Friday, December 24, 2010

Hearing the Inner Voice That's been Drowned Out by Craving

 It takes a while to develop the kind of inner attunement Nigel's now practicing.

Instead of meeting in person yesterday he phoned in for his session from his in-law's place. He and his wife and their new baby will be there throughout the break between semesters. Last year we did a couple of sessions the same way over the holidays, but the content of what Nigel talked about was very different. I was so struck by the contrast that I thumbed back in his file to check out my notes from a year ago. Here's how he started our December 20, 2009 conversation: "I'm feeling so antsy here. They live in the middle of the prarrie and they're not big on TV. I can feel this big hole where I'd usually be going to some form of electronic entertainment. I've looked through their bookshelves and pulled out three or four titles that interested me, but I just can't get into any of them. I think I'm feeling lousy because I can't get to my addiction the way I do at home. We didn't bring my laptop and their computers are all password protected. I want to be tempted, I want to have the opportunity to see something that will make me feel good, and I can't so I'm grouchy about the whole thing."

Part of what's different for Nigel now is that he has made it past the withdrawal he always went through back then whenever he managed to abstain from pornography for a time. But there's an even more important difference. He no longer attributes the antsy feeling he sometimes gets to his addiction. He doesn't interpret all of his distress as coming from an urge to go to pornography on the one hand or to a sense of guilt and shame from having relapsed on the other. He's getting so much more adept at sorting through his feelings. Here's what he told me this year: "I asked Melissa to sit down with me last night because I was feeling unsettled. It wasn't clear to me at first, but as we started talking it out I realized that I was wondering what we're doing here. What's our purpose? How will we know whether we've achieved it once it's time to head back to school? I want to make sure we open ourselves up to opportunities for good things to happen. I want to experience things that feel nice, like a real conversation with some of her siblings or her parents--a chance to connect more deeply with them. Or is there a project I can help with around their house that would help me feel good about pitching in? I decided that it might be as simple as going to the store and getting some blueberries so that I can make some pancakes one morning. As we kept talking, I realized that I'm also feeling some fear of the upcoming semester. It's supposed to be the hardest semester of the entire doctoral program. There's a desire to stay where someone else is taking care of everything. For some odd reason it's a little hard to enjoy the down time. In quiet moments, what's coming after the break looms it's head and stares me down."

I asked Nigel how it felt to talk all of that out with Melissa. "Oh, it was nice. It cleared my head. She's a good listener. Talking with her validates what I feel." I've learned over the years that, not only can our wives be good listeners, they tend to me more attuned to emotion than we are as men. As we talk with them about the events in our lives and, in particular, what it's like for us personally to experience them, they can often help us sense the feeling tones that color what we're going through. Before talking with our wives, we only see this messy stew of unformed things, a tangle we would rather cover up by numbing out with our addiction. Despite all the disadvantages of our addiction, at least it's a familiar problem and the emotions associated with it are well-formed and straightforward. "I haven't given in for a day/week/month, so now I'm lusting... I gave in, so now I'm feeling guilty." That two dimensional see-saw blinds us to so much of life's emotional subtlety and richness.

Nigel has always needed Melissa to draw close when he was in need, but it's so much easier for her to do it now that he's coming to her to talk about his feelings. He used to stuff his feelings... then find himself more tempted... then either fight temptation or give in... and then come to her to confess after the fact or wait until he was caught. She had a hard time relating to his wrestle with sex addiction, but she can readily relate to his real emotions: Wanting the holiday to be special. Being afraid of going back to school. These kind of feelings are universal and easy for her to empathize with.

I was so struck by how different things seemed this year compared to last, I had to check and see if Nigel could also tell the difference. "I'm looking at my notes our session a year ago. Do you remember how you used to handle it when you felt uneasy and out of sorts?"

"Oh, yeah. When I got into a dark mood back then, sometimes I didn't even realize it. That's no surprise, since I had lived my entire life ignoring my feelings. Once I did recognize I was in a down state--usually because it got so bad or lasted so long--I thought I had to get myself out of it. I needed to turn to the Lord more. Then I often felt like I didn't get any help from the Lord, but I blamed it on myself: I must not be doing my dailies well enough. I need to step up my prayers or scripture study. The Lord doesn't abandon you; you must have abandoned the Lord. The idea that when I was in that dark place, I didn't have to just trudge through it on my own, that was so new to me. That was good to learn. I don't have to just deal with hard times on my own. I don't have to just "take it." I can talk about it. That started to change as I learned to talk out what I was feeling in group therapy. And then Melissa and I started checking in each night, doing a little inventory of how we were each feeling and what was one blessing in our life. It has developed into this habit of connecting at the end of almost every day. Sitting on the couch and talking things out. If one of us has had a hard day we'll rest our head on the other one's shoulder or lap and let it all spill out. Nothing's off limits. There's this unspoken contract: we know the other person will honor whatever we're feeling without criticizing or getting defensive. We hardly ever watch TV anymore. We'd much rather connect. That time together unwinding and connecting has become our thing. I'm only realizing as I'm describing it how sacred that time has become for us. I think it's the primary reason I've gone this long without relapsing. Our relationship is getting stronger and stronger and it seems to be healing my addiction to sex."

