Love and betrayal and love again

Love and betrayal and love again March 27, 2014

I don’t have the mental energy to rehash everything that’s been said by me, Emma Smith, Leticia Adams, Calah Alexander, or anyone else in the debate over how to talk about fidelity in marriage.  If you missed it, you can probably count yourselves lucky!  It was a doozy.

But for anyone still standing, here’s what I keep thinking of: a passage from The Screwtape Letters. The “patient” — the soul the devil is trying to win — has converted, then failed, then returned again to God in true humility. Screwtape, the master tempter, says to his apprentice:

The most alarming thing in your last account of the patient is that he is making none of those confident resolutions which marked his original conversion. No more lavish promises of perpetual virtue, I gather; not even the expectation of an endowment of “grace” for life, but only a hope for the daily and hourly pittance to meet the daily and hourly temptation! This is very bad.

The first conversion, when everything was new and thrilling, was absolutely necessary. But it’s not sufficient. Here’s what Kate Kelmelis had to say on my Facebook page:

I’ve been following this exchange and when I think of the original article (and the other newlyweds who piped up in agreement) what came to mind was Peter. “Even though others may leave you, Lord, I WOULD NEVER”. And in response to Jesus telling him he would deny him not once but three times that very night, more confidence from Peter “I would follow you even to death!” We all feel that way when first in love. It’s not strange or unusual that young couples “know” that they could each “never” betray one another. Catholics and non Catholics alike feel this way. And like Peter there’s nothing bad about it really, except that they haven’t been tested. Until you’ve been put to the test you just don’t know what you will or won’t do. You don’t know who you are (or will become). Not to say adultery is an inevitably. Just that I’m really wary of ever thinking there are sins that “good Catholics” just don’t commit. Good Catholics are as vulnerable to temptation as anyone else. I don’t see why some people would get so offended by that fact. Is our love for our spouse more pure than Peter’s was for Christ? Seems doubtful.

Yes indeed.  And it was only after Peter realized that he was capable of betraying Christ that he became the head of the Church on earth.  It was only after he sinned and was forgiven that he had the strength and courage to die for the one he loved.

And I have something else to say.

Many people are complaining that it’s dangerous or scandalous for engaged people or newlyweds to hear married people speaking about infidelity or betrayal of various kinds.  This may be true; but it’s also true that we’re not always talking to engaged people or newlyweds. Not everything that’s said in public has to be specially tailored for every conceivable audience.   It’s okay for people to discuss things that don’t apply to you or aren’t aimed at you.  If you are reading something that is upsetting or scandalizing you, stop reading. It’s really that simple.

If I were thrilled to be pregnant with my first child, I wouldn’t spend hours and hours reading about the reparative therapy that babies go through when they have serious birth defects. It would FREAK ME OUT, and rob me of the joy of my pregnancy. But it would be insane for me, as a pregnant women, to say, “I know that my baby will never go through that, because I take my vitamins and eat kale and get plenty of sleep.” And it would be downright offensive to tell mothers of those other babies, “You can’t say these things in public. It’s sad, and might scare other women away from wanting to have children.”

You know what’s scandalous? It’s scandalous to tell suffering people, “Don’t you speak.” It’s scandalous to tell them that their sorrows are making other people sad.  Good heavens. There are worse things than being sad. One of them is being happy and telling other people that, if only they were stronger, they’d be happy too.

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  • Kate Cousino

    You know, the thing about your analogy? Every pregnancy I’ve had, there’s been a point where I’ve read about or heard stories of babies suffering. Not that people were pulling me aside to tell them to me, and not that I was looking for them, but that those stories are out there, because they are real and true, and possible, and people have to be allowed to process those experiences.

    And I realized at one point that my options were 1) freak out and obsess over the possibility that something might happen to my baby, 2) go into full blown denial and convince myself that it couldn’t happen to my baby because of x and y good thing I was doing that those other moms weren’t doing, or 3) do what I could, recognize that something could happen anyhow, and turn my anxiety over to God, making an act of trust that His grace would get me through whatever might come, and asking that He give me the faith I need to turn to Him.

    So while I agree that it’s probably a good idea for someone who is prone to the first reaction to avoid stories of trial, I wouldn’t agree that hearing about the possibility of difficult outcomes is inherently dangerous or scandalous. Sometimes, it is an avenue for grace and greater faith. And if your reaction is the second one–denial? Then you can expect that you’ll cause pain if you give a speech about it at your next mom’s get-together, and those women aren’t being killjoys if they try to tell you that reality is a little more complex than your assertions reflect.

    • Ellen Johnson

      Simcha, your analogy about pregnancy is spot on [as well as Kate Kelmelis’ reminder of Peter – duh!! Amazing it didn’t come up in the bazillion comments over the weekend!] and it really spoke to me. When I’m pregnant, I can’t even watch Call the Midwife, I’m that vulnerable to anxiety about childbirth and my baby. But, a year before I had my first child, one of my best friends lost her first baby in childbirth. It was so terrible… the memory of that little white casket is just too much… That experience and memory is burned into my subconscious. I could freak out about it and be morbid and think about it all the time, or I could take my anxiety to God and pray for my friend and her husband and thank Him for the healthy baby in my womb right now. That experience, as awful as it was, is a constant reminder to me that I don’t know how things are going to go. My pregnancy, my body, my baby, childbirth, they’re not in my control and I don’t know how it’s all going to turn out and I just have to surrender my anxiety to God and rest in Him.

