As it turns out, if you read part one in this series on “Inappropriate Relationships and Evangelical Therapists” I have something in common with thousands of evangelical therapists which would shock some of them:
If you’re married, it is not inappropriate for you to be alone with a member of the opposite sex (married or not married) with whom you share an intentional dyadic relationship when no one else is present. It’s not inappropriate to nurture shared vulnerability, mutuality, authenticity, deep empathetic connection, and tender, meaningful touch when no one else is around.
That is what I have in common with thousands of Christian (evangelical, mainline, Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox) psychotherapists. That, in a nutshell, is at the heart of my intimate cross-gender friendships as a married man.
Likewise, it is what you will find at the heart of a professional therapeutic relationship between a man and a woman. Sometimes for a season they meet alone once a week for a 4 to 6 week period. In some dyadic relationships they meet alone 2 or 3 times week for several months. In some relationships they meet once a week without their spouse (s) present for years.
5. Therapists reframe the “unholy trinity” as good, healing, life-giving, and beautiful.
If you are an evangelical and are married and also nurturing an intimate friendship with the other sex, you are going to encounter the "unholy trinity": it is unsafe, unwise, recklessly risky, inappropriate to 1) share immediate proximity, 2) intentionally set up a regular time for just the two of you and, 3) nurture deep emotional intimacy or intensity in the relationship.
All three of these, either taken one by one, or all together are red flags for some evangelicals. These were all typical responses of fear which I highlighted in my last blog post. This is the "unholy trinity" for unsafe, risky, unwise, and inappropriate relationships.
Why didn’t Sharon Hodde Miller pay any attention to this "unholy trinity" among evangelical therapists? In many evangelical circles, if the "unholy trinity" is present within cross-gender friendship, this is tantamount to emotional adultery.
What makes it good, beautiful, and healing for evangelical therapists to regularly thumb their noses at the "unholy trinity?"
Let’s take the 3rd one. Emotional adultery is a hot button for many evangelicals who are still clinging to a romance-obsessed narrative between men and women. Conflating emotional intimacy with sexual intimacy (which is what many commenters did on Sharon Hodde Miller’s blog) means every evangelical therapist who builds authentic deep connections with their married cross-gender clients is guilty of emotional adultery.
Physical adultery is physical adultery no matter where it happens: beach, bed, or behind the closed door of a therapist's office. Orgasms happen in professional relationships. Of course it is dead wrong that it happens but it does. I will have a future post addressing attraction and sex within therapy. But why isn't Miller calling out our fallenness on evangelical therapists who get emotionally intense in a dyadic relationship with their cross-gender clients? Perhaps she is consistent and doesn't support cross-gender clients in therapy.
If we conflate emotional intimacy with physical adultery, then thousands of evangelical therapists are nurturing emotional adultery behind closed doors. Every evangelical therapist I know would consider sex with a married client as adultery with no disagreement. But clearly there are many evangelical therapists who nurture deep emotional connections and intensity with their married cross-gender clients behind closed doors without spouses present.
Are these evangelical therapists and their clients beyond reproach? Have the therapists reached some kind of holier-than-thou, elite status? Yes, I know many of them go through training etc. That’s the common response.
But does that elevate them to some kind of pedestal, to be elite among all the men and women in the world? Are they the elite ones to regularly practice the "unholy trinity" and thumb their noses at all the wise counsel outside their walls? Is there some kind of magic wand they wave over their office to stand in defiance of the unholy trinity?
Where in the Bible do they have chapter and verse to do that? Sharon Hodde Miller said she didn’t see any examples of cross-gender friendships in the Bible. I don’t see evangelical therapists meeting alone with their married clients without spouses present on a regular basis in the Bible, either. Can we, once and for all, move past Miller’s biblical literalism and selectivism?
