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