Speaking frankly in the general conference just prior to his death, President Harold B. Lee called on the brethren of the Church to “resolve anew that we are going to keep the law of chastity.” He referred to the “flood of recommendations” for cancellations of temple marriage sealings, and stated flatly that “much of it stems from one of the greatest of all the sins next to murder, the sin of adultery.” (Ensign, January 1974, p. 101.)
What happens to people who have a temple marriage, but who break the sealing covenants by adultery, with its heart-wrenching agony and divorce?
The problem doesn’t occur in a simple process. Infidelity is a subtle process. It does not begin with adultery; it begins with thoughts and attitudes. Each step to adultery is short, and each is easily taken; but once the person starts, it is difficult to stop.
Professional counselors have learned to recognize many of the “warning signs” of infidelity—signs that every husband and wife should be aware of and should avoid.
One man, whom we’ll call Willard, came for counsel because he was frightened of his own feelings, which were inclining to an interest in other women. He and Wilma had been married in the temple and seemed to have a “good” marriage, but he had gradually become bored with it. It lacked excitement; their personal relationship was unsatisfying, their conversations were restrained and meaningless and Wilma didn’t seem to be interested in him anymore. What particularly frightened him was the realization that he flirted with women at his office and even playfully kissed one once. This forced him to realize that there was imminent danger to his temple vows.
Willard was suffering from three myths that often plague modern marriage. The first myth says, “If I have my wedding in the temple, the marriage will take care of itself.” But it won’t. Marriage is a dynamic interaction between two growing, changing people, and it requires constant focus on the quality of that interaction if the marriage is to be close and meaningful. A temple marriage does not automatically guarantee a celestial marriage—or even a pleasant one.
The second myth says, “If the marriage is not successful, I should start over.” But success is not an instant achievement. By definition, marriage is a continuing process, not a final stage. Consequently, it will be more successful at some points than at others. Many people want or expect instant success in all dimensions of marriage; if any aspect seems less than perfect, one despairs and thinks, “I married the wrong person.” This attitude frequently turns one’s attention toward someone other than his marriage partner.
The third myth says, “Loving my spouse does not preclude the possibility of becoming involved with anyone else.” The task for every married person is to maintain loyalty and fidelity with one person; the spouse. It is inappropriate to feel and express to others the same love feelings one expresses to a spouse.
Many situations in work, in society, and in church assignments bring men and women together. Each of these occasions is also a time when emotional involvement with other people may ensue. Both men and women must be very clear about their marital commitments and must be committed to the process of maintaining fidelity in marriage.
Fidelity, like infidelity, is a process. Fidelity, the positive quality is measured by the degree of loyalty, allegiance, and commitment between husband and wife. Infidelity, the negative quality, results from insufficient feelings of loyalty and allegiance. Any action that fosters inappropriate relationships with another person erodes fidelity.
Two souls, united in matrimony, can achieve spiritual and temporal unity only if they constantly increase their friendship, love, and loyalty by expressing their feelings verbally, by maintaining mutual respect, and by demonstrating concern for each other.
Here are two examples of how fidelity can be eroded by carelessness or disappointment:
1. Mildred and Marvin’s marriage was basically very sound. Each day Mildred rode to work with a good friend, Henry. They enjoyed talking; Mildred especially liked the chance to exchange ideas because Marvin, a very quiet man, did not readily share his thoughts and feelings with his family. Mildred and Henry gradually started taking longer routes home, and they even began stopping by the roadside to talk. There was no physical involvement between them, but when Marvin learned of the situation, he suspected Mildred of infidelity. It took months for them to remedy the damage. This heartache could have been avoided if they had found a third person to ride to and from work with them or if they had changed their transportation arrangement.
Any uneasiness about a situation should be taken seriously, even though “nothing’s happening.” The subtle shift from marital fidelity to infidelity is like the gradual shading from daylight to darkness. The growing pleasure Mildred and Henry took in each other’s company was destructive to both marriages.
2. After Alice and Alvin were married, Alvin continued to spend long hours with his bachelor friends playing golf, hunting, and discussing business. Alice, anxious not to nag Alvin or be domineering, kept her feelings of disappointment at being left home to herself. Alvin began sharing his triumphs and experiences with his friends not with Alice.
This was the first danger signal—lack of communication. Then Alice, like Alvin, turned to someone else: a friendly neighbor man whose interest Alice found comforting. Their friendship soon became serious.
Alice and Alvin had a difficult time working through the problem. It required evaluation of their goals, repentance, and forgiveness for both of them. Both were guilty of finding persons outside their marriage to satisfy most of their emotional needs. No one should expect his spouse to satisfy all of his needs, but a marriage cannot survive an emotionally barren atmosphere.
Common outcomes of physical infidelity include lack of trust, suspicion about unexplained absences, insecurity and uncertainty that can lead to violent possessiveness, confusion about oneself as a man or a woman, intense guilt about the broken covenants, and an emotional chaos that may make a person unable to cope with business affairs, the children, and normal responsibilities.
