How Open Marriage and Extra-Marital Affairs Have Affected Marriage and
the Church’s Response
It is no secret that marriage in the modern world faces many challenges. With the sexual revolution, the arrival of synthetic birth control, and constantly changing definitions, the traditional Catholic marriage is under attack. This paper seeks to explore more specifically how the normalization and acceptance of extra-marital affairs and so-called “open marriages” have undermined proper marriage and the family at large.
Extra-marital affairs, or infidelity, occur when one or both spouses seek to fulfill sexual or emotional needs with another person outside of the marriage. This is obviously sinful since typical marriage vows contain a promise to remain faithful from that moment forward. Today’s fast-paced and technologically-advanced world makes opportunities for infidelity even more easily available. Long work hours, business travel, social media, dating websites and apps can all contribute to the epidemic of infidelity.
While infidelity has certainly always existed, today’s culture reveals an uptick in the acceptance and normalization of what was previously considered more taboo. In August of 2015, a website by the name of Ashley Madison was hacked. The site is specifically designed for married people to create an account and specifically seek out other people with whom to engage in affairs. The website’s motto is “Life is Short. Have an affair.” At the time of the hack, approximately 32 million people were identified as having an account with Ashley Madison. Today, the site boasts about having 56,895,000 users. This is certainly indicative of a cultural shift regarding attitudes on marital infidelity.
An increasingly common form of infidelity is what has been coined as an “open marriage” or “consensual non-monogamous marriage”. In these marriages, both spouses agree that one or both may engage in sexual and/or emotional relationships outside of the marriage so long as the marriage remains the primary relationship. These types of marriages are very fluid and are individually defined based upon the rules the couple have set in place. Therefore, an open marriage can range anywhere from simply allowing for casual meaningless sex to allowing for full-fledged meaningful relationships with other people, a situation termed “polyamorous”. Susan Dominus, a journalist for the New York Times Magazine spent a great deal of time interviewing and following several couples in these types of marriages and published her findings in an article of considerable length in May of 2017. In it she highlights how each of the couples describe their lives as being more fulfilled because they are having their sexual and emotional needs met by a variety of people. By not relying on one single person for everything, they are reporting their primary relationships to be strengthened.
Ms. Dominus took care to choose a variety of couples in open marriages to illustrate how each couple’s rules determine how the marriage work and therefore every marriage is different. In some marriages, only one spouse engaged in extra-marital activity because the energy expended on a second relationship was too much for the other spouse. In some instances, both spouses choose to meet and interact with the parties outside of the marriage. In one extreme case, the married couple chose to invite the wife’s boyfriend to move in with them, participate in the raising of their child, and interact as a family unit. It is important to note that in these types of marriage, the spouses do not see their activities as unfaithful since all parties have agreed to the arrangement.
Fundamentally, to have an article of this nature appear in a mainstream magazine illustrates the changing attitudes and views on marriage in the modern era. A quick search for books on the topic of open marriages on Amazon.com reveals a variety of “how-to” books and manuals. Anyone interested in pursuing non-monogamy as an option will not be hard pressed to find a plethora of supportive literature to help guide them along.
It is not difficult to find opinions on how extra-marital relationships can actually benefit a marriage, both anecdotally and from the perspective of marital counselors. Michael J. Formica, a therapist, wrote an article about the benefits of affairs. While he is careful not to condone or encourage affairs, he spends a great deal of time explaining how a secondary relationship shines a new light on the primary relationship. When the two relationships are juxtaposed to one another, one can see what is lacking in the primary relationship and address those issues. He does advise that it is better to be more introspective before the affair begins, but if that does not happen, the affair may as well be used as an opportunity for growth and repair.
Another therapist, Mark D. White, wrote an article in which he identifies the conditions under which an adulterer might justify his or her affair. He states that for the most part, people would agree that murder is wrong except in the case of self-defense and that affairs can sometimes likewise be justified. For example, an affair could potentially be justified if the good it does the adulterer outweighs the bad it would do to other affected parties. Another example of justification White provides is that it might be considered okay to break a marital vow and commit adultery if the adulterer perceives the other spouse as not having held up their end of the marriage vows, as in the case of emotional neglect.
