It is so much easier when both of you are on the same page! But still I recommend you work from where you can, find the common ground, and try to rebuild from there.
Let God work on your spouse’s heart. Your commitment to your faith, your desire to honour your marriage vows, your sacrifices and fidelity will ultimately bring about good. Let go and let God . . . He has a perfect plan for your life and even when you and your spouse mess that up, God can work amazing good through it all!
Remember, even though we desire happiness in marriage – and God certainly wants to bless us with happiness – what is essential is that we live out holiness in our marriages! Despite all the hardship and pain, God calls us to holiness!
Even if your spouse who has been unfaithful refuses to live out the marriage vows, you are still required to live them our faithfully! You see, as long as there has always been a valid marriage – from the beginning – you are still bound to this person. In other words, even though that person has left you, maybe even has gone on to remarry or live common law, you are still married to him (or her). Therefore for you to go on and remarry is to commit adultery!
You are not free to go and remarry, just because you have been the victim of a great injustice. Marriage is indissoluble. If one of the partners has broken their vows, that does not free the other person to break his or her vows.
There is a great sacrifice involved here! But, sacrifice, when united to Christ’s on the cross, can bring about great spiritual power. I am not saying suffering is easy; I am saying it is a part of life which can have great meaning when we understand it, accept it and live it out with love.
I want to remind you of the story of Hosea, the prophet, whom God told to marry a harlot, Gomer. Each time she was unfaithful to Hosea, God would send Hosea to call her back to faithful love. The example of his own life and personal suffering was to show Israel how they were being unfaithful in their love to God. Yet God, despite the unfaithfulness of His chosen people, remained true, constantly calling His people back to faithful love.
Marriage is not just a nice thing to do because it satisfies a basic human need to belong and to share intimacy. Marriage is a sacrament. It signifies the deep love that God has for His people . . . so deep that He sent His Son to espouse Himself to us. God, from all eternity, is calling us into a marriage covenant with Him. Marriage signifies this love.
Marriage also signifies the Trinitarian love of God, Who lives as a communion of persons – The Father and the Son eternally giving and receiving each other’s love, a love which so real that it begets life: the Holy Spirit.
Deep? You bet! Marriage is one big WOW! As you see, there’s a whole lot more going on in marriage than the mutual satisfaction of the couple.
Unfortunately, so many people in our society miss this point. We have distorted marriage along with our distortion of the meaning of human sexuality. This is the work of Satan.
But the power of God’s love breaks the chains of sin and Satan. If you have been hurt by a faithless lover, a spouse that has cheated on you, then you understand the chains of sin. Yet, if you are able to forgive that person – you will be freed of the chains that bind you. Even if that person does not repent, you can still forgive. That person may never repent, but you are still called to live in faithful love, albeit separated. This means that you can not remarry except in the circumstances of annulment.
An annulment is a proclamation by the Church which states, upon examining the circumstances surrounding the beginning of the marriage (the wedding), that there was never a valid marriage. This does not mean there was never a civil marriage; rather, there was never a sacramental marriage. In this case, the marriage can be deemed “null” and therefore the two persons are free to marry in the Church.
This is NOT Church divorce. It is saying that the requirements to establish a valid marriage never existed in the first place.
Just an aside, regarding children in annulments:
In the question of children involved, an annulment does not state that children are “illegitimate”. The legitimacy of a child is a legal term that comes from a time when the paternity (father) of a child needed to be established for legal reasons. In the case where the paternity could not be established, the child was called “illegitimate”. This was a legal term.
Since all children are ultimately fathered by God the Father, there is no such thing as an illegitimate child in the true sense of the word. And in the case of marriage and annulment, the legitimacy of a child’s paternity is obviously established, and therefore there are no legal grounds to call a child illegitimate.
Back to the question of fidelity in marriage:
I feel for all those who are suffering the pain and heartbreak of a faithless lover. I implore each of these to turn to God for the strength that is required of them to be faithful and pure. Sometimes what is right to do is not what is easiest to do. Once a couple has crossed the line into infidelity in marriage, the choices are all hard. But God sees us in our righteousness and rewards us for our faithfulness.
May you be blessed in your search for truth. We remember all our readers in our prayers, daily. I humbly ask that you remember me, my family and this ministry in your prayers.
In His Most Holy Name,