No-one starts their marriage with the intention of having an affair; our wedding vows, after all, include the promise to “forsake all others and be faithful”. Yet some sort of infidelity occurs in approximately 20% of marriages.¹ Christians are not immune and most of us know, at least to some extent, the terrible impact adultery can have on families, church and ministries. One insight that can help prevent sexual unfaithfulness in marriage is that it rarely happens spontaneously; rather, it is often the result of many small steps. If we can recognise that we’re on the path to adultery, we can apply wisdom and get off before things go any further.
Firstly, it’s worth saying that there’s nothing particularly original in this article (see footnote).² What I’ve done is collect, organise and expand some of the steps and present them in a way that makes sense to me.
Secondly, the Bible was onto this long ago. Proverbs says:
“Now then, my sons, listen to me; do not turn aside from what I say. Keep to a path far from her (the adulterous woman), do not go near the door of her house, lest you lose your honor to others and your dignity to one who is cruel..” (Prov 5:7-9; see also the rest of chapter 5, 6:20-35 and 7:1-27).
Proverbs recognises there is a path to adultery and warns its readers to keep away from it. It’s one of the books of the Bible I make sure I read every year (no matter how poorly my yearly Bible reading plan is going).
So what are the 25 steps to adultery? Have you taken any of them? Maybe reading and thinking about this will help you change course.
1. Readiness. Sometimes people are simply ready to step out on the path to adultery. We might be spiritually stagnant and so feel little motivation to obey Christ; we might be frustrated professionally and therefore looking for relief, excitement or ‘respect’; or we might be not enjoying our marriage and so begin look elsewhere for intimacy.
2. Awareness. For whatever reason, suddenly you are aware of this other person (I’ll use the second person pronoun from here in). You notice if he or she is at the event you’re at, or in the room. You feel good if they are around, and disappointed if they’re not there. You know whether you are Facebook friends or not. You check to see if they’ve liked your posts.
3. Appearance. If that person is around you pay more attention to your appearance. You take care with your clothing, hair (and make up) and posture. You might start trying to lose weight or bulk up.
4. Performance. You try a bit harder when he or she is around. For example, you try and tell better jokes, or present material at meetings with more passion, or conduct your ministries to a higher standard (or with more showiness).
5. Sharing. As you get to know this person you find yourself talking with them more about your common interests. For example: TV shows, movies, books, food, and even common Christian interests, such as theology or ministries.
6. Remembering. Whereas you might forget the name, or job, or uni course of other people you meet, you can remember things about this person exceptionally well. You think about them often. You are pleased that they appreciate your good memory.
7. Comparisons. You find yourself comparing your spouse to this person. You feel like your spouse doesn’t seem to not measure up in various categories such as appearance, sense of humour, empathy, Christian character or enthusiasm for ministry. You wonder what it would have been like if you had married this other person rather than your spouse.
8. Public meetings. Meeting him or her at public events (e.g. church, team meetings, the office) becomes a highlight of your day. You look for reasons to talk in these circumstances e.g. “I should go and encourage her this week”.
9. Emotional needs. You begin to look to this person to give you a boost emotionally. For men this might be that they make you feel respected, wise and important. For women this might be that they make you feel special, cared for and understood.
10. Anticipation. Being with this person is the thing you look forward to each day or each week. You think about them in the car and during routine activities.
11. Flirting. Relating begins to include teasing, trying to make each other laugh, and joking about risky topics such as your relationship or each other’s bodies.
12. Invention. You invent reasons to see or contact him or her during the week, e.g. ministry questions, problem solving, advice etc. You may try to rationalise these reasons as genuinely important rather than a pretext for time together.
13. Digital communication. You spend more time on digital communication (email, messenger, texts). Your messages and threads become longer. You put a lot of thought into what you say, use of emojis, and how they respond.
14. Special friendship. You and this person feel like you now have a “special friendship”. You get each other in a way that other people don’t. You try to hold to a naive belief that this will go no further.
15. Personal. You speak more about personal things including your spiritual life and struggles in your marriage.
16. Private meetings. You begin to meet privately in cafes or parks for some contrived purpose or simply for the sake of your friendship.
17. Secrets. Although you may not lie, you are secretive with other people (including your spouse). Nobody really knows what’s happening.
18. Special notes or gifts. You give him or her small or large gifts with carefully written notes. You may try and rationalise these as mere thoughtful gestures or acts of encouragement. They may have a Christian veneer such as including a Bible verse or being a Christian book.
19. “Harmless” touching. You begin to express affection with incidental or “harmless” touching – e.g. straightening their clothing, brushing hands together or a brief hug.
20. Lying. To preserve your secret relationship you lie to your spouse, colleagues or church friends about what you’re doing and where you’ve been.
21. Intimate meetings. Your private meetings begin to occur behind closed doors where no one can see you such as each other’s houses, cars or windowless office rooms.
22. Kissing. Your expression of affection moves to kissing.
23. Intimate touching. You may feel like heroic for not yet having gone “all the way”.
24. Sexual intercourse. It’s all been building to this.
25. Acceptance. A fully fledged affair is underway. Adultery is part of life. Marital separation and divorce are around the corner.
There it is: 25 steps to adultery. It’s a depressing read.
While the order is not necessarily precise I hope you can see the main point: adultery is (usually) the result of many small steps, some of which seem quite innocent. The main application is that this is a path you can and should step off at any time.
Many questions remain of course: why should I be faithful? Why can’t I enjoy a special friendship? How do I practically get off this path? What are the consequences depending on how far along I’ve gone? How else can I guard against adultery? How can I promote my marriage? These are all good questions and there’s a lot to say, but are probably best left to another post or, better still, a discussion with your pastor or small group leader. I’d encourage you to do this.
For now, though, I’d like to finish with a warning and encouragement from Scripture. First the warning:
“Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral” (Heb 13:4).
And the encouragement:
“May your fountain be blessed, and may you rejoice in the wife of your youth” (Prov 5:18).
2. http://davebaileyblog.blogspot.com/2012/11/12-steps-in-adultery.html ; https://www.gillistriplett.com/rel101/articles/adultery.html ; also chapter 3 of Point Man by Steve Farrar.