Navigating life when you feel lonely is tough. When God-given desires for relationships go off the rails of what is holy and wise, we’re headed for a mess. Sometimes, the result is an emotional affair.
In my first post, I described an emotional affair as an unholy connection between two people (one of whom is married, if not both) that involves a level of intimacy that rightly belongs in marriage. Perhaps you’ve realized, like Josh from my first blog post that you are in a relationship that has moved into this dangerous territory.
To honor Christ, and to keep this relationship from further harming you and others, you need to take active steps to disentangle yourself
If you’re in this situation, what do you do now? To honor Christ, and to keep this relationship from further harming you and others, you need to take active steps to disentangle yourself. Here are three steps to take.
First, you need to confess the sin of this relationship to God, your spouse (if married), and to at least one, if not two, trusted and spiritually mature friends. DON’T confess your sin first to the person with whom you are having an emotional affair. If that person isn’t ready to let go, he or she might try to convince you to stay. Go first to God, and then to a friend or two you can trust. Those friends can help you discern the best way to communicate the situation and your decision to the other parties involved (the person you’ve had the affair with, and your spouse, if married).
You’ll need courage, friend, and resolve to take this step! You wouldn’t be in an affair if you weren’t getting something out of it. Peter wrote that God’s “divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness” (2 Peter 1:3 ESV), and that power includes taking steps to end your emotional affair. God never expects his children to muscle their way through hard and costly obedience; no, he calls us to trust in him to empower us to do the right thing. He is able to strengthen you as you humble yourself before him and others.
After confessing to God and key people, your second step is to break off this relationship and prepare to grieve, as letting go of it will hurt! You need to communicate clearly that the relationship cannot continue. I often find that some women stay stuck in sinful patterns or relationships because one, they fear the pain which comes from letting go and are unsure how to grieve the loss of the relationship or two, they can’t imagine how God will comfort the deepest parts of their hearts. So, they stay stuck.
Peter went on to say that “the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials “(2 Peter 2:9 ESV). He knows you! He will rescue you from fear and give you comfort as a huge part of your heart will feel empty. One of the painful consequences of any relationship that has become too big in our lives is the way it can block intimacy with the Lord. Ending the relationship can feel like you are entering an emotional wasteland, but this can actually be a path back towards abiding in Jesus and experiencing new intimacy with him.
Ending the relationship can feel like you are entering an emotional wasteland, but this can actually be a path back towards abiding in Jesus and experiencing new intimacy with him
What do you do if this person goes to church with you? Is a coworker? A member of your extended family? You’ll need wisdom to navigate this terrain (which is why having mature believers alongside you is crucial). You may need to find a new church or job, or have a season where you avoid family gatherings. When hearts become emotionally entangled in an emotional affair, the disentangling process often requires radical steps like these. They are painful and costly, but worth it!
If you can’t remove yourself from being around this person due to circumstances, you need to be sure you have specific accountability. This means having people ask you:
Are you being faithful in not having any contact with this person?
Are you doing everything you can to pursue your spouse and godly friendships with others?
How are you guarding your heart in unavoidable circumstances when you are around this person?
Finally, what is God calling you to pursue and cultivate in your life now? Your emotional affair allowed a person to displace the central place of God in your life. With that person out of the picture, drawing near to God may feel emotionally unappealing. Give it time—but keep taking steps toward your relationship with God. It usually is a long process for emotions and hearts to heal and become untangled. God is calling you back to himself and will work to give you “the desire and the power to do what pleases him” (Phil. 2:13 NLT).
Meeting with a counselor or wise friend to address the deeper issues in your life which made you vulnerable to this emotional affair is important. For the married person involved, you and your spouse will be helped by a season of marriage counseling to help you grow together in Christ and in your intimacy as a couple (more on this in my third post, as I explore what help the offended spouse needs).
Let me end this post with how Josh and Sara dealt with their emotional affair.
Josh did not go to Sara or her husband first to confess the sinful relationship. He contacted a Christian friend and shared what was going on. The friend prayed with Josh and offered to go with him to one of the elders for counsel.
Josh decided with his elder’s support to set up a meeting for the two of them to meet with Sara and Craig. At this meeting, Josh confessed that his attachment to Sara had grown beyond what is appropriate. He realized he needed to break ties with her and thus attend a new church for at least a season. He kept his focus in this meeting on his behavior and sin, not “confessing” for Sara.
