by Pastor Brian L. Chronister
My first experience with it was at age 17 or thereabouts. Her name was Michelle and I don’t remember what she did exactly. I think she must have smiled at me in the school hallway, brushed against me accidentally, asked me a question that made it clear she enjoyed my company or laughed at one of my jokes. Whatever she did unleashed a power that turned me into a cartoon character.
Male cartoon characters are famous for a giant tongue that falls to their feet, eye balls that extend on 5 foot stalks and knees that bend at impossible angles when they suddenly catch sight of a fabulous looking female. It’s a parody of something that is true, an exaggeration of how we actually feel.
It’s called infatuation. I had no idea of the power that was about to take possession of me. You would never have noticed me in the high school hallway. I did not wear a letter jacket and I usually walked alone or with another nondescript guy just like me. We were shy and nerdy young boys, wearing out of style clothes, who kept to ourselves and did well in school and spent far too much time daydreaming about a different world
Infatuation can strike anyone, at any age, in any situation, at any time. It is like a drug in that the first encounter is the most intense and some become so addicted they spend the rest of their life looking for another emotional sensation just like it. For the rest of us, our first usually youthful infatuation will never be forgotten.
I remember wanting to spend every moment of my day with Michelle. I endured the trivia of the day, watching the clock, imagining her in every lovely detail in some other classroom, hoping to intersect her as we walked through the school to separate classes. I hated being separate. I wanted to be together!!!
Cyrano De Bergerac courted his ladies with poetry and song and suddenly I became a laughable imitation. It’s good that video tape had not been invented and that none exist of Brian the Dweeb singing a song to his true love.
She was not my true love. The apparent madness wore off and rather quickly, even suddenly. I realized to my chagrin that Michelle was not “the” girl. In fact, Cathy flirted with me at a youth retreat and we talked and liked each other and a new romance began in a mere two hours. It’s embarrassing to have made such passionate professions of love only to have the emotions vanish and never return. It was hard to face Michelle. I avoided her until I think she got the point. I don’t remember if we ever talked about it.
Cathy was not my true love either. We parted company, heading off to different colleges and I have never seen nor heard from her again. All of this began to teach me a truly difficult lesson to learn. Infatuation is a wonderful, explosive kind of romance but it is not love.
In the ensuing years, in my role as a Pastor, I have had the occasion to study marriages. Often, the ones I see are nearly dead and I am forced to be a marriage pathologist. Why did this relationship die? Perfectly good marriages suddenly shatter for no apparent cause. Oh yes, at least one of the partners will supply reasons but they ring hollow, the explanation is inadequate. I know that a strong marriage can withstand the most devastating betrayals and horrible tragedies. I have seen it and lived it myself. Yet, apparently strong marriages with every reason to “hang tough” (such as children and economic needs) dissolve in tears and acrimony. Why?
The simple answer is infidelity. Usually (more than half the time) it will be discovered that another woman or man is hanging around the edges of the marriage. Commonly the spouse pushing for the divorce will vehemently deny any romance is present with their”friend” of the opposite sex. The fact that the new couple starts to live together after the divorce or marries within a year after the divorce is “coincidence.” It’s not a coincidence. Smoke means a smoldering fire has been lit. Infidelity is more likely the “behind the scenes” catalyst and the once happy marriage is the casualty.
Adultery may be the simple answer but the problem is more complex. Good and happy marriages that provide no obvious reason are nonetheless destroyed by a surprise adulterous affair. People who are celebrated for their virtue are unmasked as deceitful cheaters. What happened? Infatuation…
A supposedly youthful crush, infatuation has wrecked marriages, ruined careers and permanently tarnished reputations. Ironically it is also possible to be infatuated with things like a new car or a sports team or, as we see demonstrated, a rock star. Rarely is that sort of thing tragic. It’s the new relationship revealed by a respected Pastor who resigns and leaves town, new wife in tow, leaving behind a bewildered family and congregation. This is truly tragic and will be talked about for years to come.
It begins with a dalliance in fantasy.
The casual thought that real life is not satisfying and maybe, just maybe, there is someone or something out there in the otherwise cruel world that will satisfy my unfulfilled needs. After all, it does happen to other people. One hear stories. There are people who look delighted with their new marriages. TV, romance novels, movies all suggest that something better does exist. Sigh! Probably not for plain ole’ me but perhaps one day my ship will come in.
This is found even in people whose marriages are otherwise healthy. “My husband is too lazy to pick up his dirty clothes. HER husband does the laundry AND can repair anything. He dotes on her like she’s his princess. I wonder what it would be like to be married to a guy like that?”
