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I have been working with porn addicts for a decade now. I am embarrassed to admit that one thing that took me several years to catch onto was the incredibly devastating effect that pornography has on spouses. Well, I knew it was devastating, but I did not know what to do about that. I just thought if I could help the addict stop then the spouse would no longer be upset and everything would settle down. As it turns out, it is rarely that simple.

While the subject of helping the spouse of a pornography addict is part of my Pornography Recovery Plan series, I did not want to give this article a step number in the plan. The reason being: your care for the spouse ideally will happen concurrently with the recovery of the addict. In fact, in some cases the spouse will come to you before the addict has even begun recovery.

To make writing and reading simpler, I am going to assign the male pronouns to the addict and the female pronouns to the betrayed spouse for this episode. I acknowledge the stereotype fully. Of course, you may find yourself supporting the betrayed husband of a female addict but many of the same principles apply.

Different Starting Points

It is a little challenging knowing where to start this article because you, as the overseer, may be intervening to support the spouse at a variety of different potential starting points:

  • the addict has just disclosed his problem and she is in shock and trying to figure out her first or next step
  • she has discovered the pornography and has not yet confronted the addict. He doesn’t know that she knows
  • she has confronted the addict but he is defensive and in denial, even blaming the problem on her
  • the addict has been exposed by another family member and the betrayed spouse is collaborating with the addict in an attempt to do damage control
  • the addict has come to you and asked for help, but is asking you not to tell his wife. He wants you to collude with him on keeping the addiction a secret
  • this is a problem they have both known about for a number of years and have been struggling (unsuccessfully) to overcome and finally they are asking for help

The diversity of starting points and experiences require a flexible, dynamic approach. I am going to try to give you some general principles and guidelines to help you on your way.

Support the Addict’s Spouse

Whatever happens, you need to believe the spouse. Keep in mind that the addict, as part of the addictive persona he has adopted, is likely to be suave, persuasive and charming while the spouse is coming off as crazy, irrational and extremely disturbed. Her upset and his calmness could become a point of manipulation to get you as an overseer to back off from the situation so that he can continue unchallenged in his addiction.

Do not take the bait.

Your best support for the spouse, especially if she is in crisis, is not found in some complex, therapeutic intervention on your part. No, all you really need to do — at least initially — is believe her and validate her. Be explicit about this: “I believe you. Something is wrong here, I can see that too. Trust your gut: if your gut says something is off, something is off.”

Also, it is very helpful to get some resources into the hands of the betrayed spouse. Shattered Vows by Debra Laaser is one I have recommended and have had good feedback on. I also suggest you send a link to my marriage podcast and blog, and in particular to an episode I did, entitled What To Do When You’ve Just Discovered Your Husband’s Porn Habit.

Assess the Porn Addict

While you are providing that initial support to the spouse, you also need to be simultaneously engaged in assessing the extent of the pornography addiction. You’ll want to determine an adequate level of care for the couple: not just for the purpose of figuring out assembly discipline but for the purpose of understand the full scope of care required to help the marriage and, possibly, the family as well. Discipline may need to be considered and will likely be something one or both of them are concerned about, but you also need to understand that pornography may just be the tip of the iceberg as far as marital difficulties. If that is the case, referral to a professional is needed.

To assess the addict, you want to start by asking about the extent of the pornography problem. How long have you been using pornography for? How often have you been viewing it in the last few months? Have you been viewing child pornography? Keep in mind that if you ask the last question (and you should) you may have a duty to report to the authorities if the answer is affirmative.

I would also recommend you ask if he has gone beyond pornography: chat rooms, hookups, affairs, prostitution, massage parlours and so on. You may fear to ask: but one full disclosure up front is less harmful to the spouse than a prolonged trickle of devastating news over a number of months. Of course, if you discover there is far more going on than just a classic pornography addiction, you need to find Certified Sex Addiction Therapists for both the addict and the spouse and recommend a formal disclosure process in order to mitigate the emotional devastation of the betrayed spouse. Please feel free to reach out to me if you’d like to consult on how to best work through the complexities of this situation.

Along these lines, if this is a sex addiction and minors are involved then you have a duty to report. Also understand that if the victims are inside, or connected to, your assembly or in other assemblies then a more comprehensive approach is needed: one that provides support for the victims, the families of the victims, the Lord’s people in the assembly of the offender, the spouse and family of the offender and the offender himself. This is a very complex situation and one that most assemblies have struggled to handle appropriately. Please contact me for more information on how to respond to this situation: there are good resources available to guide in these most distressing circumstances.

For the purposes of this article, I will proceed on the assumption that you are merely dealing with a spouse betrayed by a classic pornography addiction.

