The Truth About Pornography
The discovery or disclosure of a pornography addiction in a marriage relationship can be a devastating and disorienting experience. Unfortunately, a growing number of people are now dealing with this problem. When a pornography addiction comes to light, it is not uncommon for the needs and experience of the spouse not viewing pornography (the “afflicted spouse”) to be sidelined, minimized or even neglected entirely as attention and resources are directed toward the person struggling with the actual addiction. Spouses of addicts, however, do have real and legitimate needs for support and healing. When an afflicted spouse can receive support to help them understand and deal with the situation, not only are they able to move into a healthier place in their own life, but the prognosis for the addicted spouse is also greatly improved.
Does My Spouse Have an Addiction?
It is not uncommon for a spouse to notice a change in their addicted partner even before they discover that they are viewing pornography. Some spouses notice that their addicted partner has become more irritable, self-centered, moody, impatient, restless, resentful and blaming than usual. The addict may also become critical of their spouse’s body and/or character, dissatisfied with work, easily bored, less willing to spend focused time with the family, or have large amounts of unaccounted-for time. The strength of the marriage seems to be a lesser priority to them and they may exhibit significantly different spiritual views or behaviors.
Traits of Addictive Relationships
1. A pattern of alternating between enmeshment and detachment.
2. Attraction to people who reinforce your negative core beliefs.
3. They are ashamed and afraid to say, “I’m sorry, I made a mistake, I was being sneaky, I lied.”
4. Keeping score, fighting dirty.
5. Right-wrong/good-bad thinking.
6. Freezing emotionally when someone is caring or loving.
7. Passive-aggressive sabotaging of relationships.
8. Causing hurt out of unrecognized fear.
9. Fear of initiating relationships.
10. Having to control a relationship.
11. Being the teacher or wise one in a relationship.
12. Feeling powerful by causing pain.
13. Partners alternate crises – in that way, someone is always too busy being upset to be intimate.
Women, Sex and Addiction: a Search for Love and Power; Charlotte Davis Kasl, PhD. 1990. Perennial Library Harper& Row, New York p. 140
Take Care of You
Healing takes time – it is a process that requires tools. The following ideas will aid you in this process.
“Research shows the majority of people struggling with sexual addictions and compulsivities involving the Internet are married, heterosexual males. Consequently, women who are married to these men are directly impacted by this problem. Additionally, marriages in which a sexual addiction or sexual compulsivity exist are commonly pervaded with diminished intimacy, anxiety, secrecy, mistrust, isolation, relationship dysfunction, sexual dysfunction, and decreased temporal security due to the risk of job loss or related debts.”
“Five factors were identified as helpful to spouses: a) Connection, (b) Advocacy, (c) Validation, (d) Education, and (e) Direction. This collection of needs interestingly formed the acronym C.A.V.E.D., a term deemed appropriate by the researcher to describe the “caved-in,” isolating and devastating experience problematic sexual behavior evokes in a marriage.” ‘…The C.A.V.E.D. Theory’ .
Connection: The isolation experienced by these women can be intense and enduring. Connection to self, God and others (support groups, (S-anon), friends, therapy and clergy) gives a normalizing effect and as a result enables them to function in the roles they fulfill. One woman expressed, ‘I think the only thing that’s really helped is coming to group and learning that I’m not alone.”
Advocacy: “Secondly, the women needed someone who would advocate for their needs and have a degree of authority with which to positively influence the husband and hold him accountable in ways she couldn’t. Many women expressed relief when someone they had turned to advocated a plan of action and gave voice to her pain, her needs, and invited her husband to take responsibility for the problem. When someone can take on an advocate role and link arms with these women, it helps them remobilize their resources and empower them to eventually make decisions or deliver an ultimatum with confidence.”
Validation: ‘Validation includes being affirmed as a human and reassured that one’s feelings and experiences are understandable and legitimate. To have someone who can help her re-enter the realm of being okay and counterweight the tide of self-doubt, insecurity, and self-blame she feels in the wake of this problem is enormously helpful.” This validation can be found through literature, websites, support groups, informed clergy and qualified therapists.
Education: “Women tended to find education a critical ingredient in depersonalizing their husband’s problem and becoming clearer about what needed to happen now that the issue was out in the open. Education about the issue includes obtaining information about: (a) the problem itself, (b) treatment options, and (c) learning how others have dealt with this in their marriages.” Therapists, support groups, and literature provide essential information.
Direction: “Many women are at a loss as to what to do, where to go and how to cope with this kind of problem.” These questions are often asked, ‘Where do I go for healing and recovery myself? What does recovery look like for my husband? Where do we start? This direction can be found with qualified therapists, SA/S-anon groups, and informed clergy.
