Monday, September 27, 2010

The Benefits of Disclosing Slips

Quinn and Martha both look back on it as the turning point in his recovery from a pornography habit. It was when Quinn committed to Martha that if he ever lapsed back to pornography, he would let her know within sixty minutes. If they couldn’t talk, he’d let her know by code through text or a voicemail. Their key phrase would be “a problem with the credit card.”

Quinn was convinced that this promise alone would put the final nail in the coffin of his porn problem. Martha wasn’t so sure. After all, he had expected other steps in the past to be just the thing to help him put it all behind him once and for all.

It turned out that Quinn relapsed a few times during the first year after he’d committed to within-the-hour disclosure. It still bothered Martha every time it happened, and she let Quinn know that. Nonetheless, great things came from it. It changed the dynamics of the struggle between them, the struggle within Quinn, and the struggle within Martha.

A couple of months after signing their new contract, Quinn called Martha at 4:15 one afternoon. He explained to her that he’d been reading the news online during a slow time at his office. One of the links on a mainstream news website had been titillating. He clicked. Links on that site were even more edgy. He followed that trail back into familiar territory, clicking and clicking around through the smut for several minutes. Then he came to himself, clicked out, and with the effect of that potent drug still reverberating through his system, Quinn had picked up the phone and dialed his home number.

It was a victory, but it hadn’t been an easy one. “The way my heart raced when I looked at pornography again after months without viewing it was nothing compared to how it pounded as I waited for Martha to answer the phone.” He had walked outside into the parking lot so that he could talk more freely with her about what he’d done. Both he and Martha, at my suggestion, avoided asking about the nature of the content (like which celebrity did Quinn find irresistible and why? Did the women he looked at have larger breasts than her?). Instead, they talked about how many minutes it had gone on, whether it escalated to courser content over time, whether he had masturbated or not. They also talked about what had been going on in the hours and days before his lapse. Were there any warning signs that he’d been at risk? What had his thoughts been? What was going on emotionally that might lead him to hanker for an escape?

Quinn’s honesty had profound effects. (With all the benefits, it’s no wonder “Thou shalt not bear false witness” is one of the ten commandments.) Martha explained, “As we’ve talked after his lapses, I noticed things I never had before. These were things that had completely escaped me because he had never allowed me close enough to his struggle to see it clearly, to see it for what it really was. I could tell right away was that he wasn’t going to pornography as a way of turning away from me and toward other women. He’d lapse into it to turn away from life, to escape. It was a drug to him. I could never compete with porn, not because I don’t have a supermodel’s body, but because I’m a real live person. He associates me with real life. I’m not a blissful escape, and I don’t think he expects me to become one.”

Another thing occurred after Quinn opened up to Martha immediately following his second slip-up. “I was angry at him again,” she recalled. “All I said to him that time was, ‘Really?! Can I not even go to book club for two hours? Really?!’ I was so mad. He didn’t even try to talk to me about the details, and it was a good thing because I wasn’t in the mood. I just couldn’t believe that he was still going to keep going back. I thought, just like all the other things we’ve tried before, even this one isn’t going to work. However, in the following weeks, I started to notice some of the tightness inside me easing. I realized later what it was: the threat of secrecy was no longer this cloud looming over our relationship, over our lives. I still didn’t know how he was going to do today, but at least I knew—really knew—how he’d done right up to yesterday. In fact, I knew that if he’d had a problem and gone back to porn, it would have happened within the last hour. That was comforting, to at least know what we were dealing with. He might still be struggling with an addiction, but at least he was being real with me.

As I keep working with couples like Quinn and Martha, I’ll keep sharing here the benefits they report of working together to retrieve their marriages from the jaws of porn. If you’re in the same boat they are, I’d love to hear what you’re noticing and learning along the way.

The ABCD Alternative to Porn

Gary had always tried to avoid conflict. He just didn't like it when a fuss was made, especially if he was at the center of it.

He'd always been shy. As a kid, it always made it worse when someone pointed out how shy he was. The worst of all was when someone tried to help him "get out of his shell." Now he was okay being called shy. Someone had noticed the truth and he didn't view it as a negative anymore. It was his way to be a little more anxious, thoughtful, and solitary than others and he was okay with that. He enjoyed being able to do his thing, contribute in the ways he felt comfortable, and feel like that was enough.

