My last two articles were about playing the substitute game. This is a story that sums up how substitution relationships can be developed and the inherent dangers in it. Remember, it could happen to anybody.
By Jenniffer Graham.
The attention from my coworker was nice. A little too nice
I looked up to find Michael\’s warm brown eyes focused on me. They were filled with tenderness, and his smile revealed bemusement, indulgence, and affection. I read an intense fondness in his expression—a fondness beyond what should have been there. I felt shocked, as if I\’d caught him revealing a secret corner of his soul.
And I suddenly felt scared.
I averted my eyes. Although Michael sat directly across the wide conference table from me, I didn\’t look at him for the rest of the meeting. But I also couldn\’t focus on the financial reports. Two thoughts tangled in my brain—a panicked, Oh no! I was right! He feels it too! and a heart-wrenching, Oh, dear God, why can\’t you make my husband look at me like that?
In the year I\’d worked with Michael, he\’d become my special friend. On my first day, my boss had introduced him as the \”brilliant member of our team.\” At first, I felt intimidated. But Michael and I learned we\’d graduated from high school the same year. Our camaraderie blossomed as we talked trivia about our era. When we needed a break from work, we discussed old TV shows, movies, and events—sharing our memories.
Eventually we moved beyond the trivial to the personal. I learned about the insecurities he felt from being adopted, being a racial blend, and being reared in a blue-collar family while now having a white-collar job. In turn, Michael learned about my fears and frustrations and listened and understood and let me vent.
As our friendship developed, it moved into a spiritual realm. My scholarly friend loved theology, and I knew enough doctrine to get me in trouble. As Michael discussed the deep directives, history, legacy, and symbolism of Christianity, I challenged him with, \”Yes, but is that scriptural, or just tradition?\” and \”How does this affect a Christian\’s everyday life?\” He started to integrate practicality into his theories, and I learned more about church heritage.
Michael became a refreshing part of my life.
Though more intelligent than Michael, my husband, Jon, has a competitive nature. What he considers an invigorating debate feels like an argument to me. So I stopped discussing the \”fun stuff\”—philosophy, theology, and theories—with Jon. We talked only about problems with the kids and other stressful issues. That usually sent us to emotionally opposite corners, and I felt out of sync with him.
On the contrary, even when Michael and I tackled the toughest topics, he listened and smiled, then replied in the least threatening manner—even if he drastically disagreed. While my husband saw disagreements as a challenge to prove himself the winner, Michael focused on understanding my perspective. Around Michael, I felt validated, valued, and mentally stimulated.
I don\’t know when I began to recognize I was too fond of Michael for my own good—and his. I think the reality blast came the morning I woke up after seeing Michael smiling at me in my dreams.
\”Lord, this is ridiculous,\” I argued. \”I love my husband. I\’d never have an affair. Besides, Michael and I work for a Christian organization.\”
I insisted that nothing about our friendship was inappropriate. I felt I\’d be vain to think Michael felt the same attraction.
But now Michael\’s gaze shattered my denial.
The next week I received confirmation that I needed to watch my footing. A new acquaintance, Teri, admitted that she was rebuilding her marriage. It had almost been destroyed when, a few years earlier, her casual friendship with a man in her church had turned into an affair.
\”How do you know when you\’re getting too close?\” I tried to sound casual, but stumbled as I confessed, \”I think I may be too attracted to a man in my office.\”
\”If you even think you might be, you probably are,\” she replied wryly. \”One of the signs I ignored was that he and I joked constantly with each other. We ignored everyone else in the group. I remember once he even stopped me after a church committee meeting and thanked me for the attention I\’d given him. At first neither of us would admit we were blatantly flirting.\”
Hmm. That wasn\’t such an issue for me. Michael and I were always in meetings together, but we acted professionally.
However, her next words froze me.
\”I also realized I was primping more when he was around …\”
I turned crimson. When Michael entered my office, I tended to whoosh my hair from my face. I sat straighter and made sure I looked good when I knew I\’d encounter him.
As I reflected, I found a few other signs that indicate an inappropriate intimacy may be developing.
Too much information. All our relationships have varied degrees of closeness. And we\’re naturally drawn to some people more than others. So how can we know where the line is?
A first signal I found was that I could talk to Michael about anything. Although our conversations never included sexual discussions, I talked to him about things I never discussed with my other coworkers. An even better measurement was when I realized how my discussions would change if my husband were present. I had to admit I\’d feel uncomfortable and disloyal if Jon knew how deeply I was sharing my life with Michael.
