“Do no harm.”
This phrase is often affiliated with the medical profession, but it applies to a much wider realm. Protecting the trust of the vulnerable is the foundation of every good friendship.
While friendship can involve co-creation, exhortation, belief, humor, and physical support; perhaps the most critical role of a friend is that of a healer. Friendship is our primary context for the long, hard, soul work of growth and recovery.
Yet helping to heal another person can be tough when we are wounded ourselves.
If you are familiar with the book The Five Love Languages, you already know how someone with the language of “affirming words” can feel starved without verbal affirmation. You know how an “acts of service” person can feel abandoned in a home where nobody jumps in to help. You know how a “gifts” person can feel empty and unseen when a birthday is dismissed.
Strangely, many of us marry people whose default for communicating love is entirely different from our own. So today, I want to write about what can happen in a split-language marriage when a lonely soul encounters someone else who naturally speaks their own language.
From what I’ve seen, this disparity can be particularly difficult for people whose love language is physical touch. Why? Because almost every other love language can be legitimately met in some other platonic way in the culture. We can receive compliments from others. We can spend time with others. We can receive acts of service or gifts from others. All those things can be fulfilled in non-romantic settings if our love tanks are running low. But in adults, the language of touch is reserved almost exclusively for the marital bond. This means Christian men and women who aren’t held meaningfully by their spouses can walk around in the world with a terrible void.
(Neglect and cruelty can happen in all love languages, of course, so if this love language doesn’t speak to you, some of the same principles may transfer to your situation. Feel free to write me with examples of your own!)
NEED AS A WEAPON
I was shocked when I realized that certain people intentionally leverage the needs of others as weapons in interpersonal relationships. I don't mean that I am easy to live with--I'm not. I can be obsessive, hyper-emotional, oblivious, and selfish. But obtaining control over friends isn’t something I enjoy. I like strong people who can volley with me.
So when I first started seeing spouses trying to control their mates, I was baffled. I didn’t understand why anyone would want to do that in the one relationship that is supposed to run on mutual trust. Yet, sometimes people grow up in homes where they don’t feel safe, so the only way they know to engage is by entrapping another person.
One of my old boyfriends had a dad who told him to always keep women wanting something because dissatisfaction would always keep them coming back. Thankfully, I didn’t marry into that mindset, but it is a strategy too many people carry into the bond of marriage.
The first person I heard describe this in detail was a female—a woman who was profoundly angry with her husband. She was almost giddy when telling me how desperate he was at her lack of physical responsiveness. She said she hadn’t allowed him to be intimate with her for seven years—that it had grown so “bad” he couldn’t even put his hand on her knee without going wild with desire.
She loved that he wanted her. She loved rejecting him. This was power for her.
I knew her husband, saw him flitting around her, trying to meet her every wish. She knew that she had limited his choices to either unfaithfulness (in which he would be the bad guy) or endless and futile attempts to obtain love she wasn’t willing to give. This dynamic was comfortable for her. She felt safe inside of it.
Since then, I’ve heard stories of spouses who were intentionally critical in moments of intimate physical trust, shaming their mates and reducing them to tears.
I’ve heard of spouses who pretended to be oblivious but who were methodically rejecting every physical advance of their mates.
I’ve heard voices quiver when the rejected spouses described cold, obligatory kisses, or nights of sitting next to a spouse who wouldn’t reach out to hold a hand, or crying themselves to sleep in a lonely bed.
This wound goes out into the world with no legitimate means of satisfaction. This wound lives inside husbands and wives who encounter other husbands and wives who are living the same secret loneliness.
AT THE INTERSECTION OF TWO STARVED HEARTS
In the comments on shares to my last post, I saw several readers get nervous about my nuanced approach to this subject. “I hope she’s going to land this in truth!” Or “She better not excuse sin!” they said.
I get why people are nervous. Too many writers who possess the emotional depth to empathize with sexual struggles end up teaching a relativistic morality. They allow WANT to justify BEHAVIOR, assuming that a loving God would never allow his children to live with decades of unsatisfied temptation.
that’s not what I believe. I’ve read too many books written by people who spent their entire lives wrestling with the desires of their souls, and I know how much richer their books are than the writings of people who have yielded to what "felt right."
The struggles and temptations we experience on this planet can be some of the most beneficial classrooms of our faith. God uses them to show us things about ourselves that we cannot learn in any other way. True love doesn't try to build escape hatches out of God's hard best.
In fact, Jesus told us following him would involve loss. He said that we would find life through death, and dying hurts. The light yoke that Christ describes, the abundant life that he promises—this isn't a free pass to indulge in sin. Jesus is introducing us to the liberty of the gospel, a Christ-resourced way of living that helps us step out of a greedy human autonomy into an eternal communion.
Gospel levity is about Christ-in-us, not about the “you-do-you” philosophy of indulgence that too many progressive Christians teach. The former leads to life. The latter to devastation.
We don't hear that much, living in a post-modern Christianity. Instead, we often hear Christians describe physical affairs as beautiful. I’ve heard more than one adulterer swear that extra-marital sex was actually an agent of healing in his or her life. But not once in hearing those claims have I seen an adulterer leave the other person more healed.
When two love-starved Christians intersect with one another, their felt needs naturally sit on the surface. This isn’t an intentional choice, it’s more like taking a man who hasn’t eaten for a week into a French bistro. When he’s about to pass out from hunger, would you expect him to concentrate on an exegesis of the book of Philemon, even as the smell of fresh bread wafts through the air?