In March of 2017, Redbook published the story of an anonymous woman who revealed that she believes her extra-marital affairs make her marriage stronger. Early in their relationship, she and her husband adopted a don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy regarding their activities outside of the relationship. She pointed out that it was not, in fact, an “open marriage” because those types of marriages are defined by their transparency. Instead, this relationship was marked with an assumption that each spouse was engaging sexually with others outside of the marriage, but with no discussion about it. The woman felt the arrangement allowed them both to be free to do as they please and to continue to experience the exhilaration of new relationships while remaining secure that they still love one another and come home to each other.
Returning to Dominus’ research on couples in open marriages, every couple she followed and interviewed reported their relationship as being happier and stronger because of the ability to engage in outside relationships. Many of these perceptions of happiness and strength come from the increased communication and dealing with raw emotions that come as a result of an open marriage. One woman reported that the jealousy she felt toward her husband’s girlfriends was really just the identification of areas in herself where she wanted to grow and that noticing and understanding them was a good thing.
Between redefining the terms of a traditional marriage, considering wedding vows as flexible or perhaps meaningless words, and increasing justification for extra-marital relationships, it is clear how modernity is infiltrating the sacrament of marriage. The modern world overemphasizes love of self over love of neighbor and encourages instant gratification over hard work. The Catholic Church has always fought and continues to fight against the culture of selfishness to uphold the dignity and sanctity of Christian marriage.
In defining marriage, the Catechism of the Catholic Church quotes directly from canon law – “From a valid marriage arises a bond between the spouses which by its very nature is perpetual and exclusive; furthermore, in a Christian marriage the spouses are strengthened and, as it were, consecrated for the duties and the dignity of their state by a special sacrament” This definition stands in direct conflict with the previously explained modern development in the definition of marriage as the terms “perpetual” and “exclusive” illustrate. The Catechism goes on to explain that married love is associated with divine love and is, therefore, covenantal in nature. Additionally, because “the marriage bond has been established by God himself”, it is by its very nature irrevocable and human beings do not have the power to redefine what divine wisdom has constructed.
Attacks on marriage are not a new phenomenon that the Church must face. In the mid-1500’s, the Council of Trent dealt extensively with the Sacrament of Matrimony in order to ensure it was properly understood in light of the Protestant reformation. Trent places the Church’s definition of marriage in a biblical context, using several scriptural citations. “This now is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh. Wherefore a man shall leave father and mother and shall cleave to his wife, and they shall be two in one flesh” (Gen 2:23f) Also Jesus is quoted as having said that what “God has joined together, let no man put asunder” because they “are not two, but one flesh”.
Trent providentially deals with open marriages and extra-marital affairs perhaps without realizing how much larger the issue would become in the future. In Canon 2, Trent states that anyone who has several wives at the same time is anathema which would apply in the case open marriages. Chapter VIII of the 24th Session discusses the grave nature of having concubines and being so bold as to keep them in their homes with their wives. These offenses to marriage are so grave, the participants are not only subject to punishment by excommunication, but also damnation.
Later, at Vatican II, the Church recognized the need to continue to emphasize the dignity of marriage as God willed it in an ever-changing world. The Sacrament of Marriage is mentioned in several documents as a vocation which, when perceived properly, leads one to holiness. First, in Lumen Gentium (LG), the council recognizes that not everyone is called to Holy Orders, but are still members of the Body of Christ and therefore called to live out the calling of their baptismal vows. The laity are not excluded from fulfilling the priestly, prophetic, and kingly offices of Christ. LG identifies marriage as having a “special importance in this prophetic office” as spouses are “witnesses of faith and [the] love of Christ to one another and to their children.” Through their vocation of marriage, spouses shine the light of Christ to world. LG also puts forth a universal call to holiness and states that they are to do this from whatever their state or vocation in a pursuit of virtuous life and perfection of love. Married people encourage and support grace and virtues in their spouse and use all of the trials, burdens, and duties as a means of sanctification.