      • anna lisa

        Good points.
        My husband and I were watching Call the Midwife last night. (So great!) I can’t figure out why he likes it so much, but at one point he looked over at me and asked me what my problem was. I didn’t realize that I was holding my breath, while a breech baby was being delivered. I snapped, “you mean you don’t feel like you need to push that baby out too??”
        I don’t think I could watch it if I was pregnant either.
        Blessings on your little one…:)

    • There’s a fourth option 🙂 I found out some dear friends of mine (and I don’t blame them one bit) reassured themselves through their pregnancies by thinking “Well, it happened to Beadgirl, so it’s even less likely to happen to me.”

      Simcha, the analogies to both Peter and pregnancy are spot on.

  • yes.

  • Fr. Denis Lemieux

    I’m not married (obviously), but one thing I have had to learn in my walk with the Lord is, to be very simple about it, that I personally am capable of committing any sin anyone can mention, that I am absolutely prone to descend to the depths of human misery and degradation, or with God’s help ascend to the heights of love and sanctity. We all of us contain within ourselves all the wickedness of hell, and (by grace) all the beauty of heaven, and it is only by constant clinging to Christ that the victory in my life is assured, not by any inherent strength or wisdom I possess of my own. I know this to be absolutely the case for myself; I can only assume that it is the case for others. And it seems to me that this is the heart of the matter in all this debate and discussion.

    • CS

      Some people have been given many blessings in their biology and upbringing that help them to be farther from *some* kinds of depravity than others. Which is a far cry from “he/she/I would NEVER.” It only takes the right conditions to bring out the wounds in us, and I venture to say that in certain trials it is the ability to survive, with God’s grace, that one MOMENT, that means the difference. Anyway, that is how I feel about my ability to get through any day without hurting someone. And how I think about loved ones who have died at their own hands, and the dramatic, spectacular messes I have seen faithful people make of their own lives.

    • Manyouwell

      My wife and I know one thing… every last one of our children will spend extended time at Madonna House.

      • Fr. Denis Lemieux

        God bless you.

  • DeirdreMundy

    I think part of the internet blog-metldown comes from the fact that different people are more prone to different manifestations of selfishness. So, for some people, giving into selfishness in marriage means having an affair. For others, it would mean a night alone at the Holiday Inn Express not being touched with a giant tub of Ben and Jerry’s that you didn’t have to share with your spouse.

    So, it’s easy for some of us to say “Well, I would never have an affair!” because that particular ‘temptation’ is the opposite of what tempts us. The fact is that not all ‘affairs’ are sexual relationships with another person. Is the person who puts PTA above their spouse and children actually better than the one who has an affair? Or is she just giving into the same temptation to false gods and selfishness and wanting to feel appreciated without having to do the hard stuff?

    Anyway, my husband and I often joke that, at this point in our lives, affairs are unimaginable– because if we had unsupervised time away from the kids, it would be spent on video games and uninterrupted sleep. But that’s because, at this point, we’re not tempted by a desire for MORE human contact. I’ve heard that changes as the kids age….

    • anna lisa

      Well, I think this happens more to the wife who is a mother. The husband, while sleep deprived, can be starved for physical contact. She can be on physical overload, but chances are that she is very much in need of *intimacy* which is not tainted by just *needs*. He might joke about it, but if there isn’t a good dose of introspection, and he doesn’t sit his wife down seriously, to tell her how deeply he needs *her*, he is going to lose ground, and a gap in communication will begin to widen. No woman will respond well to a man’s need for sex, but a smart wife will help her husband by being tender with him, while verbalizing her need for *relationship*, which is whole lot more than a roll in the hay.

  • Brandy Miller

    When my foster son was preparing to receive the sacraments as a boy of 18, I warned him that he could expect temptations to be thrown at him fast and furious and the closer he came to the day, the more of those would come because Satan recognizes the dangers of a believer and wants to win you back to his side. My foster son nodded his head but didn’t really believe me. Two weeks before baptism, he dropped out of RCIA and drifted away from the Church for a couple of years. Now, he’s preparing to receive confirmation, and he thanked me for the warning I gave him because he acknowledge that’s exactly what happened to him then, and it’s what he’s going through now. When we fail to warn our newly engaged about the dangers they face, about the realities of marriage, we also fail to equip them for the battle they are about to engage in. The truth is, when you get married, Satan wants nothing more than to tear the two of you apart. He knows that your long-lasting marriage is a real danger to his plans and a threat to his attempts to increase human misery. Once you put those wedding bands on, you have marked yourself as an enemy to him. It isn’t a question of whether temptations will come, it’s only a question of when and what form they will take.

