Friendship and Attraction (Part 4)

Friendship & Attraction

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!

  • Agrajag

    I actually do think it makes sense to be more careful with certain things if you’re married (or in a relationship) than if you are single.

    One of the expectations in a typical relationship is that you’ll always be each others number one: that you get top priority. If you find that your husband, or your wife, prefers spending time with someone else, this will feel like a betrayal.

    This concern does not arise when there *is* no spouse.

    A second reason is “succumbing to temptation” isn’t a bad thing if you’re single: If you spend a lot of time and emotional energy on a friend when you’re single, and end up falling in love with him – isn’t that a fine thing ? Indeed, isn’t that commonly the first step on the way to marriage ?

    • Alise Wright

      I’m definitely okay with people operating with some level of caution. But when I see a list of rules prohibiting men & women from being friends at all, I find that odd. I think it just exhibits a really low opinion of people’s relationships with their spouses and a low opinion of the ability of people to be friends.

      • Agrajag

        I agree with that. Furthermore, there’s also mitigating circumstances. If you’re in a loving relationship, that actually makes it a lot less likely that you’ll want to give that up for someone else.

        Can I notice that a woman other than my wife is attractive ? Sure ! Does that mean I’d want to give up a loving relationship of more than a decade just to chase the possibility with someone else ? Certainly not !

        I think, more often than not, when someone cheats on their partner, the reason is to be found inside the marriage, not outside. If everything was good on the inside, I don’t think anyone would want to destroy that.

        But when things suck on the inside *then* the temptation to seek better fortunes elsewhere may arise. So it’s a mistake to try to stabilize marriages by removing external “temptations”. What should instead be done is to strengthen a marriage by making sure there’s a whole lot of very good reasons for staying married, most of all love.

        If you’ve got that, you can handle any temptations, and infact if you’ve got that, it’s unlikely you’ll even consider cross-gender friendship to *be* temptation.

  • Joy in this Journey

    This whole topic is somewhat new to me, and I find I carry SO MUCH baggage from evangelicalism to the discussion. But I do know that I agree with you on the terminology: I think the phrase “emotional affair” is incredibly emotionally charged. It sounds like something very difficult to come back from. “Emotional infidelity” technically means the same thing, but somehow it’s a bit more neutral. I think you can more easily apply it to any friendship that has become too dependent, for example. Your definition of fidelity as “faithfulness to a person, cause, or belief demonstrated by continuing loyalty and support” is VERY helpful too.

    I’m looking forward to tomorrow’s post!

    • Alise Wright

      Yeah, “affair” is pretty heavily linked with sex, and also is a word that says, “Something so bad we can’t even say what it is!” That’s not helpful.

      I hope we can continue to leave that baggage behind. Not worth carrying along AT ALL.

  • Agrajag

    There’s a second issue in your essays I’d like to address: You’re being quite hetero-normative. I’ve got several friends who are bisexual, yet married to someone of the opposite gender.

    If friendship with a gender you’re potentially sexually interested in is suspect, what then of these people ? Should they avoid having any close friends at all ? That’s clearly not reasonable.

    If you can’t be friends with someone who is of a gender you’re sometimes attracted to – then it means bisexual people can have no friends at all.

    • Alise Wright

      Because this is part of a discussion about cross-gender friendships specifically, I have chosen to focus on that. However, I did say, “I do believe that emotional infidelity is possible. I will emphatically state that it can happen regardless of the sex of the person…”

      And yes, I agree with you 100%, that is a HUGE problem. Of course, if you believe that gay attraction is a “choice” (which is a standard believe among that throws a whole other monkey in the wrench. I
      definitely will address that at some point in the series, but for right now, I’m making a conscious decision to address male-female friendship specifically. But yeah – BIG problem there.

      • Agrajag

        Thanks ! This series is awesome.

        It’s so good to know there’s people of faith who aren’t enemies of diversity. Yeah, I know you’re not the only one – but sometimes I forget. There’s so much hatred from the christian right in the media, you know ?

        • Rachel

          There’s so much hate on the liberal left to the christian right, too. The hatred goes both ways, unfortunately. Christians aren’t happy to let the free thinkers be free thinkers. Free thinkers aren’t happy to let parameter thinkers be parameter thinkers.