Gary had settled into patterns that worked for him in most areas of life. However, his current job is creating some problems for him. He manages computer systems for an insurance company. Most days and most weeks, he has more to do than he can get done. With so much on his plate, he's often frustrated at the end of the day. The worst part of it for him is when he doesn't get everything done on time. If it's bad enought that his boss or a customer complains, that's torture for Gary. He tries to avoid that at all cost.

Unfortunately, sometimes it costs Gary a lot to try to avoid disappointing other people. When things got busy sometimes he comes in to work early, stays at his desk through the lunch hour, and stays late trying to get caught up.

Unfortunately, he can't stay in that wound up mode for long before he needs a release. The primitive, surival part of Gary's brain knows an "effective" one: pornography. He is at a much greater risk of relapse during such times of stress.

Gary tries to combat the urges to view porn again, and he succeeds most of the time. However, every time he lapses (lately that has only been once every few months) it's almost always during or right after a particularly stressful day and week.

For Gary, avoiding porn is like closing down the Queensburrough Tunnel. It's probably not going to work unless we make sure to direct drivers to the Brooklyn Bridge so that traffic still has a way out of Manhatten.
What could be Gary's alternate release?

I knew it would go better if that new and different release came early on, before his brain and body had a chance to work themselves up into a state of reactivity. He needed something to do as he was getting in to work early or instead of skipping lunch. I encouraged him to try the ABCD technique to help shift his body and brain out of reactive mode and back into a state of mastery.

A is for accept. Try accepting whatever it is you find threatening. I encouraged Gary to accept that he might disappoint his boss. Surrender to the possibility that he wouldn't get everything done rather than wasting so much time and energy and expending so many stress hormones bracing against that possibility throughout the whole day. Accepting the dreaded outcome doesn't mean that it will happen. In fact, once we allow that things may very well go poorly, it frees us up to work more effectively on the tasks at hand. We've let the final outcome go, and thus we can plug along at the nitty gritty details, the very place where we can work most productively anyway. Accepting the worst improves our chances that things will actually turn out just fine.

I encouraged Gary to take acceptance one step further. "When your anxiety hits, instead of thinking 'Oh, no!' say to yourself, 'Oh, good. I'll practice mastery.' Anticipate those bad moments as great opportunities to recondition yourself." Conditioning is a simple process, it just takes repetition. Pair a response with a trigger often enough, and the response will eventually be generated by the trigger. It got to the point that Pavlov could make his dogs salivate just by ringing a bell. The automatic response we want is mastery when we usually rise into reactivity. If we practice the ABCDs of mastery enough when we start to feel anxious, eventually our body and brain will pair the two. It will start making the shift on its own, automatically generating some of the elements of mastery when we feel anxiety coming on.

B is for breathe and notice. Take a nice, full breath and notice something that's real now: a sight, a sound, or something you can touch. Breathing insures that the body and brain are getting oxygen, which helps calm the nervous system out of reactive mode. Noticing some concrete and specific aspect of the physical reality helps bring us back to the here and now. Here and now is where Gary lives and can exercise power; he can't do anything to directly influence that imaginary future where his boss is ready to fire him for what he failed to get done.

C is for commit. Commit to a mental image of how you want to live. For Gary, this wasn't a vision of him checking off all his tasks off the list at the end of the day. Rather, it was the image of living a life not driven by tasks. He didn't want work to dominate his mind and his life. He wanted to get his work done, but keep his primary focus on what really mattered: his life after work, with his wife and two kids. That felt very compelling to him. They were the reason he was going to work. He wanted to be able to remember that in the middle of the day, to really feel it, rather than getting so focused on and caught up in work that it seemed life or death.

D is for do. In reactive mode, energizing chemicals are coursing through our systems. Even when we resist the urge to act on a destructive impulse, that may not dissapate the energy driving that impulse. Spend some of that energy by deciding on an action and then taking it. Even if it's just getting up for a minute to take a quick little walk. Gary spends a lot of time in meetings, so he may have to do something while sitting still. I encouraged him to tense muscle groups in his body briefly, for instance by pressing his toes up toward his shin, pressing his heels into the ground, and then also tensing his thighs, hamstrings, buttocks, and even his abs. Just for maybe 15 seconds before releasing. He can do all this without anyone else at the conference room table noticing. It will burn off some of those energizing chemicals and he'll feel a little less compulsive and driven as a result.