Vatican II also produced the Pastoral Constitution on Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et spes (Ges), which provides a treatment on marriage. GES first addresses the need for pastoral care from the Church as modern thinking is corrupting people’s attitudes, moral life and ways of thinking. The council cites many reasons for this including changes in the social order, art, literature, science, and philosophy. Man has also chosen to rely more on himself than on God and creates a great deal of discord in himself. In doing this, clarity of the truth is lost and the vicious cycle continues. Ges states the way to break the cycle of sin and destruction is to break away from “individualistic morality” and always consider the common good. In the case of extra-marital affairs and open marriages, it is clear to see how the individualistic morality has overpowered the common good. In order to do this, man must become aware of his personal dignity and the dignity of those around him.
Ges spends an extensive amount of time appealing to married people and families to recognize their role in the modern world. Since Christian marriage was created by God and emulates the love God has for his people, it has a special place of dignity in the world. Christ blesses this love and pours out graces on the authentic marriage. The spouses are built up through the sacrament by its very nature. The council also recognizes here that authentic Christian love is an act of the will. It is a choice to exercise the acts which are proper to marriage and it is a self-giving rather than self-serving love. If Christian married couple are a witness to love by this definition, the modern world will not be able to help seeing it. In his book on Vatican II, Dr. Alan Schrek suggests there is a crisis in the West regarding marriage saying, “It becomes increasingly difficult to live ‘total fidelity’ and to grow into deeper unity day by day, even among those who recognize the importance of this both for the good of their spouse and for their children.” As the previously cited articles and stories show, Dr. Schrek is correct. The sanctity of marriage is under great threat and it is the duty and responsibility of all Catholics to reclaim it from modern thinking.
In 1960, before St. John Paul II was Pope, he wrote a book called Love and Responsibility. In it, he distinguishes between different types and expressions of love. He identifies spousal love as being different from other types of love in that it transcends fondness, desire, and benevolence and culminates in the giving oneself entirely to one’s spouse. It is precisely through this reciprocal self-giving that marital love reflects divine love. In his treatment of John Paul II’s work, Dr. Edward Sri states that today’s modern world has turned love into an inward experience focusing on one’s subjective feelings of love. However, in an authentic Christian marriage, the couple unites themselves to the common goal of helping one another to grow in holiness. By turning one’s love outward with the objective of helping his beloved achieve salvation, he becomes more Christ like.
Wojtyla goes on to identify the modern world’s resentment toward the virtue of chastity and relates it to “concupiscence of the flesh”. As can be seen through the current attitudes on extra-marital relations, too much emphasis has been placed on the feelings of love over the objective will. As a result, the dignity of the human person is jeopardized as she becomes objectified to the benefit of the one who has objectified her. “This concupiscence leads to “love” that is not love, for it evokes amorous lived-experiences on the basis of sensual desire alone and its satisfaction.” This approach actually diminishes real love, according to Wojtyla, because it is not actually uniting the two in their full dignity as persons. Dr. Sri points out that these subjective feelings of love happen much more quickly and intensely than the authentic love that develops over time with cultivation, therefore there is a sense of personal satisfaction in acting on them as they arise. There is no doubt that the desire for instant gratification has increased over the years and is supported by the pace and technology of the modern world making almost anything available instantly.
As Pope, John Paul II again address this issue in his 1981 apostolic exhortation, Familiaris Consortio (FC). He identifies a misunderstanding of freedom as an autonomous self-serving state as an enemy to modern marriages. Since covenantal marriage is a reflection of God’s covenantal love with his people, the entrance of sin into the marriage is also reflective. “And the same sin which can harm the conjugal covenant becomes an image of the infidelity of the people to their God: idolatry is prostitution, infidelity is adultery, disobedience to the law is abandonment of the spousal love of the Lord.” The self-serving disposition is not just an attack on one’s spouse or marriage, but on humanity as a whole. However, FC is quick to point out that even when his people are unfaithful, God will never be unfaithful in return making his love the model for human love.
