But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people. – Ephesians 5:3, NIV (emphasis mine)
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” – Jesus in Matthew 5:27-28, NIV
With adultery being the clearest example granting a faithful spouse grounds for a Biblical divorce (see Deut 22:22, Jer 3:8, and Mt 19:9), this inevitably leads to the question as to what to do with an admitted emotional affair. It is not sexual contact with another person. So, does an emotional affair matter in God’s eyes?
Yes, it does matter and greatly.
Emotional affairs are not acceptable in God’s eyes. Jesus makes that clear in the verses quoted above. Jesus’ own words suggests He recognized emotional affairs or affairs in the heart are serious. He did not give a pass to them in the Sermon on the Mount.
How do we handle these sort of affairs as Christian leaders? I will utilize a fictitious case study to talk about addressing emotional affairs from my own perspective. Here’s a scenario:
A wife comes into the pastor’s office with her husband. Both are professing Christians and members of the church. The wife produces risque electronic messages between her husband and another woman. Her husband admits to having an emotional affair but claims that was “all.” He then launches into a story about how he felt neglected at home and just fell prey to this flirtatious woman from work. That’s why he had an emotional affair. He never would have had an emotional affair if his wife had been better at loving and respecting him at home.
1. First, I would encourage the pastor to reflect what was admitted and confront the unfaithful spouse with his sin.
It is important to protect the faithful spouse! She has just experienced a wicked sucker-punch from her trusted spouse. It is traumatic and disorienting to say the least! The pastor is not directly involved in the marriage and is in a position of power that can help. Be strong and do not minimize this sin. Take this admission of an emotional affair or adultery of the heart very seriously just as Jesus does in the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5:27-28). Do not accept blame-shifting from the cheating spouse. This helps no one and harms both spouses spiritually as it is a false teaching. One is only responsible for one’s own sin and not another’s.
Here’s a suggested model response to the unfaithful husband:
“I just heard you admit to violating your marriage vows by having an emotional affair. Your wife did not sin by having an affair. You did. For the sake of your marriage and your soul, I suggest you stop blaming other people for your own sinful choices. Repentance cannot even begin until you own your sin fully and stop blaming your wife or the marriage conditions.”
2. Don’t be niave: Liars lie.
Just because he said he did not have sex with the other woman does not make it so. It is dangerously naive and foolish to trust an admitted liar’s words at face value. To quote Dr. Phil again, “‘For every rat you see, there’s fifty you don’t.’” So, I would suggest to assume it went further than what the cheater admitted.
I feel taking this default stance of guilt following an admission or evidence of an emotional affair is important on two levels: 1) it is a wise stance to take when dealing with a known liar and 2) it leaves Biblical divorce on the table for the faithful spouse without a hint of condemnation. The faithful spouse may never be able to prove her spouse had sex with the other woman. However, she has proof her husband violated the marriage covenant by having an emotional affair, minimally.
To be clear: I am not saying to divorce over an emotional affair alone. I am saying divorce may be the best of the bad options in some circumstances involving an emotional affair. Plus, I am encouraging outsiders to keep a clear head and not get sucked into the deception that it was “only” an emotional affair because the cheater said so. Don’t let your desire to salvage the marriage as a pastor or Christian leader blind you to the obvious (e.g. he had many opportunities to commit adultery and a desire to do so).
I say trusting the cheating spouse’s word is a dangerous mistake to make because it may involve leaving the faithful spouse open to getting an STD. As an act of good faith, I would suggest asking the cheating spouse to get tested. If push back occurs, point out that he broke his wife’s trust by having an emotional affair, and it is reasonable to ask him to give her concrete proof she is minimally safe from STDs. It ought to be no big deal getting tested if he actually cares about his wife (and is not lying).
3. Be aware: Strong incentives exist to NOT admit to sexual sin in evangelical, Christian circles.
The Bible’s teaching on emotional affairs is just not as clear and direct as its teachings on adultery. This creates wiggle room for the unfaithful spouse if he only admits to an emotional affair. If successful in confessing and blame-shifting, he might even be able to walk out of the pastor’s office after spending the lion’s share of the time talking about his wife’s deficiencies as opposed to his adultery of the heart. This becomes much more difficult to accomplish if he admits to adultery. Evangelicals generally take sexual sin more seriously than other sin (at least, that’s my experience). By confessing adultery, the cheating spouse is “giving” his Christian wife a clear, Biblical way out of the marriage. She can divorce him (Mt. 19:9), and he would look really bad to other Christians who found out why. In short, the power would shift drastically away from the cheating spouse if a “Christian” spouse admitted to more than an emotional affair. All of these things are strong reason to lie!
In closing, I offer these thoughts as counsel I wished a pastor in my life had followed when I had clear evidence of an emotional affair (this came before clear evidence of adultery). And I offer these words to those who have written here and elsewhere about their own similar struggles to be faithful to God in the midst of discovering their spouse in an emotional affair. May God use my hurt, my experience, and my pastoral training to bring healing to those who find themselves struggling today.