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Elizabeth E. Evans Headshot

Until Adultery Do Us Part?

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They come in and sit on my sofa, young, engaged and primed for pre-marital counseling. Over the course of the time we'll spend together that evening, we'll talk about the marriage service, the music, and how many guests they have asked to share their special day.

Before they show up, they have already taken, and I have scored, the inventory that will assess their communication skills, perspectives on finances, spirituality, and sex and ability to resolve conflict, among other topics. Although they are only in their early twenties, they show a refreshing outspokenness and honesty that augurs well for their ability to navigate the sometimes choppy wedlock waters.

Interestingly, spirituality comes up as a potential yellow light on the test -- given that they are both church attenders, I make a note to explore this, along with the theological roots of our Episcopal marriage service.

We do a quick pass through the assessment, and I promise them a closer look at some of the areas where I see potential conflicts. But as I wait for them to come back, I wrestle with a question that doesn't seem to get asked much in pre-marital counseling. What will you do if your spouse cheats on you?

Does that sound ridiculous, an outrageous injection of pessimism into the souffle of dreams that constitute the great American wedding fantasy?

I think not.

According to statistics compiled by Rutger's University anthropologist Helen Fisher, 20-40 percent of men and 20-25 percent of women will have extramarital affairs during their lifetime.

In the chapter from a book posted on Fisher's website (2010) she reports on some other fascinating data:

"In a metaanalysis of 12 studies of infidelity among American married couples, Thompson (1983) reported that 31% of men and 16% of women had had a sexual affair that entailed no emotional involvement; 13% of men and 21% of women had been romantically but not sexually involved with someone other than their spouse; and 20% of men and women had engaged in an affair that included both a sexual and emotional connection."

And that's old data: my guess is that the real percentages may be even higher. Broaden the definition of adultery to include the opportunities offered by Internet flirtations and virtual sex, and we are in some startling new territory.

And what about a porn habit ongoing during a relationship? Does that constitute cheating?

All of these are conundrums that couples are either facing or evading all over America every day.

Yes, it might be a shocking breach of form to discuss this topic, particularly with couples getting married for the first time. Who cares?

For those getting married again, particularly those who suffered from a previous partner's affair, it makes all sorts of sense to ask a few pointed questions.

How would you deal with your partner if he or she strayed? And more importantly: how will you communicate with one another, forgive each other, and make your world large enough so that you and your spouse won't want to wander?

Clergy aren't known for being in the new wave of cultural change, to put it mildly. But for the sake of couples who mostly likely want to stay faithful to their partner (leaving out polyamory and other twists on American marriage), it's an increasingly important subject to discuss. In a nation where many of us are still seen as ecclesiastical state agents, we have a responsibility to prepare engaged couples for the challenges they will face.

Bare naked honesty. It's not easy -- but it's much better than avoidance clothed in fantasy. For the fantasies will come -- soon enough.