Bowden, you are a licensed, professional counselor…
Yes. I’ve been in the field for 25 years. I’m a clinical member of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy; I have a private practice in Tulsa Oklahoma, I’m in a group, there are eight of us. We see probably 700 or more people a year.
Well, I love your Counseling Notes blog (located at mcelroycounseling.com)
Congratulations on your 2006 Okie Blog Award, voted the Best Inspiration Blog. That’s quite an honor.
Thank you. It was a surprise and an honor.
The reason I wanted to talk is I love how you come across in your blog — a sense of humor, and a sense of caring. There’s a sweetness that oozes from your posts.
I’d like to pick your brain and your counseling wisdom on the topic of emotional affairs. It’s the hottest topic this year in Marriagetrac’s discussion forums. It’s almost epidemic.
If I may Sheri, let me back up a bit and talk about the different kinds of affairs. One of the more common affairs are the ones where alcohol or drugs are involved. Someone’s on a business trip, they drink too much, they do something they never would have done had they been cold stone cold sober. We’ve always seen that in marriage and family counseling. In the last few years, more people are using the term and talking about emotional affairs and trying to figure out what the next step is.
What are the top warning signs that you’re seeing?
Another type of affair, I euphemistically refer to it as the European Model. The idea is it’s perfectly acceptable to have a wife and girlfriend, just don’t let the two meet. That one is very difficult to deal with when that’s part of a culture; they just feel like, what’s wrong with this?
The Revenge Affair — You cheated on me so I’ll cheat on you.
The most common affair is what many writers refer to as the Unmet Needs Affair. It’s the idea that God placed in each one of us certain emotional needs that he intended for our spouse to meet. And when those needs aren’t met properly, then a lot of people begin to look outside the marriage. In the unmet needs category, no one just wakes up one morning and says, I think I’m going to mess up my life and mess with my kids and ruin my marriage today.
It starts off with maybe a proper & appropriate business relationship; and then it becomes a little friendlier. As it progresses, it becomes a slippery slope until eventually I’m saying things to this person that I should be saying to my spouse. And I’m keeping the whole thing secret from my spouse. If we just let it go and don’t intervene, it will evolve into a full-blown, sexually active, extra- marital affair.
So the question becomes, at what point along this continuum does a person draw a line and say ah hah! — An affair may be in progress! If you just let it go and do nothing, it would most likely turn into that unmet needs (emotional) affair.
At what point do you draw the line? Where do you define that this is an unacceptable friendship? At some point there’s this fuzzy little line we’ve crossed.
The logic I hear most often is, if it isn’t physical, it doesn’t count.
I hear that a lot. I think it would be stereotypical to say that’s a male way of thinking. If we didn’t actually have intercourse, then it wasn’t really an affair. I think women often say the same thing.
For me, an emotional affair has to do with am I getting those God-given emotional needs met through someone other than my spouse — and am I keeping it secret from my spouse? If the answer to those questions is yes, then that’s an emotional affair. It’s just a matter of we just haven’t had sex — yet.
Sheri, I’m always amazed at how people justify what is sex and what it isn’t. I’m finding this particularly among young teens that are experiencing sexual encounters earlier and earlier. They will describe a sex act — maybe they’re engaged in oral sex – (they say) we haven’t actually had sex yet. Meaning we haven’t had intercourse, therefore anything less than that wasn’t really sex. I laugh at those kids and I laugh at husbands and wives who say this. Yea right… Who else believes this?
Will an affair eventually get exposed?
I would say that depends upon their partner, their spouse … Obviously I hear stories of people who’ve kept things secret for a long, long time. I suppose if they’re really good at keeping secrets and it never gets exposed, you and I would never hear about it. What I hear about is it usually catches up with you in the end; and almost always gets exposed. Your sins really do find you out.
Does spiritual maturity have any effect on our susceptibility to affairs?
If the question is, is anybody free from being at risk? The answer is no. We’re all at risk. We all have ups-and-downs and in marriage we hope that commitment stays. But sometimes passion comes-and-goes. I think anybody’s at risk if they don’t watch their boundaries. To set yourself up and say it could absolutely never happen to me, is a little arrogant. I think we’re all capable of sin.
Speaking of boundaries, what do you suggest?
There are a couple of guidelines. The number one guideline is never assume you’ve made it; realize you’re always at risk. When I was first starting out in marriage counseling, I asked an older more experienced counselor, what’s the most difficult year of marriage? Is it the first year? Is it the year the children come along? Is it the infamous seven-year itch? He looked at me and said, “Bowden, the most difficult year is always the current year.” I think there is a lot of truth to that. I think that first internal boundary is realizing we’re always at risk.
The second thing I would say is, the best way to affair-proof your marriage is to constantly be working on having the best marriage possible. The more time we spend nurturing our marriage and making it the most solid marriage possible, we don’t need to spend a lot of time thinking about the boundaries, tips, and tricks to affair-proof our marriage.
I’m not in favor of setting up lots of rules. Rules can be easily broken and they’re easy to get around. But I think everyone needs to know themselves and be honest with themselves. If someone has a propensity to spend time in chat rooms, then there is technology to help setup accountability.
I have seven partners here — four men and four women. It’s not uncommon for me to go to lunch with some of my female partners. We always meet as a group; it’s never one-on-one. That’s not a hard and fast rule, that’s just how things work out for us here. I never keep secrets from my wife. One of the biggest boundary issues we can maintain is there will be no secrets: no emotional secrets, no financial secrets, no secrets of any kind.
What should accountability look like?
I think in every healthy marriage I’ve encountered, she has at least one or two solid Christian girlfriends. He has one or two solid Christian men. I’ll tell you Sheri, I’m not a big fan of churches going in and setting up accountability ministries because I think that’s artificial. The pastor seems to just randomly assign me to someone, or uses his best judgment not knowing either of us particularly well.
What I am in favor of is constantly developing that network of friends, making sure I have one or two males that I am close to. Not necessarily any kind of organized accountability ministry. There are a couple guys I can meet with and talk about anything and sometimes we do. Other times we talk about last night’s game or the movie that we saw. It’s not another program for me to experience, because frankly my life is pretty programmed. It’s about genuine, meaningful, friendships.
I think the stereotype of women doing that better than men is probably true. But I think both spouses need to have that going on in their lives.
Read more from Bowden at Counseling Notes
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