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Avoiding Emotional Affairs: When Friendships with the Opposite Sex Go Too Far

By Dennis Rainey

Dear friend, pay close attention to this, my wisdom; listen very closely to the way I see it. Then you’ll acquire a taste for good sense; what I tell you will keep you out of trouble. The lips of a seductive woman are oh so sweet, her soft words are oh so smooth. But it won’t be long before she’s gravel in your mouth, a pain in your gut, a wound in your heart. She’s dancing down the perfumed path to Death; she’s headed straight for Hell and taking you with her. … Keep your distance from such a woman; absolutely stay out of her neighborhood. Proverbs 5:1-8, The Message

High school chemistry taught me a very valuable lesson: When certain substances come into close contact, they can form a chemical reaction. I proved that one day during my senior year of high school when I dropped a small jar full of pure sodium off a bridge into a river. The resulting chemical reaction of sodium and water created an underwater slight explosion and rattled the bridge!

What I’ve learned since then is that many people don’t respect the laws of chemistry any more than I did as a teenager. They mix volatile ingredients without giving much thought to the consequences. I’ve discovered that many married people don’t understand how easily a chemical reaction can occur with someone other than their spouse.

Don’t misunderstand me—I’m not just talking about sexual attraction, although the “chemistry” can start there. I’m referring to a reaction of two hearts, the chemistry of two souls.

This is emotional adultery—an intimacy with the opposite sex outside of marriage. Emotional adultery is unfaithfulness of the heart. When two people begin talking of intimate struggles, needs, doubts or feelings, they may be sharing their souls in a way that God intended exclusively for the marriage relationship. Emotional adultery is friendship with the opposite sex that has progressed too far.

An attraction develops

Let’s look at the typical scenario:

A busy young programmer arrives at work, still simmering over the argument about finances with his wife the night before. He finds it increasingly difficult to talk to her about anything without fighting. When he walks into the office, he sees a coworker who is always easy to talk to, and she always treats him with respect.

One night they end up working late on a project together. It’s innocent enough, but as they relax their guard during the late hours, they talk in ways they never did before about their lives, their struggles.

They stay and work late again, and he takes her home afterward. Nothing happens. Just a friendly, “Thanks for the ride,” and he drives away. But then they have lunch together, and soon they decide that they need to work projects over lunch at least once a week. Before long an attraction develops. The young executive knows his coworker is really interested in him—and vice versa.

Back home, perhaps his wife is pestering him to fix the pantry door and change her car’s oil. She reminds him of family decisions he must make, of a child that needs attention, and soon he feels he doesn’t need all the hassles. The responsibility of home feels heavy and restrictive; he’d rather have lunch with his new friend at work.

This man may not know it, but his friendship sliding down a slippery slope and an emotional affair. And almost inevitably, the emotional affair turns into a physical one.

Almost all sexual affairs begin with an emotional affair.

Of course, this scenario probably happens as often today with wives in the workplace.

Converging on a chemical reaction

And with the easy availability of the internet and social apps like Facebook, a new form of emotional adultery has surfaced. Men and women connect with old friends, classmates, and even former romantic partners. Their familiarity quickly leads to sharing intimate conversations. Their electronic liaisons have resulted in countless heartaches and even divorce.

You may be converging on a chemical reaction with another person when:

  • You’ve got a need you feel your spouse isn’t meeting—a need for attention, approval, or affection.

  • You find it easier to unwind with someone other than your spouse by dissecting the day’s difficulties over lunch, coffee, a ride home … or through text messages and email.

  • You begin to talk about problems you’re having with your spouse.

  • You rationalize the relationship by saying that surely it must be God’s will to talk openly and honestly with a fellow Christian.

  • You look forward to being with this person.

  • You wonder what you’d do if you didn’t have this friend to talk with.

  • You hide the relationship from your spouse.

When you find yourself connecting with another person as a substitute, you’ve started traveling a road that ends too often in adultery and divorce. But how do you protect yourself to keep this from occurring?

First, know your boundaries. Put fences around your heart to protect sacred ground, reserved only for your spouse. Barbara and I are careful to share our deepest feelings, needs, and difficulties only with each other.

A number of years ago a girl that I dated in high school asked me to be her friend on Facebook. Initially her invitation seemed harmless, right? For an instant I was flattered that she’d reached out to me. I came to my senses and told Barbara about the invitation, and both of us agreed that I needed to delete that invitation. I did.

Second, realize the power of your eyes. As it has been said, your eyes are the windows to your soul. Pull the shades down if you sense someone is pausing a little too long in front of your windows.

I realize that good eye contact is necessary for effective conversation, but there’s a deep type of look that must be reserved for your spouse.

Some women may think I’m insecure because I don’t hold eye contact very long, but I don’t trust my sinful nature. I’ve seen what has happened to others, and I know it could happen to me. Frankly, I don’t trust myself.

That’s why I don’t do lunch with a woman alone. I recall the last lunch I had with a woman … as I was sitting there, I began to realize that wasn’t good for me and could be bad for my marriage and family. That was nearly 40 years ago.

Third, extinguish chemical reactions that have already begun. If a friendship with the opposite sex begins to meet needs only your spouse should be meeting, end it quickly. To stop a chemical reaction, one of the elements must be removed. It may be a painful loss at first, but it isn’t nearly as painful as temptation that has given birth to sin.

I once had a man confess to me that he was in an emotional affair. He expressed that he needed to get out of that relationship, but didn’t know how to end it. We talked about his desire to come clean and terminate the relationship. When I was convinced he was repentant and wanted out, I asked him for his phone and the number of the young lady. I punched in the number, but before I hit the “call” button, I walked him through what he should say to her. I told him, “This is a call to terminate the friendship, so keep the call short.” Then I handed the phone to him.

He did it.

Years ago, Ruth Senter wrote an incredibly candid article about her friendship with a Christian man she met in a graduate school class. Her struggle and godly response to this temptation were graphically etched in a letter that ended the relationship: “Friendship is always going somewhere unless it’s dead,” she wrote. “You and I both know where ours is going. When a relationship threatens the stability of commitments we’ve made to the people we value the most, it can no longer be.”

Fourth, beware of isolation in your marriage. One strategy of the enemy is to isolate you from your spouse, especially by tempting you to keep secrets. Barbara and I both realize the danger of isolation to our marriage. We don’t always handle it correctly, but we work hard at bringing things out into the open and discussing them.

Fifth, find an accountability partner. Give this person permission to ask you tough questions about your marriage and your outside relationships, and even your online habits.

Finally, never stop courting your spouse. One of the most liberating decisions that I’ve ever made in my relationship with Barbara is that I will never stop competing for Barbara’s love. As a result of that commitment, I stay much more creative in how I communicate with her emotionally and sexually.

I am well aware that if I start taking her for granted, someone else could walk into her life and catch her at a weak point. My constant goal is to strengthen her and let her know that she is still the woman I decided to carry off to the castle in 1972. (Yes, we are GOLDEN this year!)

Stay away from the cliff

Many people who commit adultery express surprise that it happened; they talk as if they were carried along by an irresistible force of nature. But remember that nobody falls off a cliff if they’re standing 40 feet away from the edge. Instead, they inch closer and closer until they find themselves in danger and gravity taking over

I’m reminded of the statement that someone made:

“Sin would have fewer takers if it’s consequences occurred immediately.”

Make your marriage relationship such a priority that you don’t come anywhere near the edge.


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