On Friday, I wrote about why I hate the phrase “emotional affair” and discussed what emotional infidelity is not. But as much as I think we overuse the phrase, emotional infidelity can absolutely occur in marriages, and it can be very damaging to the marriage relationship.
As I mentioned in the last post, fidelity is, “faithfulness to a person, cause, or belief demonstrated by continuing loyalty and support.” I’d like to break it down to its most basic parts, which I think could be “continuing faithfulness.” Attachments that interrupt that continuing faithfulness are what I would like to discuss here.
I don’t believe that any one person can meet all of our emotional needs. Early in our marriage, I thought that Jason was supposed to meet all of my needs. As a result, I felt emptiness for the needs he was unable to fulfill, which led to guilt about needing more than he could provide, which made me look harder for him to meet those needs, and it turned into one big, ugly cycle of guilt and sadness. I believe if I had developed a friendship with another man at that point, we would have been treading on very dangerous ground, because I could have seen a filling of legitimate needs as being a lack in my relationship with my husband, rather than understanding that different people bring different things into my life and I need all of them.
There will be emotional needs that your spouse is unable to meet and I believe it is absolutely acceptable and beneficial to find friends who can fill those needs. However, if having those needs met by someone else causes you to resent your spouse, this could be an area of concern. Resentment can be one of the most profound hindrances to continuing faithfulness and that is something that does require your attention. In an area like writing, I have a bottomless pit of need for affirmation and that can be filled by others with no damage whatsoever to my relationship with my husband, and can actually enhance it. But when it comes to feeling alone in my faith, I need to be careful who is allowed to fill that need, lest it cause negative feelings toward my husband. These needs will be different for each person and require self-examination.
Another area where continuing faithfulness can be challenged is when secrecy is a part of the friendship. If I were to find myself hiding any parts of my friendship with Rich from Jason, I would know that I’m not giving my full self to my marriage, and that would need to be addressed. Faithfulness thrives in the light. Some outside of your marriage and/or friendship may not appreciate your candor, but those relationships that matter will be so much healthier when they can be conducted without any secrecy.
We can also hinder continuing faithfulness when we fail to address attraction felt toward a friend. As I have written already, attraction toward a close friend is inevitable. If we choose to open ourselves up to another person in a vulnerable way, there will be some level of attraction. However, choosing to ignore that can allow it to build into something more than the natural outcome of a devoted friendship. This can cause us to ignore our spouse in favor of the friend, which damages the marriage relationship.
So how do we avoid emotional infidelity? I think it all boils down to honesty.
Be honest with your spouse. Let partner know that they can’t meet all of your emotional needs and that you don’t expect that of them. Pretending that they can fill everything isn’t fair to them. But don’t cut them off from that friendship. There may be areas where they can grow as your partner by seeing how a friendship builds you up and when you deny them that opportunity to participate in that friendship, even just by keeping them apprised of conversations, you can hinder that continuing faithfulness. A friend of mine recently said that his close cross-gender friendship was forcing him to be more honest with his wife about other things as well. This friendship has enhanced his marriage relationship because he is choosing honesty.
Be honest with your friend. If we notice that something is feeling “off” in our relationship, we need to address it. It can be profoundly awkward to say to your friend that you feel an attraction toward them, but less awkward than allowing those emotions to go unchecked and becoming something more than they are. Honesty can defuse emotions that might otherwise grow into something harmful. And be honest about where you need boundaries. This will be an individual thing and will likely require some trial and error, but by keeping communication open and forthright, you can navigate that without abandoning the friendship. Knowing that your friend wants the best for you and the relationship can allow for grace in situations where there could be discomfort.
Be honest with yourself. This is perhaps the most difficult thing, because we’re really, really good at lying to ourselves. But before we can be honest with anyone else, we must be honest with ourselves. We need to be honest about what causes resentment toward our spouse. We need to be honest about attractions that we experience. We need to be honest about how we communicate with our spouse and our friend. Any discomfort that we feel about honesty up front will be multiplied by a lot if we choose to lie to ourselves. We can avoid so much pain by being willing to give ourselves an honest appraisal. Whatever it takes to be honest with yourself, do it. It is one of the best gifts that you can give yourself and your relationships.
Anything that is ongoing will require effort, and continuing faithfulness is no exception. But it is an effort that will yield beauty and love. And love for one another is where God is found.