Peace, Be Still — Talking About Pornography
"The newlywed bliss came to a halt only a few weeks later as I stumbled on pornography on the computer. When confronted, [my husband] apologized, promised it was all in the past, begged for forgiveness and promised never to make that mistake again. And then it happened again. And again. And again . . . I became filled with doubt. If I had married the wrong man, what else was I wrong about? Did God really love me? Did He even see me? I grew exhausted from keeping [my husband's] secret, always putting a smile on my face . . . Eventually I could see only one way out of the depression and loneliness, and I began preparing for divorce."
This woman's experience is sadly not uncommon. This is the second part of a feature dealing with problematic pornography use and addiction. Here I share a few insights specifically for the spouse of a pornography user, in hopes that this will ease the anxiety surrounding tough conversations when this problem arises. As hard as this issue is, honest dialogue about pornography use can be healing for both parties and even mitigate the harm pornography has on the user. I draw from interviews with Brian Willoughby, Associate Professor of Family Life at Brigham Young University, and Jennifer Finlayson-Fife, a psychotherapist specializing in relationship and sexuality counseling. I will also rely on the words of women who wrote into The Small Seed to share their experience with the pornography use of a loved one.
In Part I of this feature we learned that pornography addiction is not a black and white matter. Rather, pornography use can develop into a compulsive behavior that strengthens and reinforces over time (for full details, you can read Part I here). The analogy I used to describe the strengthening force of compulsive pornography use is that of ocean waves. Like an elemental force that batters at your legs and then recedes, pulling you in, pornography is very compelling. However, the degree to which a pornography user steps into the water as opposed to being pulled in varies by individual. This analogy is also instructive in understanding that there are degrees of pornography use. Dallin H. Oaks explained that we are accustomed to talking about pornography in terms of two scenarios—either initial exposure or full-blown addiction. But, he says, “while those efforts are still important, past experience and current circumstances have shown the need for counsel addressed to levels of pornography use between the polar extremes of avoidance and addiction. It is helpful to focus on four different levels of involvement with pornography: (1) inadvertent exposure, (2) occasional use, (3) intensive use, and (4) compulsive use (addiction).” (emphasis added) Certainly pornography use can escalate into an addiction. But it does not begin there. Open communication is therefore vital in order to understand the nature and extent of a user’s problem with pornography.
Take Time to Understand
How can we talk about this when so many complicated and sensitive feelings are involved? We wonder if we can ever recover from something that ravages the tender, inner-workings of a marriage, especially when when the compulsion to use pornography rears its ugly head again and again. We wonder how much is “fault” or how much is addiction. We wonder what others will think when they find out. Can we trust each other anymore? Can we trust ourselves? How can there be healing and hope in a situation so prone to repeated injury? The person using pornography may feel defensive, unlovable and ashamed. The spouse may feel angry, deeply wounded, lost, and lonely. So many unknowns; so much exposure.
Understanding the Emotional Harm to the Spouse. Dr. Finlayson-Fife said that deceptive pornography use can erode trust in the relationship. While pornography use is acceptable in some non-religious marriages, in many religious marriages, pornography use cuts against the moral norms and expectations between the two. It is my hope that eventually our non-religious brothers and sisters will come to see how damaging pornography can be, including how it limits and retards the emotional and spiritual intimacy possible in a relationship. But for the purposes of this feature, I will focus on the impact pornography can have within a marriage where the partners mutually believe it is against God's law. This is an important distinction because religious pornography users are more likely to experience increased shame and depression regarding their use. And these marriages are also more likely to end in divorce over the pornography use.
Because pornography use in a religious marriage is more likely to happen in secret, the spouse can experience betrayal, trauma and disorientation akin to discovering an extramarital affair. After finding pornography on the computer, one woman called her husband to confront him. She wrote: "At first, he tried to deny it, but eventually confessed that he was still using pornography on a near daily basis. He had never stopped. He had been lying to me for over a decade. My husband's betrayal had the force of years behind it, and my world collapsed in on me with that phone call. My life, my relationship, everything that I thought we had together, tumbled inward onto my soul and I was crushed." Another woman explained: "Those first few weeks I was totally disoriented. It wasn't that my whole world had changed. It was that my world never was what I thought it was. I lost all trust in myself as well as in my spouse. And I was about six months along with our third child. Every happy memory felt tainted by these questions. Did he look at porn that day? Did he lie to me? What was he really thinking when that picture was taken?" This emotional trauma often leaves the spouse feeling obsessed with whether or not the user has been using, lacking in self-confidence, lonely in the middle of a marriage, and feeling isolated within the religious community.
