Marriage can be a great source of joy and fulfillment—which can be lost when a spouse has an emotional affair. How can husbands and wives avoid this?
In recent decades, marriage has been under attack. With the greater acceptance of premarital cohabitation, polyamory, open marriages and the redefinition of marriage itself, it’s a wonder that marriage has survived at all in our “enlightened” society.
This is a concerning trend for married people who are working hard to maintain and develop their marriage, even if it’s far from picturesque or perfect. Marriage should be a loving partnership between best friends who are intimately close and want to share every step of their lives.
Christians also recognize that our marriages symbolize Jesus Christ’s relationship with the Church (Ephesians 5:22-33). A husband is to love his wife as himself and as Christ loved the Church. A wife is to submit to her husband as the Church submits to Jesus Christ. A husband and wife are to work together as a team to address challenges and provide for each other’s needs.
To learn more about the biblical teaching on marriage, read “What Is Marriage?”
When needs are neglected
When husbands and wives ignore these responsibilities and roles, problems will arise. When a spouse’s needs are neglected, especially emotional needs, he or she can be tempted to fulfill those needs outside of marriage.
This can lead to a physical affair—where one seeks sexual intimacy outside the marriage. The Bible is clear that this is never the solution: “You shall not commit adultery” (Exodus 20:14). (To learn more about the sin of adultery, read “Seventh Commandment: You Shall Not Commit Adultery.”)
But that isn’t the only type of affair that can occur due to neglected needs.
What is an emotional affair?
An emotional affair is “when someone develops a close and emotionally intimate relationship with someone other than their partner. While the relationship is a non-sexual connection, it can closely resemble the bond found in marriage or devoted relationships” (ChoosingTherapy.com).
Emotional affairs can devastate trust and security within marriages and can often (though not always) lead to a physical affair. Instead of working to improve the marriage, one spouse looks for an easier fix outside the marriage. This is essentially saying, “Someone else can fulfill a need that my spouse isn’t, so I’ll just go with it.”
Healthy relationships with friends outside of the marriage relationship can be positive and good, but a friend should not become a surrogate marriage partner or a closer companion than one’s spouse. An emotional affair occurs when someone begins to wish a close friend were his or her spouse and leans on the friend more than his or her spouse.
The feelings of guilt for emotionally betraying a mate can lead to deception and the same kind of secrecy found in sexual affairs.
Most marriages are a work in progress and many variables can impact emotional connection. We must recognize that it’s impossible to meet our spouse’s every need perfectly. Yet marriages will survive and thrive when a husband and wife consistently choose to work on better meeting each other’s needs instead of giving up and looking elsewhere.
Warning signs of a developing emotional affair
Generally speaking, men are more likely to engage in a physical affair, and women are more likely to pursue emotional affairs. Emotional affairs don’t happen overnight. They typically develop slowly and subtly, sometimes even subconsciously due to feeling alone or disconnected from one’s spouse.
Emotional affairs don’t happen overnight. They typically develop slowly and subtly.Consider some red flags of a developing emotional affair:
- The spouse spends time texting, messaging or calling another person of the opposite sex, usually in secret.
- Emotional needs are no longer brought up in marital conversations because they are being met by someone else.
- Significant changes in a couple’s sex life and emotional connectivity can indicate either an emotional or physical affair.
Avoiding the trap of an emotional affair
Husbands and wives must fulfill each other’s emotional needs within the marriage. How can a couple do this, and thus prevent either spouse from looking for fulfillment outside the marriage?
Consider some ways to avoid an emotional affair long before it becomes a temptation:
- Practice being grateful and regularly giving thanks and appreciation to your spouse (1 Thessalonians 5:18).
- Practice showing mercy and compassion to your partner as he or she struggles to meet needs and to forgive offenses that could lead to contempt or bitterness. Let mercy triumph over judgment (James 2:13).
- Regularly have open conversations about the health of your marriage and how well both of you are doing at meeting the needs of the other.
Some areas that might come up include:
a. “I need more sex.” If this comes up, hopefully it will lead a couple to ensure that some time spent on TV or social media is replaced by much-needed physical intimacy (1 Corinthians 7:3-5). If a couple isn’t careful, the issue of physical intimacy and emotional connection can become a “which came first, the chicken or the egg?” issue. She might say, “If he would just connect more with me emotionally and romantically, I would want to have sex more often,” while he might say, “If she would just demonstrate that she has sexual desire for me and realize that sex is a need for me and not just a want, I would want to connect more emotionally.” Both are needed.
b. “I need more time for us to talk and be together.” Hopefully, this conversation will lead a couple to spend less time on the mundane things and more time on activities that encourage much-needed emotional intimacy and quality time together. This should lead to loving not just in word and tongue but in deed and truth (1 John 3:18).
c. “I need more help caring for our family.” Hopefully, this conversation will lead to both husband and wife committing to working better together as a team, helping each other keep the household running smoothly, and making sure the bulk of the burden isn’t falling on one person. For a marriage to work well, both husband and wife must look out for the other’s interests more than his or her own wants and desires (Philippians 2:3-4).
Emotional affairs are not the answer—working together is
If one partner is making a reasonable effort to improve the situation and meet some unmet needs, while the other is not, this should be discussed as a problem in the marriage. If the problem persists, it may require going to a minister or a licensed marriage counselor for help to address this issue.
For Christians, the most significant deterrent to falling into an affair, whether emotional or physical, should be God’s Spirit, which follows the intent of the commandment against adultery.
Instead of pursuing fulfillment in an emotional affair, husbands and wives must look to the biblical solution to marriage problems: working together to identify and meet each other’s needs and committing to strengthening and improving the marriage relationship.
This path is free of secrecy, betrayal, risk and sin.