Faced with Josh’s humility, Sara broke down and confessed her unfaithfulness to Craig, as well as using Josh’s attention to feel good about herself. Shocked and hurt, Craig was silent. In the weeks that followed, he and Sara began to talk more honestly about their marriage than they had in years. Craig acknowledged ways he had allowed ministry responsibilities to distract him from his family. The sin of Sara’s emotional affair was not his fault, but he humbly recognized that the foundation in his marriage was fractured and needed attention. The elders gave him a sabbatical with a mandate that he and Sara pursue counseling and the rebuilding of their marriage.
How can we avoid emotional affairs? By growing in wisdom and living in the truth of Romans 13:14, “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires“(ESV). If you’re married, consider reading our magazine issue on godly sexuality that addresses several key issues for couples. If you’re single like me, consider reading my online article, “Sexuality and the Single Christian: Godly Answers in a Confusing World.”
Next week I’ll finish this series with thoughts on what the process of healing looks like over the long haul, for everyone involved.
You can watch Ellen talk some more about this on her accompanying video: Emotional Affairs: When Closeness Becomes Destructive – Part 2. These short videos can be used as discussion starters in small group settings, mentoring relationships, men’s and women’s groups, etc.
God calls us to friendships that are rich and deep. But for some friendships, as they grow over time, a warning line is crossed, and an emotional affair begins. Friendships that become emotional affairs may be enticing, but they are a relationship catastrophe waiting to happen.
Josh had been at a new church for four months when the pastor’s wife invited him to join their community group, which was a weekly gathering of both singles and married couples. Sara and her pastor husband, Craig, wanted a group where married couples mentored singles.
Josh and Sara hit it off, and they discovered lots of common interests between them. Their conversation easily flowed during the fellowship time before the Bible study. Sara was surprised how much she missed Josh when he couldn’t attend. Josh realized that the time he had to talk to Sara became the main reason he enjoyed the group. Not a big deal, it’s just talking.
Then the conversation time moved into texting. Not a big deal, everyone texts. But when the two of them began texting about community group issues, their sharing became more personal. Josh’s work stress and loneliness as a single man, and Sara’s challenges in being a pastor’s wife, gave them ways to grow more emotionally intimate with each other.
Then it happened. Their texting became a nightly ritual as Craig was often asleep by 9 pm, and Sara, a night owl, would reach out to Josh to check in and see how he was in regards to his prayer requests. Their texting often lasted an hour or more. The warning line had long since been crossed.
One night Josh felt compelled to be honest and blurted out in a text: I think I’m in love with you. He waited nervously for her reply, and it came within seconds: Me too…my heart’s grown cold towards Craig. No one’s ever understood my heart the way you do. I need you! Her text gave Josh a rush of intoxication and yet, seeing her words also jolted him: Sara was married, and her husband was his pastor!
Josh panicked. Now the reality of their too-close friendship hit him like a punch to the gut. What was so enjoyable and enriching was now an entangled mess. How would their friendship now go forward? What if this got out? Would he have to leave the church? Would Sara’s marriage survive?
If close friendships are an important God-given gift to us, how do we discern if boundaries are being crossed into a danger zone?
Though Josh and Sara never touched one another, they had cultivated an unholy and messy relationship: an emotional affair. An emotional affair happens when two people (one of whom is married to someone else) share a level of emotional intimacy that rightly belongs only to a spouse.
Many men and women miss the alarms going off when a relationship begins to cross obvious warning lines. They assume that because there’s no physical or sexual involvement, the relationship is ok.
But one day an awareness kicks in, and they realize it’s moving in the wrong direction.
Marital unfaithfulness includes any form of shared intimacy with someone other than your spouse. Similarly, it’s not ok when singles become emotionally attached and intimate with a married person.
If close friendships are an important God-given gift to us, how do we discern if boundaries are being crossed into a danger zone? Psalm 16:3-4a says, “As for the saints in the land, they are the excellent ones, in whom is all my delight. The sorrows of those who run after another god shall multiply” (NASB).
Here are some diagnostic questions to help discern if your relationship has morphed into an emotional affair, where a close friendship has become “another god” to run after.