The Experience of a Spouse of a Porn Addict

The spouse will have been experiencing a variety of possible behaviours depending on how much she has learned of the addiction and how long she has been confronting or calling out the addict for.

If she has been in the situation for some time, there is a good chance that her world feels completely disorientated.

Crazymaking

In an attempt to cover his addiction, the addict has likely resorted to gaslighting tactics. Gaslighting is about trying to convince your spouse that something she thinks is real is not. It is found in words like: “This is just in your head” or “Every guy does this, you are the only person who would freak out over something like this”. Over time, these kinds of responses become extremely disorienting for the spouse.

By the time she gets to you, she may not even know if pornography is right or wrong. It is insane how effective crazy making can be. She may wonder if porn is just something that she should accept: all guys do this, right? To you or me, this is unbelievable. But if her addicted spouse is an effective manipulator, she may hardly even know which way is up.

That being the case, part of your approach is to provide a calm but assertive perspective on objective realities. Say things like, “Pornography is wrong and is a betrayal of your trust”. “You are not crazy: you have every right to object to his behaviour.” “It is not your fault that he masturbates instead of being intimate with you.” You’ll need to help re-orient her to the truth and get her feet back on the ground. Your voice of reason will be an anchor amidst the disorientating, crazy making messages she has been receiving and even believing.

Denial and Defensiveness

She likely has been dealing with an incredible amount of denial and defensiveness. Perhaps years of lies or hearing the addict minimize his problem.

Because the addict has been trying to deny or minimize, the spouse often will increase the volume and intensity of her reactions. Thus, she often comes off as crazy or out of control. She may even feel a great deal of shame around how she has treated or reacted to the addict. But these extremely intense behaviours must be seen through the lens of someone who has been incredibly betrayed by a trusted person and is trying to restore safety and sanity to her life.

Your support and validation of her sense of betrayal is important. She needs you to be an ally with truth even if her anger with the addict has gone too far.

Revenge

A spouse may have even acted out in revenge or considered having an affair with another man. She is often bewildered by such feelings, never having had any reason to consider straying from the marriage.

Typically, when I put judgment to one side and talk through this with the spouse, it ends up coming out that she wants the addict to know how painful his betrayal is. What is the best way to make him feel her pain? Betray him. She believes that if he truly saw her pain by experiencing it himself, he would stop. Her revenge affair (or thoughts of it) is really an attempt to create safety.

You can imagine how extreme the feelings of betrayal would have to be in order for a faithful Christian wife to consider such an option. A great deal of compassion is required in our response to this and a clear acknowledgement of how much she is hurting. Typically, she already will know this is not the right thing to do and so there is not a great risk of this occurring but it needs to be addressed compassionately if it is brought up.

Utter Lack of Trust

In some cases, the spouse has been lied to for so long, despite witnessing the evidence of his addiction, that her trust in humanity has been completely undermined. She may not even trust you.

A gentle conversation about who might be a safe person for her to talk to is in order. That may be another sister in the assembly or someone who has been through the same experience or even a counsellor. This takes time to heal.

Rejection

The spouse has also very likely been feeling a deep sense of rejection. It is a profound insult to one’s sexual self-expression, sense of worth, and attractiveness to discover that your husband has been taking his sexual needs to pornography.

This is a deeply painful wound. I have worked with the odd spouse who has a solid grasp that the addict’s problem is the addict’s problem — she understands and believes that she is attractive and worthy. But, most of the time, the impact of rejection has eroded her self-esteem and sense of worth in significant ways.

When talking through this with the spouse, you’ll need to help her see that the addict went to pornography not because of a deficiency in her, but because of a deficiency in himself. He may well have blamed it on her: “You don’t give me enough sex anyways, what am I supposed to do?” or even more devastatingly, “Since you put on 30 pounds after our children were born, I’m just not attracted enough to you to get aroused.”

It takes a long time and slow, gentle work to help her regain a healthy view of sexuality, attractiveness, and self-worth. Involve your wife in this work.

A Spouse’s Profound Betrayal

While I have talked about a number of different ways the spouse is impacted, I’d like to look specifically at betrayal for a moment.

I have often heard the spouse say, after the dust has settled on the disclosure of digital unfaithfulness, that it was really the lies that were the most damaging, not the pornography and masturbation itself. The latter hurts and creates issues with self-esteem but it is the dishonesty that really cuts the deepest.

Remember that one’s spouse should be the safest, most trustworthy person in one’s life. When she discovers that this person has been living behind a charade of lies for some time, that shakes the foundation of her world. It is a betrayal of trust at the hands of someone she thought she could trust completely. Her safest, most trusted partner in life has become her betrayer.

