Features

Secret sin

Religion | Adultery in the church isn't just a man's problem

Issue: "MS-13: Criminals next door," June 18, 2005

Nancy Anderson's e-mail box sizzles with secrets:

"Five years ago, I stepped out of my marriage and did what I thought was the unimaginable, and had an affair," one woman wrote to Mrs. Anderson. "It all started with an e-mail from a 'friend' at church and that was the beginning of my trek through the thorns and weeds."

"I find myself being repeatedly unfaithful," wrote another woman, wed for 25 years to a pastor. "There's a pattern of . . . literally yearning to experience the excitement and thrill of flirting . . . crossing boundaries, and sometimes even having full-blown affairs. . . . What I don't understand is . . . why I constantly feel restless and wanting to stray, and why my heart is so unfaithful."

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Mrs. Anderson, an author and columnist at Crosswalk.com, receives between 30 and 40 such confessions each month. She answers all of them the same way: Repent and return to your husband.

She's not telling anyone to bear a cross she hasn't borne herself. At age 24, Mrs. Anderson had a champagne-and-roses, picnics-in-the-park affair with a co-worker. She was "in love" and briefly left her husband Ron to run off with the co-worker. But her Christian parents refused to coddle her when she whined that she wasn't happy in her marriage. And Ron refused to give up. Now, 25 years later, the Andersons teach other couples how to avoid-and recover from-infidelity.

The church in recent years has trained significant attention on infidelity among Christian men. Books, such as Stephen Arterburn's Every Man's Battle and Mark Laaser's L.I.F.E Guide for Men, examine sexual temptation from a male perspective and offer biblically based avoidance and recovery strategies. But adultery among Christian women remains largely unexplored territory.

"Women's struggle with infidelity and sexual sin is one of the biggest secrets in the church," said Marnie Ferree, a Tennessee-based marriage and family therapist and director of Bethesda Workshops, a faith-based sexual addiction recovery program. "The shame of being a woman who acts out sexually is enormous and the fear of being judged keeps women silent."

That makes quantifying adultery among Christian women difficult. But counselor Mark Laaser, with Bethesda Workshops in Minneapolis, estimates that 10 percent to 15 percent of his male clients are sexually involved with married women in their own churches.

Meanwhile, infidelity among women can run rampant in a single congregation, Mr. Laaser said. One Minneapolis church called him for help after a male adult Sunday school teacher, over a three-year period, had affairs with 10 of the 30 women who regularly attended a class he taught for married couples.

George Ohlschlager, director of policy and public affairs with the American Association of Christian Counselors, said such affairs stem from a host of issues, some traceable to marital or childhood emotional deficits, and others to a simple lack of spiritual maturity. Many Christian women "are not practicing spiritual disciplines, and are not really pursuing an intimacy with Christ that would go a long way toward filling up some of those emotional needs."

A few, however, are confessing publicly, turning their stories into cautionary tales. Singer Sandi Patti's book Broken on the Back Row, released in February, chronicles the affair that wrecked her role-model status among many female fans.

Nancy Anderson in 2004 wrote Avoiding the Greener Grass Syndrome: How to Grow Affair-Proof Hedges Around Your Marriage. The book outlines strategies-such as clear communication, encouraging more than you criticize, dating your mate, and paying attention to physical needs-for cultivating marital faithfulness. Since its release, hundreds of women have contacted her for help in their struggles with adultery.

"Their number-one excuse is the 'Don't I deserve to be happy?' lie. I'm tough on them. I tell them pretty much what my dad told me: 'You deserve to be happy' is not in the Bible. They actually think it is. I tell them, we're all sinners. You don't want what you really deserve."

Both Mrs. Anderson and Marnie Ferree emphasize that recovery from infidelity is possible: "It's possible," said Ms. Ferree, "to build a marriage that's not just faithful, but genuinely intimate in every way."

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