Is there any secrecy or deception involved in your interactions?
How much contact are you in (face to face, over devices, social media, etc.) and how does it compare to how much time you connect with your spouse?
If you are single, how does your contact with this married person compare to other close friendships?
Do you have romantic feeling towards her/him? Sexual chemistry? Mental preoccupation? If yes to any of these, are you seeking to feed or flee from these tempting dynamics?
What is the content of your communication? How would your spouse (or mentor, pastor, close friend) react if she/he saw your texts, your emails, or overheard your private conversations?
Does this relationship inspire you towards obeying Christ, or away from him? Does this relationship propel you towards your spouse, or away? Does this relationship motivate you to invest more passionately into loving other people or isolating yourself and focusing on this one person?
Brother or sister, if these questions (and your answers) make you uncomfortable about this relationship, then: PAUSE! HALT! STOP! You — and your friend — are in danger.
Look, God wants us to have rich and meaningful relationships whether we are single or married. God delights in Christ-centered friendships that stay within the boundaries of his Word, boundaries that are healthy for both friends.
But God never intends for any of his good gifts to become a heart-hijacking reality that steals joy and betrays a spouse’s trust. God is committed to removing relational attachments which lead to sin and distraction. Emotional affairs are a cheap substitute for what God graciously gives: unfailing love and true intimacy of the deepest kind which is ours in Christ!
Next week I’ll write about how to get clear of an emotional affair if you find yourself deep into one.
Join me for my Woman-to-Woman webinar on three consecutive Monday evenings in September, the 11th, 18th, and 25th. For more information or to register, click here: Woman-to-Woman webinar info page.
You can watch Ellen talk some more about this on her accompanying video: Emotional Affairs: When Closeness Becomes Destructive – Part 1. These short videos can be used as discussion starters in small group settings, mentoring relationships, men’s and women’s groups, etc
Friendships are great. We need them, and we are drawn to them. But some friendships can get too close, especially friendships that involve someone who is married to someone else. Do you know the warning signs if this is happening to you, or someone you know?
Click here to go deeper on this subject in Ellen’s blog: “Emotional Affairs: When closeness becomes destructive—Part 1.”
It’s easy to fall in love, but to rebuild it after one spouse sexually sins has unique difficulties and challenges. Ellen interviews one couple who worked through the challenges and discovered how God knit them back together.
After Drew’s admission of years of secret pornography usage, he and Tilina got involved with Harvest USA’s biblical support groups. Ellen Dykas, Harvest USA’s Woman’s Coordinator, asked them to share their story on what helped them reconnect and rebuild intimacy back into their marriage.
Ellen: Can you share briefly what happened in your marriage?
Tilina: Two years into our marriage, Drew confessed to years of pornography addiction. Our sexual intimacy had grown distant and infrequent, as his sexual sin caused him to experience arousal only through images and not a real human being: me, his wife! When his years of deceit came to light, my trust broke to pieces.
Ellen: What was most difficult—and most helpful—in rebuilding trust?
Tilina: Rebuilding trust certainly required effort from both of us. I needed honesty from Drew at all costs, no matter how minor the situation, because I had no gauge of what was true anymore. Hiding or omitting anything would be detrimental to me emotionally. I also needed answers to many questions, even those to which I feared the answers. I started with trusting God, knowing he had my best interest at heart and would help me to trust Drew again.
Drew: It was difficult to disclose and then handle the harsh results of my sin. I had to trust that God could redeem and heal the relationship by shedding my pride and selfishness, learning that the two of us couldn’t rebuild the intimacy of our marriage on our own. The most helpful thing for me was learning how to depend on God by being on my knees and crying out to him. Only the gospel and prayer allowed Tilina and me to grow into a restored marriage.
Ellen: How did Drew’s sexual betrayal impact your sexual relationship?
Tilina: I was stunned when I found out why Drew was so lacking in sexual desire and response to me. After discovering that, I not only lacked any desire to be intimate with him, I felt unattractive, unloved, and, most of all, not good enough as a woman. I didn’t trust him, and I didn’t feel safe around him. But I also desperately wanted to be enough for him. I felt trapped. I didn’t want to share myself sexually, but I would force myself in an attempt to keep him from viewing pornography, and he feared me thinking he was going back if he wasn’t petitioning me for sex. A year after Drew’s confession we were having sex often but not exactly for the right reasons. Our sexual relationship was driven by fear.