The Church’s promotion of authentic Christian marriage continues into the present day. In 2015, Pope Francis published his apostolic exhortaion, Amoris Laetitia (AL) in which he speaks on the joy of love. This letter is not only addressed to the clergy, but also specifically to Christian married couples. Francis identifies an increase of the notion of individualism as a great threat to families today. As individual family members consider themselves as isolated units and tend to their own possessions and pleasures, the family bonds are weakened. He also identifies a weakened sense of truth as threat to modern families saying, “Ultimately, it is easy nowadays to confuse genuine freedom with the idea that each individual can act arbitrarily, as if there were no truths, values and principles to provide guidance, and everything were possible and permissible.” This statement highlights very precisely the problem with extra-marital affairs and open marriages. In those marriages, people are acting arbitrarily and everything is permissible.
In AL, Francis does not simply focus on defining proper love and marriage. He also spends a great deal of time addressing the way the Church should treat marriage in the pastoral sense. Thankfully, married couples are not left to their own devices and can look to the Church for assistance so that they may obtain all the grace available to them from the sacrament – all of grace Jesus intends and wills for them. He calls upon married couples to first recognize the commitment involved with marriage and to recognize that though marriages can and will face trials, pain, and suffering, they must not “succumb to the culture of the ephemeral”, rather it is an institution for which we must fight. Love must be cultivated through charity and selflessness and as a result, joy will follow and love will increase. Francis provides advice regarding dialogue between married couples explaining that it is essential to fostering love. Time and patience are required as is listening in order to find solutions to problems. Loving communication and the avoidance of angry and offending words also builds up the dignity of each person further allowing their love to grow.
Francis identifies the local parishes as the first place where families should receive support and formation so they may deal with the problems they face in the modern world. Because of this, seminarians should receive more training regarding the pastoral needs of families. Also, recognizing that problems do arise in marriages and that, when they do, support is needed, he appeals to “teachers, counsellors, family and community physicians, social workers, juvenile and family advocates” to help where help is needed.
The entire Christian community is encouraged to help in preparing engaged couples for marriage. Christian families provide witness for those preparing and must do so from a virtuous spirit, particularly focusing on the virtue of chastity. While he does not specifically call out the culture of increasing infidelity in marriage here, he emphasis on chastity highlights the problem of sexual immorality that is playing out in those impure marriages. Couples also need to be trained to deal with the difficulties they will inevitably face and learn to not only see the bad in one another, but help build up the good. Francis says that couples need to understand the irrevocable nature of marriage. No one is perfect and everyone is in a constant state of growth and any expectation that one will receive complete fulfillment at the hands of an imperfect human must be set aside. Doing this will help combat the temptation to seek in another person what is perceived to be lacking in one’s spouse.
The Church has always professed marriage to be a good and holy vocation and a sacrament through which a couple receives grace and a path to salvation. However, as the modern world has increasingly corrupted marriage over time, her voice and teaching has become stronger to combat the evil. The extensive counsel on the pastoral care of marriages from Pope Francis in 2015 highlights how dire the situation has become. Considering the mainstream attention on marital infidelity today, his exhortation is perfectly timed. The Church must continue her fight against the destruction of marriage that is so widely accepted in the secular world. This fight is not to be taken up by the members of the clergy alone, rather there is a clear call to all the members of the Body of Christ to do their part.
AshleyMadison.com, accessed 11/14/2017.
Catechism of the Catholic Church, Second Edition. Vatican City: Liberia Editrice Vaticana, 2007.
Council of Trent, The Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent. Translated by Rev H.J. Schroeder. Charlotte: TAN Books, 1978.
Davies, Anna. “How Affairs Make My Marriage Stronger”, Redbook.com, March 3, 2017. http://www.redbookmag.com/love-sex/relationships/a17303/having-affairs/.
Dominus, Susan. “Is An Open Marriage a Happier Marriage?.” New York Times Magazine, May 11, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/11/magazine/is-an-open-marriage-a-happier-marriage.html.
Formica, Michael J., MS, MA, EdM., “The Extra-Relational Affair: A Study in Contrast”. PsychologyToday.com, January 26, 2009. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/enlightened-living/200901/the-extra-relational-affair-study-in-contrast.
