Do What You’ve Promised

Ashley Madison Infidelity“But if you will not do so, behold, you have sinned against the Lord, and be sure your sin will find you out.” Numbers 32:23 ESV

Sometimes it requires a thing so completely providential as an Internet hack to remind us of the importance of a promise. Yet amid the nuclear fallout from the Ashley Madison breach continuing to rain down, voices will crescendo attempting to distract us from that realty. The tactics will be and have been numerous, ‘it’s no one else’s business’, ‘this reckless disclosure will hurt families and, especially, children’, ‘it isn’t really about infidelity, but privacy’. Though the public outcry and the lynch mob mentality appear little bothered by others’ arrogant attempts to downplay what’s actually happening here. Because whatever flavor-of-the-month definition we’re being served this week for relationships, commitment, and marriage, it can’t mask the bitter taste left when another break’s a word or bond.

So far I’ve found to be the most detracting effort is what one author sees as the ‘puritanical glee’ and smug pompousness some are showing in the aftermath; a self-righteous attempt to whitewash one’s shame by painting it on another.

‘But whatever else is true, adultery is a private matter between the adulterer and his or her spouse. Except in the most unusual cases — such as a politician hypocritically launching morality crusades against others — it’s most definitely not any of your business. None of us should want (ironically) anonymous hackers serving as vigilante morality police by exposing the private sexual acts of other adults. Nor should any of us cheer when the private lives of ordinary people are indiscriminately invaded, no matter how much voyeuristic arousal or feelings of moral superiority it provides.’

Forgiving the author’s blatant hypocrisy, (he explicitly does what he criticizes others for, namely drawing moral distinctions) in part he is correct. We should not cheer this news, but not for the reasons he suggests. We should never celebrate when a spouse breaks his or her marital vows. We should not sing with glee when a wife discovers that her husband was drifted towards adultery through some asinine website. In fact, we should be heartbroken that any spouse would feel it necessary to resort to secrecy and subversion instead of communication and honesty. And perhaps most importantly, we must not for even a moment express one ounce of moral superiority at seeing another fall.

Instead, this public spotlight on millions of others’ sins should remind us of our own frail natures, and in this horrible tragedy – for it most certainly is a tragedy – stand as warning to all that given the proper star alignment, any one of us could cheat.

Yet this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t condemn the behaviors, all while extending grace to the individuals. We are entirely just in denouncing the actions of those who chose greedy self-interest at the expense of moral fidelity. We should not be ashamed to call wrong what is, by any rational definition, wrong. Doing anything less is not only a moral punt but also an insult to the countless millions everyday who choose, regardless the emotional cost or sexual frustration, to do what they promised.

•♦•

Save for the truly exceptional among us, we all have, and do, break promises. Perhaps the clearest evidence to the legacy of original sin is we routinely break promises we make to ourselves. In fact, those we likely break most often. But no matter how big or to who a promise is broken, it’s been my experience that we typically follow a common script to arrive at the decision. Whether it’s bailing on that friend moving to a new apartment, sleeping with that ex just one more time, or using a website to cheat on a husband, how we justify those choices usually involve the same moral back bending.

Perhaps this is best illustrated by another author’s example of when cheating, to use his words, ‘is the least worst option.’

‘Take a woman who has two children with special needs, who has been out of the workforce for 15 years, and who is financially dependent on a husband who decided five years into their marriage that he was “done with sex” but refuses to allow her to have sex with anyone else. The marriage is good otherwise, she and her husband have an affectionate, low-conflict relationship, their kids are happy and well cared for, but sexual deprivation is driving her out of her mind and threatening both her marriage and her children’s health and security… I would advise her to do what she needs to do to stay married and stay sane. (And until this morning I might have advised her to join Ashley Madison.)’

While the author could have fabricated a far more convincing, albeit less extreme, example, it does wonderfully prove how we rationalize such decisions. The implication here is this wife has been placed in a no-win situation, with the only alternative being infidelity. (It isn’t surprising at who the protagonist is here, imagine the reaction had the pronouns been reversed.)

Anyway, unwilling to meet her sexual needs, this husband has maliciously forbidden her from having the itch scratched elsewhere. This becomes the basis for, and his justification of, the recommendation that the wife cheat. Effectively reducing marriage to mere utility and turning coitus into emotional therapy.

Seeing that her husband isn’t fulfilling his spousal duties and worse placing unreasonable expectations that she remain faithful in her marriage, the writer considers this enough ‘credit’ to justify her adultery, with the understanding that doing so will save the marriage and protect her children’s ‘health and security’. Perhaps the worse part of all this is the author’s reasoning is so regrettably common and ingrained in our collective conscience he doesn’t even need to explain why we should believe him.

•♦•

How many of us have used, or do use, another’s broken promises as the ethical lubricant to do the same in return? ‘Why shouldn’t I cheat on my taxes, the government is corrupt and lies all the time?’ ‘Why wouldn’t I have an affair, he broke his vow to me and I’m not really doing anything different than he already is!’

It doesn’t take a Physiologist or Baptist Minister to see the flaw in this way of thinking. To start, and perhaps your mother told you this, ‘two wrongs never make a right’. What she meant was that regardless of what happens to us, we have the opportunity and the responsibility to always choose the nobler path. Instead of basing our response on the lowest common denominator, namely another’s lies, we have a chance to hold firm in doing what we know is right and standing true to our commitments.

But what this author failed to warn, as do most who view things in this way, is the mental anguish and moral bankruptcy that is sure to follow this wife for years to come should she go through with her plan. The sex may keep her sane, but it will surely wreck her conscience. She’ll have traded a future life of peace for a momentary orgasm. What this author forgot is that breaking a promise, regardless of our reasoning for doing so, doesn’t come without some cost and in almost every case the suffering lasts infinitely longer than any derived benefit.

•♦•

Families continue reeling from the knowledge that a husband or wife has chosen to break a sacred promise; and those individuals are feeling the cold truth that no matter how they might have reasoned it to themselves, they now realize there is always a price to be paid when we don’t do what we’ve promised.

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