A year after Drew’s confession we were having sex often but not exactly for the right reasons. Our sexual relationship was driven by fear.
Ellen: So if you realized that your sexual relationship at that point was unhealthy, what did you do then?
Tilina: In order for us to reconnect inside the bedroom, we first had to develop a strong connection outside the bedroom. The most important thing was being vulnerable. We wanted our sexual relationship to be the “icing on top” of our increasing emotional and spiritual intimacy. After much prayer and discussion, we decided to fast from sex for 90 days.
Our purpose was to grow emotionally and spiritually, and also for Drew to attempt to rewire his brain from the damage caused by years of pornography. This trying and grueling task showed us how God knit us more closely together even when sex wasn’t an active part of our relationship. During that time we daily prayed and read devotions together. We also practiced extended cuddling and uninterrupted listening, both of which allowed us to grow closer. All this helped us to put our sexual relationship in a much better place.
Ellen: How would you encourage a hurting spouse who is fearful about moving forward sexually, post-betrayal?
Tilina: Rebuilding sexual intimacy is tough, because you’ll both feel so far apart. You may find that what cannot be said can instead be felt through touch. Other times, you may be able to talk but still be unable to let yourself be vulnerable enough to touch each other intimately or make love like you used to. Talk to each other directly about your feelings. Be honest if you don’t want to have sex. If you’re open to being physical, but not sexual, tell your spouse what those things are. If you both feel safe, this can move toward sexual intercourse, but it doesn’t have to. Touching, hugging, snuggling, or even showering together may be the goal for the first few weeks or months. Try to be patient with one another and take your time.
Let me encourage you that there is beauty in the struggle. I heard a pastor once say, “Whatever we seek to cover, God will expose it. Whatever we expose God will cover.” Through all this our desperate need for grace becomes illuminated by a perfect loving Savior who grips us into his arms.
Drew: I would encourage a husband who was the betrayer that moving forward is going to burn. I cannot sugarcoat this. But it’s not a furnace of annihilation; rather it’s the grace of refinement. Your pride and self-worship will be chiseled away. Though at first fear and uncertainty may set in, don’t give up; when you realize that God is working all things for your good, you can be more vulnerable to expose your weaknesses and disclose the warfare in your heart. You’ll see your spouse as a helpmate, a friend who truly loves and cares for you, rather than feeling like she’s a drill sergeant or CSI detective.
During this time take steps to build your relationship with your wife vertically; that is, reintroduce God. Pray together, read the Bible together. Horizontally, set up date nights, sleep naked with each other, and fast from sex to rebuild intimacy as you learn to love each other once again without the mask.
Let me encourage you that there is beauty in the struggle. I heard a pastor once say, “Whatever we seek to cover, God will expose it. Whatever we expose God will cover.” Through all this our desperate need for grace becomes illuminated by a perfect loving Savior who grips us into his arms.
Drew and Tilina Chheang have been married for four years. They have a two-year-old son and two daughters, ages 12 and 15, from a previous marriage. Drew works in the housing industry and plans to attend seminary in the near future. Tilina is a stay-at-home mother and intends to continue her education with a Masters in counseling.
Watch Ellen’s interview with Drew and Tilina Chheang here. These short videos can be used as discussion starters in small group settings, mentoring relationships, men’s and women’s groups, etc.
11 Jul 2017
There are few hurts deeper than sexual betrayal. Sex is supposed to be a space of deep vulnerability and intimacy, a place of joyful self-giving. No wonder the Bible calls marriage a “one-flesh” union, where physical nakedness is a profound image of intimacy, of total knowing and complete trust between a wife and husband.
When that trust is broken, a husband and wife will struggle to believe that their sexual intimacy can ever be restored. For those who stay together (and sadly, sometimes that will not be possible), they will need a way forward to become vulnerable and again. It will not be easy, but a focus on the gospel gives real hope and practical help.
