Trouble in paradise

What happens when a marriage goes south?

Rev. Gregory Toole of the Center for Spiritual Living in Davis.

Rev. Gregory Toole of the Center for Spiritual Living in Davis.

SN&R Photo By Larry Dalton

To help bridge the gap between the “Have-Gods” and the “Have-Nots,” SN&R brings together faith leaders and pitches them the real-life ethical questions that spring from their communities. Venturing beyond biblical references and high-minded philosophies, our hope is to give voice to the complexity, insight and compassion inherent to any spiritual calling.

When you’re doing something you know you probably shouldn’t—like, say, having an affair with a married individual—the last person you want to talk to is a pastor.

“They’d probably say the same thing as my parents,” said a friend of mine, who incidentally is caught up in the aforementioned scenario.

The fact is, most of us are tempted to dip our hands into the cookie jar now and then. It’s at those crucial moments of decision—to eat it or not to eat it—that we need someone of sound character to provide a no-holds-barred reality check. Perhaps a pastor could turn out to be the most compassionate counselor of all …

I am a man in my early 30s. In college I had a very close female friend who I loved very deeply. We were both in relationship at the time, and two years ago she got married and moved away. However, she admitted while visiting recently that she was in love with me—and still is. She is unhappy in her marriage, and is talking about ending it. She’s coming to visit again soon and we both want to do the right thing, but we also want to be physically intimate, after a decade of resisting our desires. What should we do?

“The married person needs to sort out where they are in the marriage first,” started off Rev. Gregory Toole, minister at the Center for Spiritual Living in Davis since 2004. “That’s asking for three people to be unhappy if they try to pursue it all at once.”

Toole began as a “closet spiritual practitioner,” having grown up nonreligious and thus free to explore different faith traditions on his own. After reading a book on Buddhism in high school, he took up meditation as “a way to deal with stress” and found that it “opened the way for some real deep and unexpected spiritual experiences.” However, it wasn’t until he walked into a Religious Science community in 1994 that he found “kindred spirits—all these other folks who did not necessarily define themselves as religious, but were deeply on a spiritual path.”

In addition to The Science of Mind, the central text of the United Centers for Spiritual Living, Toole also draws from the Bible, the Koran, Buddhist teachings, and the Bhagavad-Gita of Hinduism.

“The central core of our teaching is oneness; that all of life is divine and sacred,” said Toole. “[The Center for Spiritual Living] is more about supporting people on their spiritual journey than we are about convincing them of a particular truth or idea that we have.”

In counseling people such as my friend—er, I mean, our theoretical man-in-a-pickle—Toole tries “not to even think of what I give as advice, per se, as much as guidance, or things to think about.” And in his experience of situations like this, “Very rarely have I seen it where they all live happily ever after.

“If this marriage is truly ending,” he continued, “then let these two people work toward that and bring closure in a sacred way, in the highest and best way. And maybe it’s not ending, because of course marriages do go through various stages. It could be that they’re at a point where some growth and change are required.”

As for the third party: “If this truly is a relationship that’s meant to be, and if all these years have passed and it’s still there, then it can wait. If it really is real, it’s not going to disappear in the amount of time that it would take to get resolution in this other relationship.”

Pastor Janice Steele, Imani Christian Church.

SN&R Photo By Larry Dalton

Pastor Janice Steele, a return guest from Imani Christian Church, offered her agreement, but added that responsibility is “not only incumbent upon the one who’s in the marriage, but also the third party. If you’re going to have integrity in any relationship, then both people are responsible for maintaining and accessing that.”

Steele, a graduate of Berkeley’s Pacific School of Religion, grew up in a Pentecostal church in Gary, Ind., and now practices a style of worship that intends to “empower folks to be the very best that they can be, and to live out the gospel, not just in terms of a personal relationship with Christ, but also in community.”

In this case, Steele said she would counsel the man to “take the high road” and consider that “maybe now is not the time for her to visit, because you’re both extremely vulnerable. Why put yourself in a situation that could lead into something potentially harmful for everybody involved?”

Steele brought up another key aspect of any relationship overlap.

“I often say that what happens in one marriage can mirror what’s going to happen in the future.”

Toole called upon another maxim, “Wherever you go, there you are,” to illustrate this point.

“Whatever she doesn’t resolve in this marriage, the likelihood is that she’ll create that same sort of relationship all over again,” he stated. “So this is a great opportunity for her to work through it and learn from it so that now she can create the kind of relationship she wants to create.”

Problems of infidelity are not limited to heterosexual relationships, Steele noted. For the same-gender-loving community, “there’s a whole ‘nother set of rules,” she said, “because first of all, we’re not allowed to legally get married. And oftentimes we don’t know what to do, because heterosexual marriage is not a really good model for us, and there’s also nothing to hold people accountable to relationships, because, since we don’t have divorce, it’s kind of a revolving door.”

To encourage accountability and responsibility in her community, Steele continually asks the question, “Do the decisions that we make honor God or the creator that we claim to be a part of?”

To address the issues unique to the same-gender-loving community, Steele’s church, as well as many others, are trying to find out “how can relationships be dissolved in a manner where people don’t leave the church and where folks are not damaged so bad that there is no coming back together in community?”

In the name of transparency, Steele offered one last bit of disclosure.

“I’ve been in that situation myself, to be totally honest. … And we violated all of those things that we should not have done, and it was horrible. In the moment, when you’re getting it on, you feel great. You think, ‘My God, we’re connected. We’re supposed to be together!’ But the consequences behind that are just devastating for everybody involved. … So I can empathize with people, and I can say, ‘I’ve been there, done that. But you’ve got a decision to make.’ We can’t make decisions for folks. I always say there are consequences for those decisions, and we’ve gotta be ready for them.”