Supporting a Spouse with a Pornography Addiction: 5 Lesser-Known Aspects of Recovery
I’m Stacy,* and I’ve been married to someone with a pornography addiction for going on 13 years. I’d like to share a little bit about some things I have learned through the process of recovery that may help you if you or someone you know is a spouse of a sex addict.
First, participating in your spouse’s recovery from a sex addiction means you’ve experienced trauma. In 2005, when my husband Todd* and I were first married, spouses of addicts were categorized as co-dependents. In other words, we were people with poor emotional health that were experiencing the consequences of our own bad choices. We were told that we picked addicts for husbands because we were emotionally dysfunctional and had a twisted need to be in an unhealthy relationship.
It didn’t feel good to be labeled that way, but we believed it because it’s as far as the therapy world had evolved at that point. Towards the end of our formal clinical recovery program (around 2009), spouses of sexual addicts were redefined as trauma victims. We were finally understood as people needing recovery from all the trauma inflicted on us by being married to a sex addict. The rhetoric and approach towards spouses of addicts changed dramatically, and while the skills taught and learned were not drastically different, the difference in attitude was critical.
If you are considering recovery, please make sure that you pick a program that has this latter attitude. Your experience will be so much more positive and empowering. It’s tough to enter recovery in the first place, so begin with therapists that are up-to-date on how sex addiction affects spouses and treat them accordingly in their recovery program.
Second, being part of the solution does not mean you’re part of the problem.
Participating at all in recovery was a horrible pill for me to swallow. When my husband first approached me about participating in a couples recovery program, I went nuts. I hadn’t done anything!!! What did I need to recover from?? He was the one looking at porn, while I’d gone through agony trying to get him to stop! My understanding was that recovery and therapy were for the offender only.
We were living in a small main level apartment at the time, having barely survived grad school. I was pregnant with our third child, about to celebrate my 30th birthday, and our marriage was at a familiar place of disconnectedness that I figured we didn’t need to disrupt. We’d done some couples therapy with a family therapist during grad school, but it hadn’t helped a lot.
Since we’d moved to Utah, Todd had found a program specifically designed for sex addicts and their spouses. He thought it was a miracle, because we’d been unable to find something like that in Ohio. But I wanted to kill him. My lack of knowledge about what recovery was, and my total exhaustion in my marriage to him, made me feel perhaps the angriest I’d felt up to that point in my life.
Despite all of this, I begrudgingly agreed to do the program. It was a LifeStar program. Todd told me that the therapists had explained to him that the effectiveness of the program would be limited unless I did the program with him. This made absolutely no sense to me, but for some reason, I said I’d do it.
Participating in the women’s recovery group helped me learn that I had a role to play in my husband’s recovery. At times I really resented this – I didn’t want to be any more involved in porn addiction recovery than I already had been. It meant making choices that I didn’t want to make, including setting boundaries and keeping them. I didn’t want to be treated like garbage by my husband when he fell back into old habits of manipulation, persecution, and victimization. It felt like war at times, and I really hated it for probably the first year. It took months and months, but gradually I was able to have the clarity and vision that the therapists described. They taught that by sticking with our spouses (rather than getting separated or divorced), we were allowing them the chance to rebuild trust, which was more empowering for them than working on recovery alone.
I also learned that there was a lot I needed to change in myself. I hadn’t recognized the behaviors and false beliefs I’d developed simply as a way to survive. But it was time to learn how to do more than just survive. And so, with a lot of effort and pain, I learned how to take back the control I felt I had lost. I learned how to see myself as capable and of worth, regardless of the choices my husband made. I learned how to recognize manipulation and drama, how to stay out of it, and also how to not create it myself.
I still wasn’t sure how our marriage was going to go, but by the second year of the program, I had made enough personal changes that I was able to recognize the important role I played in my husband’s recovery. I knew he wanted to regain my trust. Even though it was hard to experience repeated betrayal as he worked towards sobriety, I learned that his relapses had nothing to do with me, my personality, or my identity, in any way. They had nothing to do with my imperfections or weaknesses. Absolutely nothing I could do, no matter how awful, would ever make me responsible for his choices to view porn or masturbate. This was a powerful learning experience for me.
Third, you don’t get to decide how long recovery takes. It may take you longer to heal than it takes your spouse to heal, and that’s okay. This is something I wish someone had told us the first day of recovery: the spouse usually takes longer to heal than the addict.
There came a point during couples therapy when all the husbands were doing great – long periods of sobriety, less drama, less of all things negative – but we, the wives, were still stuck in a mire of bitterness, rage, resentment, grief, and loss. We were surely making progress, but it was just so much slower than we wanted to be going. It was frustrating to see our husbands speeding ahead, when we, who they had nearly destroyed, were moving at what felt like a snail’s pace.
We were also very hard on ourselves. As the spouse of an addict, it’s common to develop false core beliefs about the source of your value and what makes you worthwhile. If you are in this situation, I suggest you be patient with yourself; be good to yourself. Try and accept yourself where you are. Affirmations can really help with this (recorded affirmations/self-guided meditations), as well as self-care. Eat well, pursue hobbies and things just for fun, get enough rest, lower your expectations, email your therapist or other women in the group, be involved in physical movement or exercise, and just generally do whatever it takes to create more balance. Some days will feel great and other days will feel like you went five steps in reverse. That feeling of going backwards isn’t actually true, even if it feels like it is. Check your thoughts, because most of the negative ones are irrational and not based on truth at all.