To understand how to rebuild trust, it helps to see God’s intention for sexual intimacy within marriage. As Dave White says in his blog, “Just What is Godly Sex?” sexual expression is “analogous to a deeper, eternal reality—a husband and wife are to be devoted to one another, forsaking all others, as a reflection of Jesus’ desire that we be utterly devoted to him, forsaking worship of all others.”
Sexual unfaithfulness breaks trust at the most vulnerable aspect of oneness as a spouse chooses, rather than forsakes, something or someone instead of the one to whom they promised faithfulness. Whether the betrayal is mental, emotional, or physical (or all three), the sins of pornography, sexual fantasy, masturbation, and adultery are ways a spouse breaks from devotion to Christ and their spouse, for worship of self and pleasure.
It is crucial for relational trust and spiritual togetherness to grow between two spouses before they attempt to restore sexual intimacy. If you are already actively pursuing healing in your marriage after the disclosure of sexual unfaithfulness, then consider the following four steps which can bring the kind of healing that makes the renewal of sexual intimacy a reality. If you are a friend, counselor, or pastor, these steps can enable you to help.
Sexual unfaithfulness breaks trust at the most vulnerable aspect of oneness as a spouse chooses, rather than forsakes, something or someone instead of the one to whom they promised faithfulness.
1. Pray and commit for Jesus to have the first place in your heart. Colossians 1:16-17 describes Jesus as Lord and Creator over all, which means he is to be first in all things. This includes your marriage and your sex life! Ask God to show how this failed to happen in your marriage, and in repentance begin learning what a biblical view of sex within marriage is and how Jesus helps you love your spouse.
2. Turn towards your spouse. Firm and strong choices to turn from all things that led to sexual sin must be another initial step. That means cutting off people, places, and situations that are sources of temptation. Trust cannot grow if the offending spouse is not actively seeking to flee from sin. However, fleeing is not enough! It is just as important for both to choose to turn towards the other sexually. This means making your marriage relationship a priority, as well as learning what cultivates an atmosphere of trust and safety for sexual intimacy, before, during, and after being together.
To move in that direction, pray for God to give you renewed emotional, mental, and sexual desire for your spouse alone. In other words, ask God to make you spousal-sexual: radically oriented and devoted to your husband or wife. God delights to respond to this prayer! After all, godly sex is his idea.
3. Cultivate honest communication about sex. God will use the exposure of sexual sin to open up communication on many topics, but the one that will require major focus will be your sexual relationship. Rebuilding trust will require an openness to share feelings, thoughts, and desires in this area. You need to learn what the other enjoys, what brings pleasure, what is uncomfortable, what communicates being used rather than being delighted in. These are extremely vulnerable topics; go slowly, and remember to continually/actively build up your emotional trust with each other. For some, fasting from sexual activity can enable a couple to communicate honestly without the pressure (and fear) of engaging sexually.
4. Pursue and receive your spouse with patient love. Restoring your sexual relationship will take time. Expressing non-sexual affection is a way to express love for the ‘whole person’ of your spouse. Remember that pain and hurt don’t go away quickly, so be patient with yourself and your spouse as you learn new ways of relating. Patience and perseverance are the key words!
You can watch Ellen talk some more about this on her video: Rebuilding Sexual Intimacy After Sexual Betrayal These short videos can be used as discussion starters in small group settings, mentoring relationships, men’s and women’s groups, etc.
11 Jul 2017
Pornography has destroyed countless marriages. Sexual sin of all kinds inflicts deep pain and damage. But in order to repair and restore the marriage, if possible, Ellen talks about four key things every couple needs to do.
01 Jun 2017
In the Bible, living out one’s faith is sometimes referred to as a race. A race we are called to run well—and that includes living with our sexuality. Living a life of sexual integrity means that our focus needs to be on Jesus through every struggle we face and looking at the goal toward which God is calling us.
Click here to dig deeper into what Ellen is saying on Ellen’s blog: Women: Running the Race Well—Part 4.
01 Jun 2017
I hope my first three blogs in this series have helped you consider taking some practical steps to increasingly live with sexual integrity in your life and your relationships.
We’ve looked at how, by faith, we need to throw off anything that distracts or hinders us (blog 1); to learn how to persevere through tough times and not give up (blog 2); and to watch over our hearts to discern when discouragement and discontentment will set us up for failure (blog 3).
