I am going to resist the urge to mock these rules because, while I find them problematic, I do understand the motivation behind them. If you’ve ever lived through the implosion of an affair from a family member, a church pastor, or your own spouse, you know the damage it can cause. My own life has had far-reaching consequences from adultery in these spheres, and it is incredibly painful. Affairs are ugly things, for everyone involved. So I don’t want to ridicule the intent. I appreciate the desire to avoid putting loved ones through the pain of betrayal and scandal, even if it’s inconvenient.
That being said, I do think that there are many problematic aspects of these kinds of boundaries, and that ultimately these rules cause harm and don’t really prevent people from making stupid decisions any more than a self-imposed rule about going to bed at 10pm actually makes me get a reasonable amount of sleep each night. At the end of the day, we are all responsible for our own actions.
Here are some of the ways I found these rules to play out:
It sexualizes interactions between men and women. When you are living under a rule that makes you constantly monitor your proximity to the opposite sex, it effectively creates more sexual tension. The idea that being alone with a man could lead to us having sex ultimately sets up the consideration of that possibility. When situations arise where you find yourself alone, even for a few seconds, it feels charged, because the rules you have set up for yourself imply that there is a causal relationship between being alone and things moving towards the physical.
It adds a forbidden fruit element to perfectly normal interactions. While a pastor’s wife, I generally followed the rules and avoided ever being alone with another man. However, there were a few times that we agreed to break the rules, and suddenly these very simple and benign scenarios (riding in a car on the way to a church service, for example) felt titillating and forbidden. Living under these rules meant, for me, that there was an automatic adrenaline hit any time I found myself alone with a man. On the converse, now that I’ve been out from under these rules for a long time, I don’t find that to be true at all.
It penalizes women in leadership. While I’ve seen many pastors who follow these rules, there are many other men in government who follow these rules as well. In both scenarios, men dominate in leadership positions. Whether it’s ministry or politics, a lot of negotiations occur over meals or drinks or coffee. When women are shut out of those casual opportunities to bend the ear of a coworker over a meal, it means that they are shut out of conversations that other men are able to have. I worked briefly at a church, and it was incredibly frustrating that I could never have a one-on-one conversation with my supervisor, or go out for a creative lunch with a coworker without seeming like I was hitting on them somehow.
The rules are heteronormative and myopic. These rules assume that everyone is straight, and that affairs could never occur in same-sex relationships. These rules are othering to the LGBT community, and have terrible implications for any gay people who have to abide to these kinds of rules. Does it mean that a straight married person can’t have lunch with a gay friend of the same sex? All of these questions get muddy, and place unneeded relational stress on gay people in the church. (As if they don’t already have enough stress in that environment.)
It doesn’t work in the real world. When I worked at the church and everyone I socialized with held similar rules, it was easy to manage. But when I started working as a therapist, suddenly I was faced with the predicament: does this mean I can’t see male clients alone? We decided to make an exception but that decision raised a lot of eyebrows. But for a time, I also worked in a corporate environment where going to lunch with coworkers was absolutely part of the culture. It was incredibly awkward trying to dance around those rules when people paired of and went to lunch regularly. If I made a plan with three people but one canceled and I found myself alone at lunch with a man (and one I wasn’t even attracted to), I had all kinds of unneeded angst about it.
It is shaming. There are many situations where I felt shame living within these rules. One I remember well . . . I was needing to meet with one of our church staff to go over some music choices for a service. I was really busy and I asked him to meet me at my office. He asked if other people would be there, and I explained, yes, I was in private practice and shared an office with several other therapists. He arrived, and pulled out his laptop to play me some of the music, and I got up to shut my door. He asked me what I was doing, and I explained that the noise would carry into the other offices and into the waiting room, and that I didn’t feel comfortable playing music with the door open in a professional setting. He got frustrated with me, and left. I felt SO EMBARRASSED. I felt like he was implying that I was hitting on him. I felt like he thought I was some harlot who lured him there to jump on him. When all I was trying to do was be efficient with my time and not bother my coworkers.
After about a decade of living with these rules, I was working in more secular settings and tired of the inconvenience and awkwardness. I gave myself permission to go to lunch with male coworkers. There were several occasions where I would be at lunch at someone from church would spot me, and I would always feel deep shame. I would feel “busted” . . . like I was caught in an affair. And word carried that I was breaking the rules. I had friends confront me with concern about my “slippery slope.” All because Eric and I were the only two people in the office who wanted to eat vegan food at lunch, and walking over there separately seemed ludicrous. Other people viewed this scenario as a credible threat to my integrity.
It implies that impulse control is an external thing. All of the external rules in the world will not stop someone from breaking their own moral code if they are in that space internally. I think it is better for people to practice self control in real-life situations and learn to negotiate their own impulses and behavior rather than creating a false narrative that these arbitrary rules will just take care of everything.
At the end of the day, I have mad respect for people trying to have integrity in their marriages and in their relationships, and I do think that these rules are generally coming from a place of good intent. I’m just not sure they help more than they harm. Ferreting out best practice for avoiding an affair is probably a longer conversation, and I think there are many different reasons people end up in an affair (and rarely simply due to being alone with someone else.) In my experience it starts with psychological health, self-love, a moral compass in all areas of life, a marriage where there is real intimacy and vulnerability, and friends who know your shit and aren’t afraid to call you on it.
If you want to talk more on this, my friend Paul Martin and I are going to be doing a facebook live video on this topic today (March 31) at 5pm PT on my facebook page. Paul is a former pastor and we’ve both had experience with these rules and have lots of thoughts, and would love to hear your opinions as well. Come join us!