By John Williams, LMHC
One of my clients had had his marriage blow up in his face only months before. His pornography habit had been discovered yet again--after repeated promises of “I’m quitting now"--and his wife was so fed up she had left the house for a week.
When he had contacted me, he was desperate to save his marriage and family.
Now I asked him, how would you rate things at home now, as compared to before that phone call asking for help? On a scale of 1-100%, how much of the former warmth, closeness and romantic connection has been restored?
"More than 100%," was his surprising answer. "Really?," I asked. "How could that be?"
Before the crisis, he told me, his porn habit had blocked his wholehearted connection to his wife. He had been dishonest, hiding, guilt-ridden and preoccupied mentally, emotionally and sexually with hundreds of digital women.
His disconnection from his wife had not only left her feeling abandoned, even if she could not know why. It had also left him lonelier and emptier, and drained the relationship of vitality.
There had been a “third party” in the marriage—as there always is when there is a compulsion or addiction—and this parasite was damaging both of them and the marriage too.
Free to invest
Now he was more present, involved, attuned to his wife, and both of them were reaping the benefits. (His daughter was getting more of his investment, as well, to their mutual joy.)
He could give of himself freely, unconstrained by secrecy and distraction. He could just “be myself,” he said, without worrying about managing his habit and the lies that conceal it. And he was thoroughly enjoying being with his best friend and lover again, enjoying that affection and intimacy that only partners sharing everything in their lives can know.
Of course, there are good reasons to find this hard to understand. Let’s compare the marriage to a bank account. Loving investments represent deposits and selfish actions represent withdrawals. Certainly, the betrayal involved in the porn habit and the deceptions was like a huge withdrawal—wiping out what had taken years to accumulate. How could that be reversed quickly enough?
Fortunately, there had been enough “funds” in the marriage account—warm memories, goodwill, shared commitments—that this incident did not wipe them out immediately and prompt his wife to leave him. Still, he had known emotional resources were very low and if he did not shore up the account somehow and fast, he was afraid it would quickly run into the red.
Now he was saying that not only had they managed to restore the former wealth in their marriage, but they actually increased it!
This is because the crisis had not only caused him to reprioritize his wife and child, so that he was investing quality time on a regular basis. It had also forced them both to have frank discussions where they shared their deepest fears and concerns, and bared their hearts to each other.
I’m guessing that it probably also shook up the couple’s former pattern of over-focusing on parenting and living parallel lives. It got them back to focusing on each other (which is best for the child, too).
How did he do it? When I say he had come to me desperate, it is important to note he was also determined. He had told me how he had quit smoking before and he would do the same with this bad habit. He challenged himself and it mobilized his competitive spirit. He firmly set his intention—“No failure this time.”
He enlisted my aid. He did his recovery work. He brought his home office downstairs into the public area, so he would no longer be isolated and tempted. He would feel the presence of his wife and daughter and remind himself of who and what he really loved.
And he gave his time and energy to his family. They became his stress relief, his entertainment, his excitement, to replace his unhealthy habit. And it was paying off.
Is he doing everything perfectly? No. Is he immune to a possible relapse? No. Is it guaranteed he will not have any more painful and tense moments with his wife? No. Was everything in the marriage stronger than before? No, he conceded.
The trust is far from where it had been. He knew it will take time to rebuild that after he had broken his promises repeatedly. He has to prove himself reliable and clean for many months before she can realistically fully let down her guard.
But he has never been happier in his marriage, and they are well on their way to more than fully healing their relationship.
And I have seen other couples like his, where both the partners say that though they could never have wished for such a terrible crisis, their marriage is much improved. And they have grown immensely as individuals.
Sex addiction therapist Robert Weiss expresses this hope well:
“You may not believe this, given the current state of your relationship, but in time, if you sincerely follow the [right steps], your relationship with your spouse can and will be better than ever.
“No, it will not look or feel the way it did before you cheated or while you were cheating, but that is a good thing, not a bad thing.
"When you become an open book with your mate, behaving in trustworthy, rigorously honest ways in all facets of your life, you become much more intimate and emotionally connected.”
From "Out of the Doghouse: A Step by Step Relationship-Saving Guide for Men Caught Cheating."
And so, it can be better than before.
By John Williams, LMHC
"I'm 25 days porn free!," Brad proudly proclaims. "But I notice I am getting so irritable. Yesterday I was Mr. Road Rage on the way home from work. And I almost wanted to slug somebody when I saw the office coffee pot was empty this morning. What's going on?!"
Any bad habit represents a good habit never learned, a healthy attitude or coping strategy not yet adopted. It represents insufficient self-control, some kind of delayed maturation, some missing skills.
When a child continues to suck their thumb after a certain age, we see it as immature. We expect them to learn to soothe themselves in a more grown up way, and the longer they indulge in it, the longer they don’t learn anything better.
development on hold
So it is with porn, masturbation and compulsive sex. (It's easy to see a lot of similarities between sucking your thumb and masturbating, right?)
Once we adopt these as coping mechanisms for unwanted feelings or situations, we don't learn healthier ways. Some aspect of maturation stops at that point. That means that when we try to stop our porn habit, we have to restart the learning process from where we left off.
That's why, without our habit, we may find ourselves whining like a teenager in stressful circumstances. We fly off the handle over an inconvenience. We have zero patience. Everyone is annoying. We want to go off and sulk somewhere. It is can be mystifying and embarrassing, but this is to be expected.
There is no shortcut around this, though. We still just have to learn whatever we never learned back then.
And that brings us to those skill deficits. Not only have we not learned certain kinds of self control, we also have not learned proper self care and how to manage situations.
Anything that serves as a drug is a substitute for good healthy habits. Think overuse of coffee as a substitute for good sleep habits. Drinking alcohol to unwind instead of learning real relaxation skills.
So the porn or sex addict usually has to learn to care for themselves in some way—emotionally, mentally, physically, socially, spiritually.
To do this, we have to learn certain skills—stress release, caring for others, managing anger, recovering from hurts, forgiveness of grievances, making friends, assertiveness, conflict resolution, and so on. That may sound intimidating, but you can tackle them bit by bit and make solid progress, especially with the help of a mentor, coach or counselor.
This is why these kinds of healthy habits are things that we need to learn at the same time as we wean ourselves (oops, no pun intended--I swear!) off our unhealthy dependence on our habit. It makes our freedom and recovery truly sustainable.
John Williams is a licensed mental health counselor and relationship coach specializing in pornography and sex addiction and infidelity. He is the owner of Bulletproof Integrity, a sexual integrity training and recovery coaching service. He is also a published author and sought-after presenter.