I recently spent some time on the phone discussing cross-gender friendship with a friend of mine. She and a married man recently discovered that they were developing a close friendship. They had read my three previous entries on friendship and attraction, but still had some questions, so we found a time when we could talk for a bit.
The most pressing question that she asked, and one that I know plagued me when I first entered the realm of cross-gender friendship was, “What is emotional infidelity?”
Honestly, even if people will grant that you might not knock boots with your opposite-sex friend, there is still a good chance that you’ll be warned about having an emotional affair. This is of particular concern among those in the Christian community.
First, I’d like to say that I find “emotional affair” to be an unhelpful phrase. For the purposes of our conversation here, we will talk about emotional infidelity. Fidelity is defined as “faithfulness to a person, cause, or belief demonstrated by continuing loyalty and support.” Before we start to talk about this topic, I think it’s important to settle on terminology and I find emotional infidelity to be a more concise, and less emotionally charged phrase than emotional affair.
Once we have determined what phrase we’re using, we can begin to look at what emotional infidelity is not. I often find that any emotional closeness to someone of the opposite sex who is not your spouse is categorized as emotional infidelity. However, if emotional closeness to someone of the same sex is not considered to be emotional infidelity, why would we make that assumption for opposite sex friends?
Additionally, for people in the Church, how does a reluctance to allow for emotional closeness fall into the category of “oneness” that Jesus desires for his disciples? Assuming that Jesus was not referring to sexual oneness in that instance, it would seem to me that trust, honesty, and love are what he wanted for those who call themselves his followers, and those things produce emotional closeness.
Some will say that emotional infidelity can happen if one gives in to the “appearance of evil.” There have been lists distributed in churches that prohibit any form of intimacy between married people of the opposite sex because they could cause some to view the relationship as problematic. So things like texting, driving together, and eating together are deemed off limits, to preserve a sense of propriety and keep people from having any kind of emotional infidelity.
What is most surprising to me about these kinds of lists is that they have a tendency to not apply to those not yet married. I don’t understand why we expect those who are married to succumb more easily to an inappropriate relationship with someone of the opposite sex than someone who is married. If we really believe that our spouses are to be our closest friends and supplier of our sexual needs, wouldn’t we be more inclined to discourage those who don’t have those things from those relationships and trust the married staff?
Regardless, I have a problem with operating out of a fear-based ethic. Awareness of weaknesses is an appropriate thing, but across-the-board fear is not a healthy way to approach relationships and ultimately, will be a flimsy deterrent to either emotional or physical infidelity. Fear operates in secret, and in those secret places, infidelity thrives. When we pursue relationships free from fear, we are forced to be honest with ourselves, with our spouses, and with those around us. Rather than creating gossip, it frees us from that.
Those things said, I do believe that emotional infidelity is possible. I will emphatically state that it can happen regardless of the sex of the person with whom we are friends, but in dealing specifically with cross-gender friends, we can absolutely cross into areas where we cease to be faithful emotionally to our spouses, and this can be hurtful in profound ways. I have seen the results of emotional infidelity and they can produce wounds that are just as deep as those caused by physical unfaithfulness.
On Monday, we’ll talk about what emotional infidelity IS and some steps that can be taken to avoid it.
In the meantime, what do you think? What have you seen called emotional infidelity that is perhaps not? And what do you think about calling it emotional infidelity as opposed to an emotional affair?
Last year when I attended the Sacred Friendship Gathering, discussion about this topic was something that I listened to with keen interest. Many of my thoughts here are an expansion of an answer given by Jennifer Ould, to whom I owe a debt of gratitude. She is an amazing woman and will be speaking at this year’s Gathering, along with me, best friend Rich Chaffins, Kathy Escobar, and Jonalyn Fincher. You can reserve your spot for this two day event for only $85 until the end of February. I’d love to see you there!