The biggest cost of addiction is not what it makes us do, but what it makes us miss. The main price Nigel paid for his addiction was not in what he did as he got so caught up in sex, but in what he missed when he was in the orbit of resisting and succumbing. For years he missed out on the quiet inner voice that was tugging at him, telling him to reach out, subtly prodding him to find meaning and connection, to cry on your wife's shoulder and probe your brother-in-law about how he made it through graduate school and make blueberry pancakes for all of your in-laws on Christmas eve morning. Oh, what a toll addiction exacts from us weary strugglers!

Please write and tell us what you're learning as you try to tune in, take your emotions more seriously, and open up and share what your feeling instead of keeping it all stuffed inside!

Saturday, December 18, 2010

How Couples Start to Heal

From early in their relationship, they shared a profound bond. When they were dating he “let her in” more than he had anyone else ever before. As she came to know the person he is inside, she saw his heart, and it won her over. She sensed deeply that she’d always be safe with him. Her guard came down and she came to trust him implicitly, without reservation.  

The discovery of his pornography habit is so piercing, so disorienting because it rocks the emotional foundation she has been building her life on for years. Some of the worst doubts, the bitterest anger, the shakiest trust are directed inward: how could she have missed the signs of something so important? How could she have been that poor a judge of his degree of devotion and fidelity? What she felt between them was as real to her as anything had ever been in her life. Now it’s like she’s in a funhouse with the moving ground and distorted mirrors. Will she ever be able to trust him—or her own judgment and sensibilities—again?

Her husband finds himself equally disoriented. This is the most important person in his life, the woman he esteems most highly and would give his life to protect. To see her so devastated takes his breath away. To know that she’s hurting because of something he’s done feels unbearable.

His own distress makes it hard for him to draw close to her in the way she needs him to right now. It makes it hard to keep hearing about her pain. Reflexively, he pulls away to give her space, hoping that the raging storm will pass, praying that her feelings will calm, and that somehow, maybe, over time, things can be good between them again. Unfortunately, that’s exactly the opposite of what she needs.

Their relationship heals as he checks his reflex to give her space and instead runs into the burning building of her distress. He helps her start to heal when he wants to hear about the dark moments in the middle of the day when they’re apart and her mind starts to play tricks on her. Their relationship keeps healing because he stays near her when she’s angry instead of retreating. When she needs her space he waits in the next room instead of leaving the house for the afternoon.

He remembers that she’s still hurting even when she acts like everything’s okay around others. He honors her reactions to sexual content on TV, in a movie, or on the news. He hangs in there through her suspicions and accusations. He comes to understand that she’s been traumatized and the world she thought she knew has disintegrated. He comes to accept that she naturally will be haunted by images both of what he’s done and what she imagines he might be capable of doing. She can’t help but keep sorting through scenarios and seeing him in those images. She’s trying to decide who he really is: the man she thought she knew or a very different one.

There are lots of ways he helps her heal. He asks if she wants a hug when she starts crying out of the blue. He keeps offering his support even though he knows that some days she will reject it. He accepts that some of the deepest wounds are reopened when they reenter the realm of sexual intimacy. He respects how hard it can be for her even if she wants to feel the closeness that sex can bring. He honors her need to call the shots and readjust her boundaries according to how she’s doing emotionally.

He has compassion for her inconsistency. One day she really is fine and feels like they’re putting it behind them… and the next day it really is right there in her face again, as fresh and large as it was the day she learned about his pornography habit. He realizes that she’s not playing games, holding it over his head, nursing her resentment. This is a genuine struggle for her, perhaps the most challenging of her life, and she’s no more of an expert through this terrain than he is.

Something happens inside of her as she witnesses his patient persistence, and then keeps experiencing it again and again. As they look deep into each others’ eyes again and again, as he lets her see what’s going on in his soul through the process of working through this problem, it is reaffirmed to her in an undeniable way: the man he truly is inside is the very one with the heart she thought she knew. Whatever role that sexual struggle played in his life, it is not as important as she is. She sees him invest his all in healing their relationship, and that makes it clear to her.

Something important happens inside for him in this process as well. As he lets himself absorb her pain, his empathy expands. As he realizes what he stands to lose, his caring for her increases. Her sensibilities about the sanctity of sex heighten his own. It’s not that he’s externalizing his conscience, but internalizing how sexuality impacts her. He grows into the man he knows she needs him to be.

How is the journey of healing is going for you and your spouse? Husbands and wives: what are you learning along the way? What have been your low points and high points? Are you stuck in a seemingly hopeless valley or looking out from a particularly inspiring peak right now? Tell us about it! We need to hear it, and you may benefit from sharing it. May the Lord keep blessing your efforts to heal your bond and draw even closer than you ever have before.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Male Vulnerability and the Mask of Addiction

This week I started working with two different men and their wives. On the surface, these men appear to have very different addictions. Yet as we have talked about their development, they have similar roots.

