I've been contemplating for some time now writing a post on the "don't shame your husband" mantra traditionally heard in recovery circles. However, I'm glad I waited. It wasn't until I read that book I keep going on about, The Solution of Choice: Four Great Ideas that Neutralized Western Christianity that the rest of the pieces fell into place for me. Thus, when a client asked about this oh so common phenomenon this week, I had an answer that felt more complete.
The Problem... as They See It
For those of you who have never been beaten with the "don't shame him" stick, I'll start by describing the problem. In the early decades of the sex addiction field, back in the 80's, 90's and early 00's—i.e., the not-so-good-ol days when we were known as "co-addicts" and "co-dependents"—there was a lot of emphasis put on the the role that shame plays in addiction. In fact, there was SO much emphasis put on shame in some quarters you'd have almost thought it was the the only reason men became and stayed porn and sex addicts.
And while it's true that one reason a person might turn to addiction (or chronic patterns of sin) is to defend against shame—and other types of emotional pain—Marcus Warner and Jim Wilder explain (in the book mentioned above):
"It is the inability to find effective means of change that has led our culture to make tolerance its highest value. To improve the tolerance alcoholics received and give them a chance to start again, alcoholism was reframed as a disease…."
So the "medical" or "disease" model of addictions was developed predominantly in an attempt to destigmatize addictions... because then people might find it easier to get out of addiction, and might not even go there in the first place. Actually, it was addicts themselves who led the anti-shame movement. But many of them took the model too far. They told themselves and other addicts that they were completely helpless in the face of their "disease." They had been born with a propensity for addiction and it wasn't at all their fault.
Thus, Patrick Carnes wrote in his first book that launched the sex addiction field: “For the addict, however, there is no choice. No choice.”
Well, obviously if this poor helpless sex addict/betrayer had "no choice" then we, the betrayed partner, had no right to be mad... did we? And if we were mad we certainly had better not let that show because that was "shaming him" and the result of that would be that he'd act out some more... and that would really be our fault then.
Shame on You
Thus for decades thousands of women who have been struggling with the uncontrollable emotions of betrayal trauma have been told: shame on you for showing those emotions and shaming him.
We've created a whole system that protects the sinner from feeling the consequences of sin and punishes the number one victim of that sin: the betrayed spouse. This is tragic because today there's increasing evidence that it's only when the consequences of the addiction become intolerable that most addicts find the strength to quit.
in the Beyond Betrayal book I quote one of the 2014/2015 survey respondents, who had clearly been "shamed" for "shaming him" as saying:
“I never felt like anyone could see or understand I genuinely wasn't trying to control my husband, nor was I being judgmental and trying to make him pay, I was simply TERRIFIED and I needed comfort and reassurance"
This woman's reactions to her husband's betrayal were assumed to be intentional and malicious. Now, I'm not going to say that in the history of betrayal there has never been a woman who's had a malicious, retaliatory reaction. I know of a case or two where it's happened. In fact, 70% of the nearly 700 survey respondents said they'd done something they'd regretted in response to finding out about the addiction. However, the things women listed had more to do with outbursts of anger and rage. Very few had the ring of intentional maliciousness. Of those that did, only a couple involved intentionally exposing and embarrassing the husband.
And you know what? Even if we found a few women who were intentionally mean and intentionally shamed their husband in response to his betrayal, do we have the right to judge and shame them? Really? How do we as the Body of Christ justify protecting the overall perpetrator and further harming his victim? Every Christian woman I've met to date who has done something intentionally unkind in response to the betrayal, has felt incredible remorse for it. I wish I could say the same for every addict I've met.
Next week, I'll continue on this theme with some more thoughts on the problems of shame, blaming the victim and some answers for the church, and addicts, on a better approach to the shame issue.