When I met Dan at church I was sure our life would be perfect. During the next three years, while he was enrolled fulltime at college, we married and had two children.
But life wasn't perfect. After Dan graduated, we found jobs with a ministry that provided housing to low-income families. The harassment and threats from drug dealers and domestic disputes within our large project were a constant stress, and continual complaints from residents with unrealistic expectations chipped away at our self-esteem.
Burned out, Dan changed from the sweet theology student into a negative, morose man. Both of us, lacking in faith, were afraid to leave our jobs. And as Dan's bitterness increased, I began to think, Maybe Dan's a failure.
Feeling trapped, I escaped by reading romance novels. The formulaic story, exotic places, and the tension of a man and woman falling in love were stimulating yet soothing. So as Dan fell deeper into his pain, and since I worked only in the mornings, I'd spend afternoons reading one or two novels before the children came home from school. In the evenings, after the kids went to bed, I even progressed to a third.
But reading the steamy romances didn't fulfill me or help my marriage. And after a while it wasn't enough to just read about romance. Long, solitary walks or drives blocked out the real world, enabling me to conjure up my own fantasies.
A tall, handsome man, resembling different TV characters, met me in my daydreams. A successful, wealthy professional, he'd wine, dine, and dance with me, and our "love" would quickly develop in moonlit gardens or sunlit beaches to marriage where I no longer worked outside the home.
I wasn't concerned that spending time imagining romantic fantasies might affect my marriage. They're not hurting anyone, I'd reason.
But around our eleventh anniversary, I noticed that whenever Dan tried to kiss me, I'd turn my face so his lips grazed my cheek instead. Months slipped by before I'd finally respond to his sexual overtures.
Dan began to complain that we didn't make love enough. He sent flowers and suggested weekends away, but his dark moods made him unattractive to me. My walks and drives increased to entire afternoons or evenings. My fantasy had grown more stimulating than real romance, and I began to avoid Dan.
Then what I thought could never happen did. A coworker, Anthony, and I began to flirt and greet each other with hugs. One morning Anthony, also unhappy in his marriage, didn't let go. Within weeks we escalated to stealing what belonged to each other's spouse, and I was in love.
The excitement and danger of the affair created such emotional rushes that I was willing to consider the unthinkable: leave my marriage and give full custody of the children to Dan. But the affair that began quickly came to a disastrous end just as quickly. Dan found a hotel parking stub on the dashboard of my car. When he asked why I'd parked there, having no answer, I confessed that I was in love with another man. I felt dead inside.
Through tears and outrage, Dan couldn't believe I could do such a thing, but he eventually guessed it was Anthony.
Desperate to get away and confused over Anthony, I quit my job and convinced Dan to let me take the children with me to live at my mother's. While I was gone Dan turned into a thin ghost. Whenever he picked up the kids from my mother's, I noticed his hands trembled violently. He blamed himself for my affair, and I tried to convince him that though there were things he needed to change, it was something within me that had caused it.
Eventually after Anthony returned to his wife, quit his job, and moved away, I returned to our house like a wounded animal. Dan and I started over by putting God and the children first. We joined a group Bible study together and I spent a lot of time reading my Bible and praying.
We also went to a Christian psychologist for counseling, but I didn't say I felt no romantic love for Dan. Knowing I'd injured him, I volunteered more information than was necessary each time I went out, even if it was just to buy groceries. Gradually the trembling in Dan's hands disappeared as he began to trust me again.
He joined me for walks and we used that time to dream new dreams for our family. Our discussions were never about the emotional or romantic side of our relationship but about helping each other accomplish personal goals.
Two years later, walking to my new job, I realized I hadn't thought of Anthony in months. Some healing had come. But I still didn't feel romantic love for Dan. Each night as we slept in our queen-sized bed, I was thankful it was big enough so we wouldn't accidentally touch. I still turned my head when he tried to kiss me.
Feeling unable to make love with Dan and normally a non-drinker, I began to drink wine to the point of intoxication in order to meet Dan's sexual needs every few months. Pleading that this was the only option, Dan put up with my façade for several years.
Because of the extreme emotional pain my affair had caused, I was sure I could never be tempted again. While reading romance novels doesn't cause everyone to look for love outside of their marriage, I recognized it as a temptation for me and I stopped reading romances when Dan and I got back together. But I felt there would be no harm in listening to sensual music. And once again, I started to go for long drives or walks and live in a fantasy. I was sure that this time, though, I could maintain control over my mind.
The temptation seemed to come out of nowhere. An old friend, Mark, also married, gave me an overly long hug one day, and desire for him flooded me.
Throwing caution to the wind I began to flirt with him and he responded with flattered excitement. Over the next few weeks, during increasingly intimate phone conversations, we discussed the possibility of an affair. Only God's swift intervention kept Mark and me from moving forward: On the night we were to meet, Mark called me from the hospital; he'd come down with a severe medical condition.
But where did that leave me? For months after, I despaired, considering either disappearing or ending my life. Perhaps I should be honest and end my marriage, I thought.
Dan noticed my increasing withdrawal, so reluctantly I confessed that I'd almost committed adultery again. In despair, Dan encouraged me to talk to the psychologist who'd tried to help us before.
This time I acknowledged that I felt romantically divorced from my marriage. My counselor said my cycles of behavior were the highs and lows of an addiction—similar to being addicted to alcohol, drugs, or pornography. My affair intensified my need for the physical aspects of romance—-a real person, not just a fantasy. It heightened the psychological dependency and I was hooked. I craved the rush. The more contact I had with "him," the more I wanted. While part of me knew I was risking everything and bringing real pain to the people who loved me, I didn't care. I ran the same risks as any other addict, a spiral downward toward loss and eventual death.
I could no longer ignore my addiction. We laid out steps for me to avoid areas that triggered my temptation, which included giving up all sensual romantic music, movies, and books. For me these are as dangerous as an alcoholic going into a bar. I also asked a mature, female friend to be my accountability partner, someone to call when I felt tempted.
To treat my addiction I couldn't simply cease my daydreams. My mind needed to be filled with something else. Listening to exciting music about God as I drove or walked filled that void.
Dan helped by talking to me if he saw one of my triggers happening, such as withdrawing or going for long walks or drives. And we both worked hard on our relationship with God. Surprisingly, even though Dan knew I didn't have romantic feelings for him, he still wanted to work on our marriage. While neither of us knew how to gain sexual healing, now I was willing to pray about it.
God's response to me was the most surprising. One day several months later, as I was reading my Bible, I felt God say, "Turn to Song of Songs"—the book that spells out the physical intimacies between a husband and wife. As I read, "Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth," I thrust my Bible away and sobbed.
"I can't," I cried. But as I allowed God to continue to work on my heart, I felt more at peace. When Dan came home that evening, I still wrestled in my mind, but I reached out to him. As I yielded to God as a living sacrifice, I gave myself to my husband lovingly and consciously for the first time in nine years.
While that was almost two years ago, Dan and I still have a long way to go. I'm working on making love more frequently, and I can never stop the vigilant daily renewing of my mind. But by giving up the illusion of love, I realized that real love was already in my grasp.
Lindsay Roberts is a pseudonym.
2002 by the author or Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership magazine. Click here for reprint information on Marriage Partnership.