8 years ago Raymond was able to give up marijuana when Kelly made it a condition of accepting his marriage proposal. For the first four years of their lives together, Raymond recalls, “I didn’t need pot. We were everything to each other. That connection we had as a couple was all I needed.” Then Raymond and Kelly had their first baby. He started to feel less important to her. One weekend he felt neglected, got mad at her, and stayed out late with one of his old friends. He smoked again for the first time in years. He felt too ashamed to tell Kelly. After that it sometimes felt like he needed just a little to get through a hard weekend. Before long it was an almost daily thing again.

It’s been interesting to hear Raymond be more honest with Kelly about what he wants from her, deep down: her time and attention, to know that he’s important to her, to know that she won’t give up on him as he’s trying to get clean again. This is very different from the way Raymond reacted four years ago as he started to slide back into his addiction: “She’s going to be that way? Well, I don’t need her! I’m fine. I’ll take care of myself.” He couldn’t take care of himself... he needed regular doses of THC to do that for him. It reminds me of what my colleague, Geoff Steurer says all the time: As humans, we can’t help but reach when we’re in need. The question is, what are we going to reach for: an addictive substance, or that someone who means the most to us?

Then there was the other couple. Cheryl was drawn to Alan because of the tender-hearted, big hearted guy he was. Twelve years later she was ready to divorce him because of his anger. She talked him into taking an anger management class three years ago, but it did not help. If anger was his addiction, Alan seemed to be high all the time. When they came to our office for an intensive, week-long treatment, we talked about the time when things went from good between them to bad. Alan remembered hearing from a friend something that Cheryl had told that friend’s wife. It was something that hurt him deeply; “It was like a kick in the teeth.” Cheryl had never known how hurt Alan was. She didn’t remember saying what he’d been told she said, but acknowledged that, at the time, she very well may have. “I shared too much with that friend. I should have been working things out with Brad rather than complaining to her.”

What a relief it’s been for Brad to tell Cheryl about the deep hurt he’s felt over the years, from that initial comment, and then the immense shame he feels over his reputation with her family as “a monster” as his anger has worsened over the years. “I would rather have had you cut me loose and divorce me than to feel the way I did, that I was this guy you didn’t want, who was bringing you down, making your life worse.” Cheryl never knew about these hurt, and finds Brad so much easier to approach in loving ways when he’s “soft like this. When I can see what’s really going on behind the anger.”

It’s very powerful to hear these men talk with their wives about what they really need from them and from the relationship. It’s also been interesting to watch the difference between Cheryl’s and Kelly’s responses. Cheryl’s right there, willing and able to show Brad the love and acceptance he’s been craving from her once he lets her in on what he’s feeling beneath the anger. Kelly, by contrast, is not feeling very supportive or loving right now. I’ve been impressed that Raymond’s openness and honesty with Kelly is facilitating his recovery nonetheless. Seeing this with Raymond and other clients has changed my perspective. I used to think that we had to identify our real needs and have them met in order to overcome addition. There’s more power than I realized in merely talking about how we’re feeling to the most important person in our lives and exploring with them what our feelings tell us about what we need. The greatest power seems to be in the reaching, and not necessarily in the meeting of the need. Even if our spouse can’t or won’t in turn respond in the way we’d like them to and thus “give us what we need,” we feel better for having been real them. Being seen and heard for who we really are has a healing power in and of itself.

So get real with yourself about the vulnerable feelings that you’ve been masking by going to your addiction. Then get real with your beloved by opening up about those feelings. This process will help you heal your addiction… and more importantly, it will help you heal your relationship. May God bless your efforts!

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Overcoming the Shame that Keeps Us from Reaching Out

Tomorrow Kevin will be flying to Las Vegas on business. He's been there for training twice before, and on each of those trips he viewed pornography on TV two or three of the evenings during his ten-day stays. He is doing lots better now overall in his life, but he knows a trip like this will put him at high risk for relapse. In our therapy session this morning, I role played with him how he might open up to his wife Wendy all along the way about his mindset so that he has the most support right when he really needs it. After getting a feel for what had led to his downfall on his other two trips, I picked up my cell phone and pretended to be him:

“Hi sweetie. I just rented my car and I’m on my way to the hotel. You know how I’ve sometimes struggled when I’m on the road. I just wanted to let you in on how it’s going. I think I’m still going to be okay. I certainly don’t plan on doing anything. But I just wanted to check in because I found my attention being drawn by all the suggestive advertisements in the airport. Even on the flight down, I saw a magazine with a barely-covered model on the front. It gets my mind going and I’m tempted to obsess. These were just little pulls, but I want to stay in touch with you. Will you hold my hand so that if a riptide tugs at me it won’t drag me out to sea? That’s the last thing I need on this trip and in my life right now. I’m sure it’s the last thing you need, too.”

“It’s good to hear your voice sweetie,” Kevin smiled at me, not bothering to pick up his cell phone. “That is the last thing we need right now. We’ve been feeling so close lately. Do you really struggle even three hours after leaving the house? Are you really tempted to think sexual thoughts about other women when your wife is home taking care of your kids?”

