“Did you see that the exit is in the left lane?,” my wife, Cathy, cautioned, as we drove to the beach one weekend. “Yes, I saw that,” I replied, my voice getting defensive. Such is our familiar dance.
During our marriage, she has repeatedly watched me miss exits and lose time getting to our destination when driving. She then became vigilant as a “front seat driver,” not only navigating our way but checking to make sure I am following directions.
I, on the other hand, have always tended to get more distractible and lazy at the wheel when we ride together because she is so intensely focused on the road—why should both of us be doing the same job, when I’d rather notice the scenery or invest in conversation?
However, I can bristle at her direction and retort angrily about her being so “controlling.” And she can readily conclude, “I can’t win,” since she gets attacked if she monitors me or we get lost if she doesn’t.
Tug of War
This is our tug of war. I yank on my end of the rope, saying, “I wouldn’t get defensive if you would just mind your own business and let me drive!” She yanks on her end and says, “I wouldn’t need to tell you what to do if you would only pay attention while you drive!”
Who’s at fault? Everyone has an opinion. Cathy could readily complain to her friends, and they’d all lament, “Oh, you poor thing, married to a space case.” And I could whip up sympathy among my listeners by playing the victim of my “control freak wife.”
Of course, the reality is that both of us are actually causing the problem. Without realizing it, we are each encouraging the other to take the very stance we protest against.
Two-sided and polarized
In close relationships, both sides are continuously influencing each other. There is no shift in posture, no lifting of eyebrows, no change of voice that goes unnoticed, even if it is only unconscious. This subtle, non-stop mutual influence means we are always adjusting to one another, and nudging one another in a particular direction to create a certain balance.
For that reason, no problem could ever be entirely one-sided. For instance, I have trained Cathy to be vigilant about my driving by going mentally MIA behind the wheel. And she would admit she has aggravated my distractability by taking over too much of my job as driver. (I do admit my contribution is greater.)
In a tug of war, the contest polarizes each side to take the most extreme opposing position they can. Each side digs in their heels and leans back, to offset the other side as much as possible. (The position they take is typically so extreme that it is unrealistic and unsustainable—if the rope breaks, the two sides fall over!)
So it is with most marital and family problems. When we think someone is wrong, we tend to try to compensate for the problem by leaning away from what we see as the wrong stance to the opposite extreme.
Your spouse is a spender? You always argue for thrift. Your mate is too strict with the kids? You are the voice for leniency. Your partner is too gloomy? You are Mr. or Mrs. Cheerful. Your spouse is not as sexual? You always lobby for more sex. Your partner never wants to talk? You always push for conversation.
Pushing the other to extremes
What we don’t see is how we are actually inviting—even pushing—our mate to take the approach they do. They are reacting to us, even as we are reacting to them. And our entrenched position tends to make them just as entrenched.
Why does he spend so much? Because he thinks you are so stingy!
Why is she so strict? Because she says you “let the kids get away with murder”!
Why is he always gloomy? Because he thinks you never seem to take life seriously!
Why is she so disinterested in sex? Because she sees you as always angry and pushy about it!
Why does he never like to talk? Because he says you never leave him alone!
And yet, neither reaction is really what either of you completely believe in or want. For example, no one believes in being strict with kids or cheap or serious all the time. There is a voice of moderation within all of us. (Granted, your spouse may tolerate much more mess or debt or lack of conversation than you, but they have limits and theirs may be a lot closer to yours than you suspect.)
But when trying to balance the perceived excesses of our mate, we can sound pretty excessive ourselves and with a one-track mind.
Break the Pattern
The truth is: The real problem is how we are relating to each other about the issue. The way we are interacting is bringing out the worst in us.
So what do we do? Don’t keep trying to change your spouse; that has never worked. Instead, make sure you stop your contribution to the problem. Take a leap of faith and trust that your partner is not crazy or bad intentioned, just partly reacting to you.
Stop your side of the tug of war. Drop the rope. Voluntarily move towards the middle, closer to their position, and see what happens.
What does that mean? If your partner says you are too stingy, admit to them that some of their purchases that you initially protested turned out to be wise. If they say you are too lenient with the children, bite your tongue when they discipline them in a way you don’t like and ask them for their opinion when an issue comes up with the kids.
If they say you want to talk too much, thank them for the conversations you have had, and offer to sit together quietly without talking. If you are pushy about something, back off for a long while. If you are always withdrawing from dealing with a certain topic, bring it up yourself.
