Ah, that delicious feeling of falling in love… Isn’t it wonderful?! The thrill of being noticed, the discovery of common interests and mutual affection – even the delight in your differences! Your passions are ignited; you just can’t get enough of each other – you want to spend all your time with one another, to know each other’s every thought, to share all your hopes and dreams…
There’s nothing else quite like falling in love.
There has been a lot of talk about infidelity with the recent Ashley Madison scandal. For those out of the news loop, Ashley Madison is (was?) a website dedicated to the arrangement of extra-marital affairs – a ‘hook-up’ site for married people. That such an organization existed was news to me; I was shocked that there was a company dedicated to orchestrating infidelity. Worse still, it seems to have been a thriving business.
There are those who argue that humans just aren’t meant to be monogamous; marriage, to these people, is a social construct – and one which contravenes our very nature. To proponents of this theory, the marriage relationship has little to no merit. With all due respect (kind of), I’m going to dismiss this theory as disillusionist propaganda – the philosophy of those so jaded by their experience of dysfunctional relationships that they are closed to the possibility of a healthy and fulfilling union.
I’m writing with the belief that marriage is indeed something special. As one definition puts it:
Marriage, also called matrimony or wedlock, is a socially or ritually recognized union or legal contract between spouses that establishes rights and obligations between them, between them and their children, and between them and their in-laws.
It is, at its essence, a monogamous relationship; maintaining and protecting the sanctity of that relationship is one of the ‘obligations’ mentioned in the definition above. And, far from being restrictive (which is the argument of marriage’s many detractors), the bonds of matrimony provide those within their confines with the freedom to love one another liberally and without restraint.
But what about when that sanctity is destroyed? Infidelity is a betrayal of that sacred trust we bestow upon our spouse when we exchange marriage vows. As I’ve discussed in the past, this betrayal also reaches beyond the couple themselves into the extended family and society as a whole.
I don’t think that many people set out to become unfaithful. Well perhaps I should say that, aside from the multitude of Ashley Madison subscribers, I don’t think that married people who end up having affairs do so because they’ve intended to do so. I do think that those who end up having affairs often do so because they haven’t been intentional enough about NOT being unfaithful.
There are plenty of people who simply don’t know that they need to be on their guard against temptation. In fact, if you talk about the concept of temptation amongst your group of friends you will probably find that the discussion revolves around the temptation to eat too many treats, or the temptation to be a bit ‘naughty’ with spending or reckless in our use of time. Rarely do we treat the issue of temptation with the seriousness it truly merits, because temptation – not only the urge to indulge in the vices of gluttony and sloth, but also sexual temptation – has the potential to destroy lives.
So – if we agree that temptation is a risk, and that falling prey to that temptation can have damnable results, we need to look at how to guard ourselves against it.
First, we need to understand that temptation isn’t a physical thing. It’s not just acting on temptation that’s a problem; we need to cut it off at its source. Keeping our thought-life in check is our first line of defense.
But there’s no harm in just thinking something!, you might say. Have you ever heard the legal term ‘malice aforethought’? This term is particular to culpability in cases of grievous injury or murder – but the same idea applies here. Thinking about something is often the first step to doing it; as the Bible says, “from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries” (Mark 7:21). In other words, our thoughts give birth to our actions.
What this means in real life is this: don’t indulge in fantasies about men other than your spouse. Don’t allow yourself the train of thought, “What would it be like to live with that guy?” or “What if I’d married that boyfriend?”*. Once again the Ten Commandments come into play – “you shall not covet your neighbour’s wife” (Exodus 20:17) and “you shall not commit adultery” (Jesus said, “But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”)
Fantasizing about someone (other than your spouse) is a sin against that person. If that idea doesn’t sit comfortably with you, let me ask you this, “Would you think it was OK for some guy – let’s imagine for a second that he’s NOT someone you find at all appealing – to indulge in sexual fantasies about you on a regular basis?” No, right? Kind of gross – kind of creepy. That’s because he’s assuming a relationship with you to which you haven’t consented. And if you’re getting all hot and bothered about someone (other than your husband) YOU find attractive, and indulging in fantasies about him, you’re kind of being like that creep. Sorry!
We need to guard our thoughts if we are to avoid falling into temptation.
Secondly, we need to guard our eyes. We don’t literally need to wear blinkers; figuratively, though, blinkers are a good idea. What that means is that, although we’re able to see what we need to see, we decide what to look at and we opt out of looking at things that ‘lead us into temptation’.
Let me be clear about this: God created beauty. He made our bodies to be things of beauty (our own insecurities notwithstanding), and there’s nothing shameful about the attractive nature of our design. God created the world to be a sensuous place – full of texture and appeal to delight all our senses. God created love, too – and in this, too, there are textures and shades. There’s unconditional (agape) love, familial (storge) love, filial (phileo) love, and eros. Eros, or romantic love, is to be reserved for our spouse. Job, described in the Bible as ‘blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil’, said, “I have made a covenant with my eyes; How then could I gaze at a virgin?” (Job 31:1)
Guarding our eyes means not ogling that guy’s six-pack in the underwear ad. It means not turning our head to gaze for longer at a good-looking dude as we drive by. It means not indulging in movies or magazines or other media that show gratuitous nudity. Pornography, in particular, is damaging to our sexuality. Looking away from these things is as much about protecting our own sense of sensuality in our marriage as it is about honouring our spouses. West is very good about keeping those blinkers on, but I tease him a bit – we’ll be driving down the road past a pretty girl, and I’ll turn in the passenger seat and just stare at him, watching to see his reaction, until he laughs. Sometimes he hasn’t even seen anything, and he has to ask, “What did I miss??” But it’s a joke between us, really, because he has never caused me to feel jealous by gawking at other women.