I'm hoping that this tool will help Gary stop getting so wound up that he's at risk of falling for that old, self-defeating release of pornography. I'll let you know how it works for him. Please feel free to try it out and let me know if it works for you.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Former Porn Junkie Sober 20+ Years

I have lots of spare moments, chances to brush up on my reading, as I travel around the country training therapists to treat pornography addicts. I’m knee-deep in this material all the time, but I was still a bit self-conscious sitting on a bench outside the airport thumbing through a volume, Pornography Addiction Workbook emblazoned across the front in bold red letters. There was a smartly dressed man sitting a couple of seats down from me. When I glanced up he said, “I used to be addicted to porn.” I put down my book and smiled. “Got into it in the Navy. Then I couldn’t kick the habit. My wife hated it. And who can blame her: sweet young thing, thought I would have eyes just for her. I wanted to ease her mind, but I kept falling back in. So I’d hide it. Then she’d find it and around and around we’d go again.” He shook his head. “Those were hard years. Struggled into my late twenties. Life got much better once I got that under control.”
He looked to be in his late fifties. Some quick math told me he must have close to three decades of sobriety under his belt. I’d only been in the business fifteen years, so I’d never talked with anyone with that kind of recovery to look back on. What an opportunity. Suddenly I hoped our hotel shuttle would be slow to arrive. I wondered what it was like for him now.
“It still calls to me sometimes,” he admitted. Then he shrugged and laughed. “I just take that as part of life. It’s all around us these days. I pay attention to see if there’s anything I did to put myself at risk so I can avoid those problems in the future.  I don’t watch TV late at night anymore. I bring something to read when I’m travelling, or some entertainment of my own for evenings in the hotel room.”
The airbrakes screeched and the door of the shuttle bus popped open in front of us. I realized we probably weren’t going to be talking about porn anymore. “How are things for the two of you now?” I asked as we settled into our seats in the bus and it lurched away from the curb. “The two of us are now thirteen. We have four kids and seven grandkids. We've been blessed. You’re from Salt Lake. Are you LDS?” I nodded and he continued, “I’m serving as a Stake President in Colorado. Help lots of people with this problem now. Life has been good to us. Couldn’t be happier.”
It was just a brief conversation, but I’ve thought about it a lot since. A few things were striking:

  • He doesn’t overreact when porn sometimes still calls to him. He doesn’t let that suck him back into shame: “What’s wrong with me?! I’m never going to get over this! I’ve ruined myself for life!” He doesn’t sound the alarms: “Dang! I’m still addicted! Gotta fight these urges with all my might!” As a result, he doesn’t overcorrect. He isn’t hypervigilant, worried that every sexual cue might lead to his downfall.

  • He seemed to be relaxed and at ease. I remember him shrugging and laughing about temptation being a part of life.

  • He stays observant and flexible. As a result, he learns from experience. If something puts him more at risk than usual, he takes it to heart without panicking. He takes simple, sensible steps to make life easier for himself in the future. If his new approach works better for him, he sticks with it. He doesn’t assume that the mere passage of time makes him safe and knowingly put himself back in harm’s way.

His way is a relaxed, perceptive, easy-going, but committed one.
How different it is from the knee-jerk reaction we have when we’re fed up. We’re prone to fall into an uptight, impatient, put-my-head-down-and-do-whatever-I-need-to-do-to-put-this-habit-behind-me-once-and-for-all mode. Unfortunately, that way is inflexible and more of the same. It hasn’t worked for us before, why would it now? Even a good Navy man knows that sometimes there are better ways than “ @#!*% the torpedoes, full speed ahead!”

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Letting Her Express Her Pain

It’s perhaps the most common pattern we see among couples who are dealing pornography issues: He is reluctant to talk about it—so much so that her opportunities to work through it by reaching out to him and talking out her feelings are stifled. Thus she’s prevented from gaining more and more freedom over time from the issue of his pornography use. We’ve made sense of this pattern by exploring just how much of his world turns on how he’s doing in her eyes. To delve into exactly how and how much she’s been wounded and disappointed—for him to see the pain in her eyes and know that he’s helped cause it—is terrifying and can seem, at a very primal and convincing level, like the exact wrong road to take.

