I was married over thirty years before my husband disclosed his sex addiction. There were red flags of addict behavior flying around me everywhere that should have warned me but I didn’t know what to look for. I never suspected that my good husband, father and church leader could possibly have such an affliction. He didn’t fit the picture I had in my head of what a sex addict looks like: a pasty-faced guy who is constantly hunkering over a computer in a dark room looking at naughty images. Like many people, I made the mistake of thinking that sex addiction is all about looking at porn and nothing else. My understanding was wrong on so many levels.
For one thing, it’s not just men that have this addiction. More and more females are becoming entrapped in this plague. In fact, one in three pornography viewers are women. Reading erotic literature, another form of pornography, is more prevalent among women than men. So, before ladies complain about guys, they should think twice before reading smutty romance novels!
When we talk about “pornography” addiction, in addition to reading erotic literature, we should include other compulsive sexual behaviors such as voyeurism, exhibitionism, masturbation, sexual fantasies, sexting, constantly seeking the attention of the opposite sex, or other excessive sexual pursuits and/or thoughts. Like any other addiction, behaviors can escalate from viewing pornographic images to seeking out illicit relationships with prostitutes or affair partners. Some of these behaviors have health risks, such as STDs, and can damage relationships and careers. Those who think that there’s nothing wrong with porn, have bought into a huge fallacy perpetuated by a multi-billion dollar industry.
Unlike other addictions, there really aren’t physical symptoms to denote a problem, so sexual addiction is easy to hide. We don’t like to openly talk about s-e-x, so addictions associated with the topic are kept quiet and hidden in shame. I thought I must be a complete idiot for going so many years without knowing about my own husband’s issues, but my story is not uncommon. After years of hiding, my husband, like many sex addicts, became an expert at concealing the truth and creating elaborate cover-ups for his behaviors. It is important to know that the real pain of this addiction experienced by partners is the deceit. That’s why many partners of sex addicts experience betrayal trauma. They feel betrayed – as in deceived, misled, cheated, fooled, and duped. That’s ugly stuff when it comes from the person you thought you could trust more than anybody else.
When addicts engage in observable or some of the more obvious behaviors of addiction, we call that “acting out.” Some people incorrectly believe that once these acting out behaviors stop, the addiction is gone. When an addict stops acting out in their addiction or is in a period of abstinence, we say they are “sober.” Being sober is not the same as being in recovery. LifeStar therapist, Forest Benedict, describes recovery as
“ . . . A lifestyle change, wherein we’re moving from a lifestyle of self neglect and self-destructive behavior to a lifestyle of self-care.” A lifestyle change lasts for a lifetime! Many young men clean up and stop acting out in their sex addiction before they go on their missions. They are sober for two years, but the underlying causes of their addiction behaviors are not addressed. They are sober, but not in recovery. That’s why a large number of missionaries come home and return to their unwanted habits. They have not been given the necessary tools for lifelong recovery. Some partners are misled into thinking their addict is in recovery because he or she has not acted out for a long period of time. Addicts can learn to “white knuckle” their way through sobriety. They simply hold on for dear life (envision a grip that is so tight, your knuckles turn white) and stay sober for a period of time out of sheer willpower until they eventually succumb to their unhealthy emotions and act out again. This repeated pattern of behavior is known as the addiction cycle. Being sober is a beginning step toward recovery, but much more needs to be done before real change and recovery occurs.
Had I known all this information years ago, I might have noticed some of the warning signs I saw from my husband. After nearly two years of diligently working on recovery, I can now see real evidence that he is changing. So, what are other signs of addiction besides acting out? Let me give you a “before recovery” and “active in recovery” snapshot from my own experiences of some of the more subtle signs of sexual addiction contrasted with behaviors associated with true recovery. Everyone has their own unique road to recovery, so keep in mind that these are MY experiences and observations of my husband’s journey. Every addict must choose their own path and none of those paths are going to look identical. I will also be including my husband’s thoughts and insights as he has shared them with me.
Before Recovery: My husband and I prayed together and read scriptures most of the time. We were very busy every day with our careers, church callings, and family. Too busy, in fact! We both worked long hours and had church callings that required large chunks of our time. We often saw each other only in passing. We tried to make up for that by having a weekly date night, but that didn’t always happen. Our day-to-day life simply whizzed by us.
Active in Recovery: According to Dr. Adam Moore, “Your husband [partner] may be sober, but that doesn’t mean his [her] recovery is solid. I strongly recommend that he [she] create a daily set of measurable, visible recovery routines that you can see.” Our day begins around 5:15 AM with my husband turning on the audio version of The Book of Mormon. He listens for 30 minutes and then he thinks about what he heard throughout the day. His Book of Mormon ponderings, he says, helps keep his thoughts clean and positive. My husband then makes breakfast for the family while he listens and sings along with his favorite inspirational music. These songs often replay in his head. Again, this helps him manage his thoughts. Before breakfast, we do what we call “the two minute miracle” hug. We often embrace each other during our morning prayers as well. Before going out the door, my husband and I give each other a long heartfelt kiss! My husband has reduced his work hours. We are home together most every night. Before we go to bed, we have a check-in process (we use a process called FANOS) when we each share our feelings and express gratitude for each other. My husband uses this time to gauge how he is doing in his recovery practices and will alert me if he is beginning to struggle with emotions that trigger his addiction. We call these routines our “dailies” and my husband has at least a dozen different behaviors that he does every day. Life no longer whizzes by us in a blur. We practice mindfulness and self care. We are more aware of our needs and the needs of others. When I observe my husband making deliberate and daily choices to make changes in his life, it builds my confidence in his recovery.
