Join Steve along with pastors Zach Van Dyke and Kevin Labby as they talk with Sharon Hersh about inappropriate relationships and God's faithfulness to the unfaithful. If you're a pastor, this conversation could save your marriage (not to mention your job) and spare your family and those impacted by your ministry a lot of pain.
Sharon's piece, "What is an Inappropriate Relationship?", forms the foundation for this discussion, so check it out here at SharonHersh.com or read below.
Sharon Hersh is a licensed professional counselor and popular speaker. She teaches graduate counseling courses on sex and sexuality, as well as addiction. Sharon has written several books, including the popular Bravehearts: Unlocking the Courage to Love with Abandon.
What is an Inappropriate Relationship? by Sharon Hersh
The headlines crush us again with stories of inappropriate relationships that result in severe consequences — the loss of job, reputation, and trust. I’m afraid we read the headlines and fill in the story with images from terrible television shows like Mistresses or country western songs that tell stories of lost lovers or lost dogs or whatever loss makes our own too often betrayed hearts want to sing along with gusto, “That I dug my key into the side of his pretty little suped up 4 wheel drive, carved my name into his leather seats . . . Maybe next time he’ll think before he cheats.”
I was so heartsick to hear of another story today that would be reduced to the shallow cultural norms and devoured gleefully by those who take pleasure in seeing the failure of another — especially a Christian leader. The jackhammer reverberations in my own story of an “inappropriate relationship” started over 15 years ago. My husband told me that he was lonely (I was busy writing books on relationships), had found his soulmate and wanted a divorce. We had stood on the Christian platform of marriage conferences talking about communication and intimacy, while our marriage choked on horrible conversations laced with words that could not be erased and an ugly chasm that grew between us – slowly at first – and then with the speed of an eroding canyon wall that could no longer hold all the rocks and vegetation as it spit out boulders that landed on others who were a part of the collateral damage of our relationship.
In Old Testament Scripture, forming a covenant is referred to as “cutting a covenant,” because ancient people would form a covenant by taking an animal, like a lamb, cut the lamb in half, lay the two halves on the ground, and then walk between the halves saying, “May it be done to me as it was done to this animal, if I break the covenant.” Scripture also refers to marriage as a covenant. Having been through a divorce, I can tell you that breaking the covenant feels less like acknowledging an “inappropriate relationship” or going down to the County Courthouse to get a certificate of divorce, and more like taking a live animal and ripping it in half.
Shortly after the broken covenant in my marriage, I started to receive inquiries from the Christian organizations that I had been involved with asking who was at fault for the divorce. I learned that if I quickly stated that my husband had an “inappropriate relationship,” he became the scapegoat for a complex web of mutual betrayal and careless or destructive behaviors that resulted in the erosion of our marriage. All I had to do was mention the “inappropriate relationship,” and I was the good one and he was the bad. Over the years, I have come to see that although a sexual or emotional affair is an inappropriate relationship, there are many other inappropriate relationships that threaten the covenant of marriage:
*Controlling or “managing” others by offering tangible gifts like a clean house, a hefty paycheck, or sexual “intimacy” while withholding our hearts — that is an inappropriate relationship.
*Warm, welcoming friendships that affirm us and make us feel important while we criticize and minimize those who know us best can create a network of inappropriate relationships.
*Investing time in working out, a book club, or a “girl’s night out,” while investing less and less time in our primary relationships — that is inappropriate.
*It does not take too long to learn that to love is to open ourselves to pain. Being faithful makes us feel dependent and vulnerable — being unfaithful (emotionally or sexually) makes us feel invincible, but it’s inappropriate.
*Sneaking down to the computer and clicking on an image or a chat room that promises intimacy without requiring anything from us is an inappropriate relationship.
*Being deeply hurt by another’s harsh words or careless actions and saying we forgive them, while vowing in our hearts that we will never trust them or put ourselves in a position to be hurt again is a dishonest and inappropriate relationship.
