I originally wrote this article for Ted Shimer and The Freedom Fight. Thus, it's addressed to the husbands. Feel free to have yours read it here or on his site.
Many times when a man confesses his porn habit to his wife, he is shocked by the reaction he gets. Our culture (secular culture in particular) is so “blasé” about porn use that he was expecting that his wife would be understanding; or, that maybe she would be a little upset. However, many men are completely unprepared for the torrent of strong negative emotions (rage, grief, fear) and trauma symptoms (sleeplessness, hypervigilance, physical illness) that his wife starts manifesting once she discovers the porn use, or has it disclosed to her.
Thus, it’s with trepidation (and often frustration) that men find themselves having not only to break this longstanding pattern in their lives, but also having to try and pick up the pieces of their marriage. However, there is some very good news here. What is helpful for your wife and your relationship is also what is best for your recovery from pornography use.
Below are five steps you can take to help your wife heal… and also support your own journey.
1. Stop Acting Out
The first and most obvious change women want to see is around sobriety: i.e., “has my husband stopped using porn or engaging in other sexual acting out behaviors?” Some men have very little difficulty giving up porn. For others (often where there is a deeper level of addiction or trauma) giving up behaviors such as porn tends to be more of a process, with some slips/relapses which become more sporadic over time. Whichever category you are in, keep in mind that relapses and slips can feel like a devastating betrayal to your wife, so stopping as soon as possible must be a priority.
Moreover, any form of "disconnected" sexual behavior is potentially acting out that feeds the neural pathways of porn addiction. That means intentionally objectifying and lusting after women in any context, solo sex, sexual fantasy, etc. are behaviors which should ideally go in recovery. As they all involve lust, we can see these as sin (Matthew 5:27-28), and therefore damaging to spiritual health. Moreover, these behaviours are painful to your wife, hurting her and your relationship.
2. Practice Honesty and Transparency
For many women the acting out behaviors were not even the worst aspect of the betrayal: it was the lying and hiding. Lies kill trust which is one of the cornerstones of any relationship. That’s why lying and hiding need to stop immediately and be replaced with honesty and transparency.
Of course for some men, giving up the lying and hiding (sometimes a long-standing self-protection mechanism) is going to be difficult. To help yourself on that journey consider offering to do a prepared full disclosure (FD) or full therapeutic disclosure (FTD: involving a therapist or even two) around your sexual acting out. This lets you get all the painful, shameful secrets out in one go in a setting where both you and your wife are prepared and (for the FTD), supported. This minimizes the traumatic impact of the betrayal for your wife.
While it can be one of the scariest things you’ve ever considered, both husbands and wives regularly report that the FD/FTD, often including a polygraph examination, was incredibly worthwhile and helped jump-start their personal and relational healing. Do note that some therapists recommend you have six months of sobriety prior to doing a FD or FTD (others say two before you begin working on your disclosure which generally takes 2-3 months to prepare). However, if your wife can’t wait to know certain details, I recommend you honor her requests. If your wife is getting professional support (or even reading a good book like Full Disclosure: Seeking Truth after Sexual Betrayal), she will very likely be getting education on the advantages of waiting, to whatever degree she can, for “disclosure day.”
Be prepared to offer her ongoing transparency as well – especially with regards to those areas of your life that aided and abetted you in acting out. This might include more transparency about your technology usage, your communications with others, or your whereabouts. There are technology products you can acquire to help you give your wife reassurance in these areas (e.g. internet filtering and monitoring software, tracking software). Check-ins with your wife about your sobriety and recovery journey are also recommended. Do these as often as she needs: whether that’s every time you go out, daily, or weekly.
In addition to being transparent with your wife, you both may find it helpful for you to have accountability partners with whom you are honest and transparent. In order to best help your wife heal, choose accountability partners she trusts.
Addictions expert Johann Hari once famously said, “The opposite of addiction is not sobriety, it’s connection.” Connection with God, self and others is truly one of the most powerful weapons against addiction and relapse.
Often times, prior to recovery, men gravitate to non-intimate relationships, or relationships that lack emotional depth. Along with this they often neglect their more intimate/emotionally riskier relationships with wife, children, family, etc. The process of recovery, and helping your wife, involves reversing this pattern so that you prioritize these more intimate relationships over the less intimate ones.
In the context of these relationships you need to practice communication skills and build your capacity for emotions (something a counselor can help with if needed). Listening, staying present while others talk, regularly initiating conversations on emotional topics (even negative), being able to tolerate (and appreciate) negative emotions, honest and vulnerable sharing are all helpful to your recovery and your wife’s healing.
Beginning to really “lean into” God also benefits you and your wife. Even if she is feeling unhappy with God herself (a common phenomenon for betrayed wives), it usually helps reassure her that you are changing when she sees you connecting with God. If she is open to spiritual intimacy with you (e.g., praying together, reading scripture, attending church), then this is another avenue where you can meet her and bring healing.
4. Care for and Honor her
Related to the previous point, in recovery there should a move toward patient, caring for, protecting and honoring of others: starting with your wife, children and others God has most immediately put within your sphere of care. This type of behavior stands in stark contrast to the self-serving attitude porn promotes and cultivates in its adherents.
One of the ways to honor your wife is to respect her requests or protective boundaries related to the betrayal. This commonly includes requests/boundaries around sexual intimacy, sobriety, transparency, help-seeking (e.g., attending group/counseling, staying away from those who have been unsafe), etc. If having your wife use boundaries with you feels uncomfortable or inconvenient, just remember that the more you offer, the less she will need to ask for. You can also remind yourself as well that everything she is asking is good for her and the relationship… and therefore good for you as well.
Other key ways you can show care is to ask your wife if there is anything more you could be doing to make her world safer: and then do it. You also honor her when you show patience with her journey of healing from betrayal: listening to her (and showing her you are really listening by summarizing what she has said and naming the emotions she is exhibiting) as often as she needs to talk about the betrayal. This skill (called “dialogue mirroring”) can be used for other topics as well. If needed a counselor or coach can help you learn this and other communication skills.
5. Love her
Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers a multitude of sins.” – 1 Peter 4:8.
Despite the fact that many people use porn to medicate their negative emotions, porn users are notoriously angry, depressed, volatile and anxious people. And all these negative emotions may feel more overwhelming once you stop using porn. However, letting your behaviors be dictated by this kind of mood only hurts your wife more.
Fortunately, continued sobriety, combined with engaging the work of recovery, (e.g. attending group/counseling) helps you learn new coping skills for dealing with negative emotions. This and the new levels of freedom from shame you get after disclosure will often see you coping much better with normal life stressors… and experiencing more peace and joy.
And whether you are feeling great or awful: don’t let your emotions sabotage your relationship and your wife’s healing. Use your newly acquired recovery skills to put negative emotions aside and “practice love.” When your wife feels that she is being approached in love, she will have grace for the recovery process: even with all its bumpy patches.
If these five steps feels like a tall order, just take a breath and remember you aren’t alone on this journey. You have people who want to support you and you have God. All of this recovery and relational-healing work is His work… the work where you are being transformed, by the Spirit, into Christ’s image (2 Corinthians 3:18).