Body language. Besides whooshing my hair around Michael, I\’d instantly turn to him when he wandered into my office. If my skirt felt short, I\’d tug it down, or I might pull at my blouse to cover more cleavage. Although I was hiding my skin, I was conscious of it when he was in the room. As Michael and I talked, my gestures became more animated and my face more expressive. We shared more intense eye contact than people do in casual conversations. And I caught myself \”working my eyes,\” widening them in interest in response to his words.
A mind working overtime. As Michael and I grew closer, sometimes I thought about him in my off hours. I wouldn\’t let myself imagine where he was, what he was doing, or how he was interacting with his kids. But I could tell he was in my mind more because of the words I heard rolling off my lips. I was starting to mention Michael more often, even quoting him, to my husband. One day I was telling Jon a \”Michael story\”—something I found humorous because I knew Michael so well but this time the story fell flat. I started to be embarrassed or shy when I mentioned Michael\’s name. That never happened when I told anecdotes about my other coworkers.
The source of support. While I never let myself imagine sharing physical intimacies with Michael, I\’ve come to believe that emotional intimacy is just as dangerous because it\’s subtler. And as Teri found, emotional and spiritual intimacy leads to physical intimacy.
I began to look forward to talking with Michael about my frustrations and challenges. I was looking to him to be my emotional support—especially since Jon and I seemed so often at odds. Sometimes I looked forward to going to work because I knew I could talk to Michael. I\’d make opportunities to chat with him, and might even have topics in the back of my mind that I wanted to discuss with him. And when Michael took an afternoon or day off, honestly, I felt a twinge of disappointment.
My body was faithful to my husband, but my heart was starting to stray. I\’d begun to look to Michael to meet my emotional needs and provide me with intellectual companionship. I even began to depend on him for comfort or encouragement when life was getting me down or problems with my kids seemed relentless.
So what should we do if we think an opposite gender relationship is getting too close? For starters, obviously we don\’t flirt, pay too much attention to the person, or let our mind dwell on the friend. We learn to watch our body language.
At a deeper level, we learn to be honest with ourselves and with God. At one time or another most of us think, Oh, I\’d never … Perhaps that\’s why the apostle Paul reminds us, \”So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don\’t fall!\” (1 Corinthians 10:12).
We can\’t afford to be naïve—or stupid. Affairs happen—even to Christians. They can happen to us if we don\’t guard our hearts—and our lives. And emotional affairs are a sin.
When we realize that yes, we, too, are vulnerable to temptation, we can take firm steps when forbidden fruit begins to beckon. Here are some things that helped me:
I began to put distance between Michael and me. Michael and I never went to lunch together or got together after work. But time spent alone together at work left us focusing on each other almost as much as a date would. So I found fewer \”reasons\” to consult him on office matters. Since we tended to talk longer and discuss more personal subjects in person, I\’d call him with questions instead of wandering to his office or inviting him to mine.
When we did chat, I purposely brought our spouses into our conversations. I got to know Michael\’s wife a bit and expressed to him admiration for her abilities, appearance, and intelligence. Although I\’d never directly criticized Jon to Michael, I began mentioning how much I appreciated him and talked about his good points. I also started to curb our conversations, focusing our discussions on business and less around personal matters—even the trivia we loved.
I prayed. Asking for the wisdom and strength not to let my heart overrule my head, I started to focus more on God. When I had thoughts of Michael, I\’d ask God to help me redirect them. I reviewed Bible verses that formed my foundations of faithfulness to God and to Jon.
I worked at building my relationship with my husband. I began consciously to lighten up, banter, and discuss theology with Jon—reminding myself that his intent was not to argue but to enjoy a healthy debate. I made sure our conversations revolved around more than the kids and showed more interest in his work. I became more physically affectionate with him. I praised him and expressed appreciation for all he did. And I started to be honest with him about my needs.
I recruited an accountability partner. As ridiculous as I felt, I knew I needed to tell my best friend that I was attracted to a man in the office. Voicing my feelings would make me face them. I needed her prayers, her encouragement, and her no-nonsense knowledge of me.
It would have been easier if these steps made me despise Michael—or at least see he wasn\’t special. I can\’t say he was no longer attractive to me—he was. But now the attraction wasn\’t as much an emotional longing as a healthy respect.
Several months later, my job ended. On that last day I worked late, packing my office and organizing files. Michael, as usual, was also working late. He wandered to my office for one last business question. Then he stood there, silently looking at me.
\”I don\’t know what to say,\” he said finally, stumbling over his words. \”I\’m going to miss our discussions.\”
\”I am, too,\” I said with a smile, choosing my words carefully. \”It\’s been fun. I\’m sure our paths will cross again sometime.\”
As I walked to my car, my heart was intact. Thanks to the grace and mercy of God, I wasn\’t leaving any of it behind.