IDEMA: Why do people commit adultery?

There is not a pastor in town who would not tell you that adultery occurs in his or her congregation — sometimes with great frequency.
Dec 5, 2012


Why do people commit adultery — which I am defining here, following The American College Dictionary, as "voluntary sexual intercourse between a married person and any other than the lawful spouse"? 

Jesus took an even more conservative position. As Matthew 5:28 reads, "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery.' But I say to you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart." I am sure Jesus would include here a woman's lust, not just a man's.

Jesus called adultery evil, and who would argue with that?

Before examining what I am arguing is the chief reason for adultery — narcissism — let's remind ourselves that David Petraeus and Paula Broadwell are not unique. The story of adultery goes back to the beginning of civilization — sometimes causing wars, as with Helen of Troy and Paris in Greek legend; or murder and the death of a child, as with David and Bathsheba; or the impeachment of a president, as with Bill and Monica. 

Someone said to me that they should have put the scarlet letter "A" on Gen. Petraeus' chest along with all those other medals. But before casting the first stone, let us remember Jesus' warning in John 8, in the story of the woman caught in adultery: "Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her." Sometimes we project on those who have committed adultery our own secret desires and our own condemnation of those desires.

There are many situations that lead to adultery: being away from a spouse for long periods of time, as in the military; being in a stale marriage; fear of aging and then being attracted to a younger sexual partner, especially if she or he makes advances to you; being married to someone who is abusive, addicted to drugs, including alcohol, or disinterested in sexual intimacy.

I have often heard in pastoral counseling, "I married too young. I did not know myself or my spouse well enough." But do any reasons, however understandable, justify adultery? Wouldn't it be more honorable to divorce before committing adultery?

However, all too often a person needs an adulterous relationship as a liferaft while ending a marriage, which is one reason why 70 percent of second marriages fail — a person fails to learn from what happened in the marriage and what led to its failure. Often in a second marriage, a person marries someone just like the original spouse, and history repeats itself.

At the root of adultery is, in Christian terms, sin — here manifested in being more concerned for the self than those hurt by adultery.

Now psychiatry comes into the picture. 

Here is a definition of narcissism in the latest edition of The Harvard Guide to Psychiatry: "Freud argued that libido was withdrawn from outside objects and redirected toward the patient's own ego." In other words, narcissism is "an inflated sense of one's own importance." Or, as we might put it, narcissism is self-love, which puts one's own needs above the needs of others. That certainly seemed to be the case with Gen. Petraeus and Paula Broadwell. 

When a person breaks out of his or her narcissism, often by being caught in adultery, his or her world comes crashing down upon oneself and others. Children pay the biggest price in adultery.

Can adultery be overcome in a marriage? Sometimes. But trust is often destroyed — and even if divorce takes place, it is hard for those involved to ever trust again.

I have found in my pastoral experience that adultery can be overcome — and the marriage and the family can survive — if true forgiveness, repentance and reconciliation take place. Religion here can be of great help. As pastors sometimes put it, if a person has a "come to Jesus" moment, there is hope that a marriage can survive adultery.

In John 8, when the crowd dispersed, leaving the woman caught in adultery standing alone with Jesus, this exchange took place: "'Has no one condemned you?' She said, 'No one, Lord.' And Jesus said, 'Neither do I condemn you; go, and do not sin again.'"

Did she learn from her mistakes and change her life? The Gospel of John does not tell us. But the Bible tells all of us that adultery is evil, and that God does forgive us if we are sorry for what we have done and if we ask for forgiveness; and if we believe that we are truly forgiven (often a great challenge), and then sin no more.

So, let's not pin scarlet letters on each other, but rather try to forgive even if we don't forget, and move on with our lives, coming to terms with our anger and pain.

There comes a time to let go and stop condemning, oneself — and others.

— By the Rev. Henry Idema, Tribune religion columnist





I finally agree with you on this one issue Reverend. The adulteress narcissist cares about no one but themselves often leaving many shattered lives in their wake. My question for you is, if they don’t even care to ask God for forgiveness, how can anyone else be expected to forgive them?


Whether they care to ask for forgiveness is their problem. Perhaps God does not ask for the asking of forgiveness. Your forgiveness releases you from the equation, and perhaps makes you more like God wants you to be...forgiving. Then you, not her, may move on.


Whether they care to ask for forgiveness is their problem. Perhaps God does not ask for the asking of forgiveness. Your forgiveness releases you from the equation, and perhaps makes you more like God wants you to be...forgiving. Then you, not her, may move on.


Having spent 25 years in a marriage to a narcissist which ultimately lead to a divorce due her continued adultery and constant denials, I can testify first-hand their actions do indeed leave a “wake of shattered lives.” For those who have not spent years in counseling and time reflecting on what you might have done wrong to cause the marriage to fail, I would say probably very little or possibly nothing at all.

Having studied narcissism for some time now, what I find most interesting is the “typical” (but not always) profile of a narcissist. They are often very kind (well-liked), good looking and high achievers. Note the subjects mentioned in Reverend Idema’s article. They take full advantage of the features and talents they possess to achieve their goal – to control and manipulate. They are masters at fooling 99% so as to completely destroy their target - the remaining 1%. Lying becomes second nature. So much so they probably have no idea how often they are doing it. And because they feel they are superior to others and lack the conscience the rest of us rely upon to help guide us through life; they feel no consequence for their behavior. Remember this one? “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.” However, as Reverend Idema points out, eventually truth prevails and the narcissist is “discovered.” It doesn’t really matter however, as they remain true to their core redirecting their opportunistic venture on the next victim with laser focus.

Narcissists feed on control and manipulation. Remove this component from their everyday life and they find they are in utter and complete conflict within themselves until they are able to find another prey. This is why they jump, almost immediately, into another relationship – to victimize someone close while befriending those at arms length.

And yes, it would be more honorable to divorce before committing adultery.

Beware of the narcissist. They are hard to spot in their sheep’s clothing!

gh momma

If you are unhappy... Man UP and end the relationship. Asking forgiveness after the fact doesn't help the shattered family, does it!?


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