Infidelity, Schism, and the UMC

The most intriguing and challenging idea that I discerned through hearing about my wife’s education and training as a marriage and family therapist is this: “Everything in a marriage is 50/50.” I can’t say whether she would agree with my precise wording or explanation, but I’m more and more convinced that at least a healthy, Christian marriage is always 50/50. That goes for every joy, every problem, every accomplishment, every argument – everything is 50 percent the success/failure of one spouse and 50 percent the success/failure of the other spouse.

I imagine that statement is relatively obvious in at least some arenas. Money is shared. Jobs promotions, transfers, and firings deeply affect both spouses. Feelings are hurt in both directions. Communication has to be a two way street for anyone to know what’s going on. But at least one act is quite the challenge for deciding how far you can take the statement: infidelity.

Infidelity is 50 percent the fault of the cheater and 50 percent the fault of the cheated. Just making that claim sounds inherently flawed. Especially in a digital age, infidelity takes on more forms that just sex and even a sexual affair is quite often not actually about sex, but such deep betrayal of trust cuts to the core of almost any relationship. No matter what either person has done, infidelity is never an acceptable, reasonable, or appropriate response. But healthy, stable, emotionally fulfilled people in healthy, stable, emotionally safe marriages don’t cheat.

The reasons for infidelity are too myriad to list, but to create the space in which infidelity is an option requires contributions from both spouses. Loneliness, bitterness, anger, grief; feeling unheard, unappreciated, unloved, forgotten – none of these are possible without the participation of two parties. Until both sides recognize their contribution to the brokenness, healing is not possible. Unless both sides are willing to put in the work, healing won’t happen.

The present brokenness of the United Methodist Church is a lot like the brokenness of a couple that has to face the reality of infidelity. I’ll absolutely grant that there are far more than two sides to the present impasse and the complexity of relationships between factions within and across the main divide have roots much farther back than any human life. But at the core of the impasse over human sexuality are voices crying out like a marriage in which someone cheats.

The conservative side has done nothing concrete and overt enough to be charged with violating the covenant relationship established  in the Book of Discipline. It is like a spouse so caught up in the appearance of the way things are “supposed” to be that it cannot see, much less respond to the needs of the spouse that realizes no one fits neatly into the boxes made by “should.”

The liberal side has openly flaunted the fact that it has and will continue to violate parts of that covenant that it believes are harmful to children of God. It is like a spouse crying out to be heard and embraced, but left to feel like the pristine image of an imagined past is more important than the lived reality of present people.

The dynamic is playing out exactly like one would expect to see in the messy aftermath of infidelity. If the marriage is to be saved, our brokenness has to be recognized for what it is: a 50/50 conflict that requires a 50/50 resolution. Can this particular marriage be saved? I have no idea, but certainly not unless we figure out how to listen to one another and have the fight we intend to have.

It may surprise most people that the majority of couples choose to stay married after discovering a partner’s affair. And many of those marriages wind up stronger after the affair than before. The trauma of infidelity is never a pleasant or desired outcome per se, but it can create the space in which each spouse is finally forced to listen and hear what the other is saying. When we truly listen and hear each other, there is hope for a stronger marriage in which we don’t simply not break the rules of the covenant. In pursuing the dynamic, growing, passionate heart of God, we may actually find the unity in difference that defines the body of Christ.

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