Christian spouses and infidelity

When they cheat » Should you forgive? Yes. Should you stay married? Maybe not.
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Christians whose spouses stray must forgive -- ultimately -- but that doesn't mean they must stay married, say Utah clergy and counselors who help those in troubled relationships.

This summer's high-profile cases of two political figures -- Nevada Sen. John Ensign and South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, both avowed Christians -- point to the special difficulties infidelity poses for couples who believe marriage to be a sacred covenant.

Ensign's wife, Darlene Ensign, has said she loves her husband and that their marriage has been stronger since his affair with a campaign staffer, which ended about a year ago. Sanford's wife, Jenny Sanford, said she would forgive her husband's infidelity with a woman from Argentina, but that it would be up to him to save their 20-year marriage and regain the trust of his family.

"Forgiveness is always part of what the Christian ought to do," says Mike Gray, senior pastor at Southeast Baptist Church in Cottonwood Heights. "You will develop a spirit of bitterness if you don't forgive."

"Part of being Christian," adds Scott Dodge, a deacon at the Roman Catholic Church's Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City, "means forgiving even egregious things that happen to us."

Fast-forwarding to forgiveness » And yet forgiveness -- a goal held by most Christian couples seeking counseling -- can be difficult to understand and achieve, says Julie A. Hanks, a licensed clinical social worker, founder and clinical director of Wasatch Family Therapy in Cottonwood Heights.

Not only does infidelity seem a special affront to couples who pray together or who consider extramarital affairs sinful, but also the mandate to forgive often complicates healing.

"The expectation of Christians is to forgive," Hanks says, "but everyone has their own process and timetable."

In her practice counseling couples, many of them Mormons, Hanks sees plenty who want to "fast-forward through the pain."

"[They say] if I were closer to Jesus, a more Christlike person, I would be able to forgive right now," Hanks says. "They want to skip from A to C, and B is really the meat of it."

The "B," she adds, is experiencing the full, painful emotions.

Sometimes, the unfaithful spouse, relieved to have the infidelity in the open, does not allow the betrayed party time to grieve.

"The person who has been unfaithful is anxious to be forgiven," Hanks says, "and may even judge the partner for being unforgiving."

She says that while individuals have different understandings of what it means to forgive, her favorite definition is this: ceasing to feel resentment.

"Forgiveness is not a gift to the partner," Hanks says. "Ultimately, it's a gift to yourself to be free of that pain."

Is divorce divinely sanctioned? » David O. Williams, a licensed psychotherapist in Orem, says many of his clients, particularly Latter-day Saints and other Christians who put a premium on self-sacrifice, have trouble deciding when enough is enough.

"Forgiveness," he says, "does not mean I'm going to put up with whatever the other person dishes out."

Williams refers LDS clients to church teachings, scriptures and general conference speeches from Mormon leaders. Central to those messages, he says, is the flip side of self-sacrifice: "God doesn't want doormats."

"I teach them that God wants you to be happy. You have a responsibility to yourself as well as your spouse."

Although their faith may demand they forgive, Christians are not required to stay in marriages damaged by infidelity or other breaches of trust, clergy agree. That's up to each individual. But the consequences differ among faith traditions.

Gray, at Southeast Baptist, says that while he counsels couples that marriages can be healed after infidelity, he never would stand in the way of a spouse for divorcing a philanderer.

He points to Matthew 19:9 to show Jesus allows divorce in such cases. To a betrayed spouse, he would say, "You have every biblical right from the mouth of Jesus Christ to put an end to this marriage without any guilt on your part."

Celestial standard » LDS teaching on divorce is articulated by Elder Dallin H. Oaks, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, in the April 2007 general conference.

Oaks writes that "the Lord does not currently enforce the consequences of the celestial standard" and permits divorced persons to remarry "without the stain of immorality."

Nonetheless, he writes, LDS spouses should do all within their power to preserve their marriages. When that doesn't work, those who are divorced "know the pain and need the healing power and hope that come from the Atonement."

"Whatever the outcome and no matter how difficult your experiences," Oaks writes, "you have the promise that you will not be denied the blessings of eternal family relationships if you love the Lord, keep his commandments and just do the best you can."

While the Catholic Church holds to the scriptural injunction that humans cannot sever marriages made by God (Mark 10:9), it does acknowledge that some couples are better off apart.

That doesn't mean that a Christian is free, in the church's eyes, to remarry. A Catholic who divorces and wants to remarry -- and remain able to take part in sacraments -- must secure a determination from religious leaders that the original marriage was invalid.

Among the factors is the degree to which the partners understood and agreed to the commitment of lifelong faithfulness, says Dodge, the cathedral deacon.

One instance of infidelity likely would not be enough to demonstrate an invalid marriage. But a pattern of infidelity may show the philanderer never fully understood or accepted the commitment, he says, and the marriage could be declared invalid.

Repeated infidelity, Dodge says, "calls the sacramental nature of the marriage into question. Any valid marriage is valid for all time."

What the Bible says

"For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh." Genesis 2:24 (New International Version)

"Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate." Mark 10:9 (NIV)

"I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery." Matthew 19:9 (NIV)