At a company convention, Christine ran into an old university professor. She had admired his teaching skills and loved being his assistant in the undergraduate chemistry course. After a group luncheon, they promised to stay in touch. Initial emails were infrequent and often focused on activities and people they both knew. But it didn’t take long before they began to share about their individual lives and families. From there, the conversations turned very personal, but Christine told herself that it was safe because he was old enough to be her dad. Christine knew the exchanges meant too much to her, and she also knew her husband would be hurt if he understood how she really felt.
Christine was definitely engaged in what I call a "close call."
After more than 30 years of counselling husbands and wives who have been hurt by infidelity, I’ve learned that being aware and being prepared are never more important than they are today. In this culture, there are just too many opportunities for infidelity.
The concept underlying my "close calls" message is that an attraction to another individual will happen. That means it’s essential that you be alert to risk factors and be intentional about strengthening your marriage. Let’s look at the stories of five couples and the close calls they experienced. Each story illustrates a different risk factor that can lead to trouble:
There is Still Hope for Your Marriage
Todd and Karen showed up looking like they’d just been on vacation, smiling and holding hands. But as we sat down, appearance gave way to reality.
They were parents of two great teenagers. But about a year previously, Todd had shared about how unhappy he was with their marriage. He felt like everything was focused on the kids, and though he was proud of the children and freely acknowledged what a great mum Karen was, he described how he was feeling neglected. He felt like a lower priority than the children and more like just a pay check. He wept as he shared this with Karen.
Karen had listened rather stoically when Todd shared his feelings, thinking to herself, It must just be midlife. I can’t do any more than I’m doing. I’ve certainly been a better spouse than my alcoholic mum was. That night, Todd and Karen went to sleep and never again talked about that conversation — until they were in my office trying to recover from his affair. Their close call had been ignored.
This "other woman" was a committed Christian married for almost 20 years who loved her husband and had no plans for divorce. But she, too, was feeling overlooked and disconnected from her spouse. She and Todd were both emotionally vulnerable to someone else’s attention and affirmation.
You might appear to have it all together in your marriage. But if you or your spouse has unmet needs and feels lonely; if you’re just functioning but life is no longer fun; if you’ve forgotten how to nurture each other — then your vulnerability to another’s attention could sweep you off your feet and carry you away before you even realise what’s happening.
After 10 years of marriage and almost three years of fertility treatments, Sharon was the mother of three healthy children. She felt like life just couldn’t get any better — until her husband, Bill, became enamoured with the flirtations of a new 20-year-old employee.
At first, Sharon was shocked. But when she found out that the employee had a promiscuous history, it caused her to view Bill as a victim of the young woman’s sexually charged emails. So Bill and Sharon decided to keep his inappropriate responses a secret. They didn’t talk about it and never sought help, but they were grateful for having made it through a close call. That is, until three years later when Bill started texting a different new employee. Sharon met the recipient of the text messages and realised it was the same problem, just a different woman.
When you’re vulnerable to temptation, it’s easy to be in denial about how close you are to collapsing — so you choose not to think about the possibilities. But all it takes to trigger inappropriate feelings for another person is the kind of stress that Bill had been going through for years, the kind that left him living overwhelmed and emotionally drained. He needed relief and found that befriending young women lifted his mood above the grind of daily life. Close calls that become first-time adulteries are almost always about the need for comfort and distraction.
Trying to catch up on her emails while the kids were napping, Jessica saw a note from Sam, one of her old university boyfriends. Tempted to open it, but knowing she didn’t have much time, she saved it and decided to move on through the rest of her inbox. Just as Jessica anticipated, her baby woke up while she was looking at the last of her emails.
Jessica is playing with fire.
Old romances are never forgotten. The infatuation is stored in your brain. The former girlfriend or boyfriend might not look like he or she once did, but when you reconnect with an old flame, you start the process of rekindling those feelings of infatuation.
Initially, you’ll talk about current families; but inevitably, you’ll recall your younger relationship and shared experiences. Those conversations can confuse each of you about your current marriages. You may quietly begin to entertain the idea that you have married the wrong person. If you continue to stay in touch, within just 60 days you’ll be looking for ways to meet face to face.
Overseeing social media advertising for her small family-owned company, Sharon could easily track down friends from the past. Soon it was not only easy, but frequent and, at times, compulsive. When her husband would question all the time she spent on these endeavours, Sharon would brush off his concerns.
Sharon is likely to cross several predictable thresholds that will create a close call for her.
Once you come across old friends, their ongoing and intensifying connections can become mood-altering experiences that brighten your day. You will start looking forward to those interactions because connecting with them enhances your mood at the same time it lowers your anxiety and depression levels.
Conversations will gradually move from professional to personal in content, from external situations to personal feelings. You may eventually feel more understood by online acquaintances and share less with your spouse. At this point, it’s easy to begin starving your marriage at the expense of feeding your friendships.
When you begin to realise the depth of your feelings for these individuals, you will be faced with the choice of stopping it or hiding it. Hiding usually wins, and the addiction moves into high gear.
Shared hobbies and interests
Kevin and Susan, together with their friends Russ and Sheri, were horrified to read in the local paper about the sex-slave trade occurring in their city. The two couples immediately volunteered to help put an end to trafficking, and soon they were making a difference in their community.
Eventually, Kevin’s job and work hours changed to the point that he wasn’t always available to help. Meanwhile, Sheri became pregnant; morning sickness caused her to cut back her efforts, as well. Russ and Susan continued to be highly involved in this effort, and the passion each had for it remained undiminished. Soon they were spending more time with each other than they were with their spouses.
Passions, interests and hobbies shared with members of the opposite sex, other than your spouse, can lead to risky emotional closeness such as occurred with Russ and Susan.
What do all these stories have in common? In every close call, none of these spouses was looking for someone with whom to commit adultery. Most close calls start innocently enough, but when we fail to recognise the warning signs, innocent encounters can quickly move in dangerous directions. So, what steps do we need to take to protect our own marriages?
I encourage couples to talk. Vulnerability and openness in discussing attractions is your best protection. As you discuss the risk of attractions and the threat of close calls, take time to promise each other:
- I will not hide an attraction from you.
- I will listen to you with respect and without anger if you share an attraction you’re feeling.
- I will work with you to adjust our interactions to better protect and enrich our relationship.
- I will never knowingly cultivate the kind of friendship that could threaten our marriage.
- I invite you to tell me when you think I am developing an inappropriate attraction.
Don’t wait until these attractions develop — be proactive about guarding your relationship. You will never regret it because close calls that are ignored always end badly.