This week we’re hitting a very specific moment that is occurring in many marriages; that moment when you discover your husband’s porn habit.

The revelation that your husband is addicted to some form of pornography is obviously a huge problem and a real shock to your marriage. But we’re going to look at what the research says is the best way to deal with it in the immediate aftermath and how to look towards getting through it. We’re going to help you see what’s going on in his world, and then go through first steps towards recovery. We’ll be coming at that through two approaches: one if he is on board to get help and the other if he is in denial.

One quick preparatory comment: we’re going to be using the word ‘addiction’ quite a bit in this episode. Researchers can debate the definition of this word and Christians even more so. I want to skip that discussion for now simply because this episode is for wives whose world has just come crashing down around them and a ten minute theological diatribe is not going to be helpful.

Discovering a porn addiction is an incredibly difficult thing to experience, often just as devastating as discovering an affair. Even if the problem is “just” online rather than in the real world, that same sense of betrayal, of being lied to, of a breakdown in trust, of repulsion, anger and even fear are felt in response to this horrifying discovery. Wives may well wonder if their marriage can have a future after discovering that their trust has been violated on such a deep level for such a long period of time and angry thoughts of revenge are common.

Defining Porn Addiction

Let me give you a definition that can be used to help understand what’s going on for your husband and will give us a basis for what we need to go over today. I also want to say that while my main specialty is marriage therapy, my second most experienced area of work is with pornography recovery. Also, this problem unfortunately has been a part of the history of our marriage and so Verlynda and I will be drawing out on our own respective experiences too.

Addiction is “when a person compulsively uses sex to alter his or her mood to produce pleasure and/or to provide escape from internal discomfort and is employed [or, entrenched] in a pattern characterized by recurrent failure to control the behavior and continuation of the behavior despite significant negative consequences[i]”.

I like that definition for a few reasons:

  1. It identifies why your spouse is engaging in this behavior. Not for the purpose of justifying it but helping us to understand: he’s using porn to alter his mood and/or escape. This is important because there is a valid need and an invalid coping mechanism at play. Your husband has a desire to feel better or escape from the pressures of his life, which is normal, but has turned to a very unhelpful way of meeting that need. If we want the invalid coping mechanism (the porn) to go away, we have to also take care of the valid need in a healthy way.
  2. It also points out the recurrent pattern: this could be daily, weekly, monthly, even quarterly. There’s a recurring pattern here.
  3. And it also highlights the fact that at some level, even on the verge of his awareness, he knows there are significant negative consequences to his behavior. Why doesn’t that stop him? That’s a separate discussion where we would have to look at addictive cycles and come back to that valid need.

Keeping a Healthy Perspective

If you’ve just discovered his porn addiction, it will probably be a real shock and there will be all kinds of feelings going through you. To help you get a handle on the situation there are a few things you need to know.

The first is that you’re not alone. This is a profoundly common problem but also one that carries a lot of shame for both husbands and wives. Because of that, it doesn’t get talked about. Usually couples that go through this go through it feeling very alone and without sharing it with others.

Several years ago I hit the point where I was done with the lies and hiding this and I disclosed to Verlynda — she felt very alone. There’s that very real issue: who do you go to? On one hand you need help and support. And on the other you either don’t want everyone to think your husband is a freak or you feel like people are going to look at you like, wow, you must not have been giving him enough action. So it’s a very stuck place to be in. But: know that you are not alone.

The second thing that’s important is to know that it’s not your fault. A study from 2012[ii] asked 171 people about porn habits and real-life sexual activity. The researcher found that satisfaction with real life sex and relationships was NOT linked to porn use.

So it’s normal for a wife to feel guilty or responsible, but the research shows that your husband’s addiction is NOT because you’re leaving him “unsatisfied”. I would totally agree with this and point out that wives often forget to consider that this is always (as far as I’ve ever seen) something that the husband has brought to the marriage. So this was a pre-existing problem, and also not one that you can or should try to solve by trying to compete with the porn problem.

The third thing you should know is a little tricky to articulate because I don’t want to sound like I’m letting us guys off the hook. But the same researcher also found that sexual arousal from internet porn was found to reduce decision making ability and to interfere with cognitive functioning. He may be aware of the negative consequences but if his cognition is impaired he doesn’t have full access to his decision making ability.

On top of this, the brain is definitely wired to reward short term gratification over long term satisfaction. I’m not saying this in his defense but just so you know that there are well established neural pathways here. And it’s going to take time for those pathways to break up and for new, healthier ones to form. This sucks. But it’s real.