However, giving her more opportunities to freely bring up and fully discuss her hurts is the exact right road to take. Remember, if I open up and let into my ears and my head and my heart the feelings my wife shares, they become like superglue between us. Negative feelings don’t fester and grow when they’re expressed and truly heard. Rather, each time, a little of their toxicity dissipates, a little of their flammability is defused. Miraculously, more and more, I, who have hurt her, become the toxicity dissipater and flammability diffuser of choice for her. What was once the wedge between us becomes the Velcro.

The process of sharing her feelings and the tremendous healing that results does not occur in a moment or a day, but over weeks, months, and often years. Nonetheless, many couples find it helpful to have a "big talk" about her hurts and suffering and wounds and injuries to initiate this process or to catalyze it if it’s already been occurring.
Set aside adequate time—perhaps an hour or so—to talk in greater depth than usual. Use the questions I’ll share below to "interview" your wife. If needed, take more time a day or two later to have a second session to further discuss these questions and her answers to them.

Men, your goal is simply listen—to truly hear what she says and then to empathize with how she seems to feel. Try to genuinely understand what your wife is going through: what’s she she’s experiencing now emotionally and what feelings she’s been having that you have perhaps not fully understood or taken in. A man may already come into this discussion feeling like he’s had his wife's feelings regularly dumped on him as though out of a dump truck, since emotions have been so raw and abundant, and thus wonder, "How could I have possibly missed what she's feeling?" In truth, however, it has typically been hard for him to take in her pain because he feels so ashamed at having caused it and has been so are antsy to get those conversations over with. He may have been so eager to explain how the pornography meant something different to him than it did to her, convince her he's doing better now, commit to avoid pornography in the future, and so on that he neglected to first simply listening in an effort to understand. It usually takes a lot of reminding yourself to keep breathing (rather than holding your breath, eagerly waiting for it to be over) and trying to imagine what it has been like for her to have had those experiences she’s had.

Most men feel a tremendous amount of pressure to respond verbally in a way that somehow helps. However, then they start to feel afraid they’ll have the wrong response or they feel self-conscious and sheepish that they don't feel worse or perhaps worry that their remorse may not be showing on their face. If this ends up being the case for you, don’t give in to the temptation to end the discussion. Don’t try to act the way you think she wants to act—or even try to convey what you think she needs at first. Simply share with her that impulse ("Gosh, it is hard to stick with this right now because I'm afraid you won't see the response in me that you want to see. I'm afraid this will disappoint you. That I'll be a disappointment to you again.") Then go back to listening and encourage her to continue to share her feelings. There's no right or wrong way to respond, she just needs you to be present, "there for her," and really hear her. That is do-able, even if it feels threatening. It helps to have this discussion sitting knee to knee or at least kitty-corner to each other so that she can look you in the eyes your eyes. Believe it or not, what she sees in your face will be much more powerful than anything she hears you say. It helps some men to take themselves out of the equation: "Even though this is about what I did that affected her, it's not about me anymore it's about her—what is she going through. For the next hour and a half I don't have to apologize, convince her I'm contrite or that I'm going to do well in the future, or make amends... I just need to listen. She is the focus, not me or my behavior."

Women: It can be very helpful to your husband if, during this discussion at least, you let him off the hook in the above regard. Remember that at least during the time you’ve set aside, he is not trying to say anything right or effective or helpful. His focus is not on saying anything at all, but on simply listening and trying to understand for a while. Someone who knows they need to respond is often thinking about how they’re going to respond rather than taking in what is being said. Therefore, resist the impulse to demand a verbal response from him during this process. "So now that you see how badly I’m hurting, how can you just sit there and not respond? What in the world do you have to say for yourself?" Please give both of you the gift of letting him remain free to receive what you’re trying to convey.
Questions to Discuss

Rory Reid, Ph.D., one of the preeminent researchers on pornography’s effect on relationships, has developed the following questions to help facilitate—and deepen—a discussion between partners. I’ve shared them with many couples in my practice and received feedback that quite often they really help get a dialogue rolling and stay on a productive track. We’re grateful to Dr. Reid for letting us share them with you here:

  • What has it been like for you to have the sacred trust you placed in me betrayed by my choices?
  • How do you experience your days differently now than before the discovery of my behavior? What ongoing events or activities trigger painful feelings for you? How often do these experiences occur?
  • How have my choices impacted your beliefs and feelings about intimacy in our relationship? What boundaries would you like to establish or change about intimacy?
  • What fears do you currently have about me or our relationship? When are these fears more intense? Less intense? What helps reduce your fear? How do you physically experience fear (e.g., bodily sensations, headaches, tension, restlessness, etc...)
  • What aspects of our relationship need to be reorganized in order for you to feel more safe? What boundaries are you currently uncomfortable with? What things need to change in order to you to feel like you could begin to start trusting again?
  • What aspects of my behavior were most offensive to you?
  • What aspects of this problem am I closed about? How do I shut you down from expressing your feelings? What is one thing I can do differently to help improve our discussions about difficult topics?
  • To what extent do you feel trapped because of my choices? How can I help you feel like you have options and choices?
  • What impact have my choices had on spirituality in our home or in our relationship?
  • As I work towards restoring trust in our relationship, what are some specific things I will need to pay attention to? What things can I change that would give you some hope?
  • What do you see as being the most important priority for our relationship at this time?
  • In all that has happened, what has been the most painful aspect of your experience?
  • What do you need most right now in our relationship?

Monday, September 20, 2010

Feel Closer, Do Better

It seems kind of funny to talk about the benefits of feeling close as a couple. The experience itself is, after all, it’s own greatest reward. That said, such closeness also works wonders in the arena of our addiction recovery efforts.

Marcus told me, "I haven’t been triggered as much lately. Not nearly as much as I’m used to."

What did he think made the difference?

"I’m talking to Dorothy a lot more. Quite a bit, in fact. I told her about my relapse, as you were encouraging me to do. That was hard. She was mad at me for three days. But then she was over it and in fact she seemed more open and at ease with me. Since then we’ve just kept talking about other less difficult topics."

What kind of things are they talking about?

"It’s often about the addiction, but lately I haven’t been giving in, so it’s just about the initial pull I feel. It’s funny, when I talk to her, it feels like less of a burden. Having it out in the open, between us, dispels it somehow. Beforehand, there’s some kind of pressure inside that makes me feel "lit up" or super-oriented toward sex. Then I talk to her and it grounds me again. Makes me feel more stable… calm… settled… peaceful. I like it."

I’ll bet he does. Compared to feeling on that edge. Is it hard to bring himself to talk to her?

"At times I have to force myself to do it. And there are still times, honestly, when I don’t do it. I default back into handle-it-on-my-own mode. It’s hard to have these conversations. It’s hard for her to hear that I’m still craving this thing that has wreaked havoc in our lives. But we both feel better after talking it out. And she almost always thanks me for bringing it up, which at first seemed strange to me because it seemed to reopen the wound for her. She told me, ‘The wound was always there. Just because you weren’t pressing on that spot didn’t mean it wasn’t tender.’"

He'd heard about the importance of honesty, openness, and teamwork in your recovery before. What has enabled him to open up more now?

"Something shifted last month. I was reaching the point of desperation. I knew I had to do something different. I’ve had plenty of moments of resolve in the past, but those were usually associated with a new regimen or a book I was reading. It was always some plan I was going to follow to a tee by sticking more thoroughly to my checklists. This time, I’m being very loose by those standards."

It sounds like he's loosening his boundaries with your wife instead of trying to tighten his control over his urges. Instead of racheting up his efforts, he's lowering the wall he kept between the two of them, letting her in, and sharing these sexual struggles, which are deeply personal. It's so good to see him let her in. Marcus is a great guy having a common struggle. He deserves to feel close even when he's struggling. And he needs connection even more when he's struggling.

Talking Is Not the Only Way to Reach Out

Even after trying it for several weeks, Jay found that it was never a relief to come home at the end of the day and try to talk to his wife, Wendy. He often had a hard time putting into words why he was feeling off kilter or wound up. He came up with a blank most of the time. He just knew he wasn’t feeling at his best. He didn’t know what to talk about, but he kept trying. After he and Wendy had talked, he always seemed to feel just as stressed out as he had before.