Men have their version of this fantasy. “My wife sure has put on weight after three kids. Her face has sagged a bit, too. Look at that other woman! She looks great! I wish my wife would smile more often. I could sure enjoy living with a woman like that.”
From that tiny seed of a fantasy that is harmless in itself comes the possibility of an infatuation.
Infatuation is an EMOTIONAL response that is based in fantasy.
A variety of different names are used to describe the same experience. Infatuation reminds most adults of their teen romances and are insulted by the suggestion that a mature man or woman would still be as silly as they remember being. Instead we call it Romance, Euphoria, Eros or, most often, Love. True love, however, is firmly grounded in reality and the early emotional phase of a relationship feeds off hope, potential and a dream since the couple do not truly know each other. This initial euphoria survives only if an aura of fantasy is maintained. Time together and intimate conversation begin to replace the fantasy with a real love (or destroy the romance and relationship altogether when the two REALLY get to know each other.) For this reason, long distance relationships stay in an infatuation phase much longer than those in close proximity and have a greater probability of a failed, unhappy marriage.
The purpose of the sudden crush is actually a good one. It creates, if mutual, an intense time of conversation and exploration that is rarely repeated in the years to come. The priority of the romantically focused couple is to build the union and to bridge the river of independence and all other daily activities are tolerated or ignored.
The negative counterpoint is a stubborn refusal to face or accept reality. Occasionally it is the reality that Prince Charming is actually a disguised frog. Just as often it is the reality that the current marriage is more important than the lovely romantic fantasy that recently arrived on the scene. Both stark truths are discarded in the rush to inhale every scent of the perfumed and powdered erotic illusion produced by infatuation.
It is the danger that infatuation is to an already established relationship that this article is intended to address. This includes marriage, of course, and also an engagement to be married. Both are seriously threatened and often brought to a painful end by a sudden usually hidden romance on the side.
The most dangerous moment is when fantasy and reality intersect.
In a fully formed fantasy, we imagine the “person of our dreams.” They have a look, a particular way of talking, a set of mutual interests, some admirable character traits and, depending on whether the fantasy belongs to a man or woman, are crazy about sex or loaded with money. No two fantasies being alike, the preceding list is neither exhaustive of all possibilities nor is everything listed always present. Some women don’t care if the guy is wealthy and a couple of guys somewhere in the world have no real interest in sex. As we live our lives, we discover that what we imagined is not found in the real world.
Often the unasked question ringing in our hearts is: maybe I did not look hard enough? Maybe I settled for someone less than the “right” man or woman for me? The right guy would always remember to tell me how nice my hair looks or the right woman would always be delighted to see me and never be in a foul mood.
Then it happens! You meet someone in a casual setting (the work place or classroom, for example) who says the right thing or acts the right way, just as you imagined. Reality and fantasy have intersected. What you imagined just occurred! You are intrigued. You are not infatuated. Yet.
Infatuation is rarely instant but does occur rather quickly in a series of small innocent appearing steps.
Most of us do not want to be unfaithful or immoral. We intend to keep our word and honor our vows. Being intrigued with someone else is acceptable. Friendships often start with some sort of benign attraction and friendships are good. BUT intrigue that has it’s root in a fantasy desire for “something else” can lead to infatuation which, for a married man or woman, is not good.
It starts with a series of short conversations, smiles and glances. The conversations and casual encounters last longer and are no longer accidental. It is a friendship, you tell yourself. You like it. It makes you feel good. You are happy and happiness is good, isn’t it? Nothing immoral at least. Your hands occasionally touch or your knees brush and a thrill, unlike anything you normally feel, runs like a bolt of lightning through your body, making you blush slightly, but this is not immoral. It was an accidental touch and friends do touch each other, after all.
Infatuation will eventually turn physical, if possible.
The key moment is the first kiss. One of the couple will initiate it (usually the man) and both have probably fantasized about it. From that moment forward the relationship is in fifth gear and roaring around the track. The truth still hidden, both parties continue to lie to their friends, but suspicions are starting to form. God has designed us to totally integrate our emotional and physical selves when we are in relationship. Adding a simple physical act like a kiss to what was, up to that point, a sweet emotional romance is adding gasoline to the charcoal bricks. The result is a barely contained explosion. Full sexual relations are right around the corner although deeply moral people will delay by participating in physical acts that stop short for as long as they can control themselves.
The conversation changes.
