A woman writes:

My husband is having an e-mail relationship with a woman friend. I consider it a violation of boundaries, but he insists it is just a friendship. Because this person lives in another country, there is no physical contact and it could indeed be labeled a "friendship."

I do not want to forbid my husband from having a friend. But, I feel that the nature of this e-mail correspondence is creating a violation in my marriage -- it is private, instantaneous, and it makes it easy to confide innermost feelings. It is detracting from the intimacy I used to feel with my husband, and I feel that there is a third person now living in my house.

I have a friend whose marriage is ending in divorce because of an online affair. Another friend is aware of a correspondence but is waiting for time to tell. Could you please comment on this growing phenomenon, and perhaps give guidelines as to what is appropriate and what is not? I am confused and uncertain.

Intimacy in marriage is generally misunderstood to be merely physical.

The physical is only one chapter of the intimacy story.

The Jewish perspective informs that the physical is only one chapter of the intimacy story. The other critical elements that make up the full equation consist of the mind, body, soul and heart. Indeed, if any of these dimensions are missing, the relationship is deficient.

PROHIBITIONS

Jewish law prohibits intimate physical relations between husband and wife if they are not on a par emotionally. There are nine conditions under which physical intimacy is prohibited. Among these are:

  • If the couple has quarreled and are still at odds with one another.
  • If either one is thinking of divorce.
  • If either is drunk.
  • If either one is thinking of another person of the opposite gender, etc.

These are all situations that speak to hearts and minds that are not totally committed to and engaged with each other.

Nachmanides, a 12th century commentator, in a letter written to his son in preparation for his wedding, underscores the emotional component of intimacy without which, he states, the conjugal human experience is lowered to one more consistent with animal behavior.

When the focus is a physical one alone, it is a flagrant contradiction of the Hebrew term for intimacy, which is yedia, "knowledge." As in: And Adam knew Eve, his wife.

The definition of "knowing" expands cohabitation to thorough understanding of one's spouse's feelings, concerns, fears, doubts, and vulnerabilities. Nachmanides notes that yedia, "knowledge," flows from the loftiest of human resources, the mind.

GARMENTS OF THE SOUL

Kabalistic works as well as other sources, teach that the soul of the human being clothes itself in three garments by which it manifests itself in the world:

  • thought,
  • word, and
  • deed.

Thoughts are the crucible of our expressed emotions as well as our behavior. Where is a person really at, ask Chassidic sources? Not necessarily where one is physically standing, but rather where his thoughts take him.

A noted Hassidic rebbe, at the conclusion of a Sabbath service shook the hand of one of his congregants with a Shalom Aleichem "Welcome Home." The congregant, in great bewilderment, protested that he hadn't traveled anywhere. The rebbe responded, that while physically he had been present during services, his mind and his thoughts had been on his business trip to Europe; now that his thoughts had returned him to the here and now, the rebbe welcomed him back.

While the e-mail relationship is not a physical one, it occupies the focus of his thoughts.

While it is true that the email relationship in which the writer's husband is engaged is not a physical one, it obviously occupies the focus of his thoughts and thereby constitutes a breach of intimacy between husband and wife.

Shared feelings and communication are the currency of intimacy. To the extent that a mind that is preoccupied with another of the opposite gender, it is not "there" for his spouse. The better part of him is absent, and the exclusive intimate relationship has been compromised.

BUILDING A BRIDGE

I would recommend that the couple choose to speak with someone they both trust -- therapist, rabbi or wise friend. The wife should divest herself of rancor and defensiveness and focus instead on ways to bridge the gap in their relationship. How can they create an emotional environment that is safe for sharing and confiding to each other their innermost feelings? How can they bring friendship back into their marriage?

The husband needs to understand that resorting to the Internet to meet this particular need of friendship is "a copout" and "easy fix." It's an avoidance mechanism that precludes putting forth the necessary effort that a marriage requires. A good marriage demands renewal and constant infusion of new energy.

An e-mail relationship is an exposure to a small part of a person. It creates an out of context impression of that person. It is exposure to that individual with none of the myriad of the nitty-gritty daily life stresses and pressures that challenge all of us and invariably reduce us in size and stature in our spouses' eyes. The e-mail correspondents share none of these. Their relationship is uncontaminated by real life. As such it is a mere fantasy and illusion.

Recognizing that there is something significant missing in a marriage, confronting it, and addressing it with the willingness to put forth the requisite hard work can make the relationship stronger than ever.