Josh had been at a new church for four months when Sara—his pastor’s wife—invited him to join their community group, which was a weekly gathering of both singles and married couples. Sara and her husband, Craig, wanted a group where married couples mentored singles.

Josh and Sara hit it off, and they discovered lots of common interests. Their conversation easily flowed during the fellowship time before the Bible study. Sara was surprised how much she missed Josh when he couldn’t attend. Josh realized that talking to Sara became the main reason he enjoyed the group. Not a big deal, it’s just talking.

Then the conversation time moved into texting. Not a big deal, everyone texts. But when the two of them began texting about community group issues, their sharing became more personal. Josh’s work stress and loneliness as a single man, and Sara’s challenges in being a pastor’s wife, gave them ways to grow more emotionally intimate with each other.

Then it happened. Their texting became a nightly ritual as Craig was often asleep by 9 p.m. and Sara, a night owl, would reach out to Josh to check in and see how he was in regards to his prayer requests. Their texting often lasted an hour or more. The warning line had long since been crossed.

One night Josh felt compelled to be honest and blurted out in a text: I think I’m in love with you. He waited nervously for her reply, and it came within seconds: Me too . . . my heart’s grown cold towards Craig. No one’s ever understood my heart the way you do. I need you. Her text gave Josh a rush of intoxication and yet, seeing her words jolted him: Sara was married, and her husband was his pastor!

Josh panicked. Now the reality of their too-close friendship hit him like a punch to the gut. What was so enjoyable and enriching was now an entangled mess. How would their friendship go forward? What if this got out? Would he have to leave the church? Would Sara’s marriage survive?

Discerning When Lines Are Crossed

Though Josh and Sara never touched one another, they had cultivated an unholy and messy relationship: an emotional affair. An emotional affair happens when a married person shares ongoing emotional intimacy with someone who is not his or her spouse, in a way that damages the marriage relationship. Singles can be guilty of emotional affairs, too, when they form inappropriately intimate relationships with a married person.

Many men and women miss the alarms going off when a relationship begins to cross obvious lines. They assume that because there’s no physical or sexual involvement, the relationship is okay.

But one day an awareness kicks in, and they realize it’s moving in the wrong direction.

If close friendships are an important God-given gift to us, how do we discern if boundaries are being crossed into a danger zone?

Questions to Ask

Here are some questions to help discern if your relationship has morphed into an emotional affair:

  • Is there any secrecy or deception involved in your interactions?
  • How much contact are you in (face to face, over devices, social media, and so on), and how does it compare to how much time you connect with your spouse?
  • If you are single, how does your contact with this married person compare to other close friendships?
  • Do you have romantic feeling toward her/him? Sexual chemistry? Mental preoccupation? If yes to any of these, are you seeking to feed or flee from these tempting dynamics?
  • What is the content of your communication? How would your spouse (or mentor, pastor, close friend) react if she/he saw your texts or emails, or overheard your private conversations?
  • Does this relationship inspire you to obey Christ or to turn away from him? Does this relationship propel you toward your spouse, or away? Does this relationship motivate you to invest more passionately in loving other people, or to isolate yourself and focus on this one person?

Brother or sister, if these questions (and your answers) make you uncomfortable about this relationship: PAUSE! HALT! STOP! You—and your friend—are in danger.

God wants us to have rich and meaningful relationships whether we are single or married. God delights in Christ-centered friendships that stay within the boundaries of his Word, boundaries that are healthy for both friends.

But God never intends for any of his good gifts to become a heart-hijacking reality that steals joy and betrays a spouse’s trust. He is committed to removing relational attachments which lead to sin and distraction. Emotional affairs are a cheap substitute for what God graciously gives: unfailing love and true intimacy of the deepest kind, which is ours in Christ.

Editors’ note: 

A version of this article first appeared on the Harvest USA blog.