          • Agrajag

            There’s an important difference: One side wants to tell everyone what they can and cannot do, to impose their choosen moral on the world.

            Choosing to be celibate before marriage is fine: trying to force others to be, isn’t. Choosing not to have an abortion, is fine: trying to force others not to, isn’t. Not being gay is fine. Trying to get the law to discriminate against gays, isn’t.

  • Jessica Stock

    I really agree with you and am glad you are addressing this. I have felt that is one of the things I lost when I got married- the ability to have male friendships which I always enjoyed before. Now it is replaced by this awkwardness or sense of guilt, and I don’t think that should be. As typical in churches, or at least the ones I grew up in, we overreact and make things shameful and even more of an issue than they usually need to be. I think there is a lot lost when we no longer know how to have friendships with the opposite sex.

    • Joy in this Journey

      “I think there is a lot lost when we no longer know how to have friendships with the opposite sex.” YES.

    • Alise Wright

      Like you, I just assumed that I could NEVER be close with a man after I married. Until I was. ;) Unfortunately, now even friendship is often seen as suspect, and I just plain don’t like it! I hope that we can see a continuing breaking down of this kind of thought process.

  • Sharideth Smith

    Most of my closest friends are men. Some married. Some not. They are also my husband’s closest friends. Visa versa with women friends. That works for us and hasn’t caused a single problem.

    Just like with anything else that could be potentially problematic or “dangerous” to the stability of a relationship, you need to always err on the side of your partner’s comfort zone. Do not insist they be okay with something that they are certainly not okay with.

    • Alise Wright

      Oh, absolutely. Your partner should definitely come first. I just get annoyed that often in the church we don’t even let our partners have a chance to be okay with these friendships. Bah!

  • Jennifer Ould

    Great post, Alise! We have so much cultural baggage on this issue, with expectations we assume are normative that just aren’t. I agree that a spouse’s comfort level (even if it’s based on damage) is the foremost concern. But along side that, for me, my married friend and his wife are a package deal. That doesn’t mean she is always with us physically, or that my relationship with her is just like my relationship with him, or even that I have to know her well. What it means is that she is a part of who he is, and thus must be a part of how I love him well. Honoring (and cheering on) their marriage is part and parcel of the friendship for me.

    I’m looking forward to your further discussion on this.

    • Alise Wright

      I so agree – part of loving my best friend REQUIRES that I love those closest to him, which would, of course, include his wife. We actually don’t spend lots of time together, the four of us, but Jason & Misty are with us any time we hang out. Which, as you said, is exactly the point.

      Thank you for helping me clarify this – you’ve been a huge blessing to me, even in just those few hours we got to spend together!

  • Ed_Cyzewski

    This is some of the clearest writing I’ve read on this topic. Way to knock it out of the park. I really appreciate you in a non-overly emotional attachy way. :)

    • Alise Wright

      Ha! Thanks, Ed! I really appreciate it. Here’s a very appropriate hand-shake. :)

  • Miles O’Neal

    My wife can’t meet all my needs. I can’t meet all of hers. If either of us could do that, we’d be God. While we’re made in God’s image, we are not God. So…

    Some people would say that we need to let God meet those needs. OK, fine. Let him meet *all* your needs. Let him clothe you, pay your rent, feed you, have sex with you, etc. What? Didn’t happen?

    There are things God expects me to get only from my wife (sex, romance, etc.). But she doesn’t fulfill my geeky side, and even if she were capable of it, she would die of boredom. There are areas in her life I don’t really fulfill. Sometimes, the people who fill these areas for me are women, just as some of the people who fill those areas for her are men.

    We spent a year and a half apart when my job moved me half way across the country, waiting for the house to sell so we could afford to move her and the kids to be with me. I thank God for the women in my life here, and the men in her life (and our kids’ lives) back there during that time. We’d have gone bonkers without them (and no bonking was involved).

    And God blessed it all. And we stayed faithful to one another… and to God, our friends, and our family.

    Every Christian woman is my sister. Every other woman is, from my perspective, my sister who just doesn’t realize it (yet). My wife didn’t expect me to give up relationship with my sisters because we got married. I didn’t expect her to give up her relationship with her brothers. If there is a specific problem, we need to address that problem, not over-react and decide that one of us (or everyone of our spouse’s sex) is incapable of controlling themselves.