    • I agree. As a starry-eyed newly wed, I think these stories of struggle and temptations are just what the engaged and newly married need to hear. Right now my marriage may be sunshine and smiles, but one day it won’t be — and I need to hear the stories of how to get through the hard times, and of people who have gotten through hard times, to equip me for them when they come in my own life. It is doing a disservice to refrain from telling these stories around us, because it allows us to believe the lie of our culture that marriage is going to be easy and that we can give it up when it’s not.

  • Eliese Callahan

    This probably adds nothing to this discussion, but as I’ve been reading the articles, all these comments on the blog, and the comments on Simcha’s page, I keep thinking of Breaking Bad. Anyone? Just me? It doesn’t pertain to the marriage discussion specifically, but maybe somebody will see where I’m going with that. Also I am currently reading Kristin Lavransdatter for the first time (finally! why did I wait? I am neglecting my children to read it…) and it’s interesting watching this conversation unfold while reading it.

  • anna lisa

    Very, very good point about Peter. Yes, what if Peter had never denied Christ, but had drifted into a slow lukewarmness, with a wall of pride around it? What if he felt satisfied that he wasn’t like a Judas?
    Have you ever met a Catholic couple in which one or both fosters contempt for the other? It’s like watching death by a thousand paper cuts. Infidelity may or may not come in to play, but it seems to me that even without it, a marriage like that stretched out over years is the most soul-shuddering fate I can think of! It really deforms the kids too. Pride is a horrible prison. Catholic pride is it’s own flavor of crazy.
    I was listening to NPR a couple of weekends ago, and laughed when one of the hosts of the show was talking about that show, The Bachelor. He said something like, “how on EARTH, will a man know if he’s compatible with a woman, if the test is a weekend in a sumptuous hotel suite?? Make them go on a trip to Disneyworld with a few kids!!

  • Jenny Uebbing


  • anna lisa

    Oh, one other thing–that little word “entitlement”. How many brides keep a little list in their heads?
    The word “adultery” is never written in calligraphy on that door, when a man or a woman passes through it–it has a euphemism on it. The thief never tells himself that he is a thief, and therefore he is going to steal things. He tells himself that he is recovering what was denied him, and therefore is *owed* to him.
    Fr. Andy rocked the sermon today when he used this example about how people lie to themselves about their sins.

  • Anne

    After two and a half years of a lovely Catholic marriage, I am on the newlywed end of the spectrum. We’re still a little starry-eyed sometimes. That said, I can’t agree with you more, Simcha. While my own marriage hasn’t (yet) been rocked by hardship, I watched my own parents’ marriage implode when I was in college, culminating in a divorce finalized against my mother’s will on their 26th anniversary. I know what a stable family looks like. And I know what a hyper-dysfunctional one looks like. If you had asked me at age 5, 10, or 15, I would have sworn up and down that my parents would last. They used to swear the same. As you rightly point out, though, it’s impossible to fully predict how people will handle severe financial distress, medical emergencies, mental health issues, and mid-life crises. Mine went through several major things on that list. Not to say that past actions and character is no prediction of future reactions, but I harbor no illusions. People do strange things. You know, the one thought that stands out from that time was the feeling that I’m not from one of THOSE families; divorce is for other people’s families. Not mine. I’m – we’re – better than that. Ah, the pride.

    On a slightly tangential note, I think that the starry eyed naiveté is probably a bigger problem in Catholic circles than it is with 20-somethings generally. For too many of Millennials, getting married is an act of courage in the face of their parents’ and friends parents’ crumbling marriages (and second marriages, etc). I don’t think you are guilty of this, Simcha, but too heavy an emphasis on life’s contingencies is paralyzing to an already marriage-fearful generation.

  • anna lisa

    Another thing that knocks me down a few notches when I’m starting to sit high in my saddle:
    God chose his only begotten son to be descended from a notorious pair of adulterers.
    I don’t think David could have loved God that much, and written so much passionate poetry to Him, if he hadn’t been forgiven so much.

    “He who has been forgiven much loves much.”

    If the image of God’s relationship with Israel is that of a faithful marriage, then the image of apostasy must be that of the *unrepentant* adulterer.

  • Sheila C.

    Thank you for this. It’s not just about marriage, it’s anything. When you tell yourself your virtue entitles you to not have to undergo betrayal and suffering — if even you think your virtue today will absolutely stop you from sinning tomorrow — you wind up badly disappointed. God keeps his promises, but he does not promise that bad things won’t happen to us on earth.

    People have been saying that for marriage to be valid, you have to think you’ll never cheat. And though it’s true that YOU have to intend never to cheat, I think another necessity is that you understand that your spouse COULD cheat on you, and you vow that if they did, you would still be faithful. Isn’t that what “for better or for worse” means? If you make your vows with the belief that they couldn’t possibly ever hurt you, what the heck will you do when they do hurt you? Forgive and try to rebuild your marriage, or demand your money back because you thought it was understood that you would be exempt?

  • Beth

    I personally benefited a great deal from reading the comment-box stories of failed marriages. It was a reminder to be humble, a reminder to be patient with others (because you don’t know what they are going through), a reminder that you only ever truly have control over yourself (and not your spouse), and a reminder that our trust in Jesus must be exceedingly complete and thorough, even in our failure.

  • Noah_Vaile