Many Christians, mainly men, have affairs in their 40s. Why is this? Do we really believe that another partner (more often than not someone younger and sexier) will give us what we think is lacking in our lives? Many of us talk about unmet needs, meaning sexual fulfillment, so we justify in our own minds finding it elsewhere, with someone who ‘really understands’.
But the problem with such affairs, apart from the obvious of betrayal of trust, is that, by definition, they are always artificial relationships. There is always a forbiddenness about them. That is why they are so alluring. Of course that is not the only reason they are artificial. It is also because, again by definition, they cannot be about the messy details of living with and really getting to know someone. Meeting someone for illicit rendezvous, or even staying overnight at their place, is nothing like spending years in relationship with someone and learning to compromise and meet each others’ needs.
Affairs are a form of escape, and the fact that many studies show that second and third marriages have a higher rate of divorce than first ones gives more weight to that argument. The tragic truth is that the rate of divorce amongst Christian couples is approaching that of non-Christian marriages. And in parts of the US it is even higher. Imagine the image that gives of Christianity. No wonder people are turning off the church in droves.
It is in our forties that many people develop a sense of loss of direction in their lives and begin to question whether this is all there is and if it gets any better than this. It is the time of our life when we have moved beyond our youthful idealism in which we our future was all ahead of us, but we have not quite arrived at the place where we can look behind us with some satisfaction. We long for our youth again and sense that we are still just young enough to recapture some of it with a new start in life. So, many people become willing to throw away years of committed relationship and family ties for the allure of something new.
In my recent thinking I have come to have a deeper respect for those older couples who have been married thirty or forty or even fifty years. They are the ones with the wisdom I want. They have been through the hard times with each other, so they’re the ones I want to listen to if and when I ever need some marriage advice. And if you ever talk to anyone who has been married that long and they say “and we’ve never had an argument”, don’t believe them. They’re either lying, delusional, or their marriage is in more trouble than they realise!
So how do we protect ourselves against the temptation, resultant tragedy and utter devastation of an affair? Here are some pointers that have both helped me and that l have heard from friends:
- Communicate with your spouse. There is nothing like open, honest communication with each other about where you are at in life. Ideally your partner should be your best friend. Best friends can share things with each other that they wouldn’t feel comfortable sharing with anyone else. Make a point of going to a cafe once a month on a Saturday morning and sharing in detail how you have been going recently (of course make sure you communicate more than that, but this is a good opportunity to share in more detail).
- Further to the previous point about open communication, don’t keep secrets from each other. Having secrets is one of the easiest ways distance can develop in a relationship. Why do we keep secrets? It is generally because we have a sense of shame at something we have done. A secret kept will sooner or later force us to lie about it, for which we will eventually have to think of another lie to keep the previous one going, and so it continues. To be a good liar you have to have a good memory, and that drives the wedge between you deeper and deeper. Of course I am not talking about the type of secrets here that can be wonderfully healthy for a relationship, such as a surprise birthday party or gift.
- Despite the importance of open communication with your spouse, don’t expect him or her to be able to meet all your emotional needs. It is not healthy to spend all of your time together. Spend time with others of the same gender, hopefully a few people with whom you can share openly about issues particularly related to being a man or being a woman. I am fortunate enough to have some male friends with whom I can meet with and talk about anything, and it’s so liberating to be able to do that. Men in particular need other men around us to whom we can be accountable. But it doesn’t have to be deep and meaningfuls either. If I want to go to the football for example, I would rather go with a male friend who follows the game than with my wife who doesn’t follow it so much (I have her permission to say that by the way!)
- Having lunch or dinner with someone of the opposite sex. There are differences of thought on this one. Some won’t see a problem with it whilst others will need it as a boundary. Personally I make it a point to never have lunch or dinner with a woman on my own. Some may see that as a bit of overkill but it is a boundary that has worked for me. At the same time, I try to make a point of having lunch at work fairly regularly with another male. There is a deep sense in which men need men and women need women. I have had wonderful conversations over lunch with male work colleagues. They have ranged from talking about our weekends to chewing the fat over the deepest issues of life.
- Pray together. This is one of the most beneficial aspects of my marriage. They say that the couple that prays together stays together. It takes more than that but you can’t do much better than to start with regular prayer in each other’s company. Remember, where two or three are gathered together…(Matt 18:20). My wife and I pray in the morning before I go to work, and at night before we go to sleep. While all the practical necessities of cultivating your relationship are crucial, and are things with which we cannot do without, we also have an enemy who would want to destroy all that is good. Bringing your relationship before God regularly is taking a stand. And there is nothing as wholesome as being open with your relationship to the God of the universe.
- Develop and cultivate your own relationship with God. Ecclesiastes 4:12, which talks about a cord of three strands not being easily broken, has often been used in reference to marriage. Whether that was the intention of the writer or not, it is good advice for a marriage. Much has been made of the daily quiet time in evangelical circles over the years. It has become somewhat of a cliché for our relationship with God, as if that is all there is to it. But while a daily quiet time can become legalistic and can delude us into thinking that all is well in our Christian walk, I would definitely recommend for all Christians to make or keep it a daily pattern. We are creatures of habit; we need routine in our lives. Some may find it more beneficial in the morning whilst others may prefer it in another part of the day. Whichever is best for you, stick to it each day. Make it a priority. I like to start the day reading some of the Bible followed by some other literature. Before I read I ask God to give me ears to hear, eyes to see, and an open heart to receive what He has to say to me. I then write down five feelings I am experiencing (something particularly useful for men as we’re generally emotionally challenged when it comes to identifying our feelings!). At the end of this I surrender my day to God, asking for His will and not mine to be done in my life for that day. That’s what works for me. Choose whichever way works for you, but for me it is the attitude that counts. I need to give my life to God in surrender. If I don’t then I can quickly become a self-centred egotist.
These are only some pointers to maintaining a healthy marriage and so resisting the enticements of a mid-life affair that can threaten to destroy all we hold dear, and which we can mistakenly believe will invigorate us with new life again. You will most likely be able to think of other things that have helped you. If so, share them below. We all need to hear them.
Marriage is good for the soul. A pastor of mine said many years ago that he wants to grow old with his wife. Ditto for me. That pastor and his wife have now been married forty-something years. Marriage forces us to change if we want it to work. Nothing can substitute for the growth of character that can only develop within a lifelong commitment to one partner. As you share life together, physically, emotionally and spiritually, you learn what it is to deal with your own flaws. You learn what it is to love and be loved, and in the process you learn more of what it means for God to be committed to us, to never let us go, to stand by us. It is hard work, but as another long-married couple said to me many years ago, anything worth fighting for is never going to be easy. And it sure beats the heck out of the hollow thrill of a quick fling or even a long term affair.