Not only is the spouse completely betrayed, but the stigma of such an event provokes a different response from one’s support network. If something tragic happens in an assembly — perhaps a sudden death of a family member — the assembly circles the wagons. Casseroles are made and baking is brought over. Folks come to visit and they sit and they listen and they mourn with those who mourn.

But when a spouse discovers her husband is a porn addict, she is facing a traumatic event that she wants to take to the grave without having anyone ever discover it. It is so shameful.

Because of this, if you know what is going on you may be her only support. Again: bring your wife in on this. She needs someone who can be there regularly to talk to and process this through with. She will not want to go to her mother or sister or even her best friend. She often does not want others to think ill of her husband because she recognizes they’ll make it through this but others’ perceptions of him may never change. Your support is critical.

Betrayal Trauma

About 70% of spouses will develop most of the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. This is a reflection of how deeply violated the sense of safety and security is in the spouse’s world.

Further, the triggered reactions of the traumatized spouse will exacerbate her feelings that she is going crazy.

In this situation, you are best to monitor how she is doing over the first 30 to 60 days. If she continues to be triggered despite the fact that the addict has been living a holy life then she may need to seek professional help for the betrayal trauma.

Again, here are links to a couple useful articles or podcasts about this on my marriage site:

Suicidality

Watch for suicidal thoughts. It is not at all uncommon, especially if the addict is continuing in denial or not taking his recovery seriously, for the wife to become suicidal.

If you run into this, call your local suicide hotline or in situations where she is clearly in danger, dial 911.

What Does the Spouse Need to Know

The more details the spouse is given, the more likely she is to be traumatized.

There is a delicate balance here. Because the addict has been hiding and lying for so long, for you to come alongside and also suggest that she be given very limited information would very much appear to be collaborating with the addict.

It often helps to just be up front and tell her that the more detail she asks for, the more trauma and hurt she is incurring. For her sake, it is more important to talk about feelings than facts.

Nevertheless, she likely should know:

  • when he usually looks at pornography
  • how (i.e., where is the source)
  • how often he has been using it

She may ask to know the kind of pornography he looks at. Or if he has fantasized about women she knows. She will likely want to know going forward every time he looks at an image or has a lustful thought.

Often, she is just trying to create safety for herself by asking these questions. However, they are likely to just lead to more trauma and fear.

Other than disclosing the bulleted above, I would recommend that a two-tier accountability system be set up.

The addict should contract to regularly meet with and disclose to an accountability partner thoughts or behaviours such as:

  • lust
  • objectification
  • early links in The Chain

The accountability partner and spouse should be informed if he:

  • looks at pornography
  • looks at pornography and masturbates

Often, with the other recovery work you are doing with the addict, the pornography and masturbation will stop fairly quickly. Not always. But the other behaviours will take a number of months to really overcome. Even then, the addict will need to work at staying on top of those issues for the rest of his life.

What happens is that the milder behaviours can be triggering for the wife and are nearly as emotionally significant as a complete relapse. Consequently, one small misstep and the addict is terrified of speaking to her. So what does he do? He keeps it a secret. Before long, a few secrets start to build and then shame and then a disconnect because he is hiding. However, he has not yet relapsed: but it is the perfect setup for one.

The addict needs someone to talk to about these smaller behaviours until he can really get this part of his flesh mortified and have power over this through Christ. The person to talk to about this is someone who can help, who is the same gender AND who is not going to feel personally betrayed by these sins.

When I have explained this to wives and made it clear that we are not trying to hide anything but we are trying to really overcome the finer parts of this problem, they come on board. They understand. And often they have gotten fatigued and weary of the constant tiny admissions and the repeated distress that hearing of these matters causes. Typcially, they are happy to hand it off to someone else.

Typically, I will also promise to tell her that if there is a relapse, she will be informed. The addict needs to know that you are not going to collaborate with him to keep secrets from her. You can imagine how doubly devastating it would be to not only have your addict living a double life during a relapse but to find that one of your overseers was colluding with him on this.

As such, the agreement as to what she is told or not told must be a collaborative arrangement between the three of you.

Summary

Treating a single person is often easier. When there is a spouse in the equation it becomes more complicated. When there are older children who become aware of the distress in the home when the addiction is discovered, this becomes even more complicated! A great deal of grace and wisdom is required to know how to navigate these situations.

Thankfully, an increasing number of resources are coming available to support those affected by pornography addiction. As always, if I can be of any help feel free to reach out.

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About the author

Caleb Simonyi-Gindele

An overseer himself, Caleb's mission is to help other elders lead their local assembly through some of the unique challenges of the 21st century: both doctrinal and shepherding. More about Caleb.