“Oh, honey,” I grinned at Kevin, “I am so grateful for what a great mom you are. I’m so grateful you’re there holding down the fort when I have to be gone. That’s why I called. I need to get grounded again to what my life is really about. I wish I didn’t get so hooked by lustful thoughts, but I do. If you want me to just deal with these things on my own or by leaving messages on Dr. Chamberlain’s phone, I can do that. I don’t want to be a burden to you.”

“No,” Kevin said, “keep calling me. Here: why don’t you tell Charlotte a bedtime story while I go give Skyler a bath.”

“That,” Kevin said after I put down my phone, “is a call I’ve never made. It sounds great now, but I honestly don’t know if I could do that in the moment.”

Kevin was right. If disclosing temptation were a gymnastics move, its difficulty level would be 10.

“Of course you can’t do it in the moment,” I reassured him, “not in your usual state of mind at least. When you find yourself drawn by porn, you’re not the man you are now. In the heat of the moment, you’re in a sort of trance. You get hypnotized into the mindset of that 12 year old boy you were when you first found pornography on the internet that Summer when you were alone at home and your older siblings all had part-time jobs. You have all the needs for attention and touch and closeness and approval and affection that 12-year-old had. That’s what fuels the pull to porn. And then if you even look down that path of pursuing porn, you have all the shame of that 12-year-old. How likely is he to reach out for help the way we just role-played?”

“Back then I didn’t even want to let my parents know I needed help in Algebra. I don’t think it even occurred to me that I could get help from them about sex!”

“Right. And that’s the ego state you’re in when those feelings get triggered again. That 12-year-old still doesn’t know that lots of kids his age and even grown men have a difficult time managing sexuality. He doesn’t know you’re married to a woman you can talk to. He doesn’t realize that honesty is more important to her than a perfect performance. He thinks he can’t open up to people. He thinks he needs to conquer this on his own. The last thing he would do is talk about it! If you could talk to that boy right now, what would you tell him?”

Nodding his head, Kevin had a faraway look in his eyes. “I’d let him know that he doesn’t need to conquer this on his own. As hard as it is for him to imagine now, everyone will still love him despite this struggle.” Kevin kept gazing. Then he laughed: “One day a group of men will even clap when he admits to all of them that he’s a sex addict. The hardest person for him to learn to be honest with will be Wendy. She will mean the world to him, and he will absolutely dread letting her down. But, he will learn to do it. She will understand. Eventually, over time. And he will do much better in this struggle once he truly lets her in so that there are no more secrets between them.” Kevin nodded, a settled look on his face.

“What does that 12-year-old think of that?” I asked.

“I think he’s starting to get it. I guess we’ll see by the way he handles himself on this trip!”

“I guess we will,” I agreed.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Want Porn Out? Let Wife In!

Here’s how it went in the wild West: the Sheriff faced down the outlaw: “There ain’t room in this town for the both of us.” Always, by the end of the movie, only one of them would remain. Most often, of course, it was the good guy.

Most of our wives feel the same way about porn. “There ain’t room in your life for the both of us.”

Shuddering at the thought of losing our wives, too many of us take the wrong approach to this problem. We hide from our wives the fact that porn’s still in town. We try to avoid porn and are quite ashamed that we’re not doing a perfect job of that. So, tragically, we avoid our wives. We still live in the same house, eat at the same table, raise the same kids, and even sleep in the same bed. However, we avoid eye contact, avoid talking about how we’re feeling, avoid too much closeness. All out of fear that she’ll see deep into my soul and find me repulsive. The fear of losing her can keep me from really letting her in. How ironic.

There is another way. I see men do it all the time. They stay close to their wives. They open up and talk about what’s really going on, keeping her informed about emotional highs and lows. Here’s the hard part: this kind of closeness includes a very intimidating prospect. If we’re going to really commit to a life of openness and emotional intimacy, we have to disclose when we slip back to a porn-seeking mentality. It’s a very tough thing to do, but it’s a sure way stay in recovery. Keep communicating with your wife about exactly what’s going on, and the sexy, seductive voice of porn gets hoarse and starts to crack. Let her in on the struggle, especially in its early stages, and the sprouting seeds of relapse wither in the searing sunlight of your honesty and her awareness.

“Honey, I’m on my way back to the office after grabbing some lunch in town. I just walked out of Barnes & Noble. I thought I’d just browse for a few minutes, but I saw a suggestive image on a book cover and then decided to head over to the magazine section. I got that tunnel vision, searching for something to look at. My chest felt tight. I grabbed one of the racier magazines and started thumbing through it. Five minutes later I was standing there with an erection reading an article. I tore myself away at that point, but I feel ashamed that I let it go that far. I don’t want to continue down this path. I knew that if I didn’t call you I’d probably go looking for stuff online this afternoon. So, as embarrassing as this is, I wanted to let you know how it’s going.”

At this point it’s tempting for a woman to say, “Why do you go into Barnes & Noble in the first place if you’ve had problems there before?” Or perhaps even, “Are you ever going to be over this problem?” But she wants to keep her finger on the pulse of how he’s really doing. She wants to be a resource so that he can keep reaching out. If he’s been addicted, this is the kind of struggle he’s had to deal with on his own. That hasn’t gone very well for him. They both want him to be able to keep coming to her and opening up. So she says instead, “Thanks for telling me. Let’s stay in touch.”