*Finding someone who understands because they have a difficult relationship too, and so we discover a shared enemy (our spouses), and it feels so good to begin to express feelings and needs with someone who gets it, while our spouse gets only the remnants of our hearts, if that. It feels good, makes us start to feel alive, and it is inappropriate.
*Feeling so lonely that when we get some attention, we begin assigning more positive attributes to that person than they could possibly possess. Unlike our boring spouses or lonely singleness, we find someone who is beautiful, brilliant, stimulating, and sensitive. By exaggerating and selectively focusing on the positive, we attach to this person in inappropriate ways that our very human spouses can never compete with.
*Sometimes we latch on to someone who we know is going to betray us or berate us, and as a victim we feel justified in shutting down or provoking them to leave. We don’t consciously seek out pain and abandonment; but the relationship replicates an earlier experience in our lives and being a victim is strangely empowering, because a victim can justify anything — even if its inappropriate.
I will go ahead and admit it. I have had “inappropriate relationships” — maybe not relationships that can be categorized as an emotional or sexual affair, but relationships that I’ve harmed by my selfishness, neglected because of a busy schedule filled with teaching and speaking about relationships, and abandoned when they became difficult, boring, or did not affirm me as much as I thought they should. Jesus taught in the New Testament that if we look longingly at someone who is not our spouse, want a life with someone who is better than our spouse, imagine intimacy with someone more exciting than a spouse, we have committed to an inappropriate relationships in our hearts, which seems to me to be the most dangerous and damaging place to be inappropriate.
Inappropriate relationships are far more common that we want to believe. An inappropriate relationship is not motivated by love. An act of love doesn’t cause lives to be torn apart, people to be thrown into pain, and children to be emotionally burdened for life. We may think it’s love or that our careless, destructive behaviors are justified, but what passes for “love” in most inappropriate relationships is a combination of hormones and a desperate need for our egos to be validated. I have learned — from my own inappropriate relationships — that I can easily become “heart-blind” to any warning signs that my relationships might be veering toward the inappropriate when four realities take over my heart and cut me off from the Light of the Spirit.
1. When I’m naive. To the degree that I am naive is to the degree that I will not address the terrible cancer in my relationships. This type of naiveté can make us feel “safe” when we face the crumbling of some of our most cherished illusions. Those illusions might be an equation that because we love and serve God, our marriages and children will be good; or that we deserve to feel self-righteous in the aftermath of betrayal; or that we can control and manage our relationships into a place that looks good. The terrible cancer that we don’t want to acknowledge or address is that we believe that somehow we can make things work, we can protect our families and ourselves from harm, and that we will find life somewhere, damn it! “Our unacknowledged and undealt-with commitment to find life apart from dependence on God, blocks our desire and commitment to love others.” (Dan Allender, Bold Love).
2. When I’m presumptuous. Presumption is arrogance. We presume in our arrogance that if we feel good in our relationships, then everyone else should be okay as well. I cannot even estimate the number of times I have heard someone in my counseling office express: “I just want to be loved as I am. I don’t need someone to judge me and try to change me all the time!” Presumption blinds us from looking at the way relationships unnerve, disappoint, grieve, shame, scare, and infuriate us. Most of us start out in an intimate relationship presuming that love will naturally spring from our passionate hearts and that we will know how to love well and be loved well. And when that doesn’t happen, we feel justified in finding love in “inappropriate” places. Presumption convinces us that we deserve better and if we don’t get what we deserve from our relationships, we are justified to wallow in our pain and shame. For 2 years and 137 days after my marriage fell apart, I sat in church convicted about the cancer in my own life and then presumption quickly took over, compelling me to announce every Sunday, “I am not going to forgive him.” You see, my presumption was that I had been hurt the most and that I’d have to be crazy to forgive him. My friends and parents didn’t want me to forgive him, my lawyer certainly didn’t want me to forgive him; and so I would arrogantly announce, “I am not going to forgive him.” I know now that God, in his inestimable humility and patience, answered me every Sunday: “Okay. You don’t have to forgive him.” Ultimately it was God’s kindness that took me by the hand and led me to watch a movie called Bruce Almighty, that radically changed me and brought me to my knees praying, “I want to forgive him.” And once again, I think God responded, “Okay.”
