Emotional Affairs and Grounds for Divorce

Are repeated emotional affairs biblical grounds for divorce? On several occasions my husband has become emotionally involved with other women in ways that have been seriously destructive to our marriage. The most recent incident involved a lady with whom he'd been emotionally intimate in the past. I'm tired of his betrayals, and though we've been in counseling together for some time, I see nothing in him to indicate that there's any hope of change in the future. What should I do?

It’s not easy to respond to an inquiry like this. The various emotional, relational, and scriptural pieces of the puzzle are so complex, so multi-layered, and so densely interwoven with a tangle of unknown factors that we simply can’t give you a definitive reply. We can only attempt to shed some light on a few of the most important details of the scenario you’ve described.

Let’s begin with the biblical side of the question. It’s common knowledge that Jesus cites “fornication” or “sexual immorality” – Greek porneia – as the one and only legitimate reason for dissolving a marriage: “I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery … ” (Matthew 19:9). In light of this statement, it seems that what you’re really asking is, “Does emotional attachment amount to ‘fornication’ or ‘sexual immorality'”? At first glance, the answer would appear to be an obvious no; as your husband himself would probably point out, “We didn’t do anything! There was no sex involved!” But upon further reflection, the problem appears to be more complicated.

A great deal depends on definitions and motives. And in a situation like this, the two can be deceptively intertwined. How do you understand the words adultery, fornication, and sexual immorality? Whether you realize it or not, it’s possible that your definition of these terms is being shaped by your motives. In other words, your personal agenda could be driving your interpretation of Christ’s pronouncement.

To put it more bluntly, we think you need to begin by examining yourself. Exactly why are you so interested in determining whether “repeated emotional affairs constitute biblical grounds for divorce”? Are you looking for a reason to divorce your husband? If so, is his recent unfaithfulness the only thing pushing you in this direction? In cases like yours, there’s a powerful tendency to wrap up all the struggles and frustrations of your entire married life and “dump” them on top of the affair – to use it to give yourself “permission” to take “revenge” on your spouse for every offense he’s ever committed. That’s why we think it’s so important to ask yourself if there are any other unresolved issues in your relationship and to separate them out of the mix before you attempt to address the fallout of the emotional affair.

A similar observation can be made with respect to your husband, of course. His motives, too, are open to question. Do you sense that he is in any way trying to “push the envelope” or “test the boundaries” by insisting that, whatever else may have happened, he never became sexually involved with the other woman? What’s his definition of unfaithfulness, immorality, or adultery? Is he for some reason trying to “nudge the line” as closely as possible without actually crossing over into blatant sin? If so, why? If he really cares about you and your marriage, why would he want to run such a huge risk? Is it possible that he is looking – whether consciously or unconsciously – for an excuse to end the relationship?

If, as you’ve indicated, the two of you are currently in the middle of marital counseling, these are some of the questions you’ll want to bring up with your therapist. What matters most at this stage of the game is not a strict and legalistic definition of “biblical grounds for divorce,” but an honest assessment of the intentions of your hearts. If you have cause to believe that your husband’s behavior up to this point has been characterized by a stubborn resistance to change or an ongoing lack of repentance, you may in fact have a very serious problem on your hands. But we would urge you not to jump to this conclusion too quickly. Exercise discernment. Seek the advice of your counselor, your pastor, and your most trusted friends. And before consigning your spouse to the ranks of the reprobate, remember that there is a huge difference between playing with sin, falling into sin, and being utterly given over to sin. Try to figure out exactly where he falls along this spectrum before allowing the word “divorce” to dominate your thoughts.

If you recognize your spouse or yourself in anything we’ve said and feel you can apply our comments with profit to your situation, so much the better. If not, and if you think it would be helpful to discuss your questions at greater length, please feel free to contact our Counseling department. Our staff counselors would be more than happy to discuss your concerns with you over the phone.



Torn Asunder Workbook: Recovering From an Extramarital Affair

Anatomy of an Affair

Boundaries in Marriage

Friendship or Flirtation? Danger Signs for Couples (broadcast)

Resource List: Marital Challenges

Nothing to Hide: Hope for Marriages Hurt by Pornography and Infidelity


Hope Restored: A Ministry of Focus on the Family

Love and Respect


Affairs and Adultery

Affairs/Marital Infidelity

Friendship or Flirtation

Emotional Affair

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