( Jill C. Manning, PhD, LMFT and Wendy L. Watson, PhD, Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity,15, 233-249, 2008.)
Dr. Shondell Knowlton, a marriage and family therapist, has compared the experience of learning of a partner’s pornography use to tipping over a cart of neatly stacked apples. Knowlton says when the metaphorical apple cart gets dumped over, the order and predictability of one’s life gets scattered in all directions. Energy previously used for other things gets re-routed to gathering, cleaning, sorting, and re-stacking the “apples.” This process can be fraught with confusion, anger and frustration. Many spouses of addicts believe they will be fine as soon as their partner’s pornography behavior stops. However, this is not necessarily the case.
The pain will probably decrease as your partner’s pornography consumption decreases and they choose to live a life free from the damaging effects of pornography. However, it is important to recognize that (a) your partner may not choose to change and that is something that, ultimately, you cannot control and (b) regardless of your spouse’s future actions, if you do not work through the emotions and trauma that you experience, it may result in you continuing to have unresolved feelings of fear, resentment, anger, and grief. A pedestrian who is seriously injured in a car accident cannot just be moved out of the street, but needs to be treated for pain, injury, shock and trauma. Similarly, spouses of pornography addicts usually need help to stabilize their lives and heal from the pain, injury, shock and trauma that they may experience.
The closer and more intimate the relationship, the more intense these emotions frequently are and the longer it may take to work through them. Those who have successfully been able to work through the stages of grief report that there can be complete resolution over time, even to the point that while they remember each phase, it no longer triggers the emotions associated with them. It is possible to feel whole again, regardless of the path the addict chooses to take.
An important aspect of healing for those impacted by a loved one’s addiction is to slow down, set boundaries and take care of physical, emotional and spiritual needs. A sponsor is often critical in helping with this process. Several specific actions can be taken to help deal with the trauma and personal needs you may be experiencing.
- Set Boundaries to protect yourself. Ultimately, you cannot decide if your loved one will choose to recover from pornography addiction. However, you can set boundaries to protect your personal well-being. You have choices in every circumstance, so identify the choices that are yours to make. It is not necessary or helpful to allow the addicted person in your life to decide courses of action that are within your control. You can prayerfully set boundaries and when those boundaries are violated, have a set, predetermined course of action. These boundaries should not be set in an attempt to manipulate or punish the other person. Rather, these boundaries should be calmly set to protect yourself and should be clearly known by your loved one.
- Spiritual grounding provides feelings of peace, hope, and reassurance in the face of uncertainty. Meditation, prayer, seeking comfort and counsel from scripture, and counseling with religious leaders allows those impacted by the addiction of another to access power and strength from above. Many feel forsaken by God and alone when they’ve been betrayed by those closest to them, especially spouses. Spiritual healing is essential, even if it takes time. Spending time in religious meetings, nature or other peaceful locations, as well as listening to uplifting music can also help individuals in this process.
- Physical self-care is often overlooked. Trauma can actually have physical effects on the body which need to be treated. Many find that taking care of their body by getting more sleep, eating healthy foods, exercising, meditating, stretching, participating in relaxing activities and slowing down can help them think more clearly and shift out of “survival mode.”
- Emotional expression may help, especially in the early stages. Many find it helpful to write their feelings in a new journal that they have the option of throwing away at a later date. Emotions can be so strong early on in this process that some worry about putting raw feelings on paper. It is important to have the freedom to express your honest feelings in a healthy non-aggressive way. No feeling is inappropriate. Writing can help you identify and later let go of strong negative feelings.
- Simplifying life is important. Dealing with trauma or feelings of betrayal can be physically and emotionally exhausting. Activities that used to be easy may become more difficult. This is the ideal opportunity to begin saying “no” to extra commitments, evaluate your schedule, and look for things to cut out. It is important to keep a simple structure in place so there is order and predictability. A frenzied pace, however, only functions as a distraction and eventually catches up in the form of more hopelessness, feelings of failure and powerlessness. It is better to slow down and prioritize the things that will bring the greatest peace, joy, and comfort.
- Helping others can create a sense of purpose and add balance to your life. Do not feel like you need to help everyone in need. Rather, you may consider selecting an activity or two that is oriented around helping others. Many find that serving others helps to put their own life in perspective, especially if it is an activity that they enjoy. For some this may include activities such as volunteering with a youth group, helping old friends or making gifts for others.
