It’s helpful for couples to work together on monitoring the level of comfort with physical and emotional closeness in the relationship. Since it’s perfectly normal for recovering couples to experience a wide range of distance and closeness, it benefits both partners to notice and talk openly about what they’re each experiencing in relation to the other.
Scott was working to restore trust with his wife, Kerri, after her discovery of his pornography addiction over two years ago. He had experienced a long stretch of complete abstinence from pornography, but relapsed after about a year and began secretly viewing pornography again. This relapse, which he kept hidden from his wife and therapist, lasted several months. He eventually disclosed his secret, which immediately triggered a second, more serious, marital crisis.
When they returned to therapy, Kerri was convinced there was no way to trust Scott ever again. After an initial period of him checking in regularly with her about his progress, it became clear that she wasn’t going to believe anything he said. His efforts to convince her of his faithfulness seemed to have no effect on her. Despite her indifference, he continued to report his behavior to her on a regular basis.
“I don’t know what else to do. I want her to know I’m being honest now and that I have no secrets,” Scott reported in one of our weekly sessions. But Kerri maintained an emotional and physical barrier between her and Scott. She figured that the distance would protect her from getting hurt again.
Both seemed anxious, raw, and unsettled. This was such a different couple from the pair I remembered working with earlier when Scott was first beginning his recovery work. It was clear they both could use some soothing and security.
My efforts with them focused on shifting Scott away from trying to convince Kerri of his abstinence from pornography. I explained to them that it’s impossible to prove that something isn’t happening. Instead, I explained to him that most of his wife’s distress came from losing her connection to him when he turned away to seek out pornography. To help heal the impact of that disconnection, I invited Scott to consider being more emotionally and physically accessible and responsive to her, even if she didn’t want to respond back to him.
Scott immediately worked on being more open with Kerri in more areas of his life, including his feelings and thoughts. She didn’t respond much to his openness and would often just listen without making eye contact. As this progressed, I eventually asked her how she felt around him when he was being more open to her. “It’s awkward because I don’t know what to say. But it’s better than him being closed all of the time. I guess it’s nice.”
This change in focus was difficult for her and, if anything, seemed to make her more insecure initially as the focus drifted from having him report on whether or not he had viewed pornography that day, which was previously her only indicator of how well he was doing. Exchanging the constant checking with more emotional openness wasn’t an easy transition. However, both of them began to notice some subtle differences.
They began to experience a new feeling in their relationship that didn’t exist when he was looking at pornography or when he was avoiding her, hoping she would never bring it up again. This was a new opportunity for him to show her how different and accessible he could be.
And when she felt insecure about their past and wondered if he was still faithful to her, she began to bring it up to him. Instead of creating more distance between them by being defensive, he began to see that his responsiveness to her emotional alarms was the very thing that would not only soothe her but also restore some trust.
Even though it didn’t work perfectly to begin with, Scott stayed with it. One time, Kerri accused him of being preoccupied with another woman they saw jogging by their home. Scott remembered that he could actually increase their closeness by reducing his defensiveness, working instead to let her know that he imagined how difficult it must be for her to have these worries. He stayed physically close to her, kept the pace of the conversation slow, and reassured her that he was still faithful to her in his thoughts and actions. He made efforts to communicate to her that he felt remorse for her pain and reassured her that he was available to talk anytime she wanted to.
As Scott worked to stay emotionally open, Kerri began to see how often she became anxious and wanted to pull away. As a matter of fact, she described it as “wanting to get in my rowboat and row to my little island by myself where no one can hurt me.” She said that this was how she had survived both the initial discovery of his addiction and the subsequent betrayal of him hiding his addiction for so many months following the commencement of treatment.
When she revealed this internal metaphor, describing her experience of wanting to move away from him, he became more clear about how to respond to her when she felt afraid. He suddenly began to see the times she would start pulling away from him because she felt emotionally unsafe. He recognized that he could be a powerful source of safety for her by noticing the distance and seeking to be more available to her.
It became more common for her to tell him when she felt like “rowing out to her island.” She knew when something would trigger her anxiety and she would become quiet, pull away, and start avoiding him around the house. However, as she let him know when she was wanting to be distant from him, he used the same metaphor to draw her back in for real comfort and safety. He would ask, “Would you like me to throw you a rope to pull you back to shore, or do you need some time on your island? Either way, I’m still here.” This invitation became helpful to her, as she knew that he would still be present for her when she decided to move toward him again. He didn’t know when she would return, but he knew that he was there for her. That helped her, in turn, to know that he cared and wanted her to feel safe.
After some fine-tuning, Kerri ultimately stopped interrogating Scott about his behaviors. He was coming to her more often to share his emotional state throughout the day, which helped her feel closer to him. When she would struggle with insecurities, he would stay close to her and let her know that he would give her as much closeness or distance as she needed. Soon, the island metaphor became a quick way for them to resolve what used to be a significant source of pain and disconnection for both of them.