Is it really “just” an emotional affair?

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

1930415_74250750440_6305_nWith 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.

18 thoughts on “Is it really “just” an emotional affair?”

  1. I think every elder and minister/pastor should read this post. They treated my husband’s emotional affair somewhat serious by kicking him out of the elders but wouldn’t kick him out of the church. That was pretty frustrating for me. They also expected me to forgive it very easily. The one elder who really understood was the one who’s first wife had cheated on him. He understood it much better than the others. I think a lot of this is a lack of real understanding of how serious this really is and how tragic it is to a family. I firmly believe that infidelity is worse than death. This has been much harder than my beloved dad’s death. (I wished my dad was still here to kick my husband’s butt!)

  2. I had great understanding from a minister whose father had abandoned his family. Certainly I’m with on it being a bereavement, but with a death the other person does not chose to leave you, you have a funeral, you are able to mourn, you inherit your spouse’s share of the house, any savings which had been for your future life together, no sharing with a random other woman and being forced into a situation where you have to fight for your fair share. At least the children can visit a grave any time
    I just wish I’d known how serious emotional affairs are. He minimised the one I knew about so much, in fact denying that that was what they were

    1. Nell,

      You are not the first to tell me that a death is easier to grieve than a divorce (especially one caused by adultery). My father told me that it was easier losing his own mother (and father) than seeing me hurt through being cheated on, divorced, and put on trial by my former denomination. It is definitely a complicated grief to put it mildly. And I did not even have kids with my ex. That might have put me over the edge. My hat is off to you and other faithful spouses here who keep it together even while seeing their cheating exes hurt the kids. That adds a whole new level of injustice to an already unjust situation.


  3. I have been married 37 years and My husband has had an emotional affair for 12 years it has been over for 2 he said they never had sex except for phone sex and kissing and cuddling. Recently I discovered he was advertising for sex in the porn community sites, I was sent one of the links.
    He is very remorseful but says he does not know why he cheated

    1. I can tell you why he cheated. He does it because he feels he is entitled to do whatever he wants even if it hurts other people. It is a lack of a fully developed conscience. He doesn’t have internal brakes, so he chooses sin repeatedly instead of what God tells us is right. His cheating has absolutely nothing to do with you.

    2. DK- I don’t buy for a second that an affair of 12 years never went beyond kissing. The fact they were kissing and cuddling means it’s beyond emotional. Nor is there any logic in sex not happening when he’s advertising for sex in the porn community on top of that. He’s playing you and he’s not telling you the truth. They tend to only cop to what they think you already know. Compound that with that they don’t think they’ve done anything wrong, yet they know you’ll think they did something wrong (why would they hide it otherwise?), so they’ll somehow rationalize that that means they shouldn’t tell you. They’re “protecting” you by not telling you. Total BS. I doubt he’s truly remorseful. Check here to see if it’s real remorse.

  4. What constitutes and emotional affair? Would a wife sharing a large chunk of her time on the phone with a male business partner, talking about things other than business show up on the affair scale?

    1. Ladyshuainpa,

      In my opinion, an emotional affair is an illicit intimate relationship with someone of the opposite sex or someone who is a potential sexual partner. The other spouse determines whether or not it is illicit. Does this relationship bother you? If so, then it needs to end. The marriage ought to be the priority and not this relationship.

      Also, secrecy about an illicit relationship is a sign that an emotional affair is occurring as you do not hide something that is innocent. From what you shared, I would consider a wife talking a lot about things unrelated to business with a male coworker an emotional affair. And I am skeptical that emotional affairs is where it ends with adults who have already experienced sex. In other words, the phone records may just be the tip of the cheating iceberg. Regardless, it is serious and needs serious attention.


