It's Chemistry! Practical Advice for Protecting Your Marriage from an Affair

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Most Christians enter into marriage thinking neither spouse will have an extramarital affair, but it does happen, as we sadly know. Here is some practical advice for protecting and strengthening your marriage.

Countless affairs are ignited by “chemistry.”

Extra-marital affairs can start because of sexual chemistry—and Christians should never underestimate the power of this kind of chemistry. We hear stories of pastors having affairs, and we wonder how that could happen. Of course he knew better—he is a pastor! What a hypocrite! Well, most of the time, we can bet that sexual chemistry ignited the fuse.

It is helpful to recognize the role hormones play when it comes to the feelings of sexual attraction humans experience. According to the research institute ASDN (Atomic Scale Design Network),

First attraction, first "sparks" in the air followed by falling in love are caused by combination of three neurochemicals: phenylethylamine, norepinephrine and dopamine. Later stages of long relationships are guided by another two: oxytocin and serotonin….Phenylethylamine (PEA), acts as a releasing agent of norepinephrine and dopamine. The first attraction causes us to produce more PEA, which results in those dizzying feelings associated with romantic love. Large quantities of PEA increase both physical and emotional energy and at the same time release more dopamine.

Be acutely aware of the difference between feelings of friendship and sexual chemistry.

To be clear, this kind of chemistry is not a deep, abiding feeling of friendship for someone of the opposite sex. According to psychologist Dario Nardi in his article "PEA—The Hormone of Love," the hormones involved in feelings of sexual attraction result in infatuation and produce sensations that include giddiness, "butterflies" in the stomach, sleeplessness, and a narrow focus on a particular person.

"Chemistry" can ignite suddenly and unexpectedly. What was once a nice friendship can become sexually charged in an instant.

Sexual chemistry can be even more powerful when the illicit relationship has appealing aspects that are missing in your marriage, because you may be starved for them and not even realize it. Yet, as Nardi explains, the effects of hormones such as phenylethylamine (PEA), norepinephrine, and dopamine don’t last forever:

For better or worse, after a certain period of eighteen months to four years the body builds up a tolerance to the effects of PEA and related hormones.

Even though the feelings of attraction that are produced by hormones such as PEA are likely to diminish over time, the destructive effects of an affair remain. Sometimes a marriage can still be saved at that point—but not always.

This reduction in certain hormones may also be a significant reason why married couples tend to struggle with feeling as romantic with each other as they did when they were dating. It’s good to be aware of this, so you don’t think there is something wrong because these feelings have diminished.

Flee from inappropriate sexual chemistry.

You should never play with fire and sexual chemistry is no different in that aspect, as both can produce disastrous results. If you find you have sexual chemistry with someone who is not your spouse—or the person is married and you are single—the best thing you can do is stay away from that person as much as possible. We find a good example of this in the Bible where Joseph had to repeatedly refuse the advances of Potiphar’s wife and eventually had to flee from her presence to avoid committing sexual sin (Gen. 39).

Sexual chemistry is extremely powerful, with effects that have been compared to that of taking highly addictive drugs such as cocaine. It is nothing to be dealt with lightly, as can be seen from the havoc and wrecked lives left in its wake. In some circumstances, you may even need to quit a job and find another one to remove yourself from temptation. If you want to protect your marriage and/or someone else’s marriage, you need to—and must—avoid igniting or fueling chemistry.

There is an “80/20 Rule” that occurs in many marriages.

Most of you have probably heard of the 80/20 rule, also known as the Pareto principle. For instance, in an organization, typically 20 percent of the workers produce 80 percent of the results, and so forth.

Marriages can follow an 80/20 rule as well, but in a different way from the Pareto rule. You may love 80 percent of your spouse, but you wish you could change the other 20 percent (okay, maybe more!). You get so comfortable that you take the 80 percent for granted and just get used to the 20 percent not being there. When you experience sexual chemistry with someone who also has desirable qualities that are missing in your spouse, you are facing a very explosive situation.

It is not uncommon, after the sexual chemistry in an extramarital affair has died down, for a person to realize that the 20 percent they were missing before the affair wasn’t nearly as important as the 80 percent they had with their spouse—but didn’t appreciate.

Work on your “20 percent” to strengthen your marriage.

Along with being faithful in prayer, church attendance, reading and studying God’s word, and submitting yourself to godly accountability, a practical step you can take to protect your relationship with your spouse from an extramarital affair is to reflect on the “80/20” in your marriage. Maybe you feel it’s the other way around and there’s 80 percent you wish was different about your spouse, not just 20—hopefully, this isn’t the case. If it is, you would likely benefit from sound pastoral and professional marriage counseling. It’s worth it, so please make the effort. If your spouse won’t go, then go alone if you can.

I want to encourage you to be proactive regarding that 20 percent and not just say, “Well, this is how my life is.” 

First, you need to remember that there is 20 percent of you that your spouse might like to be different. And you probably have a good idea what that "20 percent" is.

Work on it. Try to improve. Show your spouse that it matters to you. Show that your spouse matters to you by making the effort. Make it also a matter of earnest prayer, and especially consider praying together for these areas of your marriage.

Then your spouse might start working on their 20 percent. Your spouse may know what that is, but you might need to share what it is gently—not all at once—but here and there without overwhelming them, in an encouraging way, giving affirmation when your spouse does something to improve in those areas.

Someone made a good point that even the 20 percent you’re not crazy about in your spouse—as long as it’s not harmful in any way—is part of what makes them who they are. If you can appreciate to some extent the aspects about your spouse that are not your ideal, there is grace in doing so.

Don't ever settle for an "okay" marriage.

While appropriate sexual chemistry is a beautiful gift from God, always be on guard against inappropriate sexual chemistry and all its destructive consequences:

Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body. (1 Cor. 6:18-20)

It is critical to note that not all marriages can be saved, due to the presence of sin in this world. There are valid and necessary reasons for divorce, and this is why all Christian couples should be under the care and oversight of faithful pastors and elders in a local church so that they can better navigate the complexities of a marital union.

As much as is honorable in the sight of God, your marriage is worth working on, cherishing, fighting for, building, and strengthening as long as you both are living. This is where character and fortitude are developed. Your marriage matters to God, your children, your extended family, your church, and society as a whole.

Don’t ever just settle for an "okay" marriage, because it can be—and should be—so much more to the glory of God in all.

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Recommended Book:

Overcoming Sin and Temptation by John Owen; edited by Kelly M. Kapic and Justin Taylor

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