I recently read an anonymous letter published by the wife of a man addicted to pornography. Her husband’s addiction made her feel hurt and betrayed. Instantly, I felt heartache, sadness, and anger for her. In this article, I’d like to offer these brief practical and spiritual suggestions, for both the wife and the husband. I trust that other people will find something here to help them as well.
To the anonymous wife: Everything you have written is absolutely true, and not just for you, but for many other wives (and husbands, too). I want you to know that there are, in fact, resources to help spouses of people who are addicted to pornography.
Nevertheless, let us start by being brutally honest. Your husband is probably addicted to more than porn. We commit a great error when we simply speak of “porn addiction.” Pornography is a gateway drug that easily leads to, or coincides with, multiple other compulsive sexual behaviors. We should use the term “sex addiction.” When we speak of porn addiction, we minimize the problem (since pornography is so openly accepted) and we ignore the truth that we are probably also dealing with other, much more serious, behaviors.
Here are some practical suggestions for the anonymous wife:
1. Your husband’s addiction has nothing to do with whether or not you are sexually satisfying him. Stop blaming yourself. There may be problems with your sex life, but they are not the cause of his addiction. Rather, to the contrary. This addiction causes problems in your sex life, not to mention in your marriage. Your husband will never be sexually satisfied as long as he continues to be an addict with no intention of recuperating.
2. Take a test for STDs. It won’t be easy, from an emotional perspective. It will put you on a roller coaster of mixed feelings. But you need to know if your health is in danger because of your husband’s behavior. He is an addict, which means, unfortunately, that he is a liar. He has to lie in order to manage his addiction. You have no way of knowing if he has told you the full truth about his sexual disorder. Most likely, he has only told you half-truths, something sufficient to satisfy you during a moment of confrontation. It is mostly likely the case that you haven’t even imagined the places he has been.
3. Support groups exist. Find one that works for you. You need help. You are carrying a tremendous weight on your shoulders and you are suffering intensely.
– S-Anon is a 12-step program for spouses, and close family members in general, of sex addicts. Yes, your husband is a sex addict, although you may think that he’s really “just” a porn addict. It’s possible that you should try out different groups, because there can be a lot of differences among them. You have to find one where you feel comfortable; that said, it doesn’t mean that overcoming this challenge won’t require effort. Al-Anon, for anonymous alcoholics, can be a help if you can’t find an S-Anon program. Twelve-step programs are free.
– If you can’t find a 12-step program, or if you prefer a different option, try to find a professional therapist specializing in sex addiction. Many offer both individual and group guidance. As with all therapists, sex addiction therapists are a heterogeneous group: some are good, others not so much.
More to read: Preparing for lasting intimacy in marriage
Be smart. Listen to your instincts. There are many sex addiction therapist certification programs, but the CSAT (Certified Sex Addiction Therapist, from the IITAP, International Institute for Trauma and Addiction Professionals) standards are the best known and possibly the ones with the best reputation. They were designed under the supervision of Dr. Patrick Carnes, a renowned sex addiction expert. His research, especially in the area of the family, is aligned with Catholic doctrine. CSAT specialists are also trained in the process through which a husband opens up completely (or as much as she needs) to his wife. You will need to go through this process in order to move forward.
– DO NOT go to a therapist who is just a sex therapist. Normally, they don’t understand the idea of sex (or porn) addiction, and it’s not surprising if they blame you for your husband’s problems. “If only you would relax, if you wore sexy clothing, if you dared to do something riskier, if you would light a candle, if you watched porn together …” These therapists would be your husband’s dream.
– Also, be careful with therapists who publicize themselves as being Catholics (or Christians) first, and then therapists. What you need is someone who understands what you are going through; whether or not he or she is a Catholic is a minor point. You need to know that they are an expert therapist who is able to help you. Investigate on the internet; call competent health organizations to ask if they can recommend someone, or to find out if there are any complaints regarding one of the therapists you are considering. You can even check with your primary care doctor; some clinics have lists of mental health professionals with a neutral ideological stance.
4. Read up on codependency and PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) for spouses of sex addicts. If a diagnosis of codependency doesn’t fit your case, don’t let anyone label you that way. More and more therapists who work with spouses of sex addicts are discovering that these spouses are suffering more intensely from something like PTSD.
There probably is an element of codependency, but the effect of PTSD is much more immediate, because sexual addiction is a profoundly personal and intimate addiction. It is not like drug or alcohol addictions, although they also cause great suffering for the addict’s loved ones. The suffering caused by sex addiction is radically more personal for the spouse. Furthermore, it is often more hidden and secret. Usually, a sex addict’s spouse has to face a moment of brutal discovery.
