Adultery: An Exploration of Love and Marriage

by Robert and Mollie Brow

Chapter 5

How Does Expectation Relate to Marriage?

We have struggled with Jesus' words that by divorce we both commit adultery and cause the adultery of our partner. Whatever interpretation is offered for these paradoxical statements, no one can deny that among the early Christians the meaning of the word adultery was changed. It was at least widened considerably. Our interpretation was that Jesus was speaking metaphorically of the hopes and expectations for a marriage that are adulterated by divorce. In this chapter we wonder whether, in addition to divorce, there are other marriage expectations that can be adulterated?

 But first we should remind ourselves that the only one of the ten commandments in any way relating to marriage is the seventh about committing adultery. As we saw in previous chapters, Jesus turned all the commandments around and filled them out by viewing love as their fulfillment. And Paul then expounded an early Christian vision of love as it related to marriage by picturing a total mutuality of submission of one to the other. That makes us wonder whether any failure in love and mutual submission might be viewed as in some way adulterous.

 So we begin with the expectations of a person beginning a marriage relationship. We are not discussing the generally accepted ideals and rules for marriage in this or that culture. Our focus is on the heart of a particular woman who is forced into marriage and finds that her husband does not understand or care about her longings.

 Mollie and I saw what happens in Arabia when a woman comes with a western expectation of married love and mutuality, and finds herself hitched to a patriarchal man and his other women. In such cases we could say that her expectations for the relationship will in some sense be adulterated by a quite different idea of what marriage is about. There might not be a sense of surprise or adulteration if she knew what to expect. Similarly in some European families it was taken for granted that a successful man would keep a mistress, and his wife had no cause for complaint as long as he always appeared for dinner, they were seen together for social occasions, and her rights and her children's inheritance were not questioned. In such cases the woman would feel her husband's love for her was less than perfect, but if that was an understood part of her marriage arrangement we might not call it an adulteration of the marriage from her point of view, though it is certainly a case of physical adultery.

 With that distinction in mind we then extend such cases to list five areas of expectation which are easily adulterated by a partner's different vision. We will call them sex, children, respect, finance, and companionship.

 In the ancient world marriage was defined by the beginning of sexual intercourse. As we note in Appendix C, any legal contract that was needed was settled in a betrothal, often long before the marriage. In India for example some parents used to arrange their child's betrothal before a child entered puberty. Abraham sent his servant hundreds of miles away to arrange the betrothal of his son Isaac. But, however or whenever the betrothal was arranged, the couple were not viewed as married until the beginning of sexual intercourse. Even in the west lawyers used to argue that if a marriage was not consummated the couple were not legally married. In our day we can conceive of a couple agreeing to get legally married on the understanding that no sexual intercourse would be involved. But in all cultures, including the vast majority of marriages in our western world, men and women have the expectation that sexual intercourse will be part of the relationship.

 What might not be part of a woman's expectation is the possibility that her husband will insist on some kinds of sexual behaviour that she considers immoral or distasteful. In some cases a partner's sexual demands could be perceived as an even worse adulteration than an affair with another person. And if such behaviour was forced on her, it would be an adulteration of her marriage expectations and metaphorically a form of adultery. By our definition of love as caring about the freedom of the other we assume that genuine love would never demand what the other would view as unacceptable.

 We have seen how Paul said "The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband." He then qualified this by adding "Do not deprive one another except perhaps by agreement for a set time to devote yourself to prayer." We can think of other reasons why both might agree to abstain for a time. And there are obviously times of crisis, pregnancy, sickness, exhaustion, and old age when sexual intercourse may not be possible. But if one partner deliberately and continuously refuses sexual intimacy to make a point, or punish, or from plain lack of interest, we can imagine the other will feel that his or her marriage is adulterated. If we extend Jesus' metaphorical use of the word, it might even be appropriate to call it a form of adultery.

 Our second area of possible adulteration is the expectation of having or not having children. Until recently it was assumed that the main purpose of marriage was for the woman to bear children, nurse them, and raise them, and her husband was to protect and provide for the family. In our day some couples agree that having children is not part of their agenda. Hopefully this will have been mutually agreed on before marriage. But if she had understood that part of getting married was the hope of having her own children, and he insists that must not happen, her hope is adulterated and her maternal instincts violated. And the same occurs if he longs to have children, but without saying so at the time of their marriage she has already decided she does not want to bear and raise his children.