Prior to this point, the conversations were about common interests, mutual dreams and friendly banter. Since the kiss, the “what-ifs” start to dominate. “What if I had met you long ago? What if we were married? What would our kids look like? What would it be like to wake up in the morning next to you? What if we dumped our current entanglements and ran off together? What if we had never met? We shouldn’t be doing this, you know. I know, but I can’t stay away from you. I can’t either.” Sooo sweet, sooo romantic, sooo stupid and sooo evil.
Eventually it will be exposed.
Certainly there are exceptions. Some immoral romances are never exposed. They die a natural death and disappear. Usually though, someone suspected and often, even years later, the truth is revealed. Finally God ALWAYS knows and He makes His followers horribly uncomfortable as they hide their sin.
Pain and humiliation are the inevitable result of an exposed infatuation. A good ration of anger also makes it’s appearance. Marriages are often shattered, friendships vanish forever and even families are divided. There is no truly painless way to end a hidden immoral relationship. Once you start one, the price is unavoidable. Pain WILL punch your ticket.
Remember this can happen to anyone, even the elderly. Wisdom and experience are no protection and neither is a commitment to moral living. Pastors fall prey to this just as readily as the neighborhood dope dealer. How do you protect yourself?
Live in reality.
This means, recognize that the marriage you are in is sufficient, even though imperfect. Expect it to fail you on occasion and work hard to improve it. Be patient, willing to invest many years, even your entire life in order to deepen the power of your current marriage.
Be aware that infatuation is fundamentally a lie. What is true is swallowed up in the dream and the dream is an illusion. Once the dust settles, your new partner will have flaws just as demanding and maddening as did your discarded one.
In saying this, don’t confuse a “normal” marriage with a horribly bad one. I have noticed, though, that infatuated people decide that their current marriage was “horribly bad” all along. That’s another lie and a form of denial and justification. Horribly bad marriages are fairly easy to recognize and not that common.
Identify your fantasy.
Amazingly this is hard to do. I started dreaming of a better world in my early teens. It became a habit, automatic like breathing and I stopped noticing how much I fantasized about a different life. In time, it became not only natural but acceptable, something good that I did to help me deal with the pain of real life.
Now, when my mind drifts off into immoral imaginations, I quickly bring myself back home to the solid earth. I tell myself that what I just thought was a lie because I know it is. I tested it, but that is another story.
Avoid the small steps.
We all know what they are. We intuitively understand that we are taking small exciting and dangerous steps. We lie to ourselves. “I won’t let it go too far. I just need a little thrill right now. I don’t mean anything by this and neither does he/she. We are just friends.” As the song title says “STOP! IN THE NAME OF LOVE!” Love demands that we avoid romantic infatuations even though they do feel very, very good.
By the way, if both parties are single, feel free to immerse yourself in every golden moment that infatuation brings. Remember that it will take as much as six months before reality hits and a mature love begin to emerge. Make no lasting decisions until that point is reached. This reason is one of the fundamental truths that underlie the command of God to avoid premarital sex. The ability to make good decisions is undercut and many a man or woman married a very emotionally and psychologically sick partner because they acted too soon, under the spell of a sexually involved romantic infatuation.
The conclusion is clear. Run!! Avoid the stirrings of romantic infatuation as if you heard footsteps behind you in a dangerous neighborhood on a pitch black night. Stick to the real world and accept the truth that the imperfect is not a bad thing. After all, you are imperfect too.
Further, if trapped in a foolish infatuation, quit. Yes, it will hurt and the pain is amazingly brutal. It will fade. At the minimum, do not make life altering decisions because when the infatuation wears off (and it will) you will wake up one morning, look in the mirror in horror and say, “what have I done!” Then, sadly, it will be too late.
Face your fear of pain.
All of us hate pain and we long for a world where evil and pain are banished. This longing is healthy but it can lead to an unhealthy dependence on fantasy as a means of dealing with current pain. Pain can be small or immense. Stress, fatigue, boredom, frustration and irritation are forms of pain. A bit of fantasy can’t hurt in order to deal with it, can it? Depression, loneliness, deep sorrow, humiliation, failure, and fear are examples of serious pain. Fantasy can be the only means, we tell ourselves, available in order to survive.
Actually survival means accepting that suffering is part of life for everyone. Jesus suffered and so will you. Pain is not an enemy. It is a tool and when handled properly will shape our hearts towards good character and solid maturity. We have three choices when pain comes: we can run away (into fantasy), we can weep bitterly and shake our fists at God in anger (becoming bitter people ourselves) or we can accept it as part of this live and allow it to deepen our longing for a deep, honest, intimate relationship with God and our mate. I recommend the later. The choice is yours.