When I said “I do” few days after my 19th birthday, there was one thing I knew – this marriage would be full of change and growth.
Little did I know how challenging and painful that change and growth would sometimes be.
When I married my husband, I knew that he struggled with an addiction to pornography. In fact, I was sure that getting married would help since we hadn’t been sexually active before marriage and from what I knew of “every man’s struggle” from Christian culture, dogma, and literature – if a man’s desires were appropriately satisfied and if he simply “turned his eyes” from temptation, then he would not “wander.”
When I say “pornography addiction,” I mean that my husband compulsively searched online for images of naked women, felt he was not in control of his actions, and had lost any sense of true personal choice in the matter. It was slowly destroying our marriage and felt like a long and painful death.
Does that seem a bit dramatic for something so many adults see or do or include as a part of their sexual experience? The answer for me is – absolutely not.
What I’ve seen and experienced over the last nine years has proven to me that addiction has the potential to kill your marriage, your identity, your passion, and your joy in life.
I’m not here to give you a moral assessment of looking at other people having sex, but I want to shed light on a destructive emotional cycle that I wish someone had explained to me years ago. This is a cycle that we avoid talking about because it is so laden with shame, confusion, and judgment.
For the first two years of our marriage this cycle would go something like this:
1. We’re getting along great and sex is good, too
2. My husband starts to withdraw, hold back, and I suspect something is up
3. Eventually, after days or a week or two, he “confesses” and says he didn’t want to burden me and thought he could get out of the funk on his own
4. He feels guilty, frustrated, ashamed, wonders why he can’t control himself, and is totally overwhelmed since the accountability, counseling, books, etc. aren’t working
5. I get angry, hurt, feel violated and cheated, wonder what I did wrong, wonder if I am not enough to satisfy him, and generally feel inadequate, helpless, and alone
6. I forgive his “offense” to me because I know reconciliation and our marriage is more important than this… but I still hold on to bits of resentment and mistrust
7. Things go good for another week or so, and then the cycle begins again
Let’s just say, this was completely exhausting and consumed most of our relational energy.
If we weren’t in “offense” phase of the cycle I wondered when his next “relapse” would be, and when we were in it I wondered if it would ever end. I kept believing that this was just “how he was” as a man and this struggle was common – though also sinful and shameful. I didn’t get WHY this was happening and I had no idea how to support him beyond continuing to show up, believe in him, and try to fix the addiction.
It was in the third and fourth years of our marriage that things really started to shift. In that time, we had our first child, bought our first house, and my husband started thinking about going back to school.
It was then that I learned the truth that changed everything: Pornography addiction wasn’t caused by our sex life. The idea that the addiction was somehow just a sex issue, a desire issue, a “turn your eye” issue, a temptation issue, a normal man issue – it finally crumbled.
I woke up, he woke up, and we finally saw this mess for what it was – an escape.
He was escaping from the soul-sucking job at the bank, the haunting feeling that he had no idea who he was or what he was called to. He was dying inside and escaping from his own numbness – into something that provided the quickest way for him to feel.
He was crying out for something that felt like passion, purpose, and pleasure. He was desperately trying to retrieve what it felt like to LIVE.
Pornography is quick, easy, is not emotional, is always accessible, and will consume a person in with a promise of satisfaction that is, by nature, void of human connection and emotional intimacy.
Escaping into a false sense of satisfaction when life at its very core feels dissatisfying… this is the issue under the issue. The one that is sneaky as a fox and would rather not be found out.
Once I had this knowledge, I could release my responsibility to “fix” my husband by being a better lover. I could let go of the idea that I was at fault and see the deeper longing that he was trying to fill with something that left him with an emotional hangover every time.
It was years before we fully integrated this into our relationship and created a connection that completely erased all shame from this struggle.
Why was this so important? Because every time he hid his actions from me, he hid them from himself. I didn’t need to keep tabs on him, but without somewhere that his entire self was safe to be seen and heard… the struggle continued in secret which led to more shame which led to more escape.
As he shared himself fully with me, I had the uncomfortable opportunity to practice letting him have his own journey. It was no longer about me, or how sexy I was, or how good sex was. It wasn’t about other women tempting him in his “weakness.” It wasn’t about playing the victim and placing blame on other people or things anymore.
I stopped assuming he was out of control, and started asking him what his choices were about who he wanted to be. In what I recall as a couple of our most potent and powerful conversations around this, I asked him:
“What’s the point of pleasure? What does it mean to you?”
He gawked at the enormity of the question, and finally answered, “Pleasure is freedom.”
“Great, and what else?”
“Feeling more like… ME.”
If pleasure to him was freedom and feeling more like himself, then he had the perfect criteria to inform his choices that wasn’t dependent on anyone else’s approval – not even mine.
Was his choice bringing him freedom? Was his choice helping him to feel more like his true self?
If the answer was no (and it’s usually no to both!) then that is not something that will bring him pleasure.
From the fourth to ninth year of our marriage, this cycle has faded into nothingness. I no longer need to be my husband’s savior, and he no longer needs to be saved. We talk openly about where we aren’t choosing what we truly desire… in every area of our lives.
In some way, this “levels the playing field.” My vices – while maybe more culturally acceptable or less shameful – are no less damaging to my joy than his, and they all need to be brought up and let go of.
We’ve invested nine years into a relationship that continues to deepen and grow daily. We’ve changed our lives to allow him to quit that soul sucking job, go back to school to pursue his passion, and stop escaping from himself. And I have the honor of watching him remember what it feels like to LIVE again.