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About a year and a half ago, my husband betrayed me sexually for the first time in our four-year marriage. Prior to marriage, I was aware that he had struggled with pornography addiction and other sexual compulsions, but was told that it had been resolved. Early in our marriage, however, I began to feel like his addictive patterns were still affecting our marriage. When asked about my concerns by counselors, I couldn’t put a finger on what behaviors exactly indicated this for me. Then his lapse a year and a half ago happened. Since then, he has done some self-help reading, but we haven’t been to see anyone professional. The memory of his acting out still haunts me and I have anxiety attacks and depression because of it.
I don’t want to make him feel shame because that only feeds the addiction and then he thinks everything is fine, but the issues surrounding this addiction are far from resolved and are negatively affecting me and our marriage on a daily basis. When I bring up counseling and more in-depth recovery work, he doesn’t seem particularly motivated. How do I help him see what this is doing to me and our marriage without shaming him and making the problem worse? How do I help him understand that this is more than a one-time mistake and is a pervasive pattern of behavior with the potential to destroy the eternal covenants we made if not actively addressed now? How do I kindly but firmly assert my feelings of pain, distrust, anxiety, insecurity, and hurt that he has caused me without causing him deep wounds as well?
It makes sense that you’re worried about the future stability of your marriage. Your husband reassured you that his addictive patterns were addressed before you married but then they show up a few years into the marriage. This usually creates a crisis where he focuses on changing a few things and then eventually life settles into a familiar routine until another relapse happens down the road. This pattern leaves both of you living in low-grade misery while you wait for the next crisis. I agree with you that it’s not smart to minimize this, brush it off, and hope for the best.
I’m also not surprised that your husband is defensive about this. He probably feels foolish and ashamed that something he thought he had managed has come back to haunt him. And, it’s likely he feels afraid. Most individuals who struggle with addictive and compulsive behaviors live in fear that they’ll mess up again. They don’t necessarily understand why it keeps happening or when it will happen. They just cross their fingers, per se, and hope that it goes away. So, when you bring it up, you’re essentially pressing on that fear and disrupting the magical thinking that is holding everything together in a fragile container.
You love your husband and don’t want to cause him more pain. You worry about setting off a chain reaction of pain leading to more numbing through addiction. Here’s something I want you to remember. If your sincere and loving concerns send him into an addictive tailspin, he’s not in a healthy recovery. He might not be engaging in the harmful behaviors of crossing sexual boundaries, but his internal emotional world isn’t settled or balanced. Healthy long-term healing is only possible when change happens from the inside out. Most efforts in stopping addiction focus on changing the outside, but ignore the inside.
Please don’t let your fear of igniting an emotional chain reaction keep you from bringing up your concerns. If he’s got a calm and balanced interior, then your fears and concerns will be heard and absorbed with understanding and compassion, even if it’s a bit painful for him. Individuals who are working a strong recovery program aren’t afraid of pain and discomfort. They’re regularly practicing increasing their tolerance of stress and discomfort by facing their own weaknesses, asking for support, and staying accountable. In other words, if he’s as healthy as he claims, your fears won’t tip him over.
I’m not recommending you inflict pain on him, but I am recommending that you use your voice to let him know how all of this affects you. Even though you can’t be responsible for how he responds to your concerns, you can take personal responsibility to make sure you bring things up in the healthiest way possible.
It’s natural to want to focus on the problem, which he’ll likely hear as, “you’re a problem.” Again, you can’t control how he hears things, but I find that our partner can hear us better if we talk about them as the solution instead of the problem. The truth is that your husband’s care and concern for your worries is a solution that will bring peace to your relationship. Even though there is a problem, you are coming to him because he is the solution.
When you speak to him about this, you can let him know how safe and secure you feel when he is protecting you and your marriage from these threats. Let him know that you are bringing this to him because his willingness to take it seriously draws you closer to him. You want these threats out of the way so you can stay close and secure with him. Emphasize how important he is to you and how terrifying it is to imagine a future without him. We often don’t speak with this much vulnerability to our partners, especially when we’re hurt and afraid. It can feel risky, but it’s also easier for our spouse to respond to us when they know they matter.
If this softer approach doesn’t lead to meaningful conversations and commitments to do things differently in the recovery process, please make sure you seek ongoing support for yourself so you can learn how to set appropriate limits with him and continue communicating your needs. Your willingness to illuminate the reality of your situation through words and boundaries will make it clear what you’re willing to tolerate and what you’re not willing to tolerate. You can bring these things to him in a soft and kind manner, but, ultimately, his response isn’t your responsibility.
Geoff will answer a new family and relationship question every Friday. You can email your question to him at email@example.com
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.