When I use to prepare couples to enter into the tumultuous sea of conjugal bliss, I often challenged them to spend some time considering their expectations. In other words, what do they expect marriage to be about and in order to help them with that consideration, I gave them three categories of expectations: the conceptual, the practical and the unconscious. The first category, I explained, is all about the big concepts that might form and shape their more practical expectations, the type of expectations that the vows and marriage service present us with. In the Declaration of Consent in the marriage service, they will promise to love, comfort, honor and keep one another and be faithful to each other as long as they both shall live and in the actual marriage vows they also swear to cherish each other. What, I asked, do those promises actually mean and what specific expectations do they hold in their minds and hearts. What does providing “comfort” actually entail and how do we honor or cherish one another? I then asked them to bring a list of expectations to our next meeting and I told them to prioritize that list. If there is an expectation that if not met would mean the end of the marriage, then obviously that should go to the top of the list. When they returned a week later and read each other their lists, inevitably fidelity would be the first or second item. We then took some time to discuss each expectation in more detail and the discussion of fidelity was always one of the most interesting and productive.
When we hear the word the fidelity referred to in the context of marriage we almost inevitably associate it with sexual matters, particularly sexual intercourse. If you, for example, were told that a couple was getting a divorce because the man had been unfaithful, you would understandably assume that the husband had had an affair which involved sexual infidelity. Throughout the history of marriage, sexual fidelity has been an important component of the marital contract, so much so that to be faithful in marriage usually implies that you have not had sexual relationships with any other person. In all the Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam, marital traditions have viewed marriage as the only legitimate arena for sexual intercourse which implies, of course, that to engage in sexual relationships outside of the marriage bed is to be unfaithful and sinful.
In the realm of marital intimacy, however, fidelity is a much deeper and more demanding concept and one that is often misunderstood and abused by many couples. As we have discussed in earlier sessions, intimacy requires a radical focus on the “other” that demands compassion, humility and sacrificial love. The intimate partner is not simply a sexual partner but a person who shares their very “self” with you – their very deepest hopes, dreams and fears. Similarly, an intimate partner is a person who you are willing to expose and share your “self” with as you both work to create a mutual psychological and spiritual space where you can both be yourselves while in the presence of another. To be faithful to that depth of sharing means that you and your partner are committed to insuring that you have created healthy boundaries around that space, making sure that it remains an arena for intimate sharing. You trust that others will not be brought into that space unless there is mutual consent and that what is shared in that space will not be shared with others. You also trust that the revelations of “self” that take place there will not be rehearsed with others before they are experienced and processed together. As a psychoanalyst once explained to me, boundaries are not walls but are lines or curbs that define an area. The image she used to explain the concept was a three ring circus where the “ring” was defined by a raised border which could be stepped over if necessary but which gave the sphere of action – so to speak – a clear boundary. In intimate relationships, healthy boundaries are not walls that force or keep others out but an agreed understanding of what is “ours” which gives the sphere of action – intimate sharing – a defined shape and space.
I was married for the first time for some twenty-four years but sadly the intimacy ended many years before the marriage did. One of the reasons that the intimacy died was because we were unfaithful, allowing boundaries to dissipate and eventually disappear. I never crossed any sexual boundaries but I must confess that I was not faithful in terms of our intimate sharing nor was she. We both led very different professional lives. I was and still am an Episcopal priest and she was a certified nurse midwife who had an active practice and also taught in various academic midwifery programs. Admittedly, she had fallen in love with an atheist but she had been very supportive of my calling and training, even becoming an Episcopalian herself before we were married. As I began my ministry, she took an active interest in what was going on but gradually over time she lost interest and actually began to resent some of the expectations which were attached to the role of the priest’s or rector’s wife. For my part, I was very proud of her professional accomplishments but began to lose interest in her actual practice and began to resent some of the demands that accompanied her professional obligations – especially those in the middle of the night. In addition, we both began to pursue other interests, hobbies and relationships that didn’t really interest or involve the other and we didn’t make any effort to create or engage new pursuits that we could share. After ten years of this drifting apart, we actually had very little in common except our extended family and our shared dwellings and those kept us tethered together. Throughout our marriage, we moved a great deal – usually every three years following the path of my educational and vocational agenda. Those frequent relocations forced us into a sort of artificial intimacy as together we dealt with the demands of setting up a new home and settling into a new area with new people and new professional responsibilities. Those demands made us share feelings and experiences as we sought to make the adjustment to an unfamiliar environment. As we settled in, however, the old patterns of disinterest emerged and it is not surprising that our divorce came about just after we had settled into our home in Philadelphia for a record-breaking four years.