In this final blog on making progress in living a life of sexual integrity, here’s the fourth thing we need to do: to keep Jesus and the race he ran in the front of our minds and hearts. It’s this fourth thing that undergirds all the others in pursuing sexual integrity.
We need to take encouragement to put on the mind of Christ, who himself kept one primary goal in his mind during his race.
It’s both an encouragement and a challenge for me to ponder this exhortation: “Therefore, preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:13, ESV).
Peter’s words encourage me when I’m weary or discouraged. Sometimes life feels overwhelmingly tough, even when it has nothing to do with sexual integrity! Or sometimes old temptations rise back up, and I can feel shame in finding myself struggling with the same thing again. But if I prepare my mind for action, I can turn towards God and trusted friends for help and encouragement right when I need it.
Just last week a friend helped me become “sane” again when I was struggling with the seedling of an old sin pattern that emerged again. Her text message to me read, “We need to pray together about this before it grows into something bigger!”
In pride, I hesitated at first but then welcomed the invitation to confess, examine, and pray with someone about the situation. My friend helped me set my hope on Christ, that he would give me what I needed, and that kept me from spiraling inward and getting stuck in examining my temptation, rather than fixing my eyes on Christ and his very present help for me.
Now, there’s everything right in examining our hearts and gaining clarity on the temptations facing us, but we can do that and not take the next step. It’s the next step that is crucial!
I needed to have my thinking reoriented by both the present grace and the future grace that Christ gives me. I needed to hope again in what God can do in and through my present struggles (read that verse in 1 Peter again).
Peter’s words challenge me that I must also put my hope in the grace which is to come: the ultimate redemption which will fill the earth upon Christ’s return. It’s so important to practice redemptive remembering both backward and forward: that Christ has finished his race and that the glorious and final overcoming of sin, death, and the kingdom of darkness is coming. It is still yet to come, but it IS coming!
OK, you say, how does looking ahead help me now in my present struggles with pornography, or sexual fantasy, or unholy relationships that I get myself entangled in?
Remember earlier when I said to put on the mind of Christ, who himself kept one primary goal in his mind during his race? We need to realize that Jesus had us in mind when he endured temptation and suffering!
Hebrews 12: 2-3 says, “…looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross…Consider him who endured such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted.”
Thinking about, reflecting upon, meditating on Jesus’ sufferings and his obedience through everything he endured is the key way we faithfully walk our race of faith.
Our mind is to have Christ in mind; our goal is to honor Christ, to glorify him, in how we grow to trust him and live for him.
Jesus’ mind was to have us in his mind; his goal was to anticipate the joy he would have when his death and resurrection secured our place with him.
“…who for the joy set before him endured the cross…”
There is a finish line. Look at it, like Jesus did. All of human history is moving toward Revelation 4 and 21, which speaks of Jesus sitting on the throne, the One who will wipe away every tear from our eyes. All sin, death, suffering, every struggle you have had in running this race of faith will be overturned; everything will be made new (Revelation 21:5).
And then you will fully believe that it was all worth it.
Sisters, don’t live and act like this life is all there really is. Don’t live out of the acronym FOMO (fear of missing out) and think and live sexually in ways that dishonor Christ because you are not getting your needs met.
RUN, sisters, RUN this race of faith with sexual integrity! Find running companions. Don’t try to go solo. As Hebrews 12 says, when our hands are drooping and our knees are wobbly and weak, God sends encouragement through other believers, other runners in the race of faith.
Let’s together help one another to grow in living with sexual integrity, urging one another to look to Jesus when this dark world distracts or entices us.
We can persevere in this life of faith by considering Jesus: our great High Priest, our Loving Savior, the One who sat down on the throne…and is coming again to complete the work he has started!
You can watch Ellen talk more on this subject here in her video, Running the Race Well—Part 4. These short videos can be used as discussion starters in small group settings, mentoring relationships, men’s and women’s groups, etc.
Updated 6.13.2017, 5.31.2018
25 May 2017
In the Bible, living out one’s faith is sometimes referred to as a race. A race we are called to run well—and that includes living with our sexuality. Living a life of sexual integrity involves what Ellen calls “staying in our lane.” God has marked out a path for us, and it is in that very path that we grow and prosper. Not outside of that lane.