Dr. Willoughby suggests that a spouse who discovers deceitful pornography use take some time to let the dust settle. Perhaps say: “I feel overwhelmed. I feel like you cheated on me. I need some space and then we can come back together and talk about it.” Dr. Finlayson-Fife agrees that it’s important to resist the urge to vilify the pornography user, as that can quickly shut down the ability to understand what the pornography use exposes about the user and the state of the marriage. Even though the spouse is not at fault for the user’s behavior, the spouse has an opportunity to better understand the person they are married to and what their choices express about them.
Understanding the Spouse who is Using Pornography. Understanding the porn user’s desires surrounding pornography is important to the healing process. “You should get as curious as you dare about who your spouse really is, what this means about them and means to them, and why they have been pursuing it,” says Dr. Finlayson-Fife. “You’re trying to make room for two people to be happy.” Try to resist the instinct of seeing the desires of another person as indications of your failure or fault. And realize that desires in a relationship are a two-way street. Dr. Finlayson-Fife advised: “When you choose to love someone, their desires now matter in your life...Is there a way to create this marriage in a way that’s more honest and open and accommodating to both partners in the relationship?”
As we talk about desires, I think it’s important to address the matter of sex. Particularly in religious communities, said Dr. Willoughby, there is an “ickiness” factor surrounding sex. This compromises our ability to communicate openly and honestly. Dr. Finlayson-Fife said: “Feelings of shame about sexual desires, or exposing our sexual selves, actually undermine the power of the relationship to thrive.” But significantly, when we are dealing with pornography use, we are dealing with a broader range of desires than just a person’s sexuality. As discussed yesterday, many people who turn to porn are looking for relief from anxiety, stress, or pain from past trauma, and yet porn is an incomplete coping mechanism that creates more problems than it solves.
The user may not even fully understand his or her own motivations surrounding pornography use. Dr. Finlayson-Fife said, “Someone who looks at porn may feel conflicted. They may profess a desire to stop, but they may have difficulty really admitting to themselves or understanding why they want to keep the behavior available to them despite their resolutions.” Certainly there are times when the pornography user may not want to bring more integrity and honesty to the relationship. In this situation, Dr. Finlayson-Fife advises the spouse: “Then you have to make decisions around what you will choose for yourself if you have a spouse who won’t evolve, self-confront, or engage more honestly in the relationship.”
In all of this, however, it is essential to remember that choosing to consume porn doesn’t mean that the user is a sexual deviant or someone who is sexually unfulfilled. We cannot put a porn user in a one-size-fits-all box of stereotypes. That’s why dialogue is vital to understanding the nature and extent of the problem. The sexual nature of the material is the means not the ends for many users—it could just as easily be video games or eating or gambling or drugs. When we talk about the desires of the user, sex is only the beginning of the conversation.
These conversations will likely feel very vulnerable for both parties. One of our readers wrote: “A few days before his confession I noticed he was hugging me tighter and for longer than usual. I still think it’s sad and sweet that he was so afraid I wouldn’t want to touch him after I knew that—that he felt like he needed to get a few good ones in. My spirit was calm, but my heart was racing as he knelt by our bed and told me what he thought he could keep hidden forever.” These “exposures” are a valuable avenue to look at the marriage with new eyes. The tough conversations—even if there are no easy answers—are opportunities to understand one another better than before.
Healing with the Savior’s Help
Many of our readers wrote in describing how important it is as the spouse to “let go”—to let go of the thought they were to blame for their spouse’s use, to let go of the thought that they could control the recovery process, to let go of thoughts of how things should be. One woman wrote: “In the early months and years of my husband’s recovery work, I prayed desperately to know what I could do. I felt no direction...[because] I had zero control. And that was okay because I had 100% control of me and my actions.” That being said, both Drs. Willoughby and Finlayson-Fife warned against the spouse taking the “moral high ground” and writing it off as just the other person’s problem. Rather, Dr. Willoughby said that it’s best for the spouse think of themselves as being available as a resource of love and support. Said one: “My job is to love him, encourage him, and pray [for him].”
Turning to the Savior for help in this process is instrumental in letting go. Both user and spouse can lean on the Savior’s love to fill in the gaps and ease the painful process of recovery. One woman wrote: “The unmanageability and powerlessness that addiction brought into my life left me broken-hearted with a level of humility which caused me to know my absolute NEED for my God and Savior. I practiced surrendering my will, which meant trusting that our Father and Savior love my husband more than I do. That they could do more than I could. When I stopped focusing outwardly on my husband’s addiction and turned inward to focus on myself, I was able to let Christ work in me, change my heart, and enter into His rest.”
