Commuting with four carpool buddies offers ample opportunity to discuss life, so one day I posed the question: what’s the difference between commitment and faithfulness? After a few rounds of debate the jury was in: commitment is our intent to stay in relationship with our wives; faithfulness is the practice of doing so.

That said, let’s admit that a committed spouse is not necessarily a faithful spouse. Men in particular succumb to the idea that they can have their Kate and Edith too. Kate is the stable spouse with whom they raise kids, attend church, and go gray with over time. Edith represents the workplace “friendship” or sexual fling. In their mind they are committed to both, but in practice, faithful to neither.

What is Commitment?

If it is not a guarantee for faithfulness, what’s it worth? But commitment has much worth. Commitment is like training for a race. Training doesn’t guarantee winning, but it brings a host of benefits.

Research tells us that the more deeply people are committed to their spouse and marriage, the more likely they are to:

They also tend not to scan the horizon for alternative partners.

Commitment transforms our talk

Commitment translates powerfully into our marriages through our talk. Dave and Michelle live on the west coast where Dave serves as discipleship coordinator at a Christian college and Michelle recently left a pastoral role to take care of Jonas, their first-born. Here's an example of what their commitment to each other looks like: 

“I woke up at 5 a.m. and spent time with Jonas who was crying so Michelle could get an hour of peaceful sleep. I gave her a call from the office half way through the day. She e-mailed me and told me she appreciated my help around the house.”

Dave and Michelle’s manner reflects a tall stack of married couple research. Committed couples tend be more emotionally supportive than uncommitted ones. They know when their spouse is hurt, or crabby, or elated, and they validate those feelings as genuine and legitimate. Unsupportive spouses challenge their mate’s feelings with statements such as “You shouldn’t feel that way,” or “Quit feeling sorry for yourself.”

People who are committed also share their thoughts deeply. They go beyond the weather and sports to describe what they're thinking, feeling, dreaming, and planning. However, couples who believe that their spouses should be able to mind read (i.e., know what they are thinking without having to tell them) struggle relationally.

Committed Couples Enjoy “Expressive Interaction” 

Their behavior shows affection, empathy, and the kind of warmth toward each other that translates into feelings of companionship, sexual responsiveness, and support. In other words, committed partners engage. They put down the paper, turn off the TV, offer “two-eye attention” and connect with their spouse.

Committed spouses also pay more attention to little things to show their love and concern. Michelle and Dave agreed that simply saying, “I love you,” phoning during the day, or going on dates affirms their commitment. They also write notes, rub each other’s feet, pray together, and try to listen well. Conveying commitment isn’t showy, but subtle and common. But we still have to do it.

What is Faithfulness?

The evidence above is encouraging. Committed couples interact with each other in distinctly positive ways. But how do we communicate faithfulness? Perhaps we should start with asking what is faithfulness?

For many the answer is “sexual fidelity” — we are faithful if we have not touched, kissed, or made love with someone who isn’t our spouse. However, before physical infidelity becomes an issue there are two precursors: mental and emotional unfaithfulness. In all three cases, infidelity violates a trust and breaks a bond.

Mental infidelity is the practice of fantasizing about other partners. Whenever men think “I wonder what life would be like with her,” they’ve crossed the line. Whenever women think “I love the way he listens to me,” they are investing their thoughts unfaithfully. Anytime our thoughts or beliefs begin to entertain ideas of relating to, spending time with, enjoying sex with, or daydreaming about someone else besides our mate, we’ve committed mental infidelity.

If we think a little fantasizing is harmless, we should recall that Jesus said doing so is adulterous.

Emotional infidelity takes things up a notch. Emotional infidelity is the habit of investing emotional and relational energy into someone besides our spouse in order to meet our personal needs. Well-known infidelity researcher Shirley Glass says emotional infidelity is sharing of the inner self with another person that should be reserved for our spouse.

Emotional infidelity often begins in the workplace where we meet interesting people with similar values and interests. People who are emotionally unfaithful hide their indiscretions with vague references such as “I had a little lunch with John today,” or “Meg and I have been working hard on the Thompson project.” Curiously missing are the details from those encounters.

When relational infidelity goes unchecked, sexual infidelity may follow. Sexual infidelity registers as soon as there’s physical touch accompanied by sexual chemistry — even if you don’t admit there are sparks. Casual brushes (politely pardoned) can lead to full embraces and eventual intercourse unless someone chooses to stop.

While studies vary, experts estimate that between 44% of husbands and 25% of wives have had extramarital intercourse — and this in a culture where 80 percent of Americans disapprove of having an affair. Sadly, the four main reasons people cite to justify affairs include:

  1. new-found sexual excitement
  2. new-found love or romance
  3. emotional intimacy from companionship and understanding
  4. career advancement or revenge

Men tend to justify infidelity for reason number one (new sex), and women tend to justify it for reason number two (new love).

