The man who is now my husband told me he struggled with a pornography addiction even before we started dating. It was a gut-punch to hear him say it, but that commitment to transparency and openness from the beginning was what I kept coming back to when I was terrified it had all been a big mistake.
We’d been getting to know each other from two different parts of the country and I was really starting to like him. It was the suggestion of my flying out for a visit that brought on the phone call that broke my heart. He said that he understood if that meant I didn’t want to come and I didn’t know how to reply. Everything I knew about him until 30 seconds ago was so attractive to me. He was smart and thoughtful and interesting and handsome and good. I believe in the power of the Atonement and I didn’t want him to think that this particular struggle made him automatically unworthy of my time and attention. It would have been hypocritical for me, but it also sounded like an idiot move to know that about a person and still fly thousands of miles to see him.
I hung up the phone saying that I’d let him know.
I didn’t sleep all that night and for days after, I had no idea what I should do. It wasn’t until the following Sunday, at stake conference that things became clearer. We’d had a series of great speakers, but none of them seemed to have messages that were relevant to me. Then, as the second to last speaker was concluding, out of the blue she mentioned the topic of pornography. It was only a sentence or two, but she said she believed it could be overcome. Then the last speaker got up. He said he had prepared an entirely different address, but instead wanted to continue with this topic of pornography and how through the Atonement this painful part of so many people’s present could be truly left in the past. The Spirit was so strong and I knew that it would be ok for me to get on a plane and visit my friend.
He became more than my friend not long after my arrival. We connected so incredibly well and I felt so comfortable and secure with him. We could talk about anything, and everything about him impressed me. He was constantly being of service to his family members and every friend in his life that I met would pull me aside and say how much he had inspired them or helped at a critical time or always been there when they needed him. My mind couldn’t even contain the reality that this wonderful person and this terrible chronic behavior could exist in the same being.
You know that phenomenon where you hear a word you’ve never heard of before and then suddenly you see it three different places within a week? The same thing happens when you start dating an addict. I was so happy with him and yet in the months that followed, it seemed like every story I heard was of how so-and-so was getting a divorce because of addiction or how after eight years, this or that person had totally betrayed their partner. I especially remember overhearing a lady at a party saying, “If my daughter was dating someone who had a porn addiction, I don’t care how nice he is, I would tell her to run.”
Meanwhile, I was falling so deeply in love with this man in a way that was so much different than infatuation. It just seemed so obvious that we should be together and everything about it felt so right. He watched out for me and supported me in everything I was pursuing. We would send spiritual thoughts to each other every day even though we were so far apart and I couldn’t help but believe in him. But then there was that anonymous woman’s voice in my head saying how none of that mattered and I should just run.
That voice was still in my head when our relationship began to get a little more serious in terms of planning an ongoing life together. He said he felt it was really important that he tell me absolutely everything so that we could have complete openness between one another and a little part of me thought, “Maybe I don’t want to know.” But he insisted and when he told me the full extent of his past transgressions, I was even more devastated than I’d already been. I excused myself from the conversation and went to my room and just wailed. I’ve never cried like that in all my life. I was praying aloud and so totally confused and feeling sick inside but when I began to calm down I found that strangely, I still believed in him. I didn’t understand why, but I had such a strong spiritual impression that all of the good things I knew about him were still genuine and true.
The next morning, I couldn’t sleep so I went outside to watch the sunrise and try to consider what I should do. This new information was worse than I had imagined and I felt like marrying him now would just mean it served me right if one day he cheated on me or something. Like any coming calamity in our marriage, knowing what I knew now, would be inevitable and I would be the idiot that should’ve seen it coming.
I pulled up a random general conference talk looking for guidance and in a passing sentence, it said explicitly not to discount someone just because of a past sin and in particular pornography. Of all the talks I could’ve chosen, that one came up. To that point, I felt like I could hear a chorus of voices telling me not to proceed and they all strangely sounded like that woman who said I should run, but then the thought struck me: If I took out what anyone else would say in this situation, ignored the advice of random people and it was only between me and the Lord, what would I conclude?
“I believe in him and I believe the Lord can continue to help him recover from this.”
When it came down to just me and the Lord, I knew that it was all going to be ok and the Spirit had guided me along in too many ways to this point for me to doubt that he would continue to do so. By the time this man that I loved woke up and came and found me, I was ok. I was on the road to completely forgiving his past and still hopeful about a future for us.
I had some fundamental misunderstandings about pornography addiction. We had set up a system of accountability where we had a weekly check-in. He would send me a screenshot from a tracking app he was using and I would make sure to tell me him I was proud of his progress, because I was. But every time he had a relapse and the count was back to zero, I felt deeply betrayed. Here’s where my misunderstanding comes in. I thought that pornography addiction was all about sex and intimacy, so how could he turn from me to this horrible thing when we had such a good connection even if so much of our relationship was happening from a distance? I thought that continually coming back to porn was some deep perversion and even though I understood addiction involves being out of control of oneself, I thought if he just loved me more than he wouldn’t need to go back to that.
Then one night about two or three in the morning, I snapped awake, filled with fear. I was suddenly aware that this man of mine was deeply in danger. I didn’t know where this feeling was coming from, but it was so real. It was like I could hear his voice calling out to me from inside a burning building. I thought maybe he’d been in a car accident, that he was trapped in a tangle of wreckage on the side of the road somewhere. I was panicking. I was going to try calling him or maybe I should call his parents? I didn’t know what to do, but eventually I began to be calm and the thought that I’d probably sound insane calling in the middle of the night if everything was fine, overwhelmed that initial sense of emergency that I’d felt.
