In recent weeks the home group that I attend has been rocked by various stories of marital breakdown or infidelity among Christian couples – some in leadership, others not. Reactions differed – some of our group were angry or felt let down. Others were worried, "If it can happen to them it could happen to us". Everyone felt upset for all those closely impacted by the fallout.
An affair rarely happens without casualties and when it is a Christian leader the repercussions of their choices can be far reaching. But judging those involved won't help. They need our prayers and support, not our condemnation. We don't know the whole story and even if we did, who are we to cast the first stone? All of us are fallible and it won't serve any of our relationships to be prideful or complacent.
So, what can we do to protect our own marriages? Unfortunately, there's no foolproof formula but there are things that we can be doing to reduce the likelihood of an affair. Here are some suggestions:
1. Choose to love. There will be days where we might not feel in love with our partner. That is normal. But every day we can choose to love them. We can choose to move towards our wife or husband, rather than away from them, in the way we act, respond or behave. We can choose to meet their needs and love them, even if they aren't reciprocating.
It doesn't take much to cause a downward spiral in a relationship, especially if we tend to look out for our own interests and blame our partner when things go wrong. However, we can also be the catalyst that creates an upward spiral. How? By taking responsibility for our own reactions and behaviour and by cherishing our partner, whether we feel like it or not.
2. Invest in your connection. When you get married you "became one" with your spouse. That doesn't mean a loss of identity or becoming dependent. It means a team has been created – an "us".
Every day you will make choices and decisions that will help to nurture, strengthen and build up that "us" or will hurt, damage and weaken that "us". To prioritise "us" – you need to be intentional and make sure that you are investing time, energy and attention into your relationship.
It is worth asking what helps you to feel connected as a couple? Whatever, it is – taking time to talk, date nights, serving together, praying, making love, having fun, playing sport, pursuing a new hobby – make sure it happens regularly and that it is a priority for you both.
3. Be authentic. One of the greatest joys (and perhaps one of the greatest challenges) in a marriage is being truly known and understood by each other.
Affairs, if and when they happen, are rarely just a physical attraction. They often start with an emotional connection when that someone else seems to 'get' you in a way no-one else does.
That's why we need to focus on making it our mission to get to really know our partner and allowing them to truly know us. In order to do that we need to be vulnerable with them sharing our fears, failures and insecurities as well as our dreams, hopes and successes and we need to encourage them to do the same. That will mean putting down any masks, defences and pretences and showing up as we really are and it will mean creating a safe environment where our husband or wife is able to do the same.
4. Be intentional with your boundaries. Marriages needs protecting and that won't just happen. We need to safeguard it. That's where boundaries come in. We need to decide with our partner what we will say "yes" and "no" to in our relationship and we need to discuss what will happen if or when we overstep a boundary.
How and what boundaries you decide to have will be different for each couple. I know one Christian leader who has chosen never to be alone in a car with a woman who isn't his wife or close relative but for other leaders this wouldn't be a concern. It helps to work out what boundaries we need and how we are going to stick to them. Think about different areas that could be a threat to your relationship – online or offline – and decide together how you will protect yourselves from temptation and harm.
Another friend I know has talked with his wife about what would happen if he had an affair. She says she would cut his legs off at the knees and then look after him in his wheelchair! I think she is joking but she has left him in no doubt that that there would be serious consequences if he had an affair but they also have tried to introduce safeguards that would hopefully mean that they don't ever get to test her threat.
5. Know yourself. In Matthew 22:39 we are reminded of the second most important commandment "to love your neighbour as yourself". In my work coaching couples or individuals struggling in their relationships I am struck by how often people struggle to love or even know themselves.
We all need to take responsibility and look after ourselves physically, emotionally and spiritually. If we are over-tired, stressed, unhappy with how we are (or who we are) or struggling to cope with certain changes in our life then we maybe more susceptible to distractions, temptations or anything (or anyone) that will help to numb us from our current reality.
Loving ourselves isn't about being narcissistic – it is about being able to reflect, to be still and to know who God created us to be. It is about knowing that we have value for who we are and not just for what we do.
When we don't know that we are ok, and that what we does matters – the temptation can be to look for that validation in the eyes or arms of someone else. That may or may not satisfy in the short-term but true security, significance and self-worth can only come from knowing that we are unconditionally loved as we are by God.
6. Be accountable to others. We all need someone or a some people in our lives who can look into our eyes and ask us the difficult questions. We need people who we can trust and who we can turn to if we are facing temptation or if we have sinned. We need to choose people who will be for our marriage and for us. It helps to have people in our lives who will serve us not please us and who will challenge us when needed. We need perceptive, prayerful and wise people who will push if they think we aren't being fully honest with ourselves or with them.
I heard about an accountability group the other day. The men would ask each other one question, "What is the one thing you don't want me to know about you right now?" I like that question. When we bring our fears into the light and when we confess our sins – we break any hold our secrets might have over us or our marriage.
7. Draw closer to God. In Ecclesiastes 4:12 we learn that "a chord of three strands is not quickly broken." The closer both we and our spouse are to God, the stronger our marriage relationship is likely to be. The reverse is also likely to be true. I've certainly found that in my own marriage. When I am feeling disconnected from my husband or feeling lonely – I often find that it is when I am also feeling disconnected from God.
I heard an excellent talk from a Christian leader I know on this topic last week. He focused on the story of Mary and Joseph and how for three days they hadn't realised they were missing the 12-year-old Jesus when they returned to Nazareth. The speaker said that we also need to be careful that we aren't going days without realising that Jesus isn't with us.
We need to be prioritising our individual and our joint prayer lives and regularly reading the Word but more than that we need to be walking with the Lord and inviting him into the details of our lives and our marriage.
I hope these seven suggestions are of help. Last week in our home group, we decided to take some positive action. We took some time to reflect on our own marriages and then to ask the group for support and prayer. It was refreshing to be honest about areas we were struggling in. It was also good to know that we are not on our own and that we can encourage and help each other as we seek to affair-proof our marriages.
Sarah Abell is a relationships coach and the founder of Naked Hedgehogs. Her passion is helping individuals and couples live, love and lead authentically. If you want to find out how authentic you really are – you can take her free quiz at www.nakedhedgehogs.com