Ironically, these findings parallel the long list of benefits which committed couples enjoy, such as sexual responsiveness, emotional sharing, and companionship. Somewhere our commitment has to convert into willpower if we want to be faithful. How do we exercise faithfulness? Here are some tips.

Mental Purity: My Thoughts are with You Always

Since men tend to be visually stimulated much more than women, we need to guard our eyes. Today’s media elite do not make it easy for us. They know sex sells, so they try to hook us with sex at every turn.

Are you surfing websites you know are off limits? Are you watching late-night TV or renting movies you would not watch with your son? If you answer “yes” you’ve got some tough choices.

When you walk down a sidewalk, where do your eyes go? When you walk with your wife in the mall, what grabs your attention? If we commit our gaze to God and our wife, we may fall prey less to other women’s hair, legs, and cleavage. Can we truthfully say to our wife, "I only have eyes for you?"

Women tend to be relationally charged, and unlike men, need to guard how they think about other relationships. While good men may be hard to find, a really great guy can get you thinking unfaithfully.

What thoughts cross your mind when your male doctor listens empathetically to your woes? What fantasies do you indulge regarding that guy at work? Do you engage in dreamy relationships with your favorite soap star or cinema lead?

When we begin to entertain unfaithful thoughts or beliefs, it’s good to do a check and say aloud to ourselves, “I’m in control of my thoughts,” or “How might I make [spouse’s name] better today?” Focusing afresh on our spouse redeems our thinking.

Relational Guards: Sorry, But This Person is Taken

Neal and Yolanda live in Vancouver where Neal teaches high school and Yolanda volunteers at their kids’ schools. Both are energetic, engaging middle-aged people who appear attractive to others.

When asked how they show emotional faithfulness, their collective wisdom was “show dibs.” Yolanda serves on school committees with male administrators, and early in the year lets them know she’s taken. “At a school event I make sure to introduce Neal so they all know I have a husband. We just keep this all above board.” Similarly, Neal said he invites Yolanda to staff parties so everyone can see he’s committed to her. In fact, Neal chooses not to attend staff parties unless Yolanda can go too.

Neal and Yolanda also share openly with each other about potential “threats.” “Openness with Yolanda keeps me accountable to her. One of my teaching partners, ‘Jennie,’ is a beautiful mid-thirties woman. I will tell Yolanda when I’m having a meeting with Jennie after school. I don’t want hidden agendas with my wife.”

Neal also practices wise environmental ethics. When he meets with female co-workers, he pays attention to the details. “I do little things like making sure the meeting is not in an enclosed room. Stuff like that keeps me above reproach, keeps me accountable.”

Setting relational safeguards works like waist-high fences. This couple has learned to draw a line to show what, and who, belongs where, yet neither are cool or distant. We tap these fences into place every time we make little choices in word and deed that help us avoid compromising relationships, or even the optics of one.

Sexual De-Tempting: That Would be Inappropriate

In the old days men worked outside the home and took sexual infidelity as a privilege of position and power with out-of-town strangers. Today men and women work as equals and the new morality allows for sex among consenting adults. But even non-religious people still value old-school fidelity, and think that once you have committed to a spouse, you should be true to him or her sexually. This double standard of romping promiscuously in one’s single years but hoping for loyalty in married life creates a tension in the workplace. It’s the tension between appropriate workplace interaction and relational come-on.

Many people think its OK for a married person to receive emotional support from an opposite-sex work colleague over lunch. But doing so blurs the lines of appropriateness. Sharing our marriage struggles with an empathetic colleague seems innocent enough, but is exactly the kind of emotional infidelity that leads to more complex involvement. While we may think everything’s above board, emotional and sexual attraction can spark quickly, igniting more than collegiality.

So, what to do? Given the gray line between emotional and sexual attraction, it’s wise to be on guard at your workplace. Are you in appropriate professional relationships with your colleagues? Are you fooling yourself that you are “just friends”? Similarly, guard your broader social network. Old flames and your spouse's friends often become potential threats to fidelity. Can you stake a fence? Finally, guard your personal computer. Some people think making a friend on the internet is an innocent activity, but long-term relating even through email and the occasional photo can misdirect your allegiances.

Yolanda put it well when she said, “Faithfulness isn’t all sexual. It’s multi-layered. I believe our emotions and mind can engage unfaithfully without a person actually being physically unfaithful, and that creates a wedge.”

Photo Credit: Gabby Orcutt