I wonder, isn't this reckless of evangelical therapists to do this in light of all the marital breakdowns and divorce in our culture? Haven’t they heard about all the pastors who have committed affairs because they got sucked up into the "unholy trinity?" Yup. Let me tell you something you probably already know: Sharon Hodde Miler’s post about an individual man and an individual woman going too far in a fallen world did not cause one evangelical therapist to stop practicing the "unholy trinity" with their married clients.
Why is that?
Well, what the therapeutic industry has done (and many evangelical therapists have followed it) is to reframe the fears and the dangers of the "unholy trinity." Yup. Even with all sexual failures in the church.
They have reframed the boundaries when it involves married clients of the opposite sex and therefore they don't heed the boundary police on the "unholy trinity."
So, instead of retreating to all group therapy sessions (outside the therapist’s office this is known in the church as small groups, and hanging out as couples) they have reframed the entire "unholy trinity" to be something good, something beautiful, something life-giving, something healing.
I’ve done the same thing. Why can’t I? Does God require me to be a part of the elite force in order to reframe?
I’ve reframed the "unholy trinity."
When you reframe the "unholy trinity" there are different boundaries, different risks, and life-giving, beautiful, healing intimacy between a man and woman who are not married to each other.
Every intentional cross-gender friendship that has: 1) welcomed the opportunity to be alone with a member of the opposite sex (married or not married) and 2) sought to share an intentional dyadic relationship with when no one else is present and 3) nurtured shared vulnerability, mutuality, authenticity, deep empathetic connection, and tender, meaningful touch when no one else is around has reframed the fear and the boundaries of the "unholy trinity."
Okay, now I feel like Toto (the dog in the classic movie, The Wizard of Oz) as I pull back the curtain to reveal the simple man behind it.
6. Shared vulnerability, mutuality, attuning, deep emotional connection, and tender, meaningful touch in a dyadic relationship with no one else present is healing, life-giving, transforming, and beautiful for the greater good of community.
This is at the heart of all current relational/emotional therapies.
Listen to psychotherapist, Robert Watson speak of the love and longings for union that arise in a dyadic, therapeutic relationship: “In fact, the other person—especially one moving toward Christ—and I have taken steps together toward Christ, falling more deeply in love with the same person, stirred with the same longings for union.”
Think about that. That language was intentional. It was not for a romantic relationship.
This is where I think Scot McKnight (whom I consider to be a friend) fails to press through when he talks about oneness between men and women in his book, One.Life. My next post will be on Scot McKnight's view of oneness between men and women.
It gets better.
Watson writes in another essay, “Ready or Not, Here I Come":
“Fears of genuine closeness, wishes to be special, sexual feelings, fears about being ‘too much’ or ‘not enough’ for each other, a sense of being family to each other, wishes to save or rescue, fears of feeling hatred or aggression or accompanying fears of rejection or abandonment—all examples of the very human stuff that inhabits the unspoken space between therapist and patient—come out in the open when both people engage in healthy surrender.”
Can I say the obvious? When you have that expectation of surrender with your married client (and it doesn’t matter at this point whether they are the same sex or opposite sex—you can’t blithely assume a heteronormative orientation for everyone) you are breaking all the taboos about the "unholy trinity" and deep emotional connection in a dyadic relationship.
James Olthuis writes, “For to practice psychotherapy as a dance in the wild spaces asks for a giving up of our will to control. That move is a daunting prospect. It asks that we leave our comfort zones and flow with the process…In this process, love—the love of God—not reason, nor method creates a healing connection.”
Yes. I have that in common with all the therapists who are committed to some expression of relational and emotional therapy. Friendship with the opposite sex is an invitation to dance in the wild space of love asking us to give up our control, our fears, our wishes to rescue or fix, for something much greater—relational mutuality between men and women in the kingdom.
Cross-gender friendship is not an inappropriate relationship. It is an ongoing invitation to dance, to a healthy mutual surrender, to healthy intimacy, to healthy flourishing between men and women that bears witness of God’s great love to a wider community and world.