Just as peace is more than just a lack of war ...
Faithfulness is a bit like our moral life in general. We might think we’re good because at least we haven’t done anything seriously wrong: “I didn’t kill anyone, and I didn’t steal anything …” It’s a step in the right direction, but it’s not enough to build up our community or society.
Similarly, we might think, “I am faithful to my spouse because I don’t have anyone ‘on the side.’ I haven’t had an affair, and I didn’t find my way to a colleague’s room on that business trip …” If we think this way, we’re seeing faithfulness merely as a lack of infidelity. However, like the previous example, this kind of fidelity does nothing active to build a relationship; it only avoids causing damage. The question we should ask is, how can active faithfulness help create a deep bond in marriage?
Faithfulness means keeping your word
When I am faithful, that means you can count on me. It also means that I will keep my word — I value its worth and don’t just throw it out into the wind, where it will lose its meaning. And if I keep my word, it isn’t because I’m simply obeying the “rules,” but because I value and respect you and your trust in me. If I promise to take a walk with you, I won’t give my time away to the neighbors, or to work, or to someone who just called or texted me. My commitment to you takes priority over other interests and commitments, because mutual trust is built on concrete gestures that show that I keep you in mind and respect you.
Another way of fostering mutual faithfulness is to agree that all significant decisions that influence our lives together are made together — not with a friend, parents or boss. If we are asked to make that kind of decision when our spouse isn’t around, we don’t hesitate to say, “Oh, that sounds interesting, let me talk about it with my husband,” or, “You know, I can’t give you an answer right now, I’d like to ask my wife what she thinks about it.” This puts the relationship in the spotlight — it confirms that it’s something important in your life, and that a husband or wife is a lifelong partner, both when it’s convenient and when it isn’t; your spouse isn’t just for show.
Faithfulness is accepting each other’s difficult emotions
Faithfulness also requires learning more about your partner, day after day. Remembering, over and over again when conflict occurs, how he or she reacts to stress, how fatigue affects him or her, and what you and your spouse need. Does he shut himself down? Does she need time? Or will she try to analyze everything and look for a solution?
Faithfulness is especially important when you and your partner’s paths are very different from each other. It requires remembering that you are different people with different ways of experiencing things; that his emotions are his, and hers belong to her. You don’t have to take on each other’s feelings. One of you can be sad, worried or angry; the other should empathize, but not necessarily get pulled into the same emotional state. Keeping a certain healthy emotional distance can actually bring you closer, because it lends stability to the relationship and helps you complement each other. Each partner in a marriage needs their own space and time to grow.
It’s easy to promise fidelity when you are first in love, holding hands and looking off dreamily into the stars. It takes on an entirely new meaning after the wedding, when you have to wake up in the morning to see your spouse’s ragged slippers and uncombed hair; when you lose your patience with each other, and discover that one’s a packrat and the other’s a neatnik. Recognizing the other’s weakness requires us to understand faithfulness yet another way. It invites us to accept each other as we are, without either one trying to change each the other to his or her own liking. It requires compromise, give and take.
Faithfulness means setting limits in times of crisis
Our wounds from the past, which manifest themselves in marital life, especially require the protection of faithfulness, through one spouse’s attempts to understand the other when a weakness is revealed. We need to talk about what help we need from each other to move forward. Faithfulness means that I will not use what you tell me in confidence against you: stories of failures, fears, the admission of faults or mistakes, etc. Bringing up those intimate moments of weakness later on as a weapon hurts mutual trust.
Faithfulness also means setting limits, when the actions of one spouse risk destroying the marriage, the family, and the other spouse, or if one of the spouses falls into addiction or abusiveness. Faithfulness means that I care about you, your wellbeing and your dignity, and I will do my best to protect you, and the ones you love, from yourself.
Fidelity builds a bond; it makes marriage a safe shelter and a house built on a rock. It means that you will remember that your wife asked you to buy sugar, that you will not talk in front of other people about your husband’s second piece of apple pie or tell them how his boss reprimanded him. That you will not make fun of your spouse in front of your friends. And if you promised to have coffee with your spouse, you will not go shopping with your mother instead.