Tuesday, March 25, 2014

To the Woman Who Knows Her Husband Will Never Cheat on Her

Don't ever imagine that infidelity can't happen to you.

The Internet is abuzz with a duel of sorts between Patheos blogger Simcha Fisher and young, engaged-to-be-married Emma Smith, who wrote on Catholic Exchange that she knows for a fact that she and her husband will never have to face the issue of infidelity.

"God is faithful, but we're not marrying God," proclaimed Fisher. "What do we know about human beings? They sin. They sin, and they sin, and they sin. Sometimes they enter into a valid marriage and then they cheat. Sometimes they understand fully what they are supposed to do, and they just don’t feel like doing it," she explained.

I'm inclined to agree with Fisher. Because the issue in Catholic marriage is not whether anything will go wrong, but how will you handle it when it does. In pre-Cana marriage prep classes, many engaged couples fill out the FOCCUS questionnaire, which asks if you "could not under any condition remain married" to your spouse "if he/she were ever unfaithful." If you agree with that statement, then there's a big problem. You can't annul a Catholic marriage for infidelity. Marriage is for life, remember? So no matter how much it hurts, a betrayed spouse has to search deep inside themselves and find a way to forgive and trust and rebuild a relationship that seems irrevocably shattered.

Infidelity can be overcome. My husband has seen it in his psychiatric practice. When both spouses want badly enough to save a marriage even from repeated sexual infidelity, it can happen. There needs to be absolute honesty, a commitment to avoid temptation, and a system of accountability. Therapy helps, spiritual direction helps, and Sexaholics Anonymous can help. It's not easy, but a marriage can make it through that firestorm.

My husband's courtship of me gave me complete confidence that he would be faithful to me. We were young, wildly attracted to each other, and yet managed to stay chaste until the wedding. I figured I would never have to worry about his self-control. But as we get older and our bodies bulge and sag in funny places, I wonder what he sees in me sometimes. And I thank God that my husband has never strayed.

"There but for the grace of God go I" expresses perfectly the awareness that we and the ones we love, when pushed to our limits, are capable of the direst deeds. Temptation strikes the young and the old, the weak and the strong, and it never rests. As one story goes, a priest leaned over a man on his deathbed to give him last rites. The man reached up to touch the cross hanging over the priests' vestments, greedily whispered "gold," and then died.

That's why we're invited to spiritual combat. Growth in holiness doesn't proceed along a smooth incline from base to summit until we step easily through the doors of heaven. Holy marriages aren't formed that way either. They're formed by perseverance in good times and bad, through periods of infatuation and anger, and sometimes through forgiveness in the face of infidelity. Infidelity is horrible, but it's not unforgivable, and doesn't have to be the end.

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  1. ...In pre-Cana marriage prep classes, many engaged couples fill out the FOCCUS questionnaire, which asks if you "could not under any condition remain married" to your spouse "if he/she were ever unfaithful." If you agree with that statement, then there's a big problem...

    Might one big problem be that agreeing with that statement means you never entered a valid marriage to begin with and therefore are possibly eligible for annulment?

    1. Excellent question, Bill. Agreeing with that statement certainly shows a lack of understanding of Catholic marriage and the life-long commitment it requires. You could argue that a person with that attitude also lacks full consent, and that would pave the way to getting an annulment. But what makes FOCCUS so great as a teaching tool is that the pre-Cana teachers who review the answers can then explain to the couple that infidelity doesn't invalidate a marriage -- forever really means forever and in good times and bad times isn't just a platitude. Any good pre-Cana course will teach an engaged couple exactly what they're getting into, so to speak. But FOCCUS allows you to customize it for the strengths and weaknesses of particular couples.

  2. Unfortunately we are Americans and we live in the culture of no-fault divorce, and that culture is thriving in the church here in America. What I mean to express is that as good as Pre Cana is, and as forewarned as couples are, the mentality of this culture is present in the support groups and rectories I have visited. I have been to four Catholic divorce support groups throughout the country. I have met many catholics who were happily remarried outside the church, catholics who got divorced because they were "bored" with their spouses, catholics who were very happy that they had gotten divorced, and not a few who were sleeping around. And a lot of these folks are eucharistic ministers. It is probably due to a stupendous ignorance of the teachings of the church, including the teaching that divorce is a sin. And it is not fair to say that it always takes two to destroy a marriage. In point of fact it only takes one person to walk away, Annulment is the ready "solution" offered by almost every priest I spoke to. I suppose they want to prevent people remarrying outside the church. That"s not sufficient reason to declare a marriage null. Unless we show by example that we will not violate our marriage vows, no matter what shortcuts the local tribunal offers, our children will not even bother to get married.

    1. Your characterization of Catholic divorce support groups is really disheartening to hear, Tina. One of the best ways the Church can support divorced people is by making clear what the doctrine says and why. People should know that divorce itself is not sinful -- especially for the spouse who has been abandoned. But remarriage while still validly married to the first spouse does constitute adultery in the eyes of the Church. Annulment should be a realistic assessment of the validity of the marriage, not a quick fix for people who will just leave the Church if they can't get their way. And I definitely agree that if we as laypeople don't show how much marriage matters, then future generations won't bother with it at all.