At this point, I think it is only fair that I speak only for myself. In hindsight, I can see that I began to develop a whole new network of friends, colleagues and parishioners who became in very different ways intimate partners. Again, I never crossed any sexual boundaries but I developed relationships in the parish, around academic projects and within some of my new interests that became intimate in nature. We all need intimacy, relationships that help us discover and become ourselves and if those needs are not being met at home, we will find other ways to experience that vital sense of intimacy. The end result was that I didn’t bother sharing with my wife my deepest hopes, dreams and fears because I had other venues in which to deal with them. I rationalized that fact by convincing myself that she wasn’t really interested in my deep-seated thoughts or opinions but in truth I don’t think I tried all that hard to make it interesting for her. When I wanted to talk about my hopes and dreams for the parish or kick around an idea for a new program or liturgy, I’d have lunch with the wardens or some close friends from the parish. When I wanted to talk about my academic interest, I’d contact my professors and colleagues from my seminary and graduate school. One year before we separated, I commuted to New York City from Philadelphia on a weekly basis to teach a course in Church History at my old seminary which gave me a great opportunity to rekindle intimate relationships with former professors. When I wanted to talk about politics or personal matters, I had some good birding buddies that I could wander about the woods with or head to the New Jersey coast to scope out shorebirds. With my former wife, I talked about plans and matters of mutual familial or financial interest, largely “I” material. We became strangers who shared physical space but who now inhabited different psychological and spiritual worlds. There was no fidelity to the vows we had made more than twenty years ago. I was unfaithful to our need to maintain healthy boundaries for our shared intimacy and through those holes of infidelity our intimate lives and love poured out spilling in the back streets and sewers of our lives.
I was immensely fortunate in that as the contract of marriage was being dismantled I had the good sense to seek help from a gifted psychoanalyst, the same woman who taught me about boundaries. I worked with her for a year, analyzing what had gone wrong and what I was responsible for and what I wasn’t. Fortunately, the woman’s office was in Bryn Mawr, a suburb of Philadelphia on the Main Line and the home of a beautiful and dynamic priest that I eventually met named Ann Stevenson. After Ann and I had been dating for about five months, my psychoanalyst listened to me talk about the way that Ann and I related to each other and how she made me feel and she looked at me and said that she thought we were finished with our work. I now knew how to be faithful to that sense of intimacy that is the core and focus of any healthy marriage.
Ann and I have worked very hard over the past twenty years to establish and maintain healthy boundaries for our intimate relationship. Sharing a profession has certainly assisted us in that effort but in truth it has presented us with obstacles and challenges as well as support. Whether you share professional interests or have very different vocational realms and interests, remaining faithful to your intimate relationship requires vigilance and sustained effort. There will be moments of failure, times when out of forgetfulness or unbridled enthusiasm, you bring someone or something across that boundary, sharing information that belongs solely in that intimate context or bringing someone into that space that really should not be there. I can give you a rather bizarre example that I think might illustrate what I am getting at.
When Ann and I started dating, she quickly noted that I had a major lacuna in my wardrobe. I had maybe five ties, three of which were related to my Cambridge College. Over the course of the next year and actually throughout our marriage, Ann began to shower me with gifts of beautiful ties, all of which I dearly loved. The giving and receiving of ties became an outward and visible sign of our inward and spiritual love which brought us both a sort of sacramental joy. After we were married, we were attending a large cocktail party at the home of one of Ann’s parishioners. I was decked out in one of my favorite ties that Ann had given me. We introduced ourselves to a couple we had not met and as we talked the man commented on how much he liked my tie. I responded by saying that Ann bought all my ties, a remark that seemed to make him visibly uncomfortable. Intuiting his unease, I tried to make him feel better by saying “She buys them all but I don’t like all of them as much as I like this one.” He actually seemed pleased with that response but as we parted ways, Ann grabbed my arm and asked me which ties I didn’t like that much. I told her that I loved them all but was just trying to make that man feel more comfortable. She looked me in the eye and pointed out that in trying to make him comfortable I had said something that compromised the importance and authenticity of her gifts and hurt her feelings. I had put the comfort of stranger above the joyful intimacy that those ties represented and embodied. I was guilty as charged. The gifts of ties was and remains a joyful shared space of intimacy between Ann and me. I had violated the boundary of that sacred space by making a flippant and idiotic remark that both pulled me out of that space and invited a stranger to enter it. In other words, I put the feelings of that man above the feelings of my intimate partner and in doing so violated our shared space.
Such an example might seem a bit superficial and insignificant but it points to a dynamic that if not addressed and corrected can foster far deeper and more significant lapses in judgment and violations of shared space. Fortunately for me, I had the good sense to see how right Ann was and how wrong I had been and I learned a lesson that actually made me aware of how vigilant I had to be in staying focused on Ann’s feeling and our shared space. I don’t mean to suggest that I have been able to avoid any similar incident but I have tried to be more faithful in the task of preserving the boundaries of our intimate relationship.
In summary, fidelity in intimate relationships is not simply about the violation of sexual boundaries. In my experience in working with couples, when sexual infidelity exists you usually discover that the couple has not been faithful to their intimate relationship for years. Sexual infidelity is usually the last desperate act of a heart that is starved for intimacy because the couple has allowed their shared intimate space to be overrun with other issues, interests and concerns. To create and sustain healthy boundaries that define and enliven that shared space is the essential task of being faithful to the spiritual bonds of intimacy.
Wendel W. Meyer