Children, especially, suffer from parental infidelity. All children are sensitive to the kind of relationship their parents have, and attempts to conceal true feelings hardly ever work. If the child is over the age of ten, he likely senses something is wrong and either panics, feels responsible, or develops emotional problems because of the lack of positive feelings in the home. Even preschool children sense a lack of love between parents and become uncertain about themselves and their place in the home. Any degree of infidelity then, ricochets to the child and affects his feelings about himself, his parents, and the general subjects of love and marriage. Parents’ infidelity can actually affect a child’s performance as a marriage partner many years later.
Like most illnesses, infidelity is easier to prevent than to remedy, and the best prevention is to work hard at developing a good marriage. Temple marriage, entered into with a firm commitment to make the marriage an eternal relationship, is a solid foundation. Strong personal commitment, not only to one’s spouse, but to the institution of marriage as it has been divinely ordained, emphasizes the necessity of faithfulness—not only faithfulness to another person, but faithfulness to our Father in heaven.
Trust in one another is an essential ingredient in marriage. The commitment to “cleave” unto the partner and “forsake all others” provides stability.
Other factors that foster fidelity include honesty in communication—being personally willing to discuss any subject that concerns you or your partner. Sharing ideas and daily experiences produces emotional intimacy, and such feelings make it natural to behave in loyal ways. Feelings of dissatisfaction, boredom, and irritation are danger signals that need immediate attention.
The following five questions can be used as a guide to check on the strength of your marital fidelity. If you answer “no” to any of these questions, it signals the need to evaluate your marriage and to discuss with your spouse ways to improve it.
1. Can you and your spouse talk together about all of the experiences that are important to either or both of you?
2. Do you express to your partner your inner feelings, or how you feel about him or her? Can you frankly say, “I feel lonely,” or easily express other negative emotions when needed?
3. Do you both feel comfortable about being different in some ways, and can you express individuality without causing conflict? Do you have ways to discuss conflicts of interest or values without attacking or threatening each other?
4. Do you share mutual trust and respect for each other? Do you seek each other’s opinion on decisions? Do you believe that your spouse will tell you the truth, even if it’s unpleasant?
5. Can you comfortably share feelings, thoughts, and experiences without the worry of being unfairly controlled or taken advantage of?
The next five questions can also be used as a guide to test the effective functioning of your marriage. If you answer “yes” to any question, discuss the subject with your partner, and see the bishop or a professional counselor if you feel it necessary.
1 Are you getting bored in your marriage? Do you sometimes dislike the company of your spouse?
2. Do you frequently disagree about many important aspects of your marriage, your family, or each other? Do you complain to others about your spouse or criticize him or her in the company of others?
3. Do you often have negative feelings about your spouse, or feelings of being misunderstood, neglected, or not appreciated?
4. Are you frequently alone with a man or woman that is not your spouse?
5. Have you developed strong affectionate feelings for someone outside your marriage?
The combination of negative feelings about your spouse and romantic feelings toward someone else is a serious sign of eroding fidelity. Prompt action needs to be taken.
A good way to begin to preserve fidelity would be a frank discussion with your spouse about the current quality of your marriage. Most people do not feel threatened by a frankly and sincerely expressed desire to improve the marriage; this opens the door for both partners to openly consider ways to achieve more effective communication, the need to spend more time together, and so forth.
If this effort doesn’t help produce a new direction in the marriage, make an appointment with your bishop. He can help you assess what is wrong and what can be done to remedy the situation.
Our Heavenly Father expects us to progress in our marriages during mortality. It is not a sound decision then, to postpone working on the marriage, assuming that the next life will automatically heal its faults. We’ll have new plans and goals then, and it’s very doubtful that the ability to simply tolerate an unsatisfying marriage in this life will enhance our spiritual readiness for the life to come.
The commandment to our generation is: “Thou shalt not … commit adultery, nor kill, nor do anything like unto it.” (D&C 59:6.) Infidelity and fidelity are mutually exclusive processes. As fidelity, loyalty, trust, and sharing increase, there is little room for infidelity to grow. The main dimension of the fidelity process is personal commitment—commitment to your spouse, to marriage as an institution and as a personal relationship, to gospel ideals and standards, and to an eternity of dynamic development together.
“All things need watching, working at, caring for, and marriage is no exception. Marriage is not something to be indifferently treated or abused, or something that simply takes care of itself. Nothing neglected will remain as it was or is, or will fail to deteriorate. All things need attention, care and concern, and especially so in this most sensitive of all relationships of life.” (Richard L. Evans in Richard L. Evans’ Quote Book, Salt Lake City, Publishers Press, 1971, p. 16.)
Veon G. Smith is a professor of social work and director of the Marriage and Family Counseling Bureau, University of Utah.