Before Recovery: Whenever I asked my husband, “How was your day?” I’d always get the same response, “Great!” I finally told him that nobody has a “great” day every day of his or her life. After that, his response changed to a quick run-down of what he did, but he never shared his feelings. I didn’t know it at that time, but he wasn’t able to identify his emotions. I’m an anxious person with a full array of emotions and I married a man that, by his own description, either felt “good” or “bad.” Addicts use a drug, substance, or behavior to “numb out” or emotionally disconnect from negative feelings and emotions. Unfortunately, you can’t numb negative feelings without numbing positive ones as well. Without an understanding of emotions, an addict tends to lack empathy and will often shift blame on others instead of taking ownership for their own unhealthy behaviors. I mistakenly believed my husband was empathic because he was a great listener. I could share anything and everything with my husband: hopes, dreams, frustrations, disappointments, everything! But he never reciprocated by sharing his own feelings, even when I begged him to do so.
Active in Recovery: In order to find true recovery, and not just go through another long period of abstaining from addiction behaviors, my husband needed to learn about emotions. Have you ever seen one of those feeling charts with all the different faces to depict emotions? Yeah, my husband had to study that chart for a few minutes each night before he could report his feelings during our check-ins. Daily practice has paid off and now my husband reports that his world is “awash in a colorful rainbow of emotions.” That’s real evidence of recovery! My husband who used to struggle to identify his feelings is now talking about emotional rainbows!
Before Recovery: Not happening. His belief was that going to church, praying, and reading scriptures cures everything! Our therapist now teases my husband about our first visit. My husband had his arms crossed on his chest and a look in his eye that said, “I dare you to even try and crack open this tough shell!”
Active in Recovery: My husband sees a therapist twice each month to address childhood trauma and other issues that have been factors in his addiction. Together, we see a marriage counselor once a month to help us, as a couple, navigate the stormy waters of this addiction. My husband also attends a support group every week. He is now equipped to recognize the feelings that trigger his acting out behaviors and is able to manage those emotions with tools and strategies he learns in his group. His group also holds him accountable for his behaviors during the week. My husband also learns how to make connections with others as he creates bonds with his group members. Group support is like having a team of people by your side as you walk through new territory in recovery.
Before Recovery: My husband learned at an early age to cope with childhood trauma by burying his negative emotions. His numbed and buried emotions limited his ability to make emotional connections with others. Though my husband tried to be kind to me and treat me well, he wasn’t able to feel a deep emotional bond with me or anyone else, for that matter. He knew how a good husband and father should act and he was excellent at trying to incorporate those good behaviors in his life; however, I sometimes felt these acts were more of an act or display of affection rather than something real. I couldn’t feel the depth of his love because that requires an emotional bond and intimacy that we didn’t have. This is probably the greatest tragedy that some couples experience when addiction is present.
Active in Recovery: I’ve been told that couples that do the hard work required to survive betrayal can end up having a relationship that is “better than ever.” Impossible as that may seem, my husband and I are beginning to experience some wonderfully bonding and intimately connecting moments. My husband is learning to share his deep innermost thoughts and feelings with me and that helps me feel like I’m a valued partner. We are practicing ways to be honest, transparent, and empathic in our communications with each other. Learning how to connect emotionally and intimately has been the source of new joy for me. According to Psychology Today, “Couples who engage in this level of connectivity enjoy a sense of being at peace within themselves and with each other. They are willing to share their worst failures and mistakes, their most embarrassing moments, their feelings of inadequacy, their dark shadow side as well as their loftiest dreams, visions and hopes for their lives. They are also likely to more freely express gratitude and appreciation towards each other. All this adds up to a formula for enhanced emotional well-being and physical health as well.” Recovery from addiction is hard work, but experiencing emotional intimacy and feeling connected makes it more than worth the effort.
Before Recovery: My husband and I have always believed in Christ. My husband used to pray and pray that he would be stronger than his addiction. He would have long bouts of sobriety and think he had fixed his problem only to return to it, later. He would pray for more strength, only to fail again.
Active in Recovery: Instead of praying for strength, my husband now prays for humility to allow the Savior to work in his life. My husband says, “I do the work I know to do for recovery, but Christ is the finisher. Utilizing the power of the Atonement in my recovery is not a one-time event. It’s something I need to do every day.” We have both become more reliant on Christ. Just as my husband had to surrender his addiction to the Savior, I needed to turn my betrayal pain over to Him and open my heart to forgiveness and understanding. We both desperately need the Atonement at work in our lives. It is an integral part of who we are and who we hope to become. Elder Richard G. Scott taught, “No matter what the source of difficulty and no matter how you begin to obtain relief—through a qualified professional therapist, doctor, priesthood leader, friend, concerned parent, or loved one—no matter how you begin, those solutions will never provide a complete answer. The final healing comes through faith in Jesus Christ and His teachings, with a broken heart and a contrite spirit and obedience to His commandments.” To become a new creature, reborn, and truly changed requires miracles and my husband’s recovery, to me, is just that: a miracle.
On one special night, as we sipped hot cocoa under a brisk winter starlit sky, my husband quietly remarked, “I don’t ever want to go back. I don’t want to go back to not being in recovery. Ever.” It seems my husband is realizing the principles of recovery as described by Forest Benedict: “Recovery is a process of letting go of lust and letting love replace it. It is an opportunity to learn the art of connection and engagement in life. It means letting go of your attachment to unhealthy coping mechanisms and connecting with what is real. Learning how to connect will likely be the hardest yet most rewarding adventure of your life. Connection truly satisfies what lust never could.”
This is the tenth 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: