First, let me begin by stating that I have great respect and admiration for evangelical therapists. This is not intended to be a critique against those therapists who welcome clients of the opposite sex. I definitely support that practice.
What I wish to explore are several themes currently embraced by a number of evangelicals and their fear of intimate cross-gender friendships. In particular, where do evangelical therapists stand on issues such as inappropriate relationships, emotional adultery, emotional intimacy, sexual attraction, emotional fidelity, and talking about intimate matters of the heart with no one else present?
There are evangelicals who are critical of professional therapy as a matter of general principle, and they would not be the focus of my exploration. That’s another post, another time.
My target audience would be:
1) evangelical therapists who regularly welcome clients of the opposite sex but who would also accept popular notions of emotional adultery as discouragement for intimate cross-gender friendships outside the walls of their practice, and
2)evangelicals at large who are not therapists yet would enthusiastically endorse number 1 as balanced, safe, and wise.
I invite you to explore this issue with me.
1. The Common Meaning of Emotional Adultery
Dennis and Barbara Rainey, in their book, Staying Close: Stopping the Natural Drift to Isolation in Marriage, state “People commit emotional adultery before they commit physical adultery. Emotional adultery is unfaithfulness of the heart. It starts when two people of the opposite sex begin talking with each other about intimate struggles, doubts, and feelings.”
In his book Brave New Marriage, Mike Berner opines, “We can commit emotional adultery against our husband or our wife by becoming emotionally involved with someone other than our spouse.”
Stephanie Herzog in her book, God is Your Matchmaker, "Counterfeit emotional bonding happens when you share deep things with one another—problems, concerns, hurts, even their dreams, personal prophecies, and intimate secrets... The deeper the conversation, the greater the attraction.”
I could very easily include many other evangelicals espousing the same thing.
2. A Popular View of Emotional Exclusivity within Marriage
The Rainey’s in the same paragraph from which I quoted above went on to add, “They start sharing their souls in a way that God intended exclusively for the marriage relationship.”
Debbie, a commenter in response to Sharon Hodde Miller’s post on Christianity Today’s Her.meneutic blog nailed a popular view of emotional exclusivity when she wrote:
“To me, saying that married people need to have emotionally intimate friendships with the opposite sex says that there's a basic need that's not being met within the marriage… We both agreed that once in marriage, WE needed to be each other's best friends and we wouldn't look to persons outside the marriage for emotional intimacy… I still say emotional intimacy (like physical intimacy) is intended for, and should be reserved for, the married couple.”
On that same blog-post, “Anonymous” stated, “I would be just as devasted (sic) if he shared his emotional intimacy with another woman as I would if he shared his physical intimacy with her.”
3. The View that Spending Time Alone with the Opposite Sex is Inappropriate and Dangerous.
Suzy, another commenter wrote: “My concern is that proximity is the number one way that adultery begins. Some proximity, such as in the workplace, we can't avoid, but creating one-on-one opportunities with those of the opposite sex seems foolhardy to me.”
Deborah added, “BUT I would never do anything with them without their wives (my girlfriends) present, nor would I want to, and there are levels of conversation I would not usually have with them….I am not going to spend time alone with an individual man or have very personal conversations as I would with a girlfriend.”
Responding to Sharon’s essay Laura wrote, “Something that you didn't address is how having a cross gender confidant, especially one in whom you confide things about your relationship with your spouse, can be dangerous. This is an issue of having healthy boundaries in friendships, emotional boundaries in particular.”
Anne Wilson depicted this fear when she posted an article, “No One is Above an Affair.” She adamantly refuses to ride alone in a car with the opposite sex.
4. The Relational and Emotional Turn in Professional Therapy
For the uninitiated and uninformed, James Currie spoke for many evangelicals when he responded on my Facebook wall: “However, there's a huge difference in personal investment and professional investment in relationships, here. Therapists arguably are emotionally UNinvested.”
That’s what therapy used to look like.
Perhaps that is still true in a few circles. But there is a wide range of relational therapies/theories now present in which therapists see detachment, uninvestment, emotionally distant dynamics as inauthentic, impersonal, or an imbalanced form of power.
Leslie Greenberg author of Emotion-Focused Therapy, states, “Mounting evidence that emotional arousal and depth of experience relate to therapy outcome supports the importance of access to emotion in therapy…It is possible to enter into people’s inner realms of emotion.”
In his book Beautiful Risk, evangelical therapist-theologian James Olthuis (who is a proponent for cross-gender friendships) writes that “In attuning, a therapist says, ‘I desire to be with-you in such a way that we experience connection. I want to share a place with you where I can be touched by your struggle, your pain, your fears, and your angers. Then, connected at-home with each other, I offer to dance with you, as a trusted companion.’”
Olthuis, in embracing deep emotional connection between the therapist and the client observes, “Resonating with another’s deepest feelings sensitively—without distancing and without fusing—creates a with experience that eases and disperses feelings of isolation and shame.”
Robert Watson, talks about the primacy of love in Christian psychotherapy in his essay, “Toward Union in Love”: “To choose to love is to make oneself vulnerable to the other…The relational space within which we move toward Christ and toward each other is infused with the love of God. It kindles our longings for union, connection, intimacy…Love is truly unpredictable, unsafe, and filled with risk…Real therapy is costly… The image of the detached, unattached therapist is just that—an image which reflects a defensive illusion.”
Therapist Judith Jordan, in her paper “Valuing Vulnerability,” discusses how therapists talk of love to other therapists outside of the office. She writes “A frequent comment I hear about their clients is, ‘I just love her.’” She asks as a professional therapist, “Who doesn’t want to know if they are loved, in therapy or elsewhere?”
Speaking again of love in therapy Jordan observes, “Love is ultimately about vulnerability, courage, and growth. Growth-fostering relationships are to my mind essentially loving relationships that connect us to one another and to ourselves.”
I will add italics for this next thought from Jordan: “I think we should begin to reclaim the language of love, away from the sexualized, romanticized distortions of the dominant culture, and bring it back into the heart of healing and caring. Perhaps the language of love is the real antidote to the language of power-over others.”
What do we do with this relational and emotional turn in Christian psychotherapy, inappropriate relationships, emotional exclusivity in marriages, and deep emotional connection between therapist and client?
This sounds like so much confusion or diversity among evangelicals on what is appropriate emotional connection, depth, or intensity between a man and woman who are not married to each other.
Stay tuned for my second post, "Inappropriate Relationships and Evangelical Therapists Pt. 2"