Progress in addiction recovery is often slow and frustrating work, and there is a certain amount of turmoil that persists throughout. Nevertheless, it need not be a hopeless task when both partners are committed to the process. “We worked hard, cried often, and dug in and worked and committed to the process again and again,” said one. Regardless of where the pornography user is in his or her path to recovery, seeking outside help is very beneficial to the spouse: “I went to a support group for wives of pornography addicts. It was there that I gained the confidence that things would be good again, that my life would go on...I learned how to dissolve bitterness, how to face shame head on, and how to wait on the Lord.”
Even as the pornography user begins to find coping strategies and moves toward sobriety, the spouse can still feel the aftermath of the betrayal and heartache. This also requires healing. One woman said that as her husband started making the changes she had so longed to see, she started to take stock of her own emotional well-being: “This is when I realized how broken I had become. I had always assumed that if [my husband] could just stop, we’d have that amazing marriage we desired. But he had stopped. He was becoming the amazing man I wanted, but I wasn’t getting better. I was stuck...As I worked to develop my own personal relationship with my Savior, I found the hope and peace I was seeking. I began to trust Christ to take my pain. One night I felt a gentle invitation to forgive [my husband] for everything. As I accepted that invitation, I felt years of heartache removed from my shoulders and heart.” Regardless of the ultimate outcomes regarding this problem in the marriage, moving towards forgiveness is instrumental in the spouse's healing process.
I ache for those whose lives are ravaged by the waves and who feel buffeted by the storm. I can hardly express how heavily this has weighed on my heart as I contemplate how it must weigh on yours. If any of you are looking for hope, feeling like you’re drowning under despair and doubt, please take heart. You are not alone. I fully realize that this article is over-simplified in the depth of what the discovery and recovery process entails. But I hope it brings some comfort and a spark of hope—that it’s not impossible, and that the Savior is with us through it all.
Pope John Paul II said: “Freedom exists for the sake of love.” When both freedom and love are so severely threatened by the buffetings of pornography, let us turn to our Savior. He is love, and His love is perfected in us, bringing us relief. We may fall under the waves, but He conquers them and pulls us to safety. We may struggle to see the light through our watery shroud, but He is the light that shines in the darkness. While the merciless waves of addiction may seem so vast and unrelenting, let us remember that His grace does “much more abound.” In closing, I want to share the words of women who have been far enough along this road to offer encouragement. Each of them was unequivocally full of gratitude and hope:
“Addiction has been my greatest teacher. What I have learned are not addiction lessons, they are life lessons. Everyone needs spiritual healing through Christ, and addiction was the conduit in which I learned how to access it for myself. It was more than just receiving comfort for pain. It was being willing to become better from the pain.”
“I owe my Heavenly Father and this painful experience everything.”
“He healed me by teaching me the things I really needed to know. He showed me my weaknesses and helped me turn them into strengths. He took my brokenness and didn’t just fix me. He created a better, stronger, more compassionate me.”
“Looking back, I realize that not only was my husband learning how to change and draw closer to Christ ‘line upon line,’ but I was too. The Savior showed me His love by never giving up on us and by teaching us when we were ready to learn...It can seem overwhelming. I am here to say it is worth it!...Our Savior wants us to feel joy, peace, trust, and love. After years of hard work, that is my reality. And I couldn’t be more grateful.”
f o o t n o t e s
 I am grateful for the time, patience and generosity with which Drs. Willoughby and Finlayson-Fife have assisted with this article. Please note, however, that the conclusions drawn are my own and not representative of their professional opinions.
 Listen to this excellent podcast by Matt Fradd, which helps dissect the thought processes that precede pornography use. Then just go on ahead and listen to the rest of the podcasts. They’re that good.
 This is a great article that takes a more detailed look at healing for the spouse.
Becca is the Features Editor at The Small Seed. She can be found any night of the year satiating her love of buttered popcorn. According to knowing sources at the grocery store, she “has her hands full, bless her heart.” She finds meaning in the little things and attempts to do all things with faith and devotion to her Savior Jesus Christ, so it can be said of her, “she hath done what she could."
DR. JENNIFER FINLAYSON-FIFE, PH.D
Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife is a licensed psychotherapist with a professional focus on marriage and family relationships. She teaches online and community-based relationship and sexuality courses to LDS couples and has a practice in Chicago. You can connect with her on her website here.
DR. BRIAN J. WILLOUGHBY, PH.D.
Dr. Brian Willoughby is currently an associate professor in the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University. He is considered an international expert in the field of couple and marital relationships, sexuality, and emerging adult development. Dr. Willoughby currently serves on the editorial boards for Emerging Adulthood, the Archives of Sexual Behavior, the Journal of Sex Research and the Journal of Adult Development, and has been elected as a full member of the International Academy of Sex Research. You can connect with him on his website here.