Your Adultery Didn’t “End” Your Marriage

Marriage vows, once considered to be a holy sacrament, are what makes a marriage more than just an agreement. They’re a binding covenant, a promise for a lifetime of faithfulness. Made before God, the Church, and witnesses. They’re meant to be restrictive, unrelenting, and aspirational.

Most vows follow a familiar set of promises:

Will you have this woman to be your wife, to live together in holy marriage? Will you love her, comfort her, honor her, keep her in sickness and in health, and — forsaking all others — be faithful to her as long as you both shall live?”

“I do.
— Traditional Methodist wedding vows

When we marry, we make a wide range of promises. We promise to live together. We promise to comfort one another. We promise to honor each other. Etcetera. And, yes, we also vow to remain sexually and romantically monogamous.

Despite this wide range of vows, it’s tragically interesting that the only promise most couples seem to really care about is the pledge to sexual fidelity. We hinge almost everything on this portion of our vows. And while it is utterly important (as pointed out in The Marriage Commandments, adultery is often the sum of all marital violations), people usually act as though it is the only promise made at the altar or under the chuppah. This false premise sets up many marriages for failure.

By acting as though monogamy is the sole pass/fail test for the relevance of our marriage vows, we make three key mistakes:


1. We minimize the importance of our other vows.

Within a marriage, this can create an environment wherein spouses may feel that it’s permissible to occasionally withhold love or comfort, for instance. They may try to dismiss or excuse themselves when they dishonor their spouses. They hide behind the lie that, just because they “still haven’t cheated,” they are somehow keeping their marriage vows. All of the vows are equally important. Every clause matters.

2. We falsely believe that infidelity ends our marriage vows.

In many modern marriages, adultery is considered to be a magical sin that somehow has the ability to remove all obligations for both parties. I once spoke with an adulterous husband who felt that his infidelity had “broken” his vows and “spiritually ended his marriage.” He therefore believed that he was no longer obligated to his victimized wife.

That’s a common thought. But it’s a stupid one.

By that same logic, the first time he failed to comfort his wife, his vows were “broken” and his marriage should have been instantly dissolved. The first time his wife failed to honor him, that should have been grounds for divorce. Any time that either of them had even a fleeting lustful or romantic thought for someone outside of their marriage, they should have walked away.

It’s obviously a ridiculous position, especially when applied to any of the other equally binding marriage vows.

Adultery doesn’t remove the marital obligations from the adulterous spouse. (Though Scripturally, adultery does present the victimized spouse with the prerogative to end the marriage should they so choose.) If you’ve cheated on your wife, you don’t have a magical “get out of jail free” card. You don’t get to declare marital bankruptcy and start over. If you’ve cheated, you’re still bound by the same vows that you made on your wedding day. You do not have the moral or Biblical right to use your adultery to end your marriage.

3. We stop trying to keep the covenant.

Marriages aren't perfect. We shouldn't expect them to be. But we should embrace our marriage covenants the same way we do our covenant with God. Which is: Even when we mess up, we keep trying to get better — to get ever closer to the mark.

When people fail to love, honor, or cherish their spouses, most don’t rush immediately to their divorce lawyers. But, when adultery is discovered, almost all couples immediately cease to uphold any aspects of their marriage vows. They often act as though the infidelity somehow cancels out all of their marital obligations.

When found guilty of breaking any of your marriage vows, the proper response is simple: Repent, seek forgiveness, and do everything you can to ensure that it won’t happen again. This is true of every single clause within your vows. When you dishonor your spouse: Repent, seek forgiveness, and don’t do it again. And if you have committed adultery: Repent, seek forgiveness, and don’t do it again. Christ said it best: “Go and sin no more.”

“Death do us part” is the only separation clause in our vows. We didn’t say, “until I cheat” or “until I’m unhappy.” We promised our entire lives. There is nothing we can do to remove ourselves from our obligations toward our spouses. The Bible provides only victimized spouses with the prerogative to end a marriage. If you are the one who “broke your vows,” you do not have a Biblical right to decide your fate. You really have only one righteous option: Repent, seek forgiveness, and never do it again.

— John