As I read the tragic news about Governor Mark Sanford’s disappearance to Argentina a few months ago, for what we now know was the pursuit of a sexual relationship with another woman, I was forced to ask again a question that has troubled me for many years. (By the way, Sanford is under perpetual fire to resign as governor but remains in office. Personally I wish he would resign since he was such an outspoken critic of Bill Clinton and, more importantly, his effectiveness as governor has been under severe fire from the day his adultery was revealed in June.)

My question is really quite simple: Can a married man have a deeply personal relationship with another woman?

Let me begin by saying there is no obvious biblical answer to this question. If this were so clear we would not need to think about it all that much. I have seen some very good arguments made on both sides of this debate. But I am more convinced than ever, after reading the Mark Sanford story, that the answer I lean toward is a rather strong no. 

When the Mark Sanford story broke he spoke of his developing a relationship with a dear, dear friend from Argentina. Sanford appears to be a serious Christian. He said, in his press conference, that “There are moral absolutes.” He acknowledged his sin and asked for forgiveness. He pledged to work on restoring his marriage. I have prayed for this to happen.

MarkSanfordFamily What moved me was how Sanford described this relationship with the woman in Argentina. He said the affair started innocently (most do) but then escalated (also not new). He had known this woman for more than a year, having met her on an economic development trip to Argentina. Sanford’s wife, Jenny, had known of the affair for five months. She said that she had asked him to leave two weeks before the revelation was made public. The governor expressed a desire to reconcile with his wife. She responded in a marvelous manner and said he had earned a chance to resurrect their marriage. She said, “The trial separation was agreed to with the goal of ultimately strengthening our marriage.”

The news gave the contents of two emails the governor has sent to his lover in Argentina. These were written on July 4, 2008. (This means the relationship was relatively young and developing at that time.) Sanford refers to his deep love for her and to various expressions about her physical appearance and his response to her. He ends one by saying, “Last Friday I would have stayed embracing and kissing you forever.”

Now, here is my central concern as I read this sad story. Men are visual and express their emotions in ways consistent with visual perception. This visual response is deeply rooted in male sexuality. Women generally appreciate the words that men speak to them in ways that men do not always grasp. Words touch the heart of a woman in ways that are often very different from the way they reach into the heart of a man. I understand that certain men and certain women are different but these patterns are generally true. We are sexual beings. This is obvious.

This being said I do not think a married man can treasure a deep emotional bond for a woman that is not his wife. Such a bond will almost always lead to a sexual response that leads the man to say and do things that pursue the woman in ways unhealthy to his marriage. My wife has told me this for years. I have sometimes argued with her but I believe she is right. I have long thought that she was. If Governor Sanford had believed this way he would never have developed a close, private friendship with this woman in Argentina. And if he had never formed a close, private friendship with her he would never have fallen sexually. This seems self-evident to me but then I am biased toward preserving my wonderful marriage of nearly 39 years.