 The situation is more complex if hopes and longings and expectations change as time goes by. If a woman is married on the understanding that there will be no children, but she later discovers that she now has strong maternal instincts, and her longing is going to be permanently frustrated, we can imagine that a sense of adulteration could override all other positive aspects of the marriage. Conversely there are men who perhaps subconsciously cannot stand children interfering with their agenda. For them the news that their partner has become pregnant might feel worse than hearing she has had an affair with another.

 Similarly with the expectation of respect. Every culture has its own tradition of what respect a man is entitled to from his wife. In many nations a woman can expect very little by way of respect from her husband until she has produced male children and has become the revered matriarch of the household. In the west we assume that a woman will not agree to a relationship with a man unless she has some evidence that he will respect her. Which is why a modern marriage service uses words such as "I give you this ring as a symbol of my vow. With all that I am and all that I have I honour you in the name of God." This is said by both the man and woman, and there are no conditions. It would not be acceptable to say "I will honour you if you are sufficiently submissive, sexy, and give me and raise the children I want."

 The expectations of mutual respect that are brought to a marriage vary immensely from country to country and even from family to family. But in any marriage if either partner does not sense the respect that was expected a measure of adulteration occurs. We imagine that being called a stupid ugly pockmarked slut would feel adulterous in any country. And very few men can cope with being called a slimy impotent creep. If the physical adultery of an extra-marital affair is a reason for divorce, then the continuance of such verbal abuse day in and day out might also count as sufficient cause to end a marriage. In some countries there are wealthy men whose wives have never handled a cheque book, credit card, or even a bank note and small change. Everything is given to them as the head of the household sees fit. Even in the west there are women who enter marriage without any intention of knowing, let alone having a say in, the family finances. Other women expect total transparency and an equal say in the family budget. Our traditional idea of a "kept woman" is very different from a modern marriage contract between two professionals with big salaries.

 But in all cultures, if a man becomes totally addicted to drinking or gambling away the family's income and capital, a courageous woman will salvage what she can, pick up her children and run. And nobody can blame her for that. Similarly if a woman is a compulsive spender, and totally irresponsible with the family's property and finances, a business man could easily decide that a divorce was the only way to protect himself and his children. Every situation is different, but the way the money can adulterate a relationship will again vary with the financial expectations that each partner brings to the marriage. The idea of companionship as a high expectation in marriage is a modern and typically western idea. The word companionship comes from the Latin com panis, which means eating bread together. A family is constituted by eating together, and often the first sign of impending divorce is that the couple no longer share meals at the same table. But there are also cultures where the man sits to eat and his wife waits on him. In other cultures a man and a woman who have raised their children, and now live quietly together, may eventually develop a deep affection for each other. In such cases affection and companionship are a happy bonus for a long marriage, not part of its original expectation. But in our western world most women expect a degree of heart to heart intimacy, and a total failure to communicate is often given as a reason for divorce. Both men and women feel that being punished by silent treatment for weeks on end is the very worst form of hostility. Whether we call that metaphorical adultery is a matter of terminology, but certainly for the victim the marriage is adulterated.

 Finally we should note that, however well we understood our partner's expectations before marriage, they will not remain static. A couple may be able to grow easily together in new directions but some changes such as the woman developing her own career, or the children leaving the nest, can seem too upsetting for words. And that is precisely the time when words to share the new expectations are so desperately needed. So a useful by-product of this chapter might be some categories to help us formulate the sense of marriage estrangement that we are experiencing. And marriage adulteration is always in relation to a vision that emerges from the unseen depths of our heart. We have looked at some areas of expectation that men and women might bring to a marriage. Each person will give different weights to these, but a partner's failure in any one area could easily be a temptation to divorce. In some cultures divorce, at least for the woman, is out of the question. In the west some say that their marriage vows before God make divorce impossible. However bad the marriage, they feel required to stick with it. Others evaluate the complex good and not so good in the working out of their expectations, and decide that divorce would be more painful than a marriage that is less than perfect.

 Whether it is appropriate to call a serious failure of expectations an adulteration of the marriage is a matter of terminology. The name we use does not change the pain that is experienced. Nor is the pain reduced or made worse by choosing to call it metaphorical adultery. Nothings hangs on how we use our words. And in loving no amount of pain is automatically a reason for divorce. But we have prepared the ground to see in the next chapter how Jesus deepened the meaning of adultery from the physical act to the intention to commit it.

 Chapter 6...