Emotional Affairs are a Dangerous Game in Marriage
The first time I saw her I was taken with her beauty.
A month later she and I and one other person were working Christmas Day. We laughed, worked little, and listened to a Mannheim Steamroller Christmas tape about 15 times. I sensed we both wished the third person wasn’t there.
Soon, we went to lunch together. She mentioned the poor state of her marriage. I remember thinking, “I’d be a husband that would take care of you.” This should have been a huge red flag — one of those giant ones flapping in the breeze outside a restaurant or car lot, saying Stop, Stop, Stop, Ben. Run away. Tell your wife, tell your friends, and have them tie you down while you go through this.
We had more lunches. I enjoyed going from one world to the other — from the drunken party boy to the straight and narrow guy with the high and tight military haircut. Do you hear the irony? See the facade? I was Mr. Straight and Narrow, except for a little emotional adultery. I traded one means of filling my empty soul — alcohol — for another: emotional suctioning.
It certainly wasn’t true intimacy. But I felt respected by her. At home, I wasn’t sure I ever did anything right.
We had more lunches. I was finding life in her. In my delusion she became more important than God. I literally remember praying and having an image in my mind of allowing God to deal with everything in me — except her. I had thoughts of wanting to be married to her instead of my wife, Ann. I had traded the wife of my youth for an idol. I was convinced the idol was life. In reality, she was just a woman.
I lived in so much rationalization and denial.
Later, in counseling, I realized that if not for the woman I had become emotionally involved with, we would have had sex. We never kissed, but I broached the topic of sex with her.
“Ben, you don’t want to do it,” she said. “It tears you apart.”
I later experienced the many levels of truth in her words when my wife — the wife of my youth, as Proverbs says — had an affair.
Until counseling I had rationalized away any consequence of my emotional relationship, since we didn’t have sex. In many ways, however, my emotional affair with this woman was every bit as damaging to my marriage as Ann’s affair, which included an emotional connection and sex. My heart was every bit as deceptive as Ann’s. I had given it to another and denied any damage to Ann and to my own soul.
A Hidden Danger
Emotional affairs are common today. Frequent starting points include a transition, such as a new job or promotion, a new neighborhood, a new church, or a new team or activity for a child. With the advent of social networks like Facebook and Twitter, the opportunity is ubiquitous. One doesn’t even have to leave home to become entangled with another.
But how do they start, and what are they about? Emotional affairs contain some or all of the following elements:
- Spend plenty of time (in person or online) with a person of the opposite sex who is not your spouse.
- Tell your life story to one another.
- Share deeply from your heart, especially where your spouse misses your heart.
- Share meaningful experiences together, such as achievements at work or in ministry.
- Let yourself relax and enjoy the presence of each other.
- And — for good Christian measure — pray with the other person. Heartfelt prayer, in an effort to deny or deflect your attraction to each other, can give the illusion that you are doing the “right” thing.
Boom. There you are — not in love, but emotionally entangled. Pseudo-intimacy. Addicted. You have a human drug to ease your anxiety and discomfort in a fallen world. There’s no need to do conflict with your spouse — that’s too hard — go talk to your human drug who listens and understands and makes you feel better.
Why is it easier? Because there is nothing at stake. There is no real risk with this other person. With your spouse there is tremendous risk.
This is your marriage. Your marriage is valuable. Sometimes that pressure makes it tougher to share and talk about life.
Emotional affairs are a means to sidestep that pressure. They are about satisfaction now. But God didn’t intend for us to seek satisfaction in every moment. How do we develop a hunger and a thirst for Him and His righteousness if we live in perpetual satiation? We can’t.
All who are married live in a fallen world married to an imperfect woman or an imperfect man. In the best of circumstances, in the best of relationships, we all have a place inside that longs for “more.” That “more” points us to God and His Kingdom. When we seek to satisfy the “more” in the now we miss the mark, causing pain to our own soul and those who love us.
But emotional affairs aren’t just about our flesh demanding satisfaction. Our longings that drive emotional affairs are God-created, good longings. Michael Cusick is the author of Surfing for God. On the surface, Surfing for God is for men who struggle with pornography. Inside, it is a great study into the depths of the masculine soul, much of which applies to the feminine soul.
In the book, Cusick details seven core desires of the human soul:
- Attention — I long to be seen. I long to be valued. I long to matter.
- Affection — I long to be enjoyed. I long to be delighted in. I long for you to take pleasure in who I am.
- Affirmation — I long to know I have what it takes. I long for your blessing.
- Acceptance — I long to belong. I long to be desired.
- Satisfaction — I long for fullness. I long for well-being.
- Significance — I long for impact. I long for meaning. I long to be powerful.
- Security — I long to know I will be OK.
Cusick offers this about our thirsts:
“All of these core thirsts are God-given appetites and longings. When they are suppressed, cut off, or shut down, we resemble an Indy car running on four cylinders. Because of this, we fail to live from our hearts. To run on eight cylinders, we need to acknowledge that we are thirsty and identify what our thirsts are. Why? Because only when we identify them will we begin moving toward those desires according to God’s design.”
At the time, I was unaware of my longing for respect and admiration. Combine that with a human brain wired to seek the most efficient, convenient path, and I was significantly vulnerable to an emotional affair. None of that excuses my emotional affair, but helps me to understand it.
So how about you? Which of the seven core longings caught your attention? How is your marriage in those areas? Does anyone come to mind when the topic of emotional entanglement comes up? Would you not want your spouse to hear or read some of your conversations with this person?
If someone came to mind I encourage you to take a step back from the relationship. Talk it through with someone who values your marriage and your family.
I wish I had a lot sooner.
I got permission to re-post this from Ben this morning. I think it is one of those cautions all of us need to keep in mind as we interact with others on line or in person.
He and his wife Ann have an outreach to couples who are trying to pick up the pieces and heal from the pain of infidelity. Here is a link to their website.