The Affair You're Trying to Avoid (Part 1)
For years, I’ve been frustrated by Christian marriage books that operate according to stereotypes.
“Men want respect while women want love.”
“Men want sex while women want romance.”
“Men want results while women want conversation.”
These extremes may work for some couples, but they don’t work for all. This makes writing about relationships between real humans complicated.
More than once, I’ve seen a woman sitting in a Bible study group withdraw, checking out of the conversation because her marriage didn’t work like everyone else's. As a pastor’s wife, it wasn’t unusual for a woman to approach me privately, devastated by a husband who had no interest in her physically. It grieved her to hear other wives laughingly complain about men “just wanting sex” while she felt the shame of physical rejection.
I’ve also heard from brilliant, driven women who felt loved but not respected by their husbands. These men bring flowers and arrange dates, but their wives’ ideas never seem to matter very much. These women aren’t a real part of the marital team---not engaged as intellectual companions or co-creators. They ache for the camaraderie of helping a man change the world, but they are treated more like accessories.
Other marriages involve one partner who is secretly cruel. Over two decades of ministry, I haven’t met a single victim of emotional abuse who wouldn’t have eagerly traded emotional wounds for broken bones and skin bruises. I’m not exaggerating here. There is a unique wickedness to emotional abuse—a torture that methodically steals, kills, and destroys. The secretive nature of emotional abuse makes it even more devastating because Christian friends who would bend over backwards to help a woman escape a man who blacked her eye will completely dismiss emotional torture, blaming and shunning a woman who is trying to flee for her life.
Porn is also having a profound impact on certain Christian marriages. People talk about porn as if the struggle always reduced to dudes looking at photoshopped pictures of naked, twenty-something women, and that dynamic can be part of it. But that’s not the whole story. For Christians wrestling with porn, the attraction can transcend simple, animal lust. The bigger allure is more often passivity--perhaps a man feels inadequate or rejected, and he’s grown too scared and tired to try to connect intimately with a real human being. Or maybe a woman feels defeated or stuck in real life, so she runs to a fantasy world in which she can trick herself into temporarily believing that she is admired or wanted. Like most addictions, this escape involves just enough connection to the physical to make it believable for a moment or two. But after the thrill fades, life seems even more empty. Eventually the shame of the habit makes interaction with real humans even more difficult, and in loneliness, the problem snowballs.
A BAD FIT
Finally, some marriages are just a hard fit. The physical attraction or electric personality quirks that brought two people together in young adulthood have faded, and a man and woman find themselves struggling to find common ground. The adventurer/dreamer feels choked by the maintainer/sustainer. The long-term loyalist feels exhausted by the impulsive ADD tendencies of an explorer. The romantic is bored by the pragmatist. The athlete is annoyed by the couch potato. The incessant talker annoys the thinker. The extrovert needs to find some depth. The introvert needs to stop hiding. The type-A doer wants to break free of the sluggard. The artist feels unknowable to the realist.
How many more angles could I explain here? Dozens.
Because marriage is inherently complicated, I don’t think it's possible to write a post that fits every situation. So even though this topic has been on my mind for months, I’ve shied away from it time and again, afraid of doing more harm than good.
I don’t want to inadvertently urge the abused to stay with the abuser. I don’t want to oversimplify a unique situation with a platitude that causes more pain. I don’t want to overshadow the individual leading of the Holy Spirit, and I don’t want to suggest laws that distract people the living work of the gospel.
As a reader, you invest quite a bit of trust in me as a writer. But with this series, I want to throw that trust back upon you as a reader, asking you to pray and then throw away anything I offer that doesn’t fit your particular situation. I think that's the only way we are going to reach through the anonymity of the internet to make any sort of connection work here.
That said, onward. :)
So what’s behind an affair?
Some cases of infidelity are stereotypical. The middle-aged dude freaks about his receding hairline, wonders if he still “has it,” and sweet talks a vulnerable twenty-something into hooking up. Shallow. Physical. Greedy. He doesn’t care who he hurts. He takes what he wants and doesn’t look back. His family is wrecked. His kids are devastated. The standard, selfish jerk.
We all know cases in which this has happened.
But there are also other situations in which sex isn’t the driving pull to marital infidelity. At least from what I’ve seen, a great many more affairs begin at the emotional level—with two people who never wanted to sleep around. These people just stumbled into a shockingly power friendship during a time of intense pain. And, after years of trying to make a broken marriage work, after years of making the same appeals over and over and over, after growing weary of trying to have honest conversations that end up going nowhere, an unexpected and innocent human connection appears—a friendship that is stunningly easy.
This other person isn’t just physically attractive, he or she quickens parts of your spirit that has been dormant for a long time. His or her company draws you out of the dull routines that have paralyzed you. He or she makes you feel like it’s possible to turn over a new leaf, that your work in the world isn’t quite over yet.
You don’t begin to feel lust—you begin to feel hope.
You don’t just like this person—this person makes you begin to like yourself again.
I specifically want to talk to Christians who find themselves here, caught up in the first waves of this particular surprise.
First off, I’m not going to shame you. If you are in this situation, you weren’t looking for it; it just happened. You don’t need guilt right now, you need help knowing what to do with it. (If you wanted to jump headlong into infidelity, you wouldn't be reading a post with this title, right?)
Secondly, I’m not going to exhort you to react in fear, pressuring you to find some sort of external accountability to protect you. God may lead you to do that, but I don't know your situation well enough to know what to suggest. (The wrong external pressures can actually make a situation like this worse.) So, I'm just going to dig into the heart of the matter; then, at the end of this series, you and Jesus can decide what steps to take next.
Because this subject needs a little more room than some, I’m thinking I'll need to break it into three sessions. For now, here's the plan.
1. Today’s introduction
2. Do No Harm: Consuming vs Giving
3. Transposition: Seeing a Reviving Love Clearly
Please be praying for me as I try to tackle this topic. I’ve been in the ministry for over twenty years now, and I’ve seen a lot of patterns repeat. Still, I’m a nervous about trying to communicate those patterns in a complicated world. I’ll be praying for your marriages on this end, too.
And nope. I haven’t forgotten about the last part of the last series on God’s goodness. I’m just waiting for a day with enough think-space to finish it off. :)