Fourthly, porn is going to change him and the way you interact. There’s a new dimension now that has become visible in your relationship. You may feel that your husband has changed in all kinds of ways, and women seeking help for their husbands often report the strongest reason to want help is that they feel they no longer recognize the person they are married to, and are “living with a stranger[iii]”.

Indeed, depression, change in sleeping habits, lack of intimacy, less interest in sex, irritability and defensiveness may all come into play. Just be prepared for this. On the flip side, having worked with people who have recovered, I think you should also know that the true, lovable, respectable version of the person you married is still in there. If he’s willing to work towards recovery and he’s being fully honest about his problems and his need for help then I sincerely believe that it is possible to get back to that person, not the addict you’re confronted with at the moment. I’ve seen this happen.

Finally, he probably feels awful about it. Men struggling with porn addiction often feel high levels of “powerlessness, emptiness, hopelessness, depression, shame and guilt[iv]”. Addiction can also lead to reduced feelings of intimacy with the real-life partner[v] and he may come to feel depressed or highly anxious about this. So bear this in mind when confronting him about it. On the other hand, if he’s only showing you anger and defensiveness, then these other feelings I would say are in there but are very much repressed. That’s why we have a section below on what to do if he’s in denial or refusing to get help.

Whatever you do, don’t be accepting of his pornography problem. Pornography is evil and has nothing to add to your marriage. I know even some Christian podcasters take a more open approach but I have never found a reason to condone the use of pornography, even in a marriage where both spouses are accepting of it. Moral and biblical reasons aside, at the very least, it is profoundly degrading to the men and women who produce the material. It objectifies and violates their sanctity and dignity as humans.

How to Talk to Your Husband about His Porn Addiction

OK so we’ve given you a quick primer on the addiction and then talked about really holding onto a healthy perspective as you come to deal with this problem.

Next, we’re going to talk about how to talk to your husband. There are two parts: one if he is on board and the other if he is not on board with getting help. In either case, these first discussions are very important.

The First Talk With Your Husband

We have a six page mini-workbook available to the patrons of our podcast. If you’re not yet a supporter I would highly recommend you get this work booklet to help you prepare for these very important and sensitive conversations.

First Steps in Recovery for Cooperative Husbands

Obviously having a discussion about the pornography addiction is important. If your husband has already admitted that he has this issue and shown a genuine desire to be rid of it, that’s half the battle won already. But we are still potentially dealing with a brain-altering addiction and a long-standing habit here so helping your husband through recovery is going to be essential. If he has this stance that he wants to overcome his addition then you can focus on fighting the problem, not each other and developing a collaborative plan for dealing with the addiction.

But I think it’s important that you understand as the wife that it’s not your role to manage his recovery. You may want to or even feel you need to because you feel that is how you’ll be safe. But you don’t want to end up in a codependency situation where you’re in charge of managing his morality and recovery. Ultimately, recovery from this addiction is his responsibility and he has to take ownership.

There are a number of suggestions here, from my own experience as a counselor and from a study by Weeks[vi]. So the first part of this is to help your husband understand the problems that pornography creates. He needs to see your pain, to know your deep feelings of hurt and betrayal and to know that you are completely unwilling to integrate pornography into your marriage.

You’re probably also starting to make sense of some things now too: his irritability, possible lack of interest in sex, possible depressive symptoms and so on. Talking about the impact that you see in him is also valuable, and then the impact this is having on you and the family. This might not be an easy thing to raise with your husband but it can also be a powerful wakeup call for him: he may not be aware of how much he has changed as a result of his addiction, so gently making him aware that he is becoming a very different man to the one you married can be a major motivation for recovery.

I think as well that this is a time to challenge your husband (kindly) to reflect on how he wants to be seen by you, by his kids, his own family members (your in-laws), and others. What are the values that he wants them to remember him by? What would it feel like to live an authentic life? Even appealing to those positive ideals. I know for me that was huge: I wanted to live a life that didn’t even have one lie in it. And of course it’s catastrophic for you to find out about that lie but in the long run its way better for everyone.

The next part is something you may or may not be able to do. You may want him to have this discussion with a counselor or pastor or other male friend. But he also has to face the fears of what life will be like without porn. What are the consequences to him of having to give up the addiction? What was porn doing for him that he is going to have to take to healthier places to meet those needs? This part of the discussion is useful because it involves working out the mundane, practical details of what a life without porn addiction will look like; what he will have to change, do without and remain accountable for. But it also means going past the habit itself to confront the deeper needs and the deeper meaning involved.

