It's not often that a TV show portrays marriage in a realistic light. But when it happens, it's sure fun to watch. That's why I miss Mad about You. Helen Hunt (Jamie) and Paul Reiser (Paul) weren't that different from couples you'd meet in your own neighborhood. They had quirky relatives and an indifferent dog. They had fun and they had arguments. They loved each other and sometimes they struggled with love. At times they failed, but most often they succeeded —in other words, a remarkably "normal" marriage.
In one episode, however, the show took a decidedly serious turn (for a sitcom). Paul and Jamie had become increasingly busy with their demanding careers. One night, Paul met an attractive woman and toyed with the idea of pursuing something more than a friendship with her. Meanwhile, Jamie shared a kiss with a coworker. There followed much marital havoc (none of it funny). In the end, though, they reaffirmed their love and commitment. Phew!
Paul and Jamie avoided adultery, but their version of faithfulness fell far short of the real thing. Fidelity isn't the last-minute, should-I-or-shouldn't-I decision made in the clutches of temptation. A lifestyle of fidelity begins at the altar and continues every moment of every day for the rest of your marriage.
I was reminded of this recently when a friend came by for coffee. Without totally ripping her husband, she drew a pretty grim picture of her marriage. She was married to a workaholic who spent most of his time on the phone or the computer even when he was home. He made all the important decisions without considering her point of view, and he didn't find much time for their kids.
"But he does come home every night," my friend concluded. "At least he's faithful."
Is he? If simply coming home every night qualifies as fidelity, my friend is settling for far too little.
The word unfaithfulness has taken on an artificially narrow meaning: having sex with someone you're not married to. That's how my friend was measuring her spouse's faithfulness. But this brand of "the least you can do" faithfulness can't be what God intended for marriage.
When Jesus talked about actions, he connected them with the motives behind them. "You've heard it said, 'Don't murder.' Well, I say, 'Don't even have murderous thoughts'" (my paraphrase). When it came to faithfulness, Jesus said, in essence: "Go way beyond not committing adultery; avoid lusting in your imagination!" He shifted the focus from what people can get away with to a higher standard.
Does a person become unfaithful in the moment when she goes to bed with someone other than her husband, or is she being unfaithful the first time she toys with the idea? Doesn't unfaithfulness actually begin whenever a spouse begins to think of herself first?
Anything you do that doesn't take your spouse's best interest to heart is a small infidelity. Over time, those self-focused choices create an overall pattern of unfaithfulness. Your whole way of thinking factors your mate out of the equation, and that can leave the door wide open to adultery or other betrayals.
Since we're all flawed human beings, none of us is going to be completely unselfish. But as Christians, we know that the picture of marriage laid out in the Bible is about submission, respect and self-sacrifice. So even though we won't achieve perfect other-centeredness this side of heaven, we can pursue faithfulness in a zillion everyday decisions: Will I check with my husband, who treasures his privacy, before I make plans for us to go out with friends? Can I get off my agenda and onto his this weekend? Will I save time and energy for physical intimacy, even though I have kids to care for and a never-ending to-do list? One day at a time, one decision at a time, can I choose fidelity? With God's help, of course I can.
A long-cultivated habit of fidelity is the best way to prevent the "big" infidelity of adultery. A last-minute decision might have worked on TV for Paul and Jamie, but in real life we need a lot more. Every day, we need to form the habit that will keep us out of the wrong person's bed.
Annette LaPlaca, former Marriage Partnership senior associate editor, is a freelance writer and editor. She, her husband, David, and their two children live in the Chicago suburbs.
Copyright © 2000 by the author or Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership magazine. Click here for reprint information on Marriage Partnership.