In a similar way, if a man greeting visitors to his small group meeting receives the hand of a visiting female friend whose husband hasn’t hugged her in a month, even that simple contact may feel delightful. Her initial wave of pleasure isn’t adulterous… it’s just what happens when someone who hadn’t been loved feels a half second of affection.
What happens next is very important, however.
If the man is intuitive, he may notice when his benign, non-sexual gesture moves the woman. Her cheeks may flush. She might give a slight bend in the knees. She might hold her breath. Some sort of non-verbal clue may show him that he has impacted her.
And what if this man is the same man whose wife delights in keeping him at a distance? What does he feel when he sees this woman's response?
How could she not trigger the question he’s been carrying around forever? "Is it possible that I could actually please someone? Does it really have to be this difficult every day?" How could he not feel a flutter of hope?
This initial tsunami of emotion isn’t about a desire for sex-- it’s about a lonely, rejected man wanting some sort of close, human connection that isn’t built around strategic rejection.
WHAT IS HEALING REALLY?
Thousands and thousands of lonely Christian couples face this dilemma every day. In the life of a “words of affirmation” person, the emotional high could appear in a simple compliment that a controlling spouse refuses to give. In the life of a “gifts” person, a cheap, quirky present could show a wife that she is known and seen. In the life of an “acts of service” man whose wife never takes time to help him, the lunch a coworker lovingly prepares could make him feel worthwhile.
You and I work with dozens of love-starved people, and it’s not easy to know how to engage with their wounds without doing harm. Isn’t our first impulse to repeat behavior that seems to give others life? Don’t we naturally want to rush in and fill a gap that would be easy and natural for us when we see someone treated with disrespect or cruelty?
So many affairs in the Christian church begin this way. They don’t begin in sheer carnal lust; they begin in a desire to help. But we walk into danger when we trust ourselves and our natural love languages to heal others instead of walking in the Spirit. Even the best intentions can destroy, when we try to do good on our own.
Even if we see another person grin as we lavish praise upon her, our healing words may eventually cause her harm.
Even if our long hug gives another person’s husband an immediate sense of courage and strength, our embrace may eventually cause him harm.
Even if another person’s wife has been shamed into believing she is unlovable, the sex of another man will hurt her—though his intentions are to help her finally realize that she is profoundly valuable.
We cannot determine the true telos (the end) of our affection by looking at its immediate impact on another person's emotions.
WALKING IN THE SPIRIT IN A BROKEN WORLD
Simply admitting reality here can be so powerful.
If we can identify what is actually going on inside ourselves, we may begin to see that we aren’t always being the pure givers we think we are—but that we are secretly trying to satisfy ourselves while believing that we are being caregivers.
We also have to believe that God sometimes has a plan for people we love that requires them to walk through pain. I don’t mean that a man or woman should stay in an abusive marriage; after counseling leads to continued abuse, I think there’s a place to draw the line. But the answer to abuse isn’t sin. Being hurt by a greedy spouse doesn’t give us a free pass to engage in an illicit relationship. A cruel spouse may justify a divorce--but cruelty does not justify adultery. And this can be very, very difficult for us to believe when we love someone has suffered for a long time.
But a true friend comes alongside pain, empathizes deeply with the reality of suffering, and helps the other person continue to believe that God has a plan for his or her life that is built upon faith, not reactivity. A true friend co-believes that God is good and that he will do good, even as our friends face the trials God has allowed them to experience.
This is some of the most painful love I have ever had to give my friends. I am a rescuer, and I’d rather feel pain inside my own body than watch others hurt. Yet this gentle, tender companionship—offered without severe judgment or platitudes—is the companionship Jesus desired when his disciples slept as he agonized in the garden. It's lonely to be broken. And when you help a friend who is fighting the battles of “Not my will but Thine,” you are kneeling in union with something profoundly holy.
In mixed-gender friendships where potential romantic energy is present, loving the wounded will involve resisting expressions of love that would immediately medicate pain but ultimately hurt more than help. This restraint may feel cruel or heartless, but it’s a great kindness to the vulnerable.
Your work here begins in honest prayer--some of the most honest prayers you have ever prayed. You ask for insight into your own motives. You pray for wisdom in how to do ultimate good to a hurting person. You walk trusting God to love your friend more than you do.
God sometimes shows us practical ideas for assistance that don’t tempt or destroy in these situations. Often these ideas will take people closer to Jesus instead of deeper into ourselves, and this can feel a little lonely on our end. You haven't failed if you experience this loneliness. In fact, it might mean you have succeeded.
CONSUMING VS. GIVING
C.S. Lewis, Sayers, and others, often wrote about a dark form of love that consumed its object. This selfish obsession tried to own, use, and control instead of helping another free soul toward its eternal end.
A lot of times, giving love isn’t as immediately satisfying as consuming love. It's tough to assist without strings attached, and overflowing from God’s resources can lead others to embed themselves more deeply in Jesus than in us. It’s a whole different way of living, counter-intuitive in a culture that seeks ultimate healing in human romance.
If God isn't real--if He doesn't have a good plan for our friends--this way of doing things foolish. But if He is a benevolent Father who is working ultimate good for those we love, being selfless with the wounded trust of a true, hurting friend is the most beautiful offering we can give them. If Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life, giving them to Him is even more beautiful than giving them ourselves.