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I used to struggle with an addiction to pornography that came about during a period of clinical depression. While I overcame this addiction and married a wonderful man, I am still haunted, years later, by images and dark sexual fantasies when I am intimate with my husband. At times, it seems I cannot be intimate with him without relying on these thoughts (It doesn’t help that a couple therapists were quick to dismiss my feelings of guilt for these addictions and claim that these behaviors are normal and healthy). I have learned to control my actions, but I am at a loss for how to control my thoughts, especially when my husband and I enjoy and need marital intimacy. I’ve fought these thoughts for years, and it’s a war that feels hopeless. What can I do to start winning, to defeat these thoughts and be free to love my husband without these after-images plaguing me?
It must be so frustrating to have your past mistakes continue to haunt your most private and intimate moments in your marriage. Please know that this doesn’t have to be a life sentence for you. Thankfully, there are things you can do to help heal the effects of the pornography and draw closer to your husband.
I’m sure you’ve already been prayerful about this, but I hope you’ll continue to seek spiritual healing and not lose hope. Your past doesn’t have to be your future. The Atonement of Jesus Christ not only cleansed you from your sins, but also can strengthen you as you seek to build healthy intimacy with your husband. Elder Kim B. Clark taught:
There is no sin, no guilt, no shame, no fear, no loneliness, no heartache, no loss, no depression, no sadness, no terror, no pain, no challenge, no weakness that Jesus has not experienced and overcome. He has all power over all things.
If you turn to Christ and repent of your sins, He will forgive you and cleanse you and change your heart. This is the redeeming power of the Atonement. If you turn to Christ when you face challenges and need capacity beyond your own, He can strengthen you and magnify your capacity. This is the strengthening power of the Atonement.[i]
Even though it’s been years since you’ve acted on your addiction, remember, as Elder David A. Bednar taught, “serious spiritual wounds require…time to heal completely and fully.”[ii] Again, the good news is that these wounds will heal.
It’s important to note that healing the effects of pornography addiction doesn’t mean that you won’t ever encounter an errant thought or feeling from your past. Experiencing unwanted thoughts and influences is one of the difficult realities of living in a fallen world. Our bodies are “subject to all manner of infirmities in body and mind”[iii] and will sometimes recall things we’d rather forget. Healing means that we will have the strength, capacity, and resources to find the peace that is promised to us.[iv]
I will share two resources that can help you respond to these distressing images and feelings that surface. The first resource is the concept of acceptance. This doesn’t mean you agree with what’s happening to you, but, instead, that you gently acknowledge that an unwanted thought showed up in your mind. It doesn’t mean you allow it to linger. It means that you don’t get reactive when it shows up so you can eventually dismiss it. Sometimes our response to the thought does more damage to our peace than the actual thought.
I like to think of how Jesus might have responded to Satan when he showed up in the wilderness during his forty day fast. We don’t read about any reactivity or panic on the part of the Savior when Satan showed up. Instead, he accepted that he was in the presence of evil and dealt with him accordingly.[v] We can do the same with our darker thoughts when they show up unexpectedly.
Battling thoughts, as you know, is a losing battle. Our mind is programmed to prioritize threats, so if you have a random thought and then identify it as an unwanted threat, this alerts your mind to focus on it more so it doesn’t harm you. That’s a problem, obviously, because you’re trying to eliminate it. It’s the same idea of not wanting to let a threatening person out of your sight until you know you’re safe. The challenge, however, is that there’s no place you can go to escape your own thoughts.
Instead of trying to push the unwanted thought away, I recommend using a technique called “Surfing the Urge” that is commonly used to help deal with addictive cravings. It’s a mindfulness exercise you can practice the moment the unwanted thought shows up. You can read more about it HERE or listen to an audio recording of it HERE.
The other thing you can do is open up to your husband about the triggers when they surface during intimacy. You may feel this would spoil the mood or you may feel ashamed for even having these thoughts in the first place. However, the goal of sexual intimacy is to deepen your connection with each other. If you’re stuck in your head trying to fight a battle all by yourself, this will isolate you from your husband.
It can be helpful to take time prior to your next sexual experience to talk with him about this struggle so you can both decide what to do when these thoughts surface. You might decide that when the thoughts show up, you’ll pause during sexual intimacy and hold each other close while you allow yourself to accept that the trigger happened and gently redirect your attention back to the present moment. Knowing that he can stay with you and allow you to take as much time as you need to return to the present moment will allow you to respond in a healthier way to these triggers.
You can reassure your husband that these thoughts have nothing to do with him or his adequacy as your lover. As you turn to him for support, you can be stronger together. Please note that I’m only suggesting this because you’re not active in your addiction. If you were, I wouldn’t suggest that you take this approach. This only works because there is stability and safety for both you and your husband in the marriage. As you turn to Heavenly Father for support, practice mindful responses to your triggers, and allow your husband to comfort and support you, you will see that these triggers don’t overwhelm and distract you from the beauty of marital intimacy.
Geoff will answer a new family and relationship question every Friday. You can email your question to him at firstname.lastname@example.org
About the Author
Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in St. George, UT. He is the owner of Alliant Counseling and Education (www.alliantcounseling.com) and the founding director of LifeStar of St. George, an outpatient treatment program for couples and individuals impacted by pornography and sexual addiction (www.lifestarstgeorge.com). He is the co-author of “Love You, Hate the Porn: Healing a Relationship Damaged by Virtual Infidelity”, available at Deseret Book, and the audio series “Strengthening Recovery Through Strengthening Marriage”, available at www.geoffsteurer.com. He also writes a weekly relationship column for the St. George News (www.stgnews.com). He holds a bachelors degree from BYU in communications studies and a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy from Auburn University. He served a full-time mission to the Dominican Republic. He is married to Jody Young Steurer and they are the parents of four children.
[iii] Mosiah 2:11
[iv] John 14:27
[v] Matthew 4:1-11