Oh, no, you may be thinking, I need to hold my ground. I can’t give in an inch or they’ll take a mile! They’ll think I agree with them! They’ll think I approve of their viewpoint!
No, they won’t. Do you think they don’t thoroughly know what you think and can even repeat it back to you word for word? Believe me, they know you don’t agree or approve or want something. But you can still acknowledge some validity in their viewpoint. And meet them halfway.
Nothing to lose
Give it a try. You may be surprised. When you drop the rope, your spouse cannot keep yanking or they will fall over. If you stop pulling, they must eventually stop resisting in the same way as well. And you invite them to respond differently too, just as you are.
You have nothing to lose. Your current reaction has not really improved things, or at least not enough. Experiment with a new approach for a while and see what happens. (You can always return to your usual response if you like, and in the meantime, you will have learned something more about your spouse.)
When I was driving, when I started to get defensive, I remembered to “drop the rope.” I moved towards Cathy’s position. I started announcing my driving intentions in advance, to reassure her that I was aware of coming changes in direction and she did not have to worry.
She, for her part, returned to her knitting, which she had learned to adopt to help her avoid looking at the road and trying to direct me too often. So she met me in the middle, too. Tension dissolved and we've had a lot more pleasant rides since.
“Things were going well all week with my wife and me, and I thought the tensions were behind us,” a client told me recently. “But no, last night, she got all upset again over nothing.”
If your marriage was disrupted by your wife exploding over her discovery of your behavior—like pornography use, cybersex, masturbation or misuse of money—you long for the day when things can get back to normal.
You just want to focus on enjoying each other’s company and getting things done—not enduring the latest installment of angry yelling, sarcastic insults, or insecure tears.
This is understandable. Her reactions following the trauma of her discovering your cheating actions—plus all the lies to cover them up—are a roller coaster ride that wears out both of you.
You never know when the next landmine will go off, as your wife is triggered by something, anything that reminds her of your deception and breach of trust.
And you have to be ready to respond patiently and lovingly to her needs rather than react defensively and selfishly. Or else pay dearly for it!
What could be worse than this walking on eggshells every day?
The opposite is worse
Your wife becoming cool, calm and collected. Breezing around your home, pleasantly doing what she needs to do. Reasonable, matter of fact, businesslike. Not real warm, not particularly affectionate. But no longer angry and blaming, no longer having tearful outbursts, no longer constantly bringing up your offense. Maybe not much action in the bedroom—maybe that’s the way its been even before—but there’s peace in the living room.
“Hey, that doesn’t sound so bad at all,” you might be thinking, “compared to the battleground at home right now.”
Don’t be naïve about the Walk Away Wife Syndrome, coined by Michelle Wiener Davis of “Divorce Busting” fame.
When a woman is still emotionally attached to a man, she will keep complaining if something is not right. She will fuss and nag and make demands. That means she is invested enough to want improvement.
When she stops complaining, it is for two possible reasons. One, she is content. Or two, she has given up on you and the relationship. She is quietly planning her departure (or yours!).
Uncomplaining means uncaring
“The opposite of love is not hate,” someone has wisely said. “The opposite of love is indifference.”
Your wife screaming, crying and everything in between means that she still cares. She is attached to you and so what you have done hurts her. She may want to hurt you just so you know what it feels like, but it means she’s bonded to you.
Even announcing that she will leave you means she is still connected and hopes that her words will get you to repair the damage between you.
When she no longer believes that you can ever be someone she can trust again, and find safety and security and build a future with, she will stop trying to get you to change. She will stop talking about it.
And she will start cutting off her feelings for you. That way she is no longer hurt by your actions. And once she begins dousing every flicker of love for you, it may be too late to reverse.
Leaving you alone = Leaving You
You see, no matter what you may do after that happens—you throw yourself into therapy, groups and reading every marriage book you can get your hands on, and become the best listener, most fun and romantic partner, and most devoted father—it makes no difference.
Her sense of self-preservation tells her she can no longer afford to care about you. She must not dare to open her heart to you again. So she refuses to believe what you are now doing is for real, or can last.
It is a tragic thing. I’ve seen men start to become the very fulfillment of their wives’ marital dreams, but it was “too little, too late,” as the women say. I’ve tried to persuade the wives to give their genuinely transformed husbands another chance. But the women just shrug and say, “Sorry. I’m done.”
So be grateful your wife cares enough to keep complaining. To keep screaming and crying and whatever. At least she is talking to you. At least she is engaged.
Beware the day when she becomes quiet, “reasonable,” and “finally” leaves you alone.
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.