  5. My wife had a long term emotional affair with the head elder of the Church who was also my best friend. It went on for about a year before I discovered it. The head Pastor who was also his friend didn’t want to see if for what it was. “He’s just helping her I should be thankful”. If he was just helping her then why was it also kept from his wife. I had my faults but all that was done was to reflect on how bad of a husband I was even after bringing out how he bought her a cell phone, jewrery, getting caught chatting on the Internet, her cutting work and going places with him for the day. She lied and deceived me for so long. I thought I was going to loose my mind. I pulled my family out of that Church and we went to another local evangelical church. When I finally caught them on a day trip 50 miles away my new pastor took action and went back to the old church. They went through Church discipline and removed him from the church body. This went on for 4 years. After giving my wife an ultimatum things started to improve. It was like an addiction to her. She even admitted that. Not sure if there was any sexual relations and i think I don’t really want to know.

    I went to a Biblical counselor for 2 to 3 years. He helped me a lot to see what I was doing wrong as a Christian husband and father. Unfortunately she would only go for a couple of sessions.

    In addition to the Biblical counselor I also counseled with a couple of pastors and they all couldn’t believe that her affair partner not only was an elder but the pastor was allowing him to give communion.

    I could write a book on all that happened.

    In retrospect if his Pastor would have saw if for what it ultimately was I think that it would have resolved itself quicker. It’s amazing how a wolf in sheeps clothing used Gods word to make things seem right.

  6. Dear DM,

    I wish that people understood that Emotional Affairs can destroy a marriage too. My now exhusband had an internet affair with a foreigner for just a few weeks. Then I was told that he found his soulmate, even though we’d been married 20 yrs, and he knew he must marry her. He chose to divorce me for someone he had not even met in real life. Once we were officially separated he flew to meet her and no doubt took it to the adultery level while we were still married.

    It still hurts to be rejected as easily thrown away for someone he didn’t even know. Yes physical adultery is horrible, but also being shown you could be replaced by anybody so quickly is also soul destroying.

    I mean how can one explain to themselves that it’s okay to abandon your loved one for just a chance of a fantasy?

  7. I love this article for the fact someone is willing to call sin, sin! One problem I have learned with Christians is we need someone to blame for our problems and decisions other than ourselves. Affairs start with the conversation, which you test the waters, then confiding in someone who seems to have all the answers, then usually followed by their own marital problems. The bible teaches us that Satan comes to steal, kill, and destroy. This is the same process in which sin works and it really works in marriages. I was a pastor for years and fell victim to this process but the tough part was not knowing how far I drifted. Sin takes you farther than you want to go and keeps you longer than you want to be kept. My ex wife had taken a morning after pill and didn’t tell me and had threatened to kill my 2nd child along with herself. I was afraid to divorce bc of what could happen to them and that I would no longer be able to pastor bc of the divorce. That was my crutch to begin searching and it was justifiable to other pastors. I am more than ashamed for what I became and how selfish I was. No excuses I was wrong bc no matter what her conduct was I was a Christian first and that’s not representing his will at all. I encourage anyone who reads this even if you are the victim to self evaluate and own your part and repent! When I say repent I mean confess and turn away from it. I have remarried and I purged my land of things not in his plan. I have confessed to my new and ex wife of my sins along with God. I never counsel without my wife and she has access to my entire life. I set boundraies and fill myself with with information and holy spirit to be a godly husband, and father. In closing I found my purpose in this life and for years I thought it was a pastor but I know now it is to be an obedient servant of God in all I do and answer any call on my life after securing home (and by home I mean wife and kids) may God bless those who get have been hurt by these things and those doing the hurting. I pray God reveals the truth and we seek it to break these chains and learn to love our wives as Christ loved the church. Wives submit unto your husband and you would unto the Lord. We both have a job and I pray we do it with all we have for his name sake… God bless and please forgive me for my sins as well!

    1. james37,

      Obviously, I do not ascribe to “The Shared Responsibility Lie” in such matters. So, I disagree majorly with one point:

      You wrote,
      “I encourage anyone who reads this even if you are the victim to self evaluate and own your part and repent!”

      We never cause anyone else to sin, period.

      A victim of sin did not “cause” themselves to be victimize. The sinful heart alone of the sinner caused the sin (e.g. Mark 7:21-22). Now, we may have (and likely did) sin in our marriages in some way and ought to own that. However, that is not the same as taking part of our own sinful victimization–i.e. being violated via the adulterous betrayal of our (ex) spouse.


