Do we still see infidelity as such a bad thing?
John Terry's behaviour has touched an old nerve in a new society
The widespread public debate about whether or not John Terry is the right man to captain England’s football team, following his affair, has taken on an extraordinarily moralistic tone.
The fact that his behaviour off the pitch is being so closely scrutinised in relation to a decision about his behaviour on it, illustrates how seriously the issues of morality, fidelity and divorce are still perceived.
Jewish law has, of course, always sought to preserve the sanctity of marriage. The Seventh Commandment forbids adultery and the Torah cites consequences of committing adultery that go far beyond the exercise of sporting office.
In Genesis, Judah ordered his daughter-in-law Tamar to be burnt because of her supposed adultery. Deuteronomy, chapter 22, verse 22 says: “if a man be found lying with a woman married to an husband, then they shall both of them die”. Toni Terry might sympathise; adultery provokes raw and desperate feelings.
In a society which, for better or worse, has become more accepting of a wide range of moral standards, is “infidelity” yet another line to be crossed with impunity? Although condemnation is expressed, it tends to be short-lived and we are inevitably urged to “move on”.
When someone discovers that his or her spouse or partner has been unfaithful, the emotional impact is usually devastating. It goes to the heart of a relationship and is likely to shatter trust. Modern life is fast-moving; we are becoming indoctrinated to absorb feelings and package them away. Yet the consequences of adultery and marriage breakdown are far-reaching.
Until 1969, divorce was not, in principle, possible in the absence of fault-based (usually adulterous), behaviour. Following that year’s Divorce Reform Act, it became possible for the first time to be divorced without having to prove “a marital offence”.
Now, as far as adultery — or any “fault based” grounds for divorce are concerned — conduct is rarely taken into account, although the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 requires the Court to consider the conduct of each of the parties if it would be inequitable to disregard it. Adultery on its own would very rarely be the basis on which to alter a financial settlement. One of the most difficult aspects in practice is having to tell a client that, even though their spouse’s behaviour seems grossly unfair, the Court is not going to “punish” their spouse because of it. As Baroness Ruth Deech recently observed, “men are permitted, by law, to buy their way out of relationships and fatherhood, regardless of the damage and lasting hurt that they leave behind”.
While the Conservatives would like to encourage marriage by means of tax breaks, it is unlikely that in itself will be sufficient to restore the strength of marriage in a society which has changed enormously over the past 50 years and in which adultery, broken marriages and serial relationships sadly seem to be the norm.
But Jews are realists — certainly for men wishing to divorce. Deuteronomy 24, 1, states: “If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him… he writes her a certificate of divorce”. Judaism does not encourage divorce but it does recognise that, where a marriage is unworkable, divorce is a practical solution.
But not an inevitable one. It is reported that Mr and Mrs Terry are planning to spend Valentine’s Day together. If it works out, it may have a far greater impact than a tax break, or even than the captaincy of England.
Deborah Levy is head of matrimonial at WGS Solicitors