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by Mark R. Laaser

Description and Prevalence.

Adultery is an age-old problem. It is forbidden by God in the Seventh Commandment, “Thou shalt not commit adultery” (Exodus 20:14). In the decade of 2000-2010, it is widely estimated, although hard to completely research, that 50-70% of Americans committed some form of adultery. The estimates are also that among Christian singles, 80% have had sexual intercourse with at least one partner prior to marriage. This is perhaps not the first time that adultery has reached epidemic proportions. The prophet Jeremiah repeatedly spoke out against this and other sins (Jer. 7:9; 23:10).

Usually, adultery has been defined as an act of sexual intercourse between non-married people. For Christians, however, the definition is much stricter. Jesus teaches that we all know we shouldn’t commit adultery, but anyone who has thought lustfully about another has already committed adultery with that person in his/her heart (Matt. 5:28). With the prevalence of pornographic images in all elements of our culture, most notably the Internet, the challenge of not looking lustfully has been increasingly difficult. It is biblically clear that we cannot simply define adultery as an act of intercourse between two people. Rather, adultery must include any sexual thought about or activity between two unmarried people.

For some, adultery as actual physical contact or as lustful thought becomes an unmanageable or addictive pattern. Peter refers to this when he says, “With eyes full of adultery, they never stop sinning” (2 Peter 2:14). A repetitive pattern of adultery is the only recognized diagnosis in the DSM-IV-TR, when in section 302.9 the second description of Sexual Disorder (NOS) states that it includes, “Distress about a pattern of repeated sexual relationships involving a succession of lovers who are experienced by the individual only as things to be used.” (APA, 2000) Notice that the same pattern of repeated relationships would not be a psychiatric disorder unless there is distress.

Christians believe that marriage is a sacred covenant in which a man and woman become “one flesh.” Paul compares this to the relationship of Christ to the church (Eph. 5:32). This surely means that married couples are to express their “one flesh union” spiritually and emotionally, and not just sexually. Christian counselors may also observe one married partner committing spiritual or emotional adultery with another person. This would occur when there is sharing of heart and soul with another, but not with the spouse. Similarly, when the people of Israel and Judah refused to obey God, or when they practiced idolatry, the prophets accused them of spiritual adultery (Jer. 3:6-10).


Since adultery is usually a secret sin between two people, or secretly occurs in the mind of an individual, assessment depends on the ability of the offending person to be open and honest. Sometimes, this honesty occurs out of moral conviction of sin and resulting confession. This will be particularly true if the adultery consists of lustful thoughts. More frequently, it occurs because the offending person is discovered. Therefore, assessment can occur when the offender confesses or is confronted with irrefutable facts.

Further assessment will then require a Christian counselor to discern the roots of this sin. Reasons for adultery are never an excuse for sin, but in treatment will need to be understood. Some possible categories include:

Sexual abuse in the history of the offender,

Modeling of adultery by parents or significant caregivers,

Influence of culture, including social relationships,

Opportunities presented by work, school, or social environments,

Sexual dysfunction in the marriage,

Intimacy or attachment issues,

The presence of mental health disorders, such as depression or anxiety,

Lack of spiritual relationship with God or lack of spiritual community and accountability, or

The presence of sexual addiction and/or other addictive behaviors, including alcoholism, drug dependency (including nicotine), or workaholism.


The treatment of adultery in marriage will consist of three components:

1. The Adulterer. The adulterer may be male or female. In our culture, we are finding that just as many women are engaging in adulterous behavior as men. Also, the adulterer may be single or married. Male or female, single or married, treatment will consist of the same dynamics. First, this person must be honest, humble, broken, and willing to stop any adulterous behavior. All affairs must be immediately terminated.

Other sexually sinful behaviors must also be immediately stopped. This is no different from an alcoholic who must immediately stop drinking. Support and encouragement in the form of accountability are essential (Laaser, 2011). Therapy focuses on any distorted thinking, including those created by trauma. Therapy also seeks to alleviate a sense of shame, in part by helping the adulterer make amends. A complete sexual timeline of sinful sexual activities since birth often helps the person experience grace, and if married, begin to rebuild trust with the spouse. Finally, every adulterer needs to work on specific strategies to understand all fantasies and lustful behaviors because they are the entry point for all sexually sinful behavior (Laaser, 2011).

If adultery is a manifestation of sexual addiction, then specific therapeutic interventions will be helpful (Laaser, 2004). Accountability, group support (including 12 Step types of groups) and group therapy are essential.

2. The Spouse. When adultery occurs in a marriage, it can be devastating to a spouse. It has often been the case, particularly in the Christian community, that a spouse is blamed for the adultery. Many spouses believe they are somehow inadequate or the adultery wouldn’t have happened. Therefore, the spouse needs to receive as much counseling and support as the adulterer (Laaser, 2009).

3. The Couple. Many feel that a couple should wait to get counseling until the adulterer has completely stopped and repented (Carder, 1995). It is important for the individual spouses to receive individual counseling and support, and it is true that couple’s work can only proceed if the adulterer is repentant and “sober.” It is also true that all couples will need counseling to handle immediate issues about the responsibilities in practical matters, such as where each other lives, the nature of their sexual relationship, handling finances, and taking care of the kids. Also, spouse needs a strong sense of hope for the relationship to heal and grow.

Spiritual and Biblical Issues.

The apostle Paul catalogued a series of sins that exclude a person from the kingdom of God. The sin of adultery was included in these lists (1 Cor. 6:9). However, in the Old Testament when King David committed adultery with Bathsheba (II Sam. 11) and was directly confronted by the prophet Nathan, David was still allowed to remain king. In fact, Jesus is the descendant of David, the adulterer. In the New Testament, Jesus forgave an adulterous woman in John 8 and told her to “sin no more.” In John 4 another woman who had been married five times and was living with another man was told about the “Living Water” of salvation found in Jesus, the Messiah. She spreads the word of Christ’s forgiveness to her village and many come to believe.

Final Thought.

The secular world is often pessimistic about the possibility of saving a marriage in the event of adultery. Current statistics say that 35% of couples stay together after infidelity occurs (Pittman, 2001). Christians know that there is genuine hope for a marriage to be saved, and the promise that through the pain, a marriage can grow stronger.


American Psychiatric Association, (2000). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders, Fourth Edition, Text Revision: DSM-IV-TR. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Publishers.

Carder, D., (1995). Torn asunder. Chicago: Moody Press.

Laaser, D., (2009). Shattered Vows. Grand Rapids, MI., Zondervan.

Laaser, M., (2004). Healing the wounds of sexual addiction. Grand Rapids, MI., Zondervan.

Laaser, M., (2011). Taking every thought captive. Kansas City, MO., Beacon Hill Press.

Laaser, M. (2011). The seven principles of accountability for men. Kansas City, MO., Beacon Hill Press.

Pittman, F. (2001). Adultery and society.