    • Alise Wright

      The sister/brother thing is something that I want to address a bit on Monday. That’s one of those bits of Christianese that a lot of us bandy about and then don’t really believe. And yes, we MUST abandon the idea that our spouse can meet all of our needs. It’s just not fair to them or to us.

      Thank you so much for your comment here!

      • Miles O’Neal

        Yes! to both points!

        Expecting/demanding our spouse (or any human) to meet all our needs is at best putting them on a pedestal, setting them up to fail; at worst it’s idolatry, setting everyone involved up for failure. One or both ends up dissapointed, hurt, and feeling rejection… and temptation hits harder. There is no win there. There is no glory, no beauty, no grace, no good. Only more brokenness.

        As to the brother/sister thing… Jesus called us brothers and sisters. I don’t think he just threw those words out there, any more than he just threw out “your sins are forgiven”, “be healed”, or “the Father and I are one”. I don’t think his giving John and Mary to one another as son and mother were just a nice sentiment from a dying man. I think he meant these literally and thoroughly. The early Church seemed to get that. Where did we lose it, and why is it resisted (or at best ignored or sanitized) today?

  • Miles O’Neal

    And thank you for calling out the whole fear thing. Love trumps fear every time. Fear is a destroyer. Never give in to fear. Never.

  • Scot Butwell

    Enjoyed the post — as for me, I’ve observed I can learn both ways on this issues. Knowing my own heart, and how I can get emotionally attached to another person, I’ve felt being close to another female (I’m married) because I can start enjoying this relationship more than my marriage. My marriage, as is true I’m sure for most, has its ups and downs, arguments, stresses, etc, and I can see how a cross-genger relationship could be harmful during these times. On the other hand, I do talk and authentically share myself with other females, I just don’t spend one-on-one time (I’m married and have a kid, where would I even get time to spend much time with another person, maybe lunch at work) with other females. To me, spending a lot of one-on-one time would be dangerous: I think I would derive as much, if not more, satisfaction from time with non-wife female because this relationship is devoid of so much of the challenges/responsibities of marriage. Just knowing my heart, I think it would not be a good thing for me.

  • Hännah

    Oh wow. This is helpful. I would love to discuss this with you further, privately, sometime.

    • Alise Wright

      You can shoot me an email any time. It should be in the link above titled “guest posts.”

  • Cindy Holman

    I’ve been on the other end of a pastor who claimed I was in an “emotional affair” – it shocked me – as “affair” to me always meant something sexual, dirty and sneaky. You are very right – it is NOT helpful to say emotionally charged phrases to people who look at relationships between men and women in a very different way than the “norm”. I, like you have tried to bridge that gap of stereotype as I have always had guys as best friends throughout school. I enjoy talking with men more than women because of the lack of pretense and agenda. My husband continues to be my best friend – and I’ll admit it does get a little confusing when you meet another “kindred spirit” that happens to be a man – if you’re a woman. I did not have a sympathetic pastor at the time to this issue – nor was he educated in saying or doing the right things when presented with this “issue”. Fear reared its ugly head – my friend got so spooked and freaked out he has disappeared out of my life – and that was 4 years ago. I wish people were more educated – open to change and at least embracing what relationship is really all about and would rise above the fear. I would still have my friend in my life today. I can only hope that things will improve for other people and become more informed – less fearful and truly embrace life and others as Christ wanted us to do. If we expect our spouse to be our one and only friend – they will always fall short of meeting every emotional need. Great thoughts above.

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  • Jim Fisher

    I love my “sisters” … all of them. But my wife always gets first dibs on my time and energy.

    I greet them with a Holy Kiss … if they are comfortable with that … and a hug if they want that.

    And as I held one of my “sisters” in my arms in the church Common last Sunday as she broke down and sobbed on my shoulder, my wife left her group of friends approached us from across the room and surrounded her as well.

    And, yes, a few people turned away, embarrassed maybe, judging maybe, and headed to get more coffee. But as the three of us held each other, we knew there was nothing wrong with this picture … and something profoundly and sacredly right.