A guest post. Godly Wives is a space where women talk candidly and honestly about real issues in marriage.
Most women are blindsided when they discover their husband has a pornography or sex addiction.
Many wives struggle to deal with that realization while their world comes crashing down and the bottom falls out of the marital basket they were trusting in. It can be a devastating and disorienting experience and it takes a big toll on their self-esteem.
It’s not uncommon for a wife to wonder why she wasn’t enough to keep her husband from straying outside of the marriage. That “enough” takes in almost everything from feeling not interesting enough, not loving enough, not thin enough, not sexy enough, and so on. In addition to those feelings is the compounded emotions of feeling disconnected from him and for some time now. Unfortunately, and mistakenly, many women fear they are the problem and spend a lot of time and effort trying to be the ideal spouse.
His turning away from you to pornography exposes a lack on his part, not yours. His looking at porn is not about you. His interest, desire and connection should be all about his wife, not about a counterfeit. Pornography robs a wife of playing a central role in his life and she feels demeaned and replaced by an air-brushed picture on a screen.
So what can a wife do? How does she recover a foundation for her own self-esteem and a roadmap to go forward?
Honestly, there are no easy answers but there are a few things we know about the trauma this causes wives–and how to help.
1. Recognize that it is trauma.
The closer you are to someone who betrays you the more profound the trauma. Therapists call this “relational trauma” and it ranks right up there with all the other traumas. Because as human beings we are wired to connect and it is a brutal experience to have that connection betrayed. Women often report that they feel “crazy” or “not themselves” after such a discovery.
Some of the more common symptoms of relational trauma include:
• Fear and/or anxiety
• Outbursts of anger or rage
• Intrusive thoughts of the trauma
• Feelings of self-blame or responsibility
• Feelings of panic or feeling out of control
• Sadness or depression
• Feelings of detachment
• Feelings of worthlessness or being broken
• Preoccupation with body image
• Difficulty falling or staying asleep
• Feelings of helplessness
It’s normal after a betrayal to feel and act this way.
2. You must grieve.
It’s going to come as a major sucker punch. You’ll feel betrayed, and dirty, and angry. That’s natural. Likely you knew something was wrong, and you suspected something, but you couldn’t put your finger on it. Now you know, and very likely the feelings are overwhelming. People often arrive on this blog the night they discover it, and they find posts talking about it and pour out their hurt in the comments. That hurt is raw and very real.
That’s okay. Give yourself some grace to be upset. Give yourself some time to yell at God about it, to wrestle this through, and to cry. You don’t have to fix anything overnight, and sometimes if we try too hard to fix it right now we do more damage. At times, when we first find out something so devastating, we’re tempted to say, “It’s okay, I know you didn’t mean it, let’s just forget it and go back to normal” because we’re afraid to face what this means.
But sometimes we need to admit brokenness. If we don’t admit it, it can’t be fixed. And it could be that what God is going to make out of the pieces will be different from what you started with, but that doesn’t mean it won’t also be beautiful. Grieve, and give God time to work. Don’t deny the gravity of the hurt. And don’t deny the gravity of what porn does to a marriage, either!
3. Don’t isolate. Get help. Walk in the light.
Many women don’t want to “expose their husbands” and so carry the burden of “the secret” as well as their own trauma.
As a church, we need to bring this to light.
There is so much ignorance around the whole pornography problem. It truly does ensnare people, making it almost impossible for them to function normally sexually with a human being. What becomes arousing is an image, and they become so focused on masturbation and pornography that a relationship isn’t sexy anymore. And it’s too much work! Once you start using porn, too, it rarely stays with the tame stuff. People will seek out more and more hard core stimulation. Eventually, they may even act things out. This isn’t people just looking at something to get their jollies; this is something that can all too easily turn into an addiction.
And that’s why you must bring light to it. You can’t let it stay a secret. He needs help, but so do you. You will likely need someone to walk through this process with you, and that’s okay. More churches need to provide support for couples going through this. And most pastors have dealt with this at length. So talk to your pastor and find out what support your church offers.