And then you want to invite and challenge him to take individual responsibility. Yes, maybe you’ve initiated this discussion. Maybe you’ve set some pretty clear boundaries. But emphasize that he’s the only one who can decide to change. He has to be the one to commit to this and to commit to developing a short and long-term plan to break the addiction. He needs to take responsibility: not you.

What If Your Husband Doesn’t Want to Get Help?

Landau et al.[vii] outline a three step process for convincing addicted family members to enter treatment known as the ARISE Intervention Model, which was originally used to treat drug & alcohol addictions but has been adapted for cyber-sex and porn addiction.

For this you want to choose an interventionist. What or who is this? Well there is actually an Association of Intervention Specialists and their role is to support the wife and family through the journey of getting the husband into treatment. They act as a facilitator of the various stages below while mediating some of the tough discussions with the husband and supporting the wife through the difficult process. I do think a therapist with background in addictions and family work or social worker or a church leader or even an emotionally mature man respected by your husband could likely fill this role. You want to pray and choose this person carefully. This person needs to be in support of you, in support of the addict, and needs to be a friend of your marriage.

Level 1: the wife/family member makes the first call to the interventionist, who gives the wife motivational tips on how to convince the addicted husband to seek help. This includes educating the addicted husband about the impact on you and others that has come from his addiction, encouraging him about the possibility of change, and making him aware of how much he has changed as a result of his addiction (similar to above points from Weeks[viii]). The interventionist and wife then develop a “support network” of family members or friends who can assist the addicted husband in seeing that he needs to come forward for treatment and support him once he is being treated.

A first meeting is then held with the interventionist, wife and support group, whether the addicted partner is present or not. At this point you’ve identified the treatment (usually committing to working with a CSAT or therapist who is experienced in working with porn addiction recovery) and that’s what you are calling him to do. This first level results in the addicted husband going into treatment in around 55% of cases.

Level 2: face-to-face meetings are held with the support group to develop motivational strategies. The support group and wife then use these strategies to continue to encourage the husband towards treatment.

Motivational strategies used to convince the addict to receive treatment include explaining:

      1. How the addiction is affecting them (the addict)
      2. How their addiction is affecting the rest of the family
      3. How the addiction can be successfully treated

The family will also outline specific times when the husband’s addiction has caused specific harm or destructive behavior, while avoiding blaming or hostile language. The wife and support group are encouraged to write down and rehearse specific sentences such as statements of love and concern, specific examples of destructive behavior, pleas for the addict to get help, and consequences of the addict not receiving treatment.

Less than 2% of husbands fail to come forward for treatment at this stage. So for the vast majority of husbands this process of laying everything on the table is enough to get them into treatment and only a tiny fraction of addicts need further convincing.

Level 3: Family, friends and support network set boundaries and limitations on the addicted husband, in a loving and supportive way, until he comes forward for treatment. This could include things like denying contact with the children, or restricted use of finances. 83% of addicts who get to this stage will come forward for treatment.

Taking Care of Yourself

So even if your husband was reluctant to admit his need for help at the start of the process, we can see that this kind of structured intervention has an incredibly high success rate of getting husbands into treatment. So that’s good, and I hope any wives dealing with this situation can take hope from that. But before we close I think it’s vital to also address the experiences the wife will be going through upon discovering her husband’s addiction.

Discovering your spouse’s porn habit is a huge blow. In fact it is not uncommon for a discovery like this to leave you in a state of shock and confusion similar to PTSD[ix]. It may be a good idea for you to check out our episode on Post Infidelity Stress Disorder in relation to this.

Upon discovering their husband’s porn addiction, wives often felt “betrayal, rejection, abandonment, devastation, loneliness, humiliation, jealousy and anger, as well as loss of self-esteem[x]”. 22% of couples surveyed had divorced because of the addiction, and 68% showed decreased interest in sex with their spouse. So finding support and a place to work through your own feelings is important. Often counseling, separate from the treatment of the addicted husband, is required.