  8. I have mixed feelings about this post. I want victims to be heard and protected. However, to just assume that a man is lying about having had sex just because he had opportunity, and (we assume) desire… That bothers me.

    I am a man in a long-term marriage in which my wife is emotionally abusive, and has defrauded me of everything in the vow, except by way of physical adultery. I have had to deal with long-lasting, deep depression. When I’m talking to pastors, elders, or christian counselors, they nearly always assume I am the problem. I have the emotional fallout of years of severe rejection from her and her family, but they assume this is proof that I’m the perpetrator. One group of elders accused me of sexual sin without any motive other than their own suspicion (which my wife happily fed).

    God didn’t want wives to be falsely accused so he devised the test in Numbers chapter 5. I don’t think he has changed his mind, or that he thinks it’s okay if the man is being accused. Clearly lies need to be ferreted out, but let’s not just assume guilt. That is not just. It is a powerful way for one spouse to abuse the other.

  9. Thank you for this post. My H had an emotional affair 5 1/2 yrs ago…he had a physical affair 2 yrs into our marriage when he went overseas for 1 yr…. OF COURSE he said that that one was also an emotional affair, they just held hands and kissed…right. I didn’t believe him then and this post confirms to me that in all probability it was sexual!
    I’ve had THREE of my friends tell me that an emotional affair isn’t as hurtful as their husbands sexual affair, and while I admit that a sexual affair is really bad….disgusting….an emotional affair causes the same feelings of pain, betrayal, lack of trust, etc. as a sexual affair.
    I’ve had to go online to blogs to get ANY support, because the friends in my life just don’t care. I do have the support of my four sons…so I am blessed in that.
    My marriage has never recovered, because my H has never worked to fix himself, or our marriage…I’ve asked my H to move out this summer…NOW he wants to go back to counseling and work on our marriage! HA! Too late!

    I appreciate your honesty, DM…it’s needed badly in the churches today!

  10. DM,
    Finding your article has helped me tremendously to validate some things. I discovered evidence of my wife’s inappropriate friendship with a co-worker three years ago. She quickly apologized and admitted that it was excessive and wrong. However, she’s always maintained that it wasn’t an emotional affair because she never did anything physical, nor held any romantic feelings for this man. My argument has always been this: for more than two years she was regularly having private, secret conversations with another man. The conversations regularly took place before and after work, on weekends, and even late at night. Multiple conversations even took place on family trips and vacations during that time span.
    All of this was discovered by checking her phone records. I knew they were friends, but this discovery destroyed my trust in her. For months she tried to say it was never kept a secret on purpose, and to this day she refuses to admit it was an emotional affair. Why? Because he was only a friend, and it never felt wrong. It’s been impossible for me to accept her explanation.
    At the time we were believers without a church home. Today we are members of a great body of believers, and our kids are also flourishing in this church.
    I forgave her for what I know, but it’s difficult to completely forgive something you don’t understand. Deep down I feel this resentment towards her for what feels like a half-hearted repentance.
    We never went to counseling over this. But I have asked her to go and we are scheduling it now. I hope we can find resolution, so that I can truly forgive and move on from this chapter.

    1. You said when caught, “She quickly apologized and admitted that it was excessive and wrong.” Then she later equivocated about the relationship not being so bad: “Because he was only a friend, and it never felt wrong.” So, which statement does she believe? It was wrong or it wasn’t? It was merely an innocent friendship or it wasn’t?

      I am more likely to believe what she said when caught red-handed. She knows she was giving her heart to another–whether or not she considers it “romantic” is beside the point. Also, it does not have to “feel wrong” to BE wrong. She did not get to this point overnight after all.

      Best wishes for you in this situation. Please do not allow her or the counselor to blame you for this inappropriate behavior on her part. And also, please do not let the counselor take the focus of this clear breach of trust committed by your wife. Those are my recommendations. Hope you do not mind me saying so!

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