Ahhh. Staying in touch. That’s it. His connection with her, if he refuses to break it when he struggles, is the very thing that will keep loosening the grip of this other, self-destructive attachment.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Join the Anti-Porn Revolution!

I’m so touched by the work of a group started by Zilfa the Freethinker. I happened on to their Facebook page and found it so inspiring I just had to share it.

Their mission: “To reduce the influence of pornography on our society in our own little way by: 1) aiding and encouraging the sober porn junkie in his quest to gain full control over his addiction; 2) enlightening everyone of the adverse effects that pornography has had on our society and of the dangers associated with being under the control of porn or even watching it at all.”

Count me in. I’ve always wanted to be part of a revolution.

Fans of the page include some who are hooked on porn. Olanrewaju Lanrezo Ali commented, “Yea dis a good ideal. I wish i culd stop dis act. It like u killin urself in pain. Wel am tryin.”

Reading Olanrewaju’s words makes me want to keep getting up and going to work every day to help people escape the jaws of this monster.

Those who’ve found freedom have also joined Zilfa’s revolution. Olla Ollu Atoyebi puts it succinctly: “Porn almost ruined my mentality bt thnkgod.”

Thank God indeed for Olla’s liberation. And thank God for people like Abonyi Emeka Samuel, who are thinking about our future: “Pls save our youths oh!! The addiction to porn is prevalent now, especially among the future leaders. I think we should join our hands 2gether n save our future. It is worth fighting for!!”

I’ll share just one more quote, a message from Hontonyon Horleryimicar Hayodeji: “We shall overcome it 2geda,wt d help of God, determinatn and a passionate hatred towards such things.”

Thank you Hontonyon for your hope and determination! And thank you Zilfa for calling us to arms. I’m going to do my best to hold my end of the front line. It’s great to know all in this battle together!

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Connection Is What We Really Need

Carol said that she wanted to go to bed the other night, but just didn't quite feel settled yet. She'd eaten a nice dinner and felt full that way. Yet she didn't feel satisfied somehow. She felt a lingering emotional charge. "The day left me itching emotionally. Incomplete. Like there was something more I needed." Often, the something more she goes to is online sexual chatrooms. They cover over that yucky feeling for a while, but then leave her feeling worse afterward. Carol has been working to stay with her unsettled feelings and reach out to her husband, Rob, instead.

So Carol walked into the kitchen where Rob was eating a bowl of cereal. "I feel like I've been jarred around today. I need a place or a way to retreat and have some soothing and some peace." Rob laughed, "You need peace? Good luck finding it in this three ring circus!" She was glad he was in a good mood, and she knew he meant well, but she also felt that her call out to him hadn't registered at all. She had reached as a bid for his attention and help in finding comfort, but he hadn't realized that she had a serious need that she was trying to bring to him.

It would have been very easy for Carol to retreat and give up. But persistent needs require persistent self-advocating. "I know that things aren't likely to change around here. We're not going to be hiring a maid or shipping off any of our kids to boarding school." Rob laughed again. "But can I come to you when I've had a rough day and just have you spend some one-on-one time with me? I'd love it if I could just put my head on your shoulder and have you run your fingers through my hair."

Rob put down his spoon and stood up and put his arms around Carol. Then he started talking with French accent. "Shh," Carol said. "Can we just go over and sit on the couch quietly? You know I love your sense of humor, but right now my heart needs some real quiet soothing." Rob sighed and smiled and took her by the hand and did just that.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

How You'll Know It's Safe to Swim with a Killer Whale

This blog is all about encouraging couples to work together to overcome pornography problems. However, some individuals who are struggling need to do a lot of work on their own before a spouse can safely work together to help them. For a spouse to work with such individuals too closely in the beginning can do more harm than good.

Henry had repeatedly told Cheryl that he would not have a pornography problem if she was more responsive to his needs. He exerted unrelenting pressure on her to engage in sex acts that made her uncomfortable. He told her that he'd find her sexier if she'd undergo breast augmentation surgery.

Cheryl was diligent in her diet and exercise routine, in part because she remembered Henry telling friends before they were married that he'd get divorced in a heartbeat if his wife ever got fat. She tried to keep their home immaculate but Henry always seemed to find a reason to complain. She hated how much pressure Henry put on the kids to achieve and perform.

Whenever Henry and Cheryl worked together, it was always Cheryl who bore the load. They taught a children's Sunday School class together. Henry had initially been offended that they were even asked to teach it, feeling like that kind of work was below his capabilities. In the classroom he had good rapport with the kids as long as they behaved, but Cheryl often felt like he would interrupt the lesson she had planned and "steal the show," spontaneously taking the lesson in a direction that often had little to do with the topic they'd been asked to teach that week.

Cheryl had not been a doormat when she married Henry. However, years of his anger and complaining and blaming had made her doubt herself. She sometimes wondered if the things that were wrong with their relationship really were all her fault. Henry seemed so confident most of the time, and so convinced when he wasn't that the problem was all Cheryl.

