What Spiritual Leaders Need to Know
A letter from the spouse of an addict…
What I Wish Father Leaders Knew About Pornography & Sexual Addiction
As a wife working her recovery, when I got to my Step 9 Amends, I knew that some way or somehow, my faith leader would be on the list.
I have felt ongoing resentment for 2 years from the way he handled (or mishandled) my family’s crisis with sexual addiction. As I did my best to be prayerful and open with my Step 9 plans, I realized what I really needed was to make amends to myself for not using my voice when his counsel was in direct opposition to what I had learned to be true about addiction, trauma, and what the real pathway to recovery looks like.
Ultimately, what my Higher Power guided me to was this: to write a letter to my faith leader to express what I wish all of our Bishops would have known for the past 20 years.
Our current faith leader was not the only one who had failed us. In fact, every faith leader for the past 20 years had the opportunity to intervene and point my husband to real recovery. But not one of them had any idea where to find that. This letter felt like a way to express what I needed to say without making a personal attack. I was careful to explain that this letter was about me…what I needed in my healing process to be heard…and truly surrender the outcome.
Although I realize that my faith leader did not understand or even agree with all I had to say, I can honestly say we were able to have an authentic, respectful conversation where I was able to be true to myself and to my experience.
My voice was heard, and I was able to “detach with love” when, inevitably, he wanted to justify or argue his position. I was able to simply testify of what my own experience has been and build on common beliefs.
I really do believe that he is doing what feels right from his own experience.
I know that it was my Higher Power that allowed me to feel so much peace, and I am grateful for the opportunity to feel His hand in my life as I work my own steps of recovery.
This letter cannot pretend to be comprehensive in educating Bishops on everything they could/should know to effectively respond to the complex problem of sexual addiction, but it is my offering from my own and my husband’s experience. I have so much hope that as each one of us lives Step 12 in our own way, we can begin to spread this word, spread this movement, and educate our spiritual leaders. Then they will have more resources that will help the next couple that comes into their office to find real recovery, hope, and healing.
Things I wish our faith leaders would have known
For the addict:
1. Addicts will almost always minimize.
If a person comes in with a confession about sexual acting out (pornography, masturbation, inappropriate sexual relationships), it is a good idea to keep asking questions, “Is there more?” “Is that all?” “What else?” “Tell me more about what exactly happened.” If you take the initial confession at face value, you are most likely getting a small slice of the reality, enough for the addict to appease their conscious, but not enough for anyone (including the addict) to really recognize how serious the situation might be.
2. Asking for history is essential.
Following full disclosure, I was stunned and devastated by the number of people my husband had sexually acted out with before marriage. I think he was a little stunned as well. Full disclosure was the first time he had ever acknowledged the full narrative of his sexual history. Because none of these non-committal “hook-ups” had officially gone “all the way”, they were each treated by different faith leaders as isolated incidents that needed only to be confessed of, “repented of”, swept under the rug, and forgotten. My husband throughout his life was only too grateful for another excuse to “forget about it and move on” and feel that now he had this thing “under control.” This well-meaning approach to repentance inadvertently deepened his addict mindset and enabled him to continue his acting out. If these Bishops would have asked about more about his sexual history, it would have become clear much earlier in his life that his sexual problems were more than isolated incidents, but rather a pattern of behavior that needed to be recognized, addressed, and dealt with. What he desperately needed was someone to help him see Step 1: “My life is unmanageable!” This is the beginning of recovery. Instead, what most faith leaders do is the opposite: “You’re not a bad guy, it’s not that bad. Don’t be too hard on yourself. Forget about the past and move on. You’re going to be just fine.” While well-meaning, this is the worst advice you can give someone who is truly caught in the cycle of addiction.
3. The level of explicit use is irrelevant in sex addiction.
My husband’s primary addiction is social media scanning—spending hours browsing pictures of people that are mostly/even fully dressed. Until this progressed to an actual affair, I never realized that he had a serious problem because he was not regularly visiting explicit sites or paying for porn.
Lust addiction is at the root of all sexual acting out behaviors, and will eventually progress, as all sexual addiction inevitably does, to affairs, prostitution, and other high-risk behaviors if the problem is not addressed.
In addition, even these “lower-risk” lusting activities bring the same addictive behaviors/feelings of blame, shame, self-pity, justification, anger, that quickly erode connection and cause deep damage to marriage and parent/child relationships. Do not dismiss behavior as minimal or minor just because it is not explicit pornography.
4. It is best to treat all pornography use as an addiction.
My husband spent 25 plus years (from the time he was 11) meeting with leader and leader about his indiscretions involving masturbation, pornography, and sexual misconduct with girls. Year after year, he received nothing more than a small slap on the wrist, encouragement that he “wasn’t that bad and not to be too hard on himself”, and advice to read the scriptures more, pray more, and attend the temple more frequently. He rarely received any church discipline at all.
The undeniable reality of sexual (and any other) addiction is that increased religious practices are totally insufficient to produce recovery, and ultimately result in even more hopelessness when the addict interprets his inevitable failure as a sign that he is not “faithful” enough to be saved. Addiction Recovery requires a unique and time-tested approach that is based on immersing oneself fully in a personal, inward, spiritual program of emotional awareness and total dependence on God (SAL 12 Steps).
Even if someone has not progressed to extreme levels of addiction, their lives will still be immensely blessed in every possible way by embracing this type of spiritual program. In other words, whether or not they are clinically “addicted” is irrelevant—it is far better to treat any sort of pornography use as you would an addiction. If they are truly in the grips of addiction, this is the only way out. If they aren’t, they will still have the opportunity to deepen their relationship with God and understand the Atonement in totally new, personal, and empowering ways. Please never assume that a young person’s sexual misconduct will resolve with marriage. This is like reasoning that an alcoholic will be fine once they’ve reached the age of 21 and can drink legally.
