Turning to Her for Help in Your Struggle against Porn

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(This is an excerpt from book Love You, Hate the Porn.)

I remember trying to convince one client, Ivan, when we began working together, that he should disclose to his wife that he had recently been struggling with pornography again. “I don’t think I can bring myself to tell her,” he insisted. “Four different times now she’s become aware of my struggle, and each time it’s been so hard on our marriage. Last time she admitted that she would have left me by now if it weren’t for how hard it would be on the children. I’m afraid that if she becomes aware that I’m struggling again, it will end up being the final straw.”

Ivan was hoping that through his work with me he would overcome this problem once and for all. “Then I’ll clean everything up with her and at church,” he said. “The problem is that I have confessed so many times to different ecclesiastical leaders and to my wife, but those confessions have never changed things. I don’t want to go through all that again right now until I know that this time will be different.”

“Well,” I responded, “besides coming in to see me, at this point ‘this time’ doesn’t look very different at all from past times. You say that you have confessed so many times, but haven’t you always kept this problem a secret and only told your wife about the nature and extent of the problem once she discovered evidence of it or caught you in the act?”

Ivan acknowledged that this was the way things had always gone. At my suggestion, Ivan decided to talk to his wife, Tina, and set up a plan with her to approach the problem in a completely different way, with a completely new set of ground rules. He made a commitment to be honest with her and to tell her immediately, within an hour at the most, of any pornography viewing. He took her for a drive on a Sunday evening while the kids were with Grandma and Grandpa.

“Honey, you know that this has been an on-and-off struggle for a long time,” he told her. “I’ve become convinced that I can no longer continue vacillating between being completely free from it at times and being totally under pornography’s control at other times if I hope to preserve our marriage. To avoid those times when I struggle so deeply and over an extended period of time, I need to let you in on what’s happening earlier on, at those times when I’m just starting to get caught up in it again. Then you can see the process in its earliest stages and help me during those times. Those are the times I usually keep it a secret because I’m so ashamed. Of course, it’s easier to keep it a secret then because the evidence is just starting to accrue. In the past, I’ve wanted to keep you from being hurt and angry, so I struggle on my own. Of course, I also manage to rationalize that I’m not yet in very deep. I tell myself, ‘It was just once. I’ll steer clear of it again from now on and that one time doesn’t have to be a big deal.’ Of course, that just sets the stage for me to later think, ‘I’ve already given in once. What’s one more time?’ I never plan on getting back in over my head, but that’s inevitably what happens. Then I think, ‘I can’t tell her now; she’ll be mad that I’ve kept this much a secret!’

“With all of the struggles I’ve had—having engaged in hundreds of pornography-viewing sessions—my best guess now is that I’ll probably succumb to temptation again, maybe even several times, before I’ll be able to give it up for good. Therefore, I want to ask for your help in containing my future lapses before they get out of hand. I wish I could commit to ‘never touching the stuff again’ with some confidence that I’ll follow through. However, you’ve seen how well it goes when I do that. But I know I can make and stick with the following commitment: If I do give in to temptation, I will never let more than an hour elapse before I contact you and let you know what I’ve done. It will be hard for me, but if I know that we’re going to work together to conquer this problem, that will give me the strength to do it.”

Tina was indeed angry and hurt when he disclosed that he had gone back to this old habit that had so damaged their relationship. However, it didn’t end up being the “final straw” for her. She was willing, albeit skeptical at first, to go along with the approach he was suggesting.

Ivan was alone in a hotel room the first time he viewed pornography after making that commitment. He was embarrassed to call and wake up Tina at 1:15 in the morning. He almost talked himself into putting it off until the next morning. “Couldn’t I do it during the first waking hour after a slip?” he asked himself. He was also afraid to tell her over the phone. He almost rationalized to himself that he could tell her “within an hour of seeing her in person.” However, he decided to stay true to the commitment he had made.

Tina recalled, “I was groggy when I answered the phone, but I immediately came fully to my senses when I heard Ivan’s voice on the phone and realized what he was calling about. I was so angry, maybe it was a good thing he wasn’t there. Here I was taking care of the kids, working harder than ever because he was away on a business trip, and he was entertaining himself in a way that took him even further from me and the family. I was so upset. I let him have it over the phone.”

“That was hard for me,” Ivan recalled, “but you’d have to understand the hell I’ve put myself through in the past to understand it when I say that it was actually a relief to have it out in the open. If I hadn’t called and told her, I would have been slinking around the next morning trying to focus on my work commitments with a lump in my throat and a dark cloud over me. Then I’d have been tempted to get another fix of pornography to numb the guilt and shame I was feeling. This time, I felt stronger for having faced up to my wife about what I had done. I didn’t argue with anything she said. I accepted it as the consequences of my actions.

“That, perhaps, is the biggest difference this policy of immediate honesty has made for me,” Ivan concluded. “Before, I could get caught up in enjoying the engine of the train—viewing the pornography—and then delude myself into thinking that it might not have a caboose—the effect the pornography viewing had on my wife. I tried to take the pleasure without facing the pain. Of course, as soon as the engine passes, you know for sure that the caboose is on its way. So I would try my best to outrun it, thinking, ‘If I can just work hard enough to do better, be careful enough not to let my secret out, no one ever has to know.’ What I was really hoping was that I would never have to suffer for my choices. Of course, it never worked out that way. Well, having suffered in that way over so many years, it was refreshing to stand up and face the caboose. I felt like I was regaining my integrity—not completely yet, because I had violated her trust in me and my own values by viewing pornography, but it felt like I was getting back on track.”

Initially, Tina was afraid that she might not be able to bear hearing about all of Ivan’s struggles along the way. “The entire problem is so repulsive and horrible to me. I assumed that a yucky feeling would linger with me all the time once I knew he had succumbed. Fortunately, it was easier than I thought it would be to say, ‘I’m sorry you made that choice, Ivan,’ and then in my mind add, ‘I’m glad it’s your problem to solve, not mine.’”

Ivan viewed pornography a handful of times over the subsequent year and a half. Now, three years since his last struggle, Tina recalls some of the benefits of Ivan’s commitment to immediate honesty:

“I had told Ivan many times, so I’m not sure why it took him so long to finally get it, that his lying was always a bigger threat to our marriage than the pornography. The viewing of pornography took up less than 1 percent of his time. He might make the decision to do that on an impulse. On the other hand, following that act, he had to deceive me 100 percent of the time to keep it a secret. He was being dishonest every hour of the day, every day of the week, sometimes for months on end. After the first two or three slips he had, I really came to trust that he would tell me within minutes of having a problem. Then I stopped worrying. I didn’t have to wonder—when we were on a date, when we were in bed together as a couple, when we were sitting in church, when he was playing with the kids—how well he was dealing with this problem. I finally knew all the time exactly how he was doing, for a change. I didn’t have to try to read his mind or be a detective. I stopped wondering and feeling like I had to ask him about it all the time.”

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