Leo Tolstoy once wrote, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
The same is true of every instance of adultery. The church tends to preach that there is one formula for dealing with adultery (or, in some traditions, one formula if you’re a woman and another formula if you’re a man). But adultery can’t be “solved” by applying the right formula. It’s a more complicated and emotional conversation. Nearly all of us have firsthand or secondhand experience with adultery—in a present or previous relationship; between parents or siblings or close friends. But we rarely talk about the frameworks that allow us to move through and beyond the pain of adultery.
Here are four guideposts the church should raise on the impact and consequences of adultery.
1. Adultery is a choice.
Adultery might not begin with a choice—it may begin with a business trip, some anger over an unresolved argument with your spouse, a stressful day that makes you feel out of step with yourself. But somewhere along the way, a person makes a choice. And that choice—to increase the intimacy of one relationship—has real consequences for other intimate relationships, not just with a lover but with children, friends, mutual acquaintances of the parties. Adultery is not something that “just happens” because of the alcohol or sleep deprivation or stress. It is a choice a person makes that is more likely to happen under these conditions (see also, “Hamilton”).
When the Bible says “Do not commit adultery” it means “be wary of making a choice that has profound consequences in other areas of your life.” The word that’s used here is also used interchangeably to mean “idolatry.” To commit adultery is to commit idolatry. The church often twists the metaphor to demonize adultery, but what it should do is spiritualize our sense of choice. The problem of idolatry is a problem of priorities. It’s de-prioritizing something you said was central to your life in order to elevate something that belongs on the margins of your life. The problem of adultery is one of distorted commitments—de-prioritizing a relationship that you chose (often in a public ceremonial confession) to place at the center of your life. It’s a problem of your choices falling out of line with your stated values.
Recognizing the element of choice helps us recognize when conditions are shifting to make that choice more likely. We can be transparent with ourselves about what increases the likelihood of choosing adultery. That might mean choosing not to consume alcohol when you’re under stress; choosing to schedule a nightly call with your spouse when traveling; or choosing to confront a person and say, “Hey, I’m feeling like there’s something between us that’s disrupting my committed relationship, I need to change the way I relate to you.”
2. Adultery is a symptom.
Adultery is about more than sex. Sexual activity is complicated and is absolutely what makes adultery so emotionally raw and severe. But adultery is more than sex (it’s also lies, vulnerability and lack thereof, control, power, and more). Sometimes, in some relationships, adultery is not the primary problem, it is the symptom of the primary problem. The primary problem is disengagement.
In Daring Greatly, Brene Brown calls disengagement the root cause of many interpersonal conflicts. She writes, “We disengage to protect ourselves from vulnerability, shame, and feeling lost… When we’re disengaged, we don’t show up, we don’t contribute, and we stop caring.”
Sometimes, adultery is a symptom of disengagement that took place years ago. Sometimes, it’s a symptom of something that needs to change in your work life, your marriage, your practices of Sabbath, your self-esteem. Adultery points toward the reason one—or both—parties disengaged from a relationship. Even if the adultery ends, the relationship will remain damaged if disengagement isn’t addressed.
3. Adultery is about power.
Again, this is true that sex is only one element of adultery. And because adultery is a choice that eases the symptoms caused by a different problem that we are afraid to confront.
Sometimes, adultery is less about the desire for sex than it is about the desire to show power, control, domination, or perhaps affirming one’s power to attract another, when one is feeling unattractive. One is more likely to commit adultery one feels powerless. Consider Janelle Monae offers a helpful frame in the song “Screwed” from her recent album Dirty Computer: “Everything is sex/except sex, which is power/You know power is just sex.” (This quote has been attributed to others, but Janelle Monae uses it powerfully.)
4. Because Adultery is about power, it’s about Empire and our place in Empire (and community).
Call it Empire, call it Capitalism, call it The Powers that Be. Adultery is about the way we endorse and resist systems that dehumanize others. When adultery is a means of power, it dehumanizes. If adultery is about disengagement, it conditions us to dehumanize and numb out the needs of others because we cannot confront our own needs. Adultery cultivates a mentality that encourages us to endorse hierarchies, to exercise control over others, to disregard the wellbeing of others.
Janelle Monae offers more insight here, in the same song, “Everything’s is sex/Except sex, which is power/you know power is just sex/Now ask yourself who’s screwing you.” The song is about waking up on the morning on November 9, 2016, and coping with the first waking day of knowing that a narcissist and a misogynist is now the head of government.
But it’s also a song about the way sex becomes a site of gaining or losing power. Think of the currency sex has in a high school–having it can make a teenager (particularly boys) feel more powerful; not having it can make also make a teenager feel more or less powerful. Sex is a site for negotiating, finding, losing, discovering, enjoying power. Sex can be a way to exercise power; a way to take power from someone else or, at its best, sex is about sharing power in a way that makes each party feel more powerful and empowered in their own body.
Powerful and empowered bodies are a threat to Empire. Powerful and empowered bodies are bad for the economy. Powerful and empowered bodies know their worth; they demand healthcare and paid time off; they view themselves as more than producers; they shout “Me too;” they expose CEOs and executives as misogynists and demand business leaders be held to ethical standards; they demand police be accountable for damaging the bodies they pledge to protect and serve, particularly black and brown bodies. Powerful and empowered bodies are a threat to those who make their wealth by exercising power over others.
What about adultery, then?
Healing the pain of adultery has to account for these four realities. And because every adultery is different, the way these four realities are accounted for, confronted, or unresolved by both parties in the committed relationship will determine the healing that comes or fails to come in a relationship.[i]
Healthy sexuality honors the dignity of human life. Healthy sexuality is about seeing ourselves with dignity, seeing the dignity in others, and being gentle and responsible in recognizing that dignity. Healthy sexuality is the opposite of idolatry—it helps us to align our bodies with our values, in the way that allows us to be honest about who we are and to live into a vision of flourishing.
Healthy sexuality is one piece of creating healthy relationships. And healthy relationships create a culture of abundance. Healthy relationships us to a beautiful, life-affirming Promised Land.
This post is based on a sermon I preached on the 7th Commandment: Do Not Commit Adultery on August 5, 2018.
[i] There’s more to be said about polyamorous or non-monogamous relationships, which are become increasingly common and/or public. The church has not done enough homework to have that conversation yet, but let’s dig into that in the next decade.