“If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand.” Mark 3:25
My wife, Ella, and I have been facilitating couple’s intensives since 2011. For addicts who are taking recovery seriously and partners who have somehow found it in their hearts to give him another chance, this can be a profound experience. A couple's intensive involves three days of intense counseling, coaching, and experiential exercises to help a couple whose marriage has been jolted by sex addiction find healing.
On the second day I ask both the husband and wife to allow themselves to be really vulnerable. I direct them to close their eyes and envision a time in the future five or ten years from now. I tell them they can make that day look like anything they want. I ask them to think about where they are, what it looks like, who they are with, and what they are doing. With their defenses down the tears begin to flow.
I ask them to consider sharing that vision of the future with us. Over the years, I’ve heard many wonderful ideas and visions unique to each person, marriage and family. People share things they hadn’t felt safe to think of in years. It’s wonderful. Until they open their eyes and reality slaps them in the face.
Not the Enemy
I don’t do this exercise to fill couples with false hope. I do it to illustrate that each partner is on the same page. That they want the same thing. One of the first things I want guys that I’m working with to understand is, "your wife is not your enemy!" It hurts my heart to see how many of them really believe the woman they married and vowed to cherish in good times and in bad is against them. This is the same individual who desperately wants to rebuild trust but is unwilling to extend any to his partner.
I say to the guys, “I understand that she’s thrown you out, cursed you out, and maybe even punched you out. And sure she has said and done many things that could easily be construed as hyper vigilant, controlling, vindictive, or downright mean. Guys, get this through your head. Your wife doesn’t want to be this way anymore that you want her to. It’s not a choice, it’s a reaction.”
This realization should help the recovering sex or porn addict to see how deceived he has been. That’s right, he has been deceived, lied to, and the scales that cover his eyes are firmly in place for some time. I hate to give Satan credit for anything but he’s done... well, a hell of a job mixing up fact, feeling, and fiction. And if we (those of us who are recovering addicts) don’t understand what is going on, it only compounds the problem.
Truths that Set Free
Growing up I wasn’t well versed in scripture. Most of my adult life I made a conscious decision to avoid what I was sure to be mountains of shaming bible passages. It wasn’t until I entered recovery, when I slammed into my rock bottom at terminal velocity that I decided to give it a try. I was shocked to discover that sexual addiction/ sexual immorality is really nothing new. The enemy has been using his lust-filled bag of tricks to ensnare men for eons. Don’t believe me? Pick up your bible and read about King David, Solomon, or Samson. A man after God’s own heart, the wisest man in the world, and the strongest man ever, all fell into sexual immorality. It’s the oldest trick in the book and we are falling for it hook, line, and sinker.
Understanding that you and your wife are on the same team makes recovery easier. This is true for the addict, the partner, and for the marriage. Forget what you’ve heard about the imaginary street that exists where each of you have taken up residence on opposite sides and are waiting for one another to clean up their respective junk. This ridiculous idea suggests that somehow when both of you get “healthy” you will reunite and live happily ever after. A couple of problems exist with this metaphor. First, if you are on one side and your spouse is on the other you are on opposite sides paralleling each other… not connecting. Second, your marriage will not stop for either of you to get healthy. More deception.
Here’s a healthy dose of truth. Anger is not the opposite of love. The opposite of love is apathy. This isn’t an original thought, Dr. Doug Weiss speaks at length about it is in his video “Helping her Heal.” It’s a tremendous resource that I would recommend for any married man in recovery. Highlighting the truth is an important aspect of recovery. If your wife hasn’t divorced you, or worse, after discovering your sexual betrayal consider yourself blessed. In truth it’s what we all deserve. That’s harsh but true. In fact when I ask men to write about how they would react if the tables were turned I often hear things like, “I would leave,” or “I wouldn’t be able to handle it.” Think about it, what would you do?
If your wife has made the unpopular (in many circles) choice to stay, she is a rock star! Rejoice! Most importantly match her effort. Don’t waste time trying to theorize why she would go out on a limb with no guarantees in the face to overwhelming evidence that she might get hurt again. Don’t go back in time to gather evidence as to why you don’t deserve another chance. Don’t catastrophize the future and formulate a list of reasons it will never work. Most importantly don’t allow some of the things she might say out of hurt to override the truth about this one incredible action. Remember hurt people, hurt people. Your actions hurt her and she desperately needs you to understand that.
More truth: in the book Your Sexually Addicted Spouse, Barbra Stephens and Marsha Means provided the sex addiction community with a new model for understanding betrayal. Dr. Stephens proposed that the symptoms experienced by the partners of sex addicts are identical to PTSD. It’s very easy to look at the partner of a sex addict and instantly dismiss her as angry, controlling, cold, withholding, unforgiving, critical, woman pent on making everyone miserable. Let me tell you what I see. I see women who have had their entire universe turned upside down by the actions of a man she trusted with her heart. The women I see have been blindsided and have been abandoned not only by their husbands but by family, friends, the church, and by therapists. Her reality has been twisted to such an extent by lies and deceptions every addict uses to hide the addiction that she literally feels crazy.