My Recovery Process
Healing from the effects of a partner’s pornography addiction is perhaps best compared to dealing with grief, loss, and bereavement. Recovering from this loss is a process that requires understanding the stages of shock, anger, and sadness and moving toward acceptance. This acceptance does not mean that you are okay with the addict’s behavior. It does mean that you recognize that this is the reality that you are dealing with and take positive action to make changes for yourself. Your future may or may not include a partner who is committed to long-term recovery. You did NOT cause your partner’s addiction and likewise you cannot “fix” or control it, no matter how much you check computer histories/cell phones, buy workbooks for him to do, encourage him to go to counseling/12-step groups, check on how he is doing or obsess over details related to the pornography use. However, you do not need to be a victim and can set boundaries to protect yourself. Regardless of your partner’s decisions you can focus on the long-term work of personal healing and establish a healthy, balanced life.
The following are specific things you can do to aid this process of healing yourself.
- Talk to someone. Speak with others whom you can confide in and will offer support as you sort through your feelings and as you make decisions.
- Become educated. Read about pornography and sexual addiction and about the effect this addiction has on spouses.
- Practice Self-Care. Set boundaries, simplify your life, and take time to make important decisions.
- Get Therapy. Get therapy which can provide a safe place to sort through the emotions experienced and provide perspective in making important decisions.
- Find a 12-step Group. Participate in a 12-step program for loved ones of addicts, where you can gain support from those who understand what you are experiencing, obtain help setting boundaries, and apply the 12 steps of recovery, to heal.
How can I best support a recovering loved one?
One of the most painful parts of supporting an addicted loved one is coming to accept the lack of control over whether the addict chooses to pursue recovery. Recovery is the personal responsibility of the addict. Therefore, addicts have to become willing to find recovery for themselves. It is often difficult to replace the tendency to enable destructive behavior with patience, encouragement and acceptance. Do not confuse attempts to micromanage the addict’s recovery with true support and encouragement. While striving to achieve this balance, keep in mind the following:
- Focus on personal choices that you can make regardless of the other person’s decisions. Take responsibility for your own peace and emotional well being.
- It is important for you to get help for yourself and to recognize how a close relationship with an addict will likely affect you. Many find counseling and a 12-Step program to be critical in this process.
- Do not take responsibility for the addict’s recovery. Recognize and accept that being a policeman is not helpful to the addict. The addict must ultimately choose his own course of action.
- Set boundaries and stick to them. Although an addict makes his own choices, he cannot dictate the choices of others or avoid the consequences of violating others’ boundaries.
- Try to identify ways in which the addicted individual is reaching out for help and recovery. Find ways to connect with him that are emotionally supportive, safe, and uplifting. Reaching out can be a tremendous source of encouragement and support.
What if a loved one does not want recovery?
Ultimately, only the person struggling with the pornography addiction must be the one to decide if he wants to do the work and make the lifestyle changes necessary for recovery. Continue to be understanding and supportive, but read about the problem of becoming co-dependent or enabling the addict in his behavior.. Encourage the addict to get help. Regardless of whether the addict wants to recover, it is important to provide support to the spouse. Encourage the spouse to get appropriate help and to set boundaries which protect her in the relationship.
What if a loved one says he wants to recover, but continues to relapse?
Although a relapse is a setback, what matters most is the action the addict chooses to take after a relapse. Does the individual excuse or minimize his return to pornography, or is he contrite and broken hearted? Help the addict understand that a relapse does not mean he is a lost cause. Feelings of shame, humiliation and worthlessness compound addictive behavior. Assure the addict that God loves him and will help him gain recovery. At the same time, do not minimize or disregard acting out behavior. Help the addict realize that the relapse is serious. If appropriate, ask questions about what events may have triggered the slip. Encourage him to be regularly accountable to someone about his behavior choices and continue to attend 12-Step meetings, work with a sponsor and therapist. Addicts can learn from their mistakes as they seek appropriate counsel and guidance. Recovery is hard work and requires serious lifestyle changes. By encouraging the individual to identify specific steps to avoid future slips and expressing love and support, you can help him find hope, determination and the courage needed to continue in his recovery program.
The following are specific things you can do to aid in this process of healing for yourself.
Talk to Someone: Share your struggles with someone that you trust who can offer support as you make decisions and deal with challenges.
Become Educated: Become educated regarding the impact of pornography addiction. Learn about how the addiction of another may affect you, your marriage and the recovery process.
Practice Self-care: Set boundaries, simplify your life and take time to care for your needs.
Get Therapy: Therapy can provide a safe place to sort through the emotions experienced and provide a professional perspective in making important decisions.
Find a 12-step Group: Participate in a 12-step program where you can get support from others who understand what you are experiencing, obtain help setting boundaries & apply 12-step principles to help heal.
For personal insights from spouses of those addicted to pornography, click here.