The next morning I called him and asked what had happened the night before. He said quietly that he had relapsed. We figured out that it had happened at exactly the time that I’d been shocked awake by the Spirit, thousands of miles away. Suddenly his helpless voice calling out to me in the dark made sense. For the first time I realized fully that his addiction was a prison, it was literally a burning building that he had no desire to be in but from which he was struggling to escape. It had nothing to do with me.
I learned that porn addiction has much more to do with chemicals and coping than it has to do with sex. He’d set a pattern in his brain as a very young teen that the rush (chemical release) of good feelings that these images brought, would help to relieve not just unmet sexual desire, but feelings of loneliness, boredom, stress and inadequacy; things that we all feel and struggle to soothe away. It grew into a coping mechanism for just about anything and then the need grew habitual. Add the shame, continual failure to fully leave it behind, and the constant voice of Satan whispering that he’d never succeed and before long he was waist high in quicksand with no way out.
Only there was and is a way out. The other important thing I learned from my dating relationship with this wonderful person was that I had been limiting the power of the Atonement in my own mind. I believed that the sacrifice Jesus Christ made for us was infinite and in the same breath, often thought, “Yeah, but this is just too much” or “Is addiction recovery a process that ever actually succeeds?”
So many times, I wished that this had just never been a part of his life. He was so perfect for me, if only this other stuff had just never happened.
Then one day as I checked in for a flight somewhere, the lady at the desk said, “You really should’ve printed your boarding pass at home.” I said, “Sorry, I don’t have a printer” and she shot back, “Still, you’re really supposed to print your own.” I continued to apologize that I didn’t, but no matter what I said she just kept saying, “Yeah, but you should’ve!” “But I didn’t.” “But you SHOULD’VE.” I felt helpless to please her and in that moment I realized that absolutely nothing productive comes from wishing something had happened differently than it did. No matter how much I wished things in this man’s past (when I wasn’t even in the picture) had happened differently, they didn’t. The past is the past, all you can do is move forward from where you are now and continue to do better and to call upon the grace of Jesus Christ every day.
I became his other partner in the recovery process and eventually the “days since last incident” number began to grow and grow. He got his temple recommend back and we were able to marry for time and all eternity in a house of the Lord.
It was the best decision I’ve ever made. Life with him is happier than I could’ve ever imagined.
But here are three key reasons our story continues to be a happy one. These are important for anyone dating/considering a partner with this problem to understand:
- My partner decided from the beginning that he would always be totally honest with me. He never tried to justify or downplay his actions, he told the truth, fully. He still does. Often the betrayal that the partner of an addict feels is not from a return to the behavior at all, it’s from the lies involved in covering it up. Lying will keep the addiction thriving, but bringing things out in the open and keeping them there cuts the legs off the monster. Many men keep their struggle a secret because they believe they can get over it on their own without others ever knowing it was a problem. This is a myth and a damaging one. Tell the truth. Always tell the truth.
- We set up a system of accountability. Porn addiction is a really challenging subject to just bring up in casual conversation. It’s awkward and uncomfortable, and often it’s hard for an addict to find the right way to report a relapse or for a partner to find the right way to ask if everything is still ok. To have a reporting system of some kind already in place makes that so much easier. As I mentioned, while we were dating we just picked a day of the week that he would text me his app update and that was my opportunity to talk about anything that I needed to. I didn’t have to sit around wondering, he didn’t have to worry about when was a good time to say something and we could both feel at ease about it the rest of the time. Having a system of accountability keeps the conversation open.
- My partner used all available resources to help in his recovery. As I said, the Atonement is real—I know that now more than ever—but addiction is something that generally cannot just be overcome by continually praying about it. Faith is a principle of action and though involving the Lord and a priesthood leader are essential, that is only a first step. My husband did not find the Church’s 12-step program particularly helpful to him personally, but rather than giving up, he sought other types of help. He worked with a coach and studied the science of addiction in great depth to help to overcome it. Understanding the chemical processes in the brain involved in this addiction, as well as learning the methods by which you can form new neural pathways in your brain and literally leave old habits behind, was essential for him. Mostly what I’m saying is he was determined to recover and did everything in his power to work toward that goal. The Atonement is real, but it can’t help someone who is unwilling to access it.
I’m so glad that I didn’t just dismiss this man because of this problem. His honesty, accountability and determination set him apart as someone who could and would recover even from something as severe and menacing as this. In President Packer’s last conference message before he passed, he talked at length of sexual transgression and the seriousness thereof. Ultimately though, his closing message on this earth was this:
“The Atonement, which can reclaim each one of us, bears no scars. That means that no matter what we have done or where we have been or how something happened, if we truly repent, He has promised that He would atone. And when He atoned, that settled that. There are so many of us who are thrashing around, as it were, with feelings of guilt, not knowing quite how to escape. You escape by accepting the Atonement of Christ, and all that was heartache can turn to beauty and love and eternity.”
I am already enjoying the beauty and love that all that heartache has become. Some of the greatest missionaries and prophets in the scriptures started out as the vilest of sinners. This gospel is a gospel of transformation and going through the recovery process with the love of my life, transformed me too. He’s now coaching others through their recovery and is continuing to make his life more whole, productive and healthy than it’s ever been before.
Pornography is becoming an epidemic in this generation, but all that means is that we have the opportunity to make this a generation of men and women who understand and trust the reality of the Atonement more than anyone before ever has. If you’re dating someone who struggles with pornography addiction, it’s possible that you shouldn’t just run. Pray. Trust the Lord, and only the Lord, to tell you what to do next.
Note from editor: This story from Christine’s husband’s perspective is coming up next!
This is the eighth in a series of posts addressing education on and recovery from pornography addiction and betrayal trauma. Please send questions that you have to hopeandhealinglds(at)gmail(dot)com.
Other posts in the series: