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.

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  1. Manlius October 19, 2009 at 9:25 am

    Close friendships that start in childhood might be an exception. In such relationships, the sexual component can be excluded, as in a sibling bond.
    If a male-female friendship happens within the context of a close relationship between two couples, that also might be an exception. This can still be dangerous, though.
    All in all, I do think there is great wisdom in your perspective, John. Male-female relationships are naturally fraught with temptations.

  2. Anthony October 19, 2009 at 12:58 pm

    I think the critical term in your post is what you mean specifically by emotional bond. I say this, because I think it is well within the legitimate use of that term to say that men have an emotional bond to their mothers and sisters. They have a history with them, and they care deeply about their well being. Moreover, men may very well share personal aspects of their lives with their mothers and sisters. Of course, there is such a thing as families that are emotionally enmeshed. On the other hand, there are families that are emotionally distant. So, there appears to be a Golden Mean of emotional bonding that is healthy.
    All this makes me wonder if a man can have such a bond with a woman that is neither part of his biological family nor his wife. In thinking this through I would want to draw upon ideas I just touched upon and try to identify what are the healthy boundaries if there was to be such a relationship. In trying to identify this boundary I would want to keep in mind what the Scriptures say about guarding our hearts. In light of this, perhaps men can have some kind of emotional connection to women other than their wives, but “bond” would perhaps be too strong of a term for the kind of connection they can legitimately have.
    The thing that makes me cautious about setting up too high or wide a boundary between men and women is that regarding the new creation there is neither male and female, and yet regarding the image of God, we are created male and female, all of which implies that in the context of the Church’s ministry men and women should work together to extend the boundaries of God’s Kingdom. If they don’t work together to do so, then one has to ask what Kingdom is actually being extended. And so, regarding emotional bond, don’t you think that when people work and minister together some kind of bond is being created and nurtured?

  3. John H. Armstrong October 19, 2009 at 1:58 pm

    I do not deny a single thing you suggest Anthony. I think my words should be read in the very context of my argument and how adultery really does take place in most cases. I have “bonds” with Christian sisters, for sure, but they would not be at the level that would allow me to share my most intimate thoughts and feelings with them. I reserve these for my wife, family and male friends. I think this is the way of wisdom given what I used as my starting point in the post.

  4. Anthony October 19, 2009 at 4:12 pm

    John – Taking from your response, I think that “level” and “intimacy” are two words that should be considered together when trying to establish a healthy relationship with women other than our wives. Certainly there can be some sharing of struggles and hopes, particularly as we are called to walk in the light, but the sharing should not be to the depth and detail that we would have with our wives or a close male friend. Along with this, I think it is wise that there be very little one-on-one sharing with the opposite sex, and if there is one-on-one sharing, then physical context certainly needs to be considered. Finally, if a married man was considering sharing emotionally with someone of the opposite sex, he should ask himself why he wants to share, or what is prompting him to share, or what is he ultimately hoping to accomplish. Sure, in our battle to live well thinking has its limitations, but I am sure a lot of temptation could be avoided with some clear-headed and honest thinking.
    Finally, in reviewing your post, I think you powerfully said what needs to be said when you said, “I do not think a married man can treasure a deep emotional bond for a woman that is not his wife.” The word “treasure” is particularly instructive, as this is the word that should be reserved for one’s wife.

  5. Bob Myers October 19, 2009 at 7:37 pm

    I have practiced this since being married, and I believe it is correct and certainly safest. I refer women to other women. I find that it affirms women to recognize that they possess gifting in counseling and shepherding equal to men.

  6. Kent Berghuis October 20, 2009 at 8:58 pm

    While I tend to agree with you, John, one concern I have is that there is an awful tendency for people to view women as a “threat” to men in the ministry. I suppose the reverse could be true as well, and in reality is probably at least as true, that men are “threats” to women’s purity, though it usually doesn’t get communicated that way. But anyway, I think we have to develop a maturity that encourages genuine, Christ-like, meaningful interactions in ministry with either sex, without getting into overly compromising situations, whether sexually or relationally. Perhaps we should focus on what it takes to develop genuine spirituality (self control?) in the context of those with whom we might naturally experience attraction.

  7. P. Andrew Sandlin October 22, 2009 at 11:39 am

    John, right on target. Marriage *requires* an emotional bond that simply cannot be validly translated to a non-spouse of the opposite text.
    Your buddy,

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