3. When I’m confused. Most books on marriage and relationships are confusing — filled with simple answers to complex patterns of behavior and equations for how to make things work. Confusion keeps us from seeing a larger story because we tend to focus on our own small but terribly important stories of “papercut wounds” in everyday relationships or even gaping wounds like affairs that keep us bound to unforgiveness, bitterness, injustice, and resentment. Confusion keeps us from seeing the inappropriateness of our own behaviors. Confusion makes us want to pick out who is good and who is bad, so that we know what side to take. I love the stories that Anne Lamott tells about confusing realities in her relationships without trying to clean them up into neat and tidy stories, tied with a big bow. She writes, “It’s so confusing . . . One of my best friends, the gentlest person I know, once tore the head off his daughter’s doll. And then threw it to her, like a baseball . . . . I’m not sure what the solution is [to difficult relationships], I know what doesn’t help is the terrible feeling of isolation, the fear that everyone is doing better than you.” (Anne Lamott, Plan B)
4. When I forget. When I begin to rest on my laurels or relational bliss (because I’m not married and my children are adults now), and I start to judge the stories in the headlines about another “inappropriate relationship,” I forget the most inappropriate relationship of all. The Scriptures tell us that Jesus is married — that He is our Groom. And even though I’ve been faithless and refused to forgive, He’s faithfully forgiven me, even when I whimper a half-prayer like, “I know I really blew it this time, and so I’ll forgive others if you forgive me.” God is certainly never naive in relationships.He knows us so thoroughly that He not only sees our hearts when they’re prone to wander, He knows how many hairs we have in our heads. Have you ever thought about that verse in the New Testament (Luke 12:7)? What a strange thing to say. But it doesn’t seem so strange when you fall in love and you have stars in your eyes and romance in your heart and you want to know everything about your lover — but even then I don’t know anyone who would have the patience to count and know every piece of hair on another’s head. I forget that this strange verse of crazy intimacy is because God is not bound to us by a covenant of obligation in which He presumes that we will love Him back. He is bound to us by His eternal nature. He is bound to us by grace — unrelenting love.
Former Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger — a mediator of whole countries once said, “No one will win the war between the sexes, because there is too much fraternizing with the enemy.” Exactly! Everybody has inappropriate relationships. My pastor says, “It is sheer and absolute insanity to vow yourself unconditionally to another fallen, sinful, needy person. You could get crucified that way.” My pastor calls marriage “a sneaky way to get a person crucified.” I know that divorce is a not-so-sneaky way to get crucified. A few painful moments in parenting feel like getting crucified too. Certainly, “inappropriate relationships” inevitably result in feeling like we are getting crucified. But before we jump on the bandwagon of judgment, I pray that we don’t forget that the pain and heartache of relationships — especially marriage relationships — that make us want to scream, “Don’t do it. You could get hurt! You have to be crazy to get married,” is intended by God to reveal all that is inappropriate in all of our hearts. And then at the most inappropriate moments, Jesus tenderly reveals the most inappropriate love of all and what we seek to possess, begins to possess us. That I am bone of His bones. Flesh of his flesh. That even when I deny Him and nail Him to a cross, He descends into the pit of Hell to free me to be loved by Him – the One who wants such scary intimacy that He counts every hair in my head.
I hope that when we read and talk about the headlines of inappropriate relationships, that we will think about the Lover who is most inappropriate — so much so that when we stumble through the unworthiness and unloveliness of our lives, Jesus meets us there, offering us Grace that we might believe – heart and soul – that God is absolutely captivated by us!
“Behold, what great love God has lavished on us.” (1 John 3:1)
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