I use a lot of analogies to try to explain to guys the effects of trauma on the spouse so they can understand and stop interpreting her reaction to a trigger as a personal attack. Since I spent a good majority of my life in the U.S. Army, twenty-one years to be exact, I was able to develop an understanding of PTSD. I was around it regularly, through soldiers returning from combat, so I came to understand the characteristics. Since then I’ve done my best to educate myself further on the subject and have found correlations between what I witnessed in soldiers and the research that has been done on partners of sex addicts.
An analogy that I often use is that of a soldier who has returned from combat and is walking down the street with their spouse (both of them on the same side) when a vehicle backfires. In an instant the soldier takes cover. It’s not a choice, it’s not a cognitive thought, it’s a reaction to what is perceived as an eminent threat to his or her safety. No one in our society would question why if they knew the circumstances behind it. Friends and family refrain from judgment because they understand that’s what this person needs to do in the moment to feel safe. They don’t lecture about the do’s and don’ts of how to react to a trigger, they don’t list a bunch of facts as to why the person shouldn’t be on the ground, and only an ass would walk up to them and say, “Can you get up and stop playing the victim.” And yet that’s what we do to partners who react to triggers out of a sense of danger. I ask guys to think about how many times they might have done this to their spouse.
For my ADD brethren I skip to the point and tell them,
“Your wife is not your enemy. Your perception has been skewed. Your inability to see this results in you feeling attacked. Here is the truth once again. She is not personally attacking you because she wants to get even. She does not want to stay with you just to torture you every waking moment going forward. She’s incredibly hurt beyond your comprehension and she’s in a place of trauma. Your attempts to shut your wife down when she is triggered will not work. The more you lie, minimize, gaslight, the more trauma you inflict.”
Now usually at this point they’re thinking, “Jeff, I’m not equipped to deal with this.” To this I say, “You’re right. Your wife isn’t equipped to deal with it either. She needs your help. You, the person who took a vow to stand by her, need to put on some waders and go out into the emotional cesspit she’s downing in.”
Knight in Shining Armor
I’m upfront with the guys that this is not going to be a pleasurable experience. But, I say that if she has made the decision to stay or is on the fence, even if she’s filed for divorce, I believe he owes it to her to get in there and help.
Personally, my whole life I dreamed of being the hero, the white knight who rides in to rescue the princess. My recovery was my chance. Likewise, it’s every sex addict’s chance to be the hero… it just doesn’t look quite the way any of us envisioned. First off, fairytales have a villain to blame for the woes of the princess. In our reality we only have our actions (addictive behaviors) to blame. Guys who are not in a place to see this are going to ride in to “rescue” her, only to fight themselves.
Secondly, the “rescue” part is going to be less about any one heroic action or trying to “fix her” and more about listening and validating how she feels. I’ll say that again, the addict in recovery needs to validate how his wife is feeling. He needs to stop focusing on whether she has all the facts straight or if what she’s saying makes sense to him. His greatest weapons on this quest will be patience, empathy, and humility. In our couples work we do a lot of roleplay and I try to model what showing these qualities should look like.
However, almost every guy believes his wife is different and that this technique will never work to help her regain a sense of safety when triggered. I hear all kinds of tales about how vindictive, mean, controlling, blah, blah, blah… his wife is. It’s pretty much everything the real enemy wants them to think. Usually they will end that sentence or even preference it with, “I understand it’s because of my actions, but..”
Tell them to stop there. If they understand the reason, then they need to stop making this more difficult than it already is. What they need to hear is, “Love your wife the way you want to be loved. Cover her. Accept ownership of your behaviors by saying something like ‘You’re right, I did that. I’m so sorry. What can I do that might help right now?’ If she asks a question answer it honestly. Remember that the measure you give is the measure you will receive and half measures avail us nothing.”
In meetings I hear the phrase, “progress, not perfection” being thrown around quite a bit. That’s all good as long as it’s being applied to the addict. However, I see very little grace extended to the spouse, even in the therapeutic community. Sometimes I wonder if what we are really saying with is, “The addict can make progress, but you, the partner, needs to be perfect.”
We need to help guys understand that more than anything, their wife wants to be loved and feel safe again. What they do right now matters. My final advice to the addict is:
“Choose to love your wife unconditionally and relentlessly. Choose to surrender your need to feel right. Declare war on the enemy and don’t allow him to deceive you. Don’t allow him to destroy your marriage. Above all, choose to believe in God’s truth. He has a plan for you and that plan is good.