I didn’t think Jay was just resisting something that was good for him. I encouraged him to honor his own experience and keep exploring options. Even though it didn’t seem to particularly help him to connect through words, I knew that connecting with Wendy in some way might provide what he needed at the end of the day, the very time he was the most vulnerable to the pull of pornography. But how could he let her know that he was in need when he was feeling off without talking about it? He decided that it would be easier for him to hold her longer when they hugged or give her the thumbs down about his day. He thought that when he was feeling particularly in need he might even put his head on her shoulder as they watched TV together. Then, what could they do together that would feel more natural and satisfying to him than trying to verbalize his uneasiness right when he had the least desire to talk? We came up with a short list of options:
  • Sit close to each other out on the back porch swing
  • Listen to music together
  • Take a walk together
  • Scratch each other’s backs while they watched TV
  • Leave the TV off and just spoon on the couch or bed
  • Turn off the phone and all other electronic devices and just sit together in a quiet, dimly lit room or out on the grass in the backyard.
I saw the faraway look in Jay’s eyes as he described this last option. It became apparent to me that he wasn’t trying to avoid Wendy. He wanted to be with her; he just didn’t want their time together to become one more situation that set him up to feel like he wasn’t doing things right. I knew that in the future, he’d need to talk to her some of the time in order to meet her need to communicate. However, if he was going to reach for her instead of reaching for his addiction, he needed to also be able to feel that, at least some of the time, he could be completely at ease with her in a way that was most comfortable for him. There didn’t have to be the requirement of and pressure to talk about things if he didn’t feel like talking.

Conveying Raw Feelings

"I don’t think I’ve ever viewed pornography before noon," Chester said. "I feel strong in the morning. I’ve had my personal devotional. I usually get in to the office early. I have my checklist made up of tasks I’m hoping to accomplish for the day. I usually start out the workday clearheaded, hitting on all cylinders, and optimistic that I’ll get everything done.

"Very rarely do I cross the finish line at 5:30 feeling the same way I did coming out of the gate. I usually tear myself away from my desk barely in time to catch the train, my head overflowing with all the stuff that didn’t get done.

"I’m most likely to get caught up in porn in the afternoon. Like last Thursday: I finished all my corrections to one audit at about 3:00, then realized I had four more to do by the end of the week. I was either going to have to stay ridiculously late that night and perhaps still not get everything done by Friday afternoon, or give my boss the bad news that we’d have to push the deadline into the following week. I hate that kind of conversation, I hate letting people down. I do everything I can to avoid it. So I sat there, trying to work, but mostly stewing over what to do—call my boss or not—and feeling crappy about both options."

When I asked him if there were times when it went better, Chester admitted that it really helped to call and check in with his wife at such times. "She’ll update me on how her day is going. Then she’ll ask about my day. I don’t usually say much, just ‘fine’ or maybe a brief comment about something that bugged me that day. Things seem to go a lot better when I take a break from the mounting pressure, take a walk around the courtyard of our office building, and check in with Linda."

Having seen lots of men progress in their recovery, it was clear to me that, although it helped some, it wasn’t enough for Chester to say "fine" or comment briefly about his day. He was grabbing an emotional snack; he needed the nourishment of a full meal. That level of emotional connection and release left him hungry still.

I’m not faulting Chester. He didn’t realize how much emotional support he needed, nor did he know how to ask Linda for it. It’s not easy to put into words, the way Chester sometimes got feeling in the middle of the afternoon. How could he be more open with Linda about it? If he were to simply go with what he was feeling at the time in its most basic, raw and unvarnished form, he might just call her and moan on the phone. Sort of like he felt like doing when he was starting to come down with the flu. I asked him to give her a heads up that he was going to try that out—call and moan to her when he was out on his walk—and ask her if she’d be willing at such times was to simply respond with a soft, sincere, sympathetic, "Oh, honey," "There, there," or just "Ohhhh."

"This might sound like a pretty infantile, wimpy form of communication," I acknowledged. "Just remember, and perhaps remind your wife: you can be vulnerable by reaching out, or you’ll be vulnerable to acting out."

Chester was in a raw, primal, emotionally driven state every time he decided to go to porn. We can’t pacify those kind of feelings by trying to be mature or snap out of it. We need to acknowledge our neediness at such times. The genuine need we have is to connect, and we can only do it by revealing that inner unwieldy, ineffable yuckiness to someone who cares to hear it, is strong enough to handle it, and loves us enough that, most of the time at least, they’ll stay attentive, responsive and engaged with us even when they see firsthand, up close and personal, that we’re struggling. If we don’t even let ourselves stay with the feelings that are going on inside at such times, let alone ask our beloved to be with us in the midst of them, then we’re bound to keep hankering for our old familiar illicit form of soothing and deliverance.