It is not enough for a husband to apologize and promise never to do it again. You wouldn’t accept that of an alcoholic; you would ask him or her to go to AA meetings. There’s such shame involved with porn because it’s sexual, but the admonition from the Bible doesn’t change. James 5:16 says, “confess your sins one to another”. Confession should be a regular part of the Christian life. If a husband admits he uses porn, apologizes, but then asks that his wife not say anything and is unwilling himself to seek any help, then he hasn’t really repented.
True repentance is always accompanied by true humility, and that means that someone will seek help. I’m not saying tell everyone you know. I’m saying tell one person who can hold you accountable; one person who can call your husband or take him out for coffee periodically and look him in the eyes and challenge him on what he’s doing.
Pray about who that one person should be, but do find that one person for him. And then find one person for you, too. One person that you can pour your heart out to, and can help guide you as you deal with this, move on to forgiveness, and rebuild.
4. You Must Set Boundaries
Whatever you tolerate will continue. I wish people could understand this earlier–even when they’re dating. If you tolerate a little bit of porn, it will continue until it’s a lot.
If you don’t want this to happen again, you must set boundaries. That isn’t being vengeful; it’s just being smart. If your husband had an affair at work, you’d likely want him to find another job. You’d want something to change so that he won’t fall into it again.
And this should be the same thing. I don’t know what those boundaries will look like for your family; they could involve computer controls, or getting rid of the internet temporarily. They could mean choosing to share computers and cell phones so that there is no longer any secrecy. Perhaps sharing passwords. Maybe it might mean setting “technology free” hours at home, where all screens go off at 9:00 pm, so that it’s relationship time and you know you have his attention.
One warning about boundaries, though. It is must easier to build trust again if you know that there is someone else helping your husband set those boundaries, and someone else holding him accountable. It’s not a good situation to feel as if you have to monitor your husband’s every move. That sets up a very unhealthy dynamic, where you’re constantly on the watch for him to mess up.
But for the men reading this, know that your wife will be able to trust you easier if you have an accountability partner. So don’t shy away from finding someone to talk to!
Rebuilding trust and rebuilding your sex life takes time, but it is possible. But it is only possible if you admit the gravity of the problem, get some help, and truly repent and become humble before God. You both need God’s help. You both need outside help. And you both will need some time.
5. Learn how to take care of yourself.
Be self-compassionate. Do things that help you feel stronger or more grounded. Exercise. Pray. Find a pilates class. And above all be patient with your own process.
6. Learn about trauma and triggers that reactivate the trauma.
Understanding will help you be less reactive and more forgiving when you are. Many women describe the experience of being “triggered” as being on a roller coaster. One day you feel fine and somewhat normal and the next something small can trigger feelings of anger, grief, fear, and loss.
7. Don’t give up and don’t give in.
Healing is a journey and in this case requires the deep soul work that takes time and great compassion. Insist that he get help. In the case of sexual compulsivity or addiction being sorry is not enough. Work and help is required.
I’ve always said that a man who says he is sorry but who refuses to admit his fault to anyone else is not really sorry. Real repentance is accompanied by confession and accountability. James 5:16–Confess your faults one to another, and pray one to another, that you may be healed!
8. Take heart!
You may be familiar with the term post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) but not as familiar with the term post traumatic growth. Post traumatic growth are positive changes that can occur as a result of coping with a traumatic event. Women get through this. Post traumatic growth can lead you to a stronger sense of yourself as well as a deeper and richer life that comes from moving through a difficult and deepening experience.
Sheila Wray Gregoire is a Christian author of 7 books and a frequent speaker to women’s groups and marriage conferences. She loves family because she believes that God made families as the primary vehicle to show His love. Her passion in this life is to help strengthen families–to equip women to be the best wives and mothers they can be, and especially to cultivate marriages that are rock solid. You can find her articles at To Love, Honor, and Vaccum.