5. In order to understand more about sexual addiction in general, read books by a respected expert, such as the book Out of the Shadows, by Dr. Patrick Carnes.
6. You can read information provided in resources for spouses (or partners in general) of sex addicts. There are many books and articles available on the internet. Some are writings by Christians; others, not. Find what works in your case. Being in a group might help you to filter through resources to find the best ones.
7. Don’t be satisfied with less than sobriety from your husband. As you become stronger, encourage him to accept help. In the United States, there are three main 12-step programs dealing with sex addiction. In brief:
– SA: Sexaholics Anonymous. The members of Sexaholics Anonymous (SA) are in agreement that the only legitimate form of sexual behavior takes place between a husband and wife. Sexual activity with others or alone is not permitted. SA is aligned very well with Catholic doctrine regarding sexual morality.
– SAA: Sex Addicts Anonymous. They define sobriety in their own way, such that it may include behaviors that are not strictly faithful and chaste.
– S.L.A.A.: Sex And Love Addicts Anonymous.. Their members also have their own definition of sobriety.
8. Your husband may also receive help from a CSAT therapist and/or a group. Nonetheless, at the beginning I would recommend working with someone who will demand that your husband achieve a certain level of sobriety (90 days or more) before delving into psychological issues. Your husband is an addict. He is probably an intelligent man, since he has been able to maintain at least something of a facade until now. Therapy could become a distraction from his immediate effort to be sober. He could also manipulate the therapy and its expectations. Do not accept anything short of sobriety. He is sick, and there’s only one way to get better: Sobriety.
9. Don’t argue with your husband. He is not in a reasonable position. He’ll turn everything against you. Express your needs, your requests, etc., but don’t insist, if it will turn into an argument. This is where your own efforts will be essential. If you don’t do your own part, your husband will drag you into a destructive spiral every time you argue.
10. You are not your husband’s godmother, nor his therapist, nor his spiritual director, nor someone he has to report to. The greatest benefit of using external professional resources is that you can free yourself from an impossible role in which you would probably end up being trapped.
11. Don’t begin with marriage therapy until your husband is sober and you are both healthy in general; until then, you can’t do anything for your marriage. Any therapist who suggests otherwise is a charlatan. Your marriage is on pause for now. If you reach the point of marriage therapy, work only with a therapist who doesn’t hide secrets from either of the spouses. Ask the therapist about his or her focus in couples therapy. Does it include transparency? Total transparency is a must. A marriage requires patience, and you both need to be part of that. But the therapist should focus on healing the marriage, not on covering up for either of the two. It ought to be hard work. If it’s easy, it probably isn’t real.
12. Take care of yourself. You owe it to yourself, to your husband, and to your children. Get a thorough medical checkup if it’s been more than a year since your last one, or if you are experiencing significant changes to your health. We’re talking about a real checkup, not your regular visit to your gynecologist. Do exercise. It will help you to clear your mind and maybe even help you to pray. Eat well. Do good things that make you feel strong and well; for you, for your children, and even for your husband.
13. Don’t make any decisions regarding your marriage, unless you need a legal separation to protect yourself economically or you need separate residences to protect yourself and your children. When you begin to recover from this horrible situation, you will get to the point where you will see clearly what your next step should be. You will know, because you will be at peace with your decision, even if you feel afraid to enact it.
14. And now, some practical spiritual advice.
In general, a spouse who has been so deeply hurt ends up asking herself where God is in the midst of all this. “If God is Love, why do I feel alone and unloved? Why doesn’t God take good enough care of me?” Betrayal can provoke us to harden our heart, not just towards the person who has betrayed us, but towards ourselves and God as well.
But the question is whether or not God is taking care of you. He loves you deeply, even if you don’t feel His love right now. The fact that you have discovered how bad your situation is, is a sign that God is accompanying you, confirming that you deserve better than all that; that you should be loved, and that, in fact, you are. Without God at your side, you wouldn’t have the confidence to stand firm (or proclaim some difficult truths) before your husband, the world, and even God.
Keep asking yourself these questions. Demand answers. They will bring you closer to God. You will experience His love to the extent that you grow in the certainty that your husband’s failings are not a reflection of your worth or of your dignity. Ask God for consolation; He will give it to you. It might be in fortunate coincidences; sometimes it’s very obvious. Go to confession frequently, at least every two weeks if not more often.