To Break Your Addiction to Porn, Connect with Your Wife

He just knew he’d be going to hell.

Throughout almost a decade of his life, Gene had resigned himself to the idea that he was hopelessly addicted to sex and would be spending the eternities suffering for it.

A year ago he was convinced by a mentor in his church who had travelled the road before that there was a way out. It would require, however, this friend insisted, complete and utter honesty. Deep down Gene felt that what he was hearing was true. So, as painful as he knew it would be, he decided to be 100% honest with God, the leaders of his church, and with his wife. "I threw myself at God’s feet and put my neck under his heel. I was at his mercy. I opened up about everything. I half expected to be struck by lightning."

He wasn’t. Instead, his church leaders, including this mentor, were loving and helpful. They’ve also been patient, continuing to work with him regularly over the months. Compared to how it’s gone with his wife, that part has been easy.

Gene started out trying to be completely honest with Lillian, but when he’d talk to her about feeling tempted, "There would always be tears and hurt." Too often, when he wished he could report growth and successes, he had to admit faltering and failures. It became very difficult for him to open up. One day, he acknowledged to her that he was tempted: "I’m really struggling wanting to call a prostitute."

What happened to Lillian when Gene said that felt catastrophic to both of them. "I started to wonder, ‘Who is this person I’m married to?’" recalled Lillian.

Gene said, "I saw that in her eyes. I couldn’t believe I’d done that to her again, hurt her so badly. These disclosures were like a punch in the face to her, and I was continuing to punch her in the face. I thought, ‘Not only am I not getting better from this addiction, I’m hurting my wife even more in the process by letting her in on the gory details.’ I couldn’t do it anymore. I didn’t shut down completely after that, I just substituted lesser disclosures for the real ones, the difficult ones. I struggled with the hard stuff on my own after that."

Not surprisingly, his addiction took a downward turn, as addictions do. And once again, he was alone in his struggle against it. Then Gene relapsed in a very bad, illegal way. Even worse, he secretly stayed caught up in that pattern over a period of four months. It all finally came out into the open. He wasn’t discovered; he mustered the courage to break the secrecy himself. He resigned from his job, was headed toward likely excommunication from his church, and was facing the possibility of incarceration. However, his life didn’t fall apart completely: Lillian decided to stay with him and try to work through the problem.

In addition to continuing to meet with his mentor, his church leaders recommended counseling. During my second session with Gene and Lillian, I explained to them that disclosing our behavior is the top, most superficial level of honestly. Revealing our urges and cravings requires honesty at a deeper level. However, the most difficult honesty, and the most productive, is deeper still. Think of it as honesty at the tips of the roots of bad behavior. Before we act out, we’re tempted. Before we’re tempted, there’s something else still. And here’s what that something is for most of us: there’s an emotional upset that creeps in like a cloudy haze and obscures our ability to think clearly and make the best decisions for ourselves. It’s difficult to stay aware of what’s going on at such times—to be honest even with ourselves about how we’re doing. It’s easier to turn on some music or eat something or brood. All of these are easier than acknowledging that we’re feeling off, that we are emotionally out of sorts. And there’s something even more appealing than the radio or food or feeling sorry for ourselves: sex. Even if we don’t go to it straightaway, when we turn on the TV or start clicking around the internet, we’re sitting ducks at such times. Sexual content is never more titillating, never more erotic, than when it beckons us to step into its light and out of emotional darkness, into its warmth and out of emotional chill, into its blissful rest and out of emotional turmoil. No other drug can offer what sex offers at such times. And so we keep going back, despite all intentions and commitments.

Gene and Lillian have already travelled a long road. The road will be longer still. However, if they work on developing emotional awareness and expressiveness, they can be close again as a couple. Over time (and with dang good professional help) Gene can develop the ability to reach out instead of acting out. Then, feeling more connected with each other than before, more support from each than ever before, the distance of the road and the length of time it takes them starts mattering less. Patience is easier to muster. Somehow, each mile, each day, each step feels lighter and the entire journey more worthwhile when you’re walking hand-in-hand.