I knew that if Cheryl were to work closely with Henry on his addiction, she would end up bearing the brunt of it just as she did with their Sunday School class. I encouraged each of them to do some work on their own first. Henry needed to change some lifelong patterns of self-justification and entitlement. He needed a lot of practice taking responsibility for his behavior and future rather than looking to Cheryl to meet all his emotional needs. Cheryl needed to work in a group with other women to develop more emotional independence and the capacity to stand up to the pressure and control Henry could exert.

Many men in Henry's position, who are used to blaming their wives for what's not right in their lives and looking to her for soothing and solutions, bail when they discover that in the early stages recovery for them is going to be primarily an inside job. To Henry's credit, he didn't bail. He read Why Is It Always About You and learned about Narcissism. He read Jeff Young's book, Reinventing Your Life, and learned about the entitlement lifetrap. He worked in therapy to reverse those patterns. He read Terrance Real's book, Why Can't I Get Through to You and really took in Real's message: Your wife is probably right. It's you who need to change to heal the relationship. We watched as Henry worked his tail off in individual and group therapy. It took a while, but when they were finally ready to work together as a couple, Henry and Cheryl's marraige counseling sessions and the work they tried to do as a couple really made a difference.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

He Needs Honesty as Much as She Does

Once Phil started telling Carrie about his slips right after they'd happen, it changed the addiction for him. It robbed the addiction of its potency. Shame is such an intense emotion. Keeping our behavior a secret seems to just supercharge the whole struggle emotionally. Opening up to Carrie seemed to release some of that energy, the way a ground wire discharges electrical energy into the ground, neutralizing what otherwise might have been a dangerous charge.

Another thing happened for Phil over time as he got in the habit of being real with Carrie about his struggles. He finally felt like he had support in the midst of his worst moments. I told him early on, "You're a decent guy. You're one of the good guys. You deserve to have the support of the most important person in your life. There's no reason a guy like you should have to face such a gnarly struggle on your own."

It was a surprise for Carrie to see just how bad these periods were for Phil once he started conveying his true struggle to her. Since he'd never shared with her what was really in his heart and soul when things were bad with his addiction, Carrie had become convinced that he enjoyed it more than she now realized he did. She thought acting out sexually was a light-hearted thing he engaged in, something that he wanted to keep from her so that he wouldn't have to give it up. Seeing his angst and turmoil firsthand convinced her otherwise. He was less the bad guy in her eyes.

I'll mention one final benefit for Phil. Porn keeps us hooked, in part, because it's been paired repeatedly with the pleasure of sexual fantasy and masturbation. The frontal cortex of the brain, which processes our values and priorities and goals, is trying to keep us away from porn. However, that's not the part of the brain that is in charge in the heat of tempting moments. Rather, one the most primitive parts of the brain, a part we have in common with the reptiles, takes over at the controls at such moments. That reflexive part of the brain responds not to reasoning, but to conditioning. If what immediately follows a behavior is pleasure, that part of our brain wants to go back to it again and again. If what immediately follows a behavior is aversive, it will go to great lengths to prevent that outcome in the future. Just like we don't scold a puppy for wetting on the carpet three months ago because it would never connect the discomfort with the behavior, telling my wife three months after I had a problem with porn doesn't make smut less attractive to me tomorrow. However, if I disclose to her right away, the primal core of my brain starts making the link. After that, the bloom is off the rose of acting out sexually. If I know that I'll open up and do it right away, then the idea that no one has to know about this just doesn't hold water any more, even in the tunnel vision kind of focus we go into when we're craving.

What are the benefits for you of working together with your spouse? How has it been different than struggling on your own and trying to keep your ups and downs a secret?

Monday, September 27, 2010

The Benefits of Disclosing Slips

Quinn and Martha both look back on it as the turning point in his recovery from a pornography habit. It was when Quinn committed to Martha that if he ever lapsed back to pornography, he would let her know within sixty minutes. If they couldn’t talk, he’d let her know by code through text or a voicemail. Their key phrase would be “a problem with the credit card.”

Quinn was convinced that this promise alone would put the final nail in the coffin of his porn problem. Martha wasn’t so sure. After all, he had expected other steps in the past to be just the thing to help him put it all behind him once and for all.

It turned out that Quinn relapsed a few times during the first year after he’d committed to within-the-hour disclosure. It still bothered Martha every time it happened, and she let Quinn know that. Nonetheless, great things came from it. It changed the dynamics of the struggle between them, the struggle within Quinn, and the struggle within Martha.

A couple of months after signing their new contract, Quinn called Martha at 4:15 one afternoon. He explained to her that he’d been reading the news online during a slow time at his office. One of the links on a mainstream news website had been titillating. He clicked. Links on that site were even more edgy. He followed that trail back into familiar territory, clicking and clicking around through the smut for several minutes. Then he came to himself, clicked out, and with the effect of that potent drug still reverberating through his system, Quinn had picked up the phone and dialed his home number.

