Almost ten years ago, a youth pastor friend of mine asked me to come speak at a retreat he was putting on for his students. For me, it was a weekend away from my crying babies and a wife who was not all that pleasant because of them. To my surprise, in her selflessness, she wanted me to go and get away for a few days for my own sanity. I don’t have any problem airing my opinions. I have a blog, after all. So getting to teach a few teenagers about Christianity was a treat.
While there, I got to know the teenagers on a more personal level, and in particular, I related really well to a girl who was a senior in high school. She was witty, goofy, and attractive. Of course, my intent was platonic. I was just getting to know everyone and happened to hit it off in particular with her.
I remember distinctly, though, playing one of those “Capture the Flag” sort of games with the group. She was on the opposite team and trying to make sure I didn’t get across through her side without being tagged. She cracked a funny joke, and in my heart, I felt this sinking feeling I hadn’t felt before. Something was wrong, and I couldn’t pin down what it was.
The weekend ended. I went home, and we became Facebook friends. I saw all her photos. I began commenting on a few. I posted things, kind of hoping she might comment on what I put up. My wife and I would get into a fight, both of us exhausted, and as a form of unspoken retreat – even to myself – I’d go on this girl’s profile and see what funny pictures she might put up or peruse old ones.
I don’t know when it was I realized that this was all wrong. It took awhile, though. I was just looking at pictures. None of them were pornographic. She was just a friend, right? I mean, it’s ridiculous for a guy my age, then pushing thirty, to think anything seriously about a seventeen year old.
Emotions don’t listen to the mind, though. Like the wind, they blow wherever they will. You can’t sit down and reason with your feelings. They are what they are.
I told her I couldn’t be her friend on Facebook any more. I then made the mistake in going further and telling her it was because I had feelings for her. That didn’t go over well.
For some idiotic reason, I went to visit her church not long after, where my friend was at. She tried as hard as she could to not look at me, to stay as far away from me as possible. I felt so embarrassed.
Looking back on it, though, however embarrassed I felt, I consider myself lucky. What if she had decided she liked me, too? What then? Would I have so easily been able to pull away from her?
This is called an emotional affair. It’s easy to think that because nothing happens, it’s harmless. But of course that’s not true. Every real affair most likely starts with an emotional one. The heart slowly, ever so slowly, drifts away. The bitter moments, little arguments, and boredom between you and your spouse all begin to pile up on top of each other. Something or someone then comes along that brings a feeling of relief.
Nothing wrong is intended. Their company releases your tension. Their presence brightens your spirit. But this kind of relief is dangerous because it threatens a deeper relationship that may have taken years to build with your spouse. For anybody, it has the potential to cause incredible pain to both your loved one and your children.
For the Catholic person, it has the potential to damn you. Jesus took the thoughts of the heart as seriously as actions.
In light of this, I’ve found it’s good to have a game plan.
I try to remember why I married my wife. For me, I knew it was different with her than other girls I had liked before. I knew I had it in me, for some reason, to love her even if we grew old and wrinkly. It’s a strange, mystical feeling, but she felt like a part of my soul even though I’d only known her for a few months.
I also prayed for weeks about whether or not I should marry her. I can’t believe a God of love would have allowed me to make a wrong decision. I believe in providence.
All the reasons to be with her then are still with me now. I only have to remember them to pull me back to reality.
The Grapes are Sour
I recently finished the book “The Good Earth” by Pearl S. Buck. It is about a farmer and his wife who go through life in pre-Communist China. About half way through the book, the farmer begins going to a prostitute in town. Buck describes with such terrible honesty both the thrill and cavernous emptiness of the affair. On one page, she writes of the farmer’s pleasure at being with the woman. On the very next page, she writes this:
Now [he] became sick with the sickness which is greater than any a man can have. He had suffered under labor in the sun and he had suffered under the dry icy winds of the bitter desert and he had suffered from starvation when the fields would not bear and he had suffered from the despair of laboring without hope upon the streets of a southern city. But under none of these did he suffer as he now did under this slight girl’s hand.Pearl S. Buck, The Good Earth, page 181
It was painful reading this part of the book. For the previous half, Buck had been weaving together one of the most beautiful stories I’ve ever read of the deep relationship of love and respect that had formed between the farmer and his wife.
I’ve lived the first half of “The Good Earth” with my wife in my own way. It’s not hard for me to believe the grass is not greener on the other side of an affair.
God’s Mercy is Everlasting
Marriage, in the Catholic mind, is more than just a glorified contract. It is a picture of the love between Christ and the church he died for.
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her… husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hates his own body, but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it, just as Christ does for the church.Ephesians 5:25, 28-29 (NRSVCE)
Christ loves us when we sin as much as when we don’t sin. He is as committed to us when we are angry and bitter towards him as he is when we are full of love for him. If that is the kind of mercy God shows me, what case could I possibly make against my wife? What reason could I have to hold anything against her?
When I was younger, my dad told me it’s a good idea to get right up in the morning and not wait around lying in bed. Your mind wanders. You start pondering things you shouldn’t ponder. Later in life, when I confessed impure thoughts to a priest, he counseled me to make myself busy – to find something useful to do. Even in the book, “The Good Earth”, the good farmer finds his toiling in the field to be a kind of medicine for his soul.
My laziness, my wandering mind, is a problem in many ways, but certainly in this way. Fleeing away from temptation is best accomplished when fleeing to something constructive and beneficial like creative work, exercise, or a hobby.
In my dating years, I tended to have guy friend I could be absolutely honest with. He would ask me straightforward questions about whether or not I had crossed any lines with a woman. Later in life, Confession has been my place of accountability. When I regularly go to Confession, I find sinning a little more of a burden. I think, “Well, I could do that, but then I’ll have to tell Father X.” That little inconvenience is sometimes enough to steer me in the right direction. Oh yeah, and the grace of God, too.
Sometimes it’s not enough to battle my thoughts and emotions in my head. My confession needs to come out and get bounced off another human being for me to see the truth or ludicrousness of my decisions. A clarity comes in conversation that doesn’t come when I’m only mulling over an issue alone.
On that note, it should be said we are never alone. This post is one reason I keep this blog anonymous. I would never want someone I know to think my wife was somehow not enough for me. She is enough. Honestly, also, I’m ashamed of having not seen my emotional affair sooner. But being honest about our frailty as men is so needed – whether anonymously or not. We all are tempted. We all get stupid. We are not superhuman. We are ashamed a lot of the time.
But none of us is alone. We are not the only ones dealing with our temptations. We are not left by ourselves to fight those temptations. We have each other, and we have God.
No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.1 Corinthians 10:13 (NRSVC)
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