Francis. The Joy of Love (Amoris Laetitia): On Love and The Family. Vatican City: Liberia Editrice Vaticana, 2016.
John Paul II. Familiaris Consortio, Vatican City: Liberia Editrice Vaticana, 1981.
New American Bible, Student Edition. World Catholic Press, 1987.
Paul VI. Lumen Gentium. Vatican City: Liberia Editrice Vaticana, 1964.
Paul VI. Gaudium et spes. Vatican City: Liberia Editrice Vaticana, 1965.
Schreck, Alan. Vatican II: The Crisis and The Promise. Cincinnati: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2005.
Sri, Edward. Men, Women and the Mystery of Love: Practical Insights from John Paul II’s Love and Responsibility. Cincinnati: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2007.
White, Mark D., PhD., “Adultery: Is It Ever Justified?”, PsychologyToday.com, March 24, 2010. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/maybe-its-just-me/201003/adultery-is-it-ever-justified.
Wojtyla, Karol. Love and Responsibility. Boston: Pauline Books and Media, 2013.
Zetter, Kim. “Hackers Finally Post Stolen Ashley Madison Data”, Wired Magazine, August 18, 2015. https://www.wired.com/2015/08/happened-hackers-posted-stolen-ashley-madison-data
 Kim Zetter, “Hackers Finally Post Stolen Ashley Madison Data”, Wired Magazine, August 18, 2015. https://www.wired.com/2015/08/happened-hackers-posted-stolen-ashley-madison-data.
 Susan Dominus, “Is An Open Marriage a Happier Marriage?”, New York Times Magazine, May 22, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/11/magazine/is-an-open-marriage-a-happier-marriage.html.
 Michael J Formica, MA, MS, EdM, “The Extra-Relational Affair: A Study in Contrast”. PsychologyToday.com, January 26, 2009. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/enlightened-living/200901/the-extra-relational-affair-study-in-contrast.
 Mark D. White, PhD., “Adultery: Is It Ever Justified?”, PsychologyToday.com, March 24, 2010. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/maybe-its-just-me/201003/adultery-is-it-ever-justified
 Anonymous as told to Anna Davies, “How Affairs Make My Marriage Stronger”, RedbookMag.com, March 3, 2017. http://www.redbookmag.com/love-sex/relationships/a17303/having-affairs/.
 Dominus, Open Marriage.
 Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1638
 CCC #1639
 CCC #1640
 Council of Trent, The Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent. Trans. by Rev H.J. Schroeder (Charlotte: TAN Books, 1978), 182.
 Ibid., 182.
 Ibid., 183.
 Ibid., 190-191.
 Paul VI, Lumen Gentium, (Vatican City: Liberia Editrice Vaticana, 1964).
 Lumen Gentium, 35.
 Ibid., 40.
 Ibid., 41.
 Paul VI, Gaudium et spes. (Vatican City: Liberia Editrice Vaticana, 1965), 6-8.
 Gaudium et spes, 10.
 Ibid., 30.
 Ibid., 31.
 Ibid., 48.
 Ibid., 49.
 Alan Schreck, Vatican II: The Crisis and The Promise, (Cincinnati: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2005), 156.
 Karol Wojtyla, Love and Responsibility, (Boston: Pauline Books and Media, 2013) loc 1499.
 Ibid., Loc 1536.
 Edward Sri, Men, Women and the Mystery of Love: Practical Insights from John Paul II’s Love and Responsibility, (Cincinnati: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2007), 56.
 Ibid., 57.
 Wojtyla, Loc 2380.
 Ibid., 2392.
 Sri, 92.
 John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio, (Vatican City: Liberia Editrice Vaticana, 1981), 6.
 Ibid., 12.
 Pope Francis, The Joy of Love (Amoris Laetitia): On Love and The Family, (Vatican City: Liberia Editrice Vaticana, 2016), 33.
 Ibid., 34.
 Ibid., 124.
 Ibid., 136-141.
 Ibid., 202.
 Ibid., 203.
 Ibid., 204.
 Ibid., 206.
 Ibid., 209-210.
 Ibid., 218.