Fourth, being in recovery is extremely mentally and emotionally draining, and it’s okay to re-evaluate your resources as the years go by. This is a big topic. There are some relationships in which the damage done has been so great that recovery really isn’t workable and a separation or divorce may be the best option. This could be the case when the addict has had extramarital affairs, lost his or her job repeatedly, or participated in other equally damaging behaviors with severe long-term consequences.
In order for a recovery program to be successful, both individuals have to want to maintain the marriage, or at least want to work towards saving it. They have to have at least a little bit of hope to keep them going during the program, because it is very, very taxing on mind, spirit, and body. It feels like you are constantly recovering from major surgery, from week to week. If you have the emotional reserves to do it, then go for it. But if you don’t, or if after a certain time in a recovery program, you just have no more to give, then that is okay. It’s important to know your limits. It’s good to challenge yourself – not everything we need to do is pleasant – but if there are more negative outcomes than positive, it’s wise to re-evaluate and see if perhaps the timing isn’t right for recovery.
Since the two-year LifeStar recovery group concluded, I have not chosen to enter any other groups. It’s still an option—there are ongoing support groups for women all over, especially in Utah—but it’s not the right route for me. Some therapists perhaps wouldn’t agree with my choice, or would label my resistance to further therapy as evidence that I still have work to do, but I disagree. For me, sitting in a weekly group to talk about porn drags me down, especially because my husband has now completed many years of sobriety. It’s not a daily, relevant struggle as it used to be. We feel “normal” as a married couple. When I think about persisting in a support group, the phrase “beating a dead horse” is what feels most descriptive to me. That being said, some women truly benefit from the constant support from other women, no matter how many years have gone by and no matter how much sobriety their husbands have. It’s a very individualized choice, and I think it’s important to know that each person’s emotional resources and long-term needs are different. Let’s allow each other to make the choice that suits us best.
And fifth, the process of recovery gives you resilience in the face of loss: as you learn to surrender, you will gain greater strength, connection to God, and the ability to endure trials with grace, dignity, and confidence.
When I first witnessed some of the couples in our group get divorced, I thought that divorce was the worst possible outcome. It took quite some time for me to realize that divorce wasn’t the worst thing. The worst thing would be missing out on opportunities for personal growth, strengthening my connection to God and the Savior, and reaching my fullest potential as a divine human being and child of Heavenly Parents. I now feel that if Todd were to regress and make choices that destroyed our trust and ruined our family beyond repair, I would have the resilience and peace of mind to continue on, and even thrive, after such a loss. I have only gained this resilience, however, because the recovery process taught me how to surrender.
As a spouse of an addict, you surrender by learning to accept that there is very little you control about the situation. Anxiety and depression are common among spouses because you go insane worrying about things you cannot actually control. You worry about what your spouse did or didn’t do; what they haven’t told you, what half-truths they told you; what they might do tomorrow or next year. You errantly believe that worrying will help you control your situation, but it really just wraps you in a cocoon of misery that makes your world very small.
Surrendering means that you are able to live in the present and have peace of mind and peace of conscience. You stop pretending as though you’re prepared for everything. The truth is, you can experience any number of devastating losses in life, none of which you are really ever prepared for. For me, it was a horrifying reality check to understand that my marriage really might fail and that it wasn’t up to me. I couldn’t determine the outcome through hard work, prayer, or my efforts in the recovery program. I could change myself, but I ultimately could not do anything about the choices Todd would make. This was such a hard truth to accept, and yet, it’s also one of the fundamental principles of eternity – that we all have agency or free will.
Indeed, surrendering is what we are invited to do with Jesus’ Atonement. We surrender when we humbly trust in Him and stop trying to control everything – particularly the choices of others. I am a witness that it really does work. My life isn’t ruled by fear and racing thoughts, and I have much more peace and trust in the Savior. I have come to trust in His approval of me – that He’s happy with me and the choices I’m making – no matter what others around me are choosing. I also know that I won’t always see things coming or have all the information and understanding I want. But I surrender into this reality as well. I trust that even if I can only see a little bit into the future, once I get to that point, I will be shown more, little by little, as I need it.
Today, I feel like my spouse and I are so much more connected, and that our relationship has been fortified to a degree that simply could not have happened were it not for going through recovery. We have learned to implement so many amazing tools in our relationship – building and repairing trust, keeping and maintaining boundaries (around any issue – not necessarily addiction), vulnerability, life balance, and so many more.
*names have been changed
The opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by the various writers and contributors on this website do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints of The Small Seed or its staff.
Our Addiction Recovery Series last month addressed many forms of addiction, one of which was addiction to pornography and how that addiction can affect a marriage. Here is a closer look at a couple who has traveled the road of recovery. It’s a kind of His and Hers discussion about the difficult realities of addiction, recovery, and how their marriage has survived. We are so grateful for their courage and faith in sharing their stories. Today we feature Her story to follow up His posted yesterday. (Please note: *names have been changed)