It was a victory, but it hadn’t been an easy one. “The way my heart raced when I looked at pornography again after months without viewing it was nothing compared to how it pounded as I waited for Martha to answer the phone.” He had walked outside into the parking lot so that he could talk more freely with her about what he’d done. Both he and Martha, at my suggestion, avoided asking about the nature of the content (like which celebrity did Quinn find irresistible and why? Did the women he looked at have larger breasts than her?). Instead, they talked about how many minutes it had gone on, whether it escalated to courser content over time, whether he had masturbated or not. They also talked about what had been going on in the hours and days before his lapse. Were there any warning signs that he’d been at risk? What had his thoughts been? What was going on emotionally that might lead him to hanker for an escape?

Quinn’s honesty had profound effects. (With all the benefits, it’s no wonder “Thou shalt not bear false witness” is one of the ten commandments.) Martha explained, “As we’ve talked after his lapses, I noticed things I never had before. These were things that had completely escaped me because he had never allowed me close enough to his struggle to see it clearly, to see it for what it really was. I could tell right away was that he wasn’t going to pornography as a way of turning away from me and toward other women. He’d lapse into it to turn away from life, to escape. It was a drug to him. I could never compete with porn, not because I don’t have a supermodel’s body, but because I’m a real live person. He associates me with real life. I’m not a blissful escape, and I don’t think he expects me to become one.”

Another thing occurred after Quinn opened up to Martha immediately following his second slip-up. “I was angry at him again,” she recalled. “All I said to him that time was, ‘Really?! Can I not even go to book club for two hours? Really?!’ I was so mad. He didn’t even try to talk to me about the details, and it was a good thing because I wasn’t in the mood. I just couldn’t believe that he was still going to keep going back. I thought, just like all the other things we’ve tried before, even this one isn’t going to work. However, in the following weeks, I started to notice some of the tightness inside me easing. I realized later what it was: the threat of secrecy was no longer this cloud looming over our relationship, over our lives. I still didn’t know how he was going to do today, but at least I knew—really knew—how he’d done right up to yesterday. In fact, I knew that if he’d had a problem and gone back to porn, it would have happened within the last hour. That was comforting, to at least know what we were dealing with. He might still be struggling with an addiction, but at least he was being real with me.

As I keep working with couples like Quinn and Martha, I’ll keep sharing here the benefits they report of working together to retrieve their marriages from the jaws of porn. If you’re in the same boat they are, I’d love to hear what you’re noticing and learning along the way.

The ABCD Alternative to Porn

Gary had always tried to avoid conflict. He just didn't like it when a fuss was made, especially if he was at the center of it.

He'd always been shy. As a kid, it always made it worse when someone pointed out how shy he was. The worst of all was when someone tried to help him "get out of his shell." Now he was okay being called shy. Someone had noticed the truth and he didn't view it as a negative anymore. It was his way to be a little more anxious, thoughtful, and solitary than others and he was okay with that. He enjoyed being able to do his thing, contribute in the ways he felt comfortable, and feel like that was enough.

Gary had settled into patterns that worked for him in most areas of life. However, his current job is creating some problems for him. He manages computer systems for an insurance company. Most days and most weeks, he has more to do than he can get done. With so much on his plate, he's often frustrated at the end of the day. The worst part of it for him is when he doesn't get everything done on time. If it's bad enought that his boss or a customer complains, that's torture for Gary. He tries to avoid that at all cost.

Unfortunately, sometimes it costs Gary a lot to try to avoid disappointing other people. When things got busy sometimes he comes in to work early, stays at his desk through the lunch hour, and stays late trying to get caught up.

Unfortunately, he can't stay in that wound up mode for long before he needs a release. The primitive, surival part of Gary's brain knows an "effective" one: pornography. He is at a much greater risk of relapse during such times of stress.

Gary tries to combat the urges to view porn again, and he succeeds most of the time. However, every time he lapses (lately that has only been once every few months) it's almost always during or right after a particularly stressful day and week.

For Gary, avoiding porn is like closing down the Queensburrough Tunnel. It's probably not going to work unless we make sure to direct drivers to the Brooklyn Bridge so that traffic still has a way out of Manhatten.
What could be Gary's alternate release?

I knew it would go better if that new and different release came early on, before his brain and body had a chance to work themselves up into a state of reactivity. He needed something to do as he was getting in to work early or instead of skipping lunch. I encouraged him to try the ABCD technique to help shift his body and brain out of reactive mode and back into a state of mastery.

A is for accept. Try accepting whatever it is you find threatening. I encouraged Gary to accept that he might disappoint his boss. Surrender to the possibility that he wouldn't get everything done rather than wasting so much time and energy and expending so many stress hormones bracing against that possibility throughout the whole day. Accepting the dreaded outcome doesn't mean that it will happen. In fact, once we allow that things may very well go poorly, it frees us up to work more effectively on the tasks at hand. We've let the final outcome go, and thus we can plug along at the nitty gritty details, the very place where we can work most productively anyway. Accepting the worst improves our chances that things will actually turn out just fine.