There’s a few things I want to encourage you to do:

  1. Be supportive, despite the pain it has caused you. “Admitting an addiction is not easy for the user, and loving and compassionate partners can encourage change and help the user find positive methods of working through the addiction[xi]” From a purely pragmatic perspective, if you want this problem to go away, then being supportive of your husband is the best way to go about it.
  2. Talking about the issue with family members or trusted friends can help the wife, and is also useful in developing a support group to help the addicted husband through recovery. I would really encourage you to find someone to talk to. It’s not an easy subject to raise with anyone but that isolation is going to make the experience a whole lot worse if you let it. Talk to a counselor if you don’t feel like you can talk to anyone you know.
  3. Don’t take responsibility for the addiction. Some partners of sex/porn addicts feel their own deficiency is responsible for their husband’s addiction. They then go to extreme lengths to try and satisfy their husbands sexually so that they won’t need porn anymore — perhaps by trying to look or act more like the women in the porn their husbands were viewing. To recover, wives need to understand that this will not work — the addiction was never about making up for something you were not providing, and is not even really about sexual preferences. It’s an addiction, a need to satisfy an urge with ever more extreme behavior. “In addition to rebuilding sexual self-confidence, believing that you are enough means understanding that sex addiction is not, and never was, about sex. The behaviors satisfy the cravings of dopamine in the brain, not needs in the genitals, or indeed desires of the heart[xii]”.

Finally, I’ll just mention that it’s not uncommon to find yourself in a dilemma about whether to engage in sexual intimacy or not and the timing around that. Again, this could be an episode on its own. Sometimes you just don’t want to have sex because you’re disgusted or angry. Other times you worry that not having sex will hinder recovery. Ultimately whether you want to keep having sex is your decision- some partners will abstain for a period in order to work out their own feelings, others do not have a problem with continued sex. But this should be your decision and should not be influenced by any sense of obligation or need to satisfy your husband’s needs to make recovery easier. “Coping with sexual frustration and urges will be a challenge for some sex addicts… but this is a challenge that is theirs to face alone, and partners should in no way feel obligated to help them avoid addressing this part of their recovery.[xiii]”

I’ve seen couples where extending sexual intimacy by the wife is an act of forgiveness and it’s a profound moment for them both. And in other situations I’ve seen them agree to a period of abstinence so that he can learn that sex is not his most important need. This is really your choice, and remember that your marriage and your situation is unique, so you are the best person to know what will work.


 

References

[i] Saudia Twine, ‘ANCOVA Study of Psychotherapy Treatment of  Internet Pornography Addiction in Heterosexual Men’, Fidei et Veritatis: The Liberty University Journal of Graduate Research, 1.1 (2015) <http://digitalcommons.liberty.edu/fidei_et_veritatis/vol1/iss1/3>.

[ii] Christian Laier, ‘Cybersex Addiction: Craving and Cognitive Processes’ (unpublished Wissenschaftliche Abschlussarbeiten » Dissertation, Universität Duisburg-Essen, Fakultät für Ingenieurwissenschaften » Informatik und Angewandte Kognitionswissenschaft, 2012) <http://duepublico.uni-duisburg-essen.de/servlets/DocumentServlet?id=30007> [accessed 15 March 2017].

[iii] Judith Landau, James Garrett, and Robert Webb, ‘Assisting a Concerned Person to Motivate Someone Experiencing Cybersex into Treatment: Application of Invitational Intervention: The Arise Model to Cybersex’, Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 34.4 (2008), 498–511 <https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1752-0606.2008.00091.x>.

[iv] Twine.

[v] Andreas G. Philaretou, Ahmed Y. Mahfouz, and Katherine R. Allen, ‘Use of Internet Pornography and Men’s Well-Being’, International Journal of Men’s Health, 4.2 (2005) <http://www.mensstudies.info/OJS/index.php/IJMH/article/view/460> [accessed 15 March 2017].

[vi] Naomi Weeks, ‘Effects of Pornography on Relationships’, 2010 <http://digitalcommons.usu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2502&context=extension_curall> [accessed 15 March 2017].

[vii] Landau, Garrett, and Webb.

[viii] Weeks.

[ix] Landau, Garrett, and Webb.

[x] Jennifer P. Schneider, ‘Effects of Cybersex Addiction on the Family: Results of a Survey’, Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity: The Journal of Treatment and Prevention, 2007 <https://doi.org/10.1080/10720160008400206>.

[xi] Weeks.

[xii] Paula Hall, Sex Addiction: The Partner’s Perspective: A Comprehensive Guide to Understanding and Surviving Sex Addiction For Partners and Those Who Want to Help Them (Routledge, 2015).

[xiii] Hall.

 

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