“He’s it — my soul mate — the only one in the world for me.”
“If I can’t have her I’ll never find anyone else; she’s the only one who is a perfect match for me.”
Ever heard someone say something similar? There’s a romantic notion out there that only one right partner for you exists and if you find him or her, you will be forever complete. The truth: there are many people in the world that you could love. In the first flush of marriage you might think that you will never again be attracted to anyone else. But that may not be true. All through life you will meet attractive people. Someone will pop up at work or in your social life who makes you think, “Hmmm, I wonder what it would be like with him?” Or her. How do you react? With guilt? “There’s something wrong with me. I’m happily married. I shouldn’t be feeling this way.”
Questioning the strength of your marriage? “If I were really happy this wouldn’t be happening.”
What comes next? Perhaps thinking, “Well, it isn’t going to hurt if I just flirt a little, as long as I don’t DO anything.” If you sense interest on the other person’s part, it becomes more complicated. “He or she likes me too. What does THIS mean?” Now you’ve got choices.
- Cut off any contact with the person.
- At work, make the contact infrequent and businesslike.
- Establish a friendship; don’t acknowledge the sexual attraction.
- Talk about your attraction; set ground rules.
- Plunge into a deeper relationship and see what happens. That’s playing with fire, risking a grievous sin and serious damage to your marriage.
But how about those other questions? Is there something wrong with your marriage if you are attracted to someone else? Is it wrong if you don’t act on it?
Beverly Yahnke. Ph.D., a Christian psychologist in private practice, says, “We can usually take ordinary temptation in stride, but when our marriage is threatened we often look at ourselves under a 250 watt bulb because it calls into question everything we hold to be important.
“One doesn’t choose to be attracted to another person, one just is. Having a pleasantly stimulating response when looking at an attractive member of the opposite sex simply happens — try not to blush! Because you are a married, moral Christian doesn’t make you immune to physiology and the reflex of those kinds of responses,” she continues. “It may not be something you would choose, but it appears to be something humankind is heir to. I surely don’t think it’s abnormal.”
Some people depend on the there’s-only-person-who-is-right-for-you theory of resisting temptation. Dr. Yahnke says. “I think there’s a degree of romanticism in that; people in other cultures do build happy lives with people in arranged marriages. Yet, I do think that when you’ve found one person to commit to, something changes cognitively, emotionally and spiritually within you. Your radar turns off in terms of looking at other possibilities and opportunities. But sometimes, even when the radar is off, something still appears that’s tough to miss.” That, she says, is when temptation enters the picture.
When does it become a dangerous temptation?
“I think one has to look at how far down the slippery slope one has slid,” she says. “In an innocent friendship if you happen to find yourself attracted to another person there’s no reason to pack up your laptop and leave.”
It helps to recognize some of the warning flags that indicate when you are at risk of moving beyond a natural human response and into a danger zone, she says:
- Is the other person always flattering you, never criticizing you? You may be at risk of responding inappropriately to that kind of TLC.
- Is the other person becoming dependent on you? That’s a sign that the relationship could be unhealthy.
- Does the other person complain to you about his or her spouse, about being lonely or unhappy? Not a good sign.
- Has the physical contact become flirtatious? If the contact is becoming more than a handshake or pat on the arm, if the safe space between you is getting smaller, watch out.
- Do you idealize the person, comparing him or her to your spouse? Comparisons can put you at risk.
- Are you preoccupied with the person? Friends pop in and out of our minds casually, but spending a great deal of time thinking about the person is not good.
- Are you fantasizing about a sexual experience? “That’s the point where you are really vulnerable,” Dr. Yahnke says. “Research says that fantasy becomes rehearsal. If you fantasize about something often and vividly enough, it can become the foundation for behavior.”
If these puzzle pieces are falling into place in dangerous ways, it’s time to put some limits on the relationship. “The first step is to admit to yourself that the temptation exists,” she says. “That’s tough. We’re entirely too casual about lying to ourselves and creating grand moral loopholes; you have to be honest with yourself and say, ‘This is a problem.'” There are only a few choices.
- Draw strict boundaries. Where will we see each other, how often, what will we and won’t we talk about? Then don’t violate those boundaries.
- If you sense the other person returns your interest you can approach the subject, but, Dr. Yahnke says, be careful. If it’s a dependent relationship, talking about it may open a whole hornet’s nest of problems. If the person is stable emotionally, you might be able to say, “We need to grab a bucket and douse the spark here if we’re going to stay friends.” But remember that you can never make another person respect boundaries; you can only act on your own.
- Talking to a counselor or pastor can help. They can aid in sorting out and setting your boundaries, and help with issues of guilt. Plunging into the relationship to “see what happens” is waving a red flag in front of a bull, especially if you are at a time of personal stress. “Someone who is feeling neglected will have his radar on and is likely to detect any blip of affection on the horizon,” she says.
- “Psychologists tell us that many people live lonely lives, even in marriage. Sexual temptation becomes this marvelous opportunity to improve the quality of life.” Someone whose spouse is chronically ill or depressed can also be at extra risk. Advice if it happens to you:
- “Move to Russia where you don’t speak the language!” Dr. Yahnke laughs. Seriously, she says, remember what Martin Luther said, that you can’t prevent the birds of the air from flying over your head, but you don’t need to let them build a nest in your hair. “Temptation presents a choice,” she says. “One is to choose something good – a monogamous relationship. The other is to choose something bad. Ever since the snake slithered up to Eve in the Garden bad choices exist.”
- Look at resisting temptation as a three-legged stool.
- Leg one: healthy spiritual choices. “I suspect that few people respond to temptation with prayer,” she says. “But that is what we are advised to do – put on the armor of God.”
- Leg two: emotions. Expect temptation but know that we don’t have to be cowed by it. We CAN choose moral behavior. We CAN choose to admire another person rather than lusting after him or her. We CAN watch carefully for the red flags and be honest with ourselves.
- Leg three: behavior. The Thou Shalt Nots. “There are sins of thought, word, and deed, and they are all equally abhorrent in God’s eyes,” Dr. Yahnke says. “But sins of thought are not as harmful to a relationship as are sins of word and, especially, deed. That’s where setting limits comes in, making the tough decision to honor your spouse even if it means you won’t ever know what a relationship with someone else would have been like.”
Can men and women ever have a truly platonic friendship? “I think the majority of time we spend with the opposite sex can be platonic,” Dr. Yahnke says. “If we presume that all interaction between men and women is sexual, we all ought to be in cloisters somewhere! Don’t be surprised if a sexual thought creeps into the mix as long as it’s easily expelled and the relationship isn’t sexualized. If temptation emerges, deal with it in a healthy and sensible fashion and it may go away and never become a problem in that friendship again.”
One final point: if temptation has knocked on your door perhaps it’s the time to say candidly, “I think we need to look at our marriage; I’d like to do some work on it and try some things for marriage renewal.” That could ultimately benefit the marriage relationship.
Kathleen Winkler is a writer in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. This article is adapted from her forthcoming book, Marriage Bound: A Christian Guide for Newly Marrieds and About-to-Be’s (PublishAmerica, 2002). You can find her books on her website, www.kathleenwinkler.com
Copyright © 2001, Kathleen Winkler. All rights reserved. Used with Permission