We need to be prepared to look away from temptations.
Third, we should be wary of our actions. So maybe you’re a touchy-feely kind of girl – I’m pretty physically demonstrative, so I can relate – and you think there’s no harm in giving your workmate (‘he’s more like a brother…’) a shoulder-rub, or you naturally reach out and squeeze the arm of a guy-friend as you walk by… And in a way you’d be right: there’s nothing wrong with showing physical affection for others – even others of the opposite sex – but you’d better be careful that your gesture of affection isn’t interpreted as something else (something more). And you’d better be sure that it doesn’t turn into something more.
Can I just say here that I do have very close, beloved male friends – and I am not trying to make the case that ‘guys and girls just can’t be platonic friends’, because that’s just rubbish. What I am saying is that I’m careful about how I behave with them – no flirting, no innuendo, no coquettish brushing against them. In the Bible it says, “Abstain from all appearance of evil” – so I don’t give my male friends – or my husband – any cause to wonder if I might feel something more for them.
We have to guard ourselves physically.
This might seem like a post full of ‘do nots’; let’s move on, then, to some more proactive stuff. Avoiding temptation also involves some decisive action.
We need to focus on our own spouse. We should avoid fantasizing about others, but we should indulge in a healthy thought-life about our spouse. We should think good things about them. We should bask in delightful memories of our love and use our imaginations to enhance future interactions with our spouse. We should be mindful in how we talk to them and we should be intentional about appreciating them.
We need to look away from other tempting sights, but we should have our eyes open to the appeals of the one to whom we’re married.
We have to be careful that we don’t send others the wrong signals with our physical contact; we also have to be careful to send the right signals to our spouse. We should nurture our physical relationship and not take our closeness for granted.
Sometimes, when we’ve been married for a while and we sometimes feel like just another part of the furniture, we can be taken by surprise when temptation jumps out at us. Sometimes we underestimate our ability to attract the attention of the opposite sex; and when someone notices us it’s a pleasant surprise. But we have to guard ourselves against trading our sacred contract for a momentary thrill.
One of the best ways to guard yourself from succumbing to the temptation of new love is to hold a deep and abiding belief in the unique pleasure we enjoy in having a mature love. Believing in the special nature of marital longevity and believing in the virtue of fidelity (and the sanctity of marriage) will go a long way to fending off temptation. Think about all your inside-jokes as a couple, your shared history, your unique bond. A marriage that has stood the test of time is a very, very special thing. Don’t trade that for anything.
Finally, we should be both on our guard against temptation and willing to flee from temptation. Joseph (of the Technicolour Dreamcoat) literally fled the advances of his boss’s amorous wife. Indeed, turning away from temptation and running in the opposite direction is the biblical way:
Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a person commits are outside the body, but whoever sins sexually, sins against their own body.
(1 Corinthians 6:18)
Flee the evil desires of youth and pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace, along with those who call on the Lord out of a pure heart.
(2 Timothy 2:22)
On my run the other day, I was tired. I felt weak. All I really wanted to do was find a shortcut and head home – but I knew that I had further to go. As I approached my own street on the circuit, I crossed the road away from it. Physically moving myself further away from the path home was remarkably effective; I was able to focus on the road ahead and I was no longer tempted to curtail my progress.
Don’t be afraid to take evasive manoeuvres in avoiding temptation. Politely remove yourself from the company of someone who insists on flirting with you. Disengage yourself from discussions in which someone of the opposite sex is unloading to you about the difficulties in their marriage (unless you are a minister or a marriage counsellor and listening to their trials in an official capacity – or if you as a couple are supporting them in their marriage). Decline the offer of a car-ride from someone if it seems like there’s a frisson of desire there.
A surprising fallout from the 9/11 tragedy was the dissolution of the marriages of a number of New York firefighters. The reason? They left their wives for the widows of their fallen colleagues. Nobody suspected that something as seemingly innocent as supporting a grieving widow could have these unintended consequences for their marriages; it would have been wiser to have offered this support as a unit or a couple. Maybe it seems old-fashioned, but it is not a good idea for a married man and a single woman to consistently spend time alone together (or a married woman with a single guy) – it can lead to a sense of intimacy and pull the married person away from his or her spouse.
It doesn’t matter if you feel foolish for being careful. It doesn’t matter if you feel a bit rude for being firm about your boundaries. ‘Abstain from all appearance of evil.’
There’s nothing like falling in love, true – but it’s no substitute for the love that’s stood the test of time.
How to Affair-Proof Your Marriage
- Recognize temptation
- Avoid temptation:
- Guard your mind
- Guard your eyes
- Guard your actions
- Keep your focus on your spouse
- Believe in the importance of both fidelity and marital longevity
*Further to this point: Imagining ‘what ifs’ is a fool’s game. It’s bound to lead to unhappiness and disenchantment, especially when our marriage is going through a rough patch. We have to remember, if everyone got divorced when they went through a phase of finding their spouse chronically frustrating and impossible to live with, there wouldn’t be any marriages that lasted longer than two or three years!
PS Just a note to the guys reading this – apologies for writing from the female perspective instead of making it all even or neutral, but it just got too messy. The same applies for you, though, as I’m sure you’ve figured out. Thanks for reading!