For those of you who know me, I think you had some idea I would approach this subject a bit differently than the circle-the-wagons fear that is served up in many churches. Yet, there is a great need to recognize that emotional affairs can bring a great sense of betrayal with all the accompanied emotional effects.
Pastorally, there is a need for deep wisdom. A wisdom that doesn't minimize the present brokenness, betrayal, abandonment, or despair on the one hand. But a wisdom that drinks in the depths of the shalom, righteousness, and the deep beauty of reconciliation between the sexes in God's Story on the other hand. There is a great need to present a better way, a way of flourishing, deep passionate shalom in this present world of embodied sexuality in the kingdom. In the spirit of N.T. Wright's book, Surprised by Hope, we are not called to leave this world as is, to accept betrayal in marriage as something of a norm, or to passively accept high walls of fear between men and women who are not married to each other.
I want to explore the three scenarios.
Concealment is when a spouse has essentially chosen to live a "double life" in secrecy from their mate. There are myriads of ways the friendship turns into something of an intensive deception. Perhaps the first couple of times they met (online, office lunch, after work drinks) it was just more convenient to do it and it appeared innocent. But then they experienced a surge of emotional/sexual energy which provided a sudden rush and they began to "meet" more. I am outlining just one example. As I mentioned, there are thousands of different ways this deliberate secrecy develops and thrives without the spouse knowing it.
Not only is secrecy maintained, but the spouse may express outright lies or manipulative hiding of what is really happening in order to protect the ongoing connecting secrecy. I am not speaking here of sex affairs but of emotionally intense, sexually charged friendships deliberately shielded from the other's mate. The immediate accessibility of texting and online chat provides opportunity for intense concealment equal to the intensity of the relationship.
As many have pointed out, this may cause a deep sense of betrayal, shock, hurt, and anger in the mate equal to the level as if actual sex between the two individuals had occurred. Betrayal, is a subjective issue. By that, I am not in any way, shape, or form, dismissing it, but on the contrary giving its due weight for the individual who feels betrayed. In other words, we all have unique histories, with unique "baggages," unique wounds, unique insecurities, etc. So, it would be a pastoral mistake or a enormous miscalculation on the spouse's part to minimize their mate's suffering or sense of betrayal in the context of concealment.
This kind of concealment is usually carried out by people who are vulnerable to a sexual connection outside the home because they lack a vibrant, authentic, robust intimacy (also read there fidelity) in their marriage and they long for intimacy. The relationship becomes the means in which they avoid or escape the real demands of intimacy with their spouse and they believe they are being "fulfilled" in this relationship. The fear of intimacy in the marriage looms large.
Now, a complicated twist can emerge in this scenario (at least for a period of time). If both friends are married, one friend could be very transparent about their relationship with their spouse while the other friend is not.
The huge effects of this are betrayal, and with some a deep sense of betrayal. And just like sex affairs, what kills this emotional affair is that sooner or later, the fear of intimacy arises in this relationship, too. Or, the relationship continues to the point of ending the marriage. We must not minimize the devasting impact of deception and concealment.
2. Delayed Disclosure
This is entirely different story than what happens in concealment.
I want to suggest in our complex social world where men and women connect quite frequently at work or online for many reasons, that delayed disclosure could happen. This happens not because of any intention to conceal the relationship. It does not have the elaborate deception that is characterized within intensive secrecy.
This delayed disclosure is far more benevolent with good intentions than the one who is into intensive secrecy. The story here is centered around a healthy marriage where there is a rather robust intimacy (and therefore robust fidelity) but the spouse is rather unsure how to "introduce" this growing relationship to their mate. Again, this could happen in a myriad of ways. It could happen that an innocent connection happens at work or through church ministry. Because of the nature of work, the relationship may gradually evolve into something of a deeper connection before the spouse begins to process the implications. Attraction is present (as in all friendships). Sexual attraction may or may not be present as it develops but the relationship gradually grows. The spouse may even mention the name of the friend at times (and because it is in the context of work) there is no sense of wrong being done here by the spouse.
But the relationship at some point, develops into a more of a deeper connection. There comes a point in time when the spouse is aware of the growing connection but is puzzled on how to "introduce" this to their mate. Perhaps they participate in a church community that constantly tells them there is a romantic story and there is a danger story with nothing else in between. They may experience sexual attraction with their friend but they deeply love their mate, they want to honor their marriage, their mate, and they have a firm resolve to not go into anything near intensive concealment.
They have no intention of "hiding" this connection from their spouse and they may even broach their most trusted friends outside their marriage to look for wisdom, first. The spouse's trusted communal friends help bring discernment into this disclosure. I have no idea how to put a time frame on this period for it could develop in such a myriad of ways. If there is a gradual growth in the friendship, then there could be a gradual perplexity without it ever coming close to the intensive concealment. As I mentioned, in this scenario, they may have already mentioned to some degree the connection with their spouses.
What makes this scenario very different from concealment is the healthiness of intimacy in the marriage (healthy doesn't mean perfect) and the trust deeply established between the two. There has been no change in the primacy of the intimacy between the husband and wife as this growing relationship has emerged. What is likely to happen in this story is that when the spouse reveals this to their mate, they begin a process of mutual discernment. This delayed response wasn't because they anticipated their mate would freak out but a nervousness that for whatever reason, their mate wouldn't "meet" and connect with them. In this sense, the disclosure was delayed because it was drenched in vulnerability. It is drenched in vulnerability because unlike the first posture, the spouse welcomes their mate's voice without any sense of manipulation. In the revelation, they talk about is what best for their marriage and the kingdom of God.
In this scenario, mutual discernment begins to beautifully unfold as to how to proceed.
3. Mutual Discernment
I admit to "stealing" this phrase (and reality) from Wendy M. Wright. I have greatly benefited from others, including Paul Wadell. Mutual discernment is about "you," "me," "us," the attending presence of God, and the sense that in the difficult dialogue and mutual listening there is something "greater than us" in mutual discernment. The kingdom of God is present and the couple discerns listening to one another and to God through the ways in which He speaks. I like mutual discernment better than the phrase "mutual submission." It's been my experience that communities, couples, etc. that emphasize "submission" are quicker to "control" the conversation rather than discern the beauty and goodness of the "other." That's just my experience. It may not be yours.
Mutual discernment is a process, posture, and practice with a goal toward mutual love and communion: "The aim of love is not sacrifice but the mutuality, sharing, and intimacy by which a true union of souls is achieved" (Wadell).
More to come.