Marital infidelity, or unfaithfulness, occurs when a partner in a marriage goes outside the marriage to engage in a sexual relationship with someone else. Most everyone understands that marital infidelity is not good; many surveys reveal that close to 90 percent of Americans, Christian or not, believe marital infidelity to be wrong. However, statistically speaking, between 30 and 50 percent of Americans will cheat on their spouses. There are a number of reasons for people engaging in adultery, but the majority of cases occur because of a need to be emotionally connected. Human beings have a deep need to be wanted, needed, and understood. Ideally, this need is met in a marital relationship. If the need is not met in a marriage, a spouse may look to connect emotionally (and physically) elsewhere, which results in marital infidelity.
Marital infidelity does not lead to happiness. God designed sex to be enjoyed within a committed marital relationship; to remove sex from that context is to pervert its use and severely limit its enjoyment. Sexual contact involves a level of intimacy not possible in any other human relationship. When God brought Adam and Eve together in marriage, He established the “one flesh” relationship. Genesis 2:24 tells us that a man should leave his family, join to his wife, and become “one flesh” with her. This idea is carried through the New Testament as well; we see it in Jesus’ words in Matthew 19:5 and Mark 10:7. Paul elaborates on the “one flesh” idea in 1 Corinthians 6:12–20. He says that when a man has sex with a prostitute, they have become “one body” (verse 16). It’s clear that there is something special about the sexual relationship; it is not simply a biological function.
Marital infidelity is highly destructive to a marriage because two people becoming “one flesh” involves more than just physical intimacy. During sex, there is a sharing of emotions as well as bodies. The Old Testament euphemism for sexual intercourse has to do with “knowing” one another—a significant word. During sex, the most intimate of human encounters, a person can be said to truly “know” someone else. The level of trust required for this act makes one extremely vulnerable, and this is one reason why sex should be limited to the marital relationship. Marriage allows for vulnerability without fear; each spouse is protected by the other’s commitment and the stability inherent in a covenantal relationship. To violate that trust through infidelity is devastating to the individual and to the marriage. It is the betrayal of a confidence, the breaking of a vow, the shattering of security, and the severing of a union.
Marital infidelity is not an automatic death knell for a marriage. Reports say that 60 to 75 percent of couples who have experienced a betrayal stay together. However, this does not mean that these relationships are healed or that the trust and commitment have been regained. In many cases, a couple stays together after marital infidelity not because they’re happy together but because they’re afraid of the alternative. However, there are other couples who commit to the hard work of dealing with the problem, identifying weaknesses, and correcting mistakes. Such couples have an excellent chance not only of staying together but of coming through the process with a strong, happy, fulfilling marriage.
It is important to remember that marital infidelity, like all sins, can be forgiven. The adulterer or adulteress is not beyond the reach of God’s grace (Isaiah 59:1). As the sinner repents and God forgives, the betrayed partner is also obliged to forgive. Jesus said that, if we do not forgive the sins of others, our own sins will not be forgiven (Matthew 6:15). To “forgive and forget” is not instinctive, and it’s not easy. The road to restoration will be long and painful. But God’s grace is always sufficient.