“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” – Jesus Christ’s Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:27-28)
Regardless of one’s view on religion, or how we may feel about Christianity, or even what one believes concerning Jesus’s historical significance this claim still seems to aggravate the cords of our conscience. As hell-bent as we try to be otherwise, when we pull ourselves up from the murky undercurrent of our modern culture into the clear shallows of our better selves we’re forced to recognize – at a level that we don’t fully understand – the truth of His rebuke.
Earlier this week I read two women writer’s differing viewpoints addressing the question,
‘Is it cheating if you just think about it?’
In other words is it still infidelity by merely fantasizing, lusting, or thinking about someone other than our spouse or partner? Say for instance a husband’s every waking moment is consumed with fantasies of the brunette barista with the tongue ring. He thinks about her as he sips his Chai latte, at work he daydreams about a hoped for erotic rendezvous, and he sees her face while making love to his wife. Yet because these chimera never leave his own private halodeck is he still considered a trustworthy husband honoring his vows?
Prevailing norms assert that infidelity begins and ends with the physical act. The intangibles – fantasy, lust, desire – are believed all part and parcel of that disobedient nature called our internal self, merely ripples in the stream of thoughts and feelings that flow randomly through our minds with little influence of our part. Each of us have had thoughts that sent a cold chill down our spines and left us wondering what kind of person thinks such things, but so long as they remain safely locked away in our minds we brush them aside as just another harmless element of the human condition.
But infidelity is only a matter of degrees, so when the abstract hardens to concrete, making believe turns to reality, and the fantasy is suddenly consummated we begin to decry the guilty, when the imagination breaks free from its hold and rushes towards the now we immediately seek to condemn the wrongdoer.
Yet if the physical is to be our sole yardstick we must then ask the question, are we criminalizing the adulterous woman for her deceit and the breaking of a sacred trust or is she really being damned for her inability to keep her appetites under control – the same ones that were so inevitable just moments before?
Marrie from Dirty In Public put it this way, ‘The fundamental problem with equating mental cheating to, well, actually cheating is that it assumes people are either unwilling or incapable of controlling their primal urges”
Her point here is quite valid and worth consideration. If I were to think about placing a bet on the Kentucky Derby yet never actually lay down my money, do I still gamble? If I fantasize about murdering my obnoxious neighbor yet never in fact break the 6th commandment, am I still a murderer? While on the surface these seem easy rebuttals in support of the current view of infidelity, in the final analysis they fail to address the most basic necessity yet the greatest aspiration of true romantic commitment.
If we choose to define infidelity as merely the physical act of sex we must revise the definition of commitment to that same carnal denominator. To limit infidelity to only these material terms is to completely discount the importance of the intangibles – desire, longing, and passion – those qualities that keep any relationship energetic, thriving, and long lasting. In so doing we mistakenly disregard those emotional aspects that truly make romantic love so coveted. Along this line of thinking a man can pour his passion into pornography all the while claiming to be a good husband. What I find so interesting is the fundamental belief held that no relationship or marriage can survive based purely on the physical yet we have made that very thing – sex- the universal absolute for marital discontent.
Suzie from Single Dating Diva viewed the conversation in a similar fashion,
“Some would argue that’s (mental cheating) not really cheating because you aren’t doing anything about it, but it’s still cheating. This one, obviously, isn’t as bad as the others, but all actions start with a thought, an idea, and that idea might just come into fruition one day with the right motivation in the right circumstances.”
No action, good or bad, has ever taken place without first becoming a thought. The synapses fire and an idea emerges, at which point its sole existence is in the hands of its author, the one who thought it. But in order for that thought to survive I must first be willing to plant it firmly in my conscience and then nurture and cultivate it through persistent reflection and contemplation. By merely embracing the idea I give it sustenance and fostering it over time provides the necessary energy to go from idea to action.
The reality that thoughts and feelings materialize without any prompting on our part doesn’t abnegate our responsibility to decide whether that thought will consume us, or like smoke, will simply melt into forgetfulness.
I feel that the hesitation most have in embracing Jesus’s claim is that doing so would be an indictment of every single one of us. If we were to acknowledge that a thought could betray our commitments to the same degree as the physical act we must concede that in fact we are all adulterers who have all fallen desperately short of our promises to those we love.
So what if Jesus is right? What does that say about our relationships and ourselves? The reality leaves a tension we all must face and manage through. And as I see it we only have two choices; we can either continue enjoying the cultural Kool-Aid that says what goes on in our minds has no bearing on our relationships and that so long as we keep our clothes on our vows remain in tact, or we can acknowledge that our thoughts are who we really are and they can be no less destructive to a relationship than a one night stand; and then we must resolve to keep our thoughts pure by pouring the intangibles – our lust, fantasy, and passion – into the one it was promised for.