Marriage actually exacerbates the problem as the stresses and responsibilities of life increase, and may also increase the fixation on lust and sex.
5. Your role is that of First Responder, not expert.
Faith leaders cannot possibly be expected to be educated on all of the issues that will come to their desk seeking help. In this very complex matter, where the lives of generations will be affected by the ability of the addict to get appropriate help consider yourselves simply to be the FIRST RESPONDER.
The best counsel or advice a faith leader can give is for the person to get to a qualified therapist specializing in sexual addiction and to find a 12 Step Addiction Recovery program to start attending.
Very, very often, a leader’s counsel, which is well-intentioned and most likely based on their best intuition from their own life experiences, is exactly the opposite of what will help an addict to find recovery. A faith leader’s job, rather than having the answers, is to get the addict to the people who do have answers to help them start real recovery.
6. Isolation is the lifeblood of Addiction.
Coming out of hiding, reaching out to others, becoming part of a recovering community, working with a sponsor, being open and honest with their spouse on a daily basis…these are absolutely essential foundations for lasting recovery. History has shown through AA, there is no such thing as recovery in isolation.
We have learned through hard experience that addiction recovery is not something you ever “overcome.” Rather, lasting recovery is dependent on a daily decision to submit one’s will to God and rely on His power to deliver you from bondage.
The mindset of “overcoming” a pornography problem and “checking it off” as a problem of the past will inevitably lead to sliding back into old coping mechanisms, progressive addiction, future relapses, and more severe consequences to the individual and their family. Addiction recovery is a lifelong commitment that never ends.
In our experience, SA Lifeline is the most comprehensive Recovery Program available, and it encourages the 4 pillars of Sexual Addiction Recovery—A 12 Step Program including group meetings and sponsorship, Education, Spiritual Guidance from an Ecclesiastical Leader, and Qualified Therapy from a Therapist who specializes in Sexual Addiction.
For the Spouse:
Betrayal trauma is a condition that parallels the symptoms of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and is caused when someone experiences betrayal and deception within their primary relationship; this betrayal damages the trust and safety of the relationship and calls into question the bond they have with their partner.
For me, the feeling that my life is in danger is very real. Symptoms of betrayal trauma include flashbacks (when you learn of specific incidents & suddenly any reference to the place/people/circumstances associated of that bring an immediate sense of panic, anxiety, fear as though your life is truly in danger), an inability to focus or concentrate, feelings of rage, deep feelings of depression or worthlessness, persistent suicidal thoughts, persistent dreams reliving events that you have learned of or witnessed, etc.
2. The spouse of a sex addict will probably need as much recovery as the sex addict.
For me, until my husband’s addiction reached the point of an actual affair with a real person, I never thought that his behavior was affecting me that much or that I needed recovery. Now, I look back and wonder how things would have been different if I would have started my own recovery before things got to that point.
For the traumatized spouse, recovery is absolutely essential to help them navigate the very deep, intense emotional, mental, and physical trauma reactions they will experience on a daily basis for as long as they remain in trauma. For the spouse in denial, recovery is absolutely essential to help them accept the seriousness of their situation, and it gives them tools to understand their husband’s addiction and what their role is/isn’t as a spouse.
3. The actions of a sex addict are not a result of something the spouse did or did not do.
For me, this was a very difficult concept to accept. In cases of infidelity, it may seem natural to assume that something is wrong with the marriage that would make the man look elsewhere, that the wife was cold, the married couple was not sexually active…the old adage that “it takes two to tango.” That is certainly what I have always assumed. In cases of sexual addiction, this is just simply not the case.
The truth is that my husband had been coping with negative emotions that everyone faces in everyday life by escaping/numbing through pornography and masturbation since he was 11 years old. His brain had become chemically dependent upon this approach to managing any type of emotional stress or pain.
Throughout our marriage, we have had sex at an almost regimented frequency of every other day, including throughout the pregnancies and births of our five children. “Not enough sex” was not the problem. It is very damaging to imply or assume that the wife of a sex addict is somehow responsible for the addict behaviors of her husband.
So often, she is already blaming herself, and almost certainly, has been the victim of the blame and justification of her addict husband for years. Please do not hold her responsible for her husband’s actions. Do encourage her to become responsible to find her own recovery through qualified therapy and 12 Step Support Groups.
4. Isolation is the lifeblood of depression and trauma.
The very first steps in healing from betrayal trauma are reaching out, acknowledging the feelings you are experiencing, and grieving all of the dreams, life, and love you have lost.
Well-meaning faith leaders may lean to conventional wisdom and be inclined to tell these victims to keep the issue between themselves and their spouse, but it is absolutely imperative that the spouse finds a support community and qualified therapy. History has taught us through Al-Anon, recovery in isolation is impossible.
5. Recovery from Betrayal Trauma is a long (even life-long) process.
Recovering from the intense sense of fear that the rug may be pulled out from under them again at any time, from the depression and feelings of worthlessness that are often internalized, from the physical and mental symptoms of trauma, and from the grieving process itself is not something that happens overnight. This is a process that can take weeks, months, even years depending on the person, the recovery of the addict spouse, and the severity of the betrayals.
Spouses need support throughout this process of “coming to grips” with their reality, and should never be shamed or criticized for their natural reactions going through this grieving process. Although a natural inclination might be to encourage the spouse to “Get over it” or to “Forgive and forget,” the only way to truly heal the individual and create a solid foundation to rebuild the relationship is to give the process all the time it may take to work through all of the difficult emotions at play.
The best support will come from those who have been through this process themselves. Involvement in a 12 Step program with women who are working their own 12 Steps to recover from Betrayal Trauma is absolutely imperative.