I encouraged Gary to take acceptance one step further. "When your anxiety hits, instead of thinking 'Oh, no!' say to yourself, 'Oh, good. I'll practice mastery.' Anticipate those bad moments as great opportunities to recondition yourself." Conditioning is a simple process, it just takes repetition. Pair a response with a trigger often enough, and the response will eventually be generated by the trigger. It got to the point that Pavlov could make his dogs salivate just by ringing a bell. The automatic response we want is mastery when we usually rise into reactivity. If we practice the ABCDs of mastery enough when we start to feel anxious, eventually our body and brain will pair the two. It will start making the shift on its own, automatically generating some of the elements of mastery when we feel anxiety coming on.

B is for breathe and notice. Take a nice, full breath and notice something that's real now: a sight, a sound, or something you can touch. Breathing insures that the body and brain are getting oxygen, which helps calm the nervous system out of reactive mode. Noticing some concrete and specific aspect of the physical reality helps bring us back to the here and now. Here and now is where Gary lives and can exercise power; he can't do anything to directly influence that imaginary future where his boss is ready to fire him for what he failed to get done.

C is for commit. Commit to a mental image of how you want to live. For Gary, this wasn't a vision of him checking off all his tasks off the list at the end of the day. Rather, it was the image of living a life not driven by tasks. He didn't want work to dominate his mind and his life. He wanted to get his work done, but keep his primary focus on what really mattered: his life after work, with his wife and two kids. That felt very compelling to him. They were the reason he was going to work. He wanted to be able to remember that in the middle of the day, to really feel it, rather than getting so focused on and caught up in work that it seemed life or death.

D is for do. In reactive mode, energizing chemicals are coursing through our systems. Even when we resist the urge to act on a destructive impulse, that may not dissapate the energy driving that impulse. Spend some of that energy by deciding on an action and then taking it. Even if it's just getting up for a minute to take a quick little walk. Gary spends a lot of time in meetings, so he may have to do something while sitting still. I encouraged him to tense muscle groups in his body briefly, for instance by pressing his toes up toward his shin, pressing his heels into the ground, and then also tensing his thighs, hamstrings, buttocks, and even his abs. Just for maybe 15 seconds before releasing. He can do all this without anyone else at the conference room table noticing. It will burn off some of those energizing chemicals and he'll feel a little less compulsive and driven as a result.

I'm hoping that this tool will help Gary stop getting so wound up that he's at risk of falling for that old, self-defeating release of pornography. I'll let you know how it works for him. Please feel free to try it out and let me know if it works for you.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Former Porn Junkie Sober 20+ Years

I have lots of spare moments, chances to brush up on my reading, as I travel around the country training therapists to treat pornography addicts. I’m knee-deep in this material all the time, but I was still a bit self-conscious sitting on a bench outside the airport thumbing through a volume, Pornography Addiction Workbook emblazoned across the front in bold red letters. There was a smartly dressed man sitting a couple of seats down from me. When I glanced up he said, “I used to be addicted to porn.” I put down my book and smiled. “Got into it in the Navy. Then I couldn’t kick the habit. My wife hated it. And who can blame her: sweet young thing, thought I would have eyes just for her. I wanted to ease her mind, but I kept falling back in. So I’d hide it. Then she’d find it and around and around we’d go again.” He shook his head. “Those were hard years. Struggled into my late twenties. Life got much better once I got that under control.”
He looked to be in his late fifties. Some quick math told me he must have close to three decades of sobriety under his belt. I’d only been in the business fifteen years, so I’d never talked with anyone with that kind of recovery to look back on. What an opportunity. Suddenly I hoped our hotel shuttle would be slow to arrive. I wondered what it was like for him now.
“It still calls to me sometimes,” he admitted. Then he shrugged and laughed. “I just take that as part of life. It’s all around us these days. I pay attention to see if there’s anything I did to put myself at risk so I can avoid those problems in the future.  I don’t watch TV late at night anymore. I bring something to read when I’m travelling, or some entertainment of my own for evenings in the hotel room.”
The airbrakes screeched and the door of the shuttle bus popped open in front of us. I realized we probably weren’t going to be talking about porn anymore. “How are things for the two of you now?” I asked as we settled into our seats in the bus and it lurched away from the curb. “The two of us are now thirteen. We have four kids and seven grandkids. We've been blessed. You’re from Salt Lake. Are you LDS?” I nodded and he continued, “I’m serving as a Stake President in Colorado. Help lots of people with this problem now. Life has been good to us. Couldn’t be happier.”
It was just a brief conversation, but I’ve thought about it a lot since. A few things were striking:

  • He doesn’t overreact when porn sometimes still calls to him. He doesn’t let that suck him back into shame: “What’s wrong with me?! I’m never going to get over this! I’ve ruined myself for life!” He doesn’t sound the alarms: “Dang! I’m still addicted! Gotta fight these urges with all my might!” As a result, he doesn’t overcorrect. He isn’t hypervigilant, worried that every sexual cue might lead to his downfall.
  • He seemed to be relaxed and at ease. I remember him shrugging and laughing about temptation being a part of life.
  • He stays observant and flexible. As a result, he learns from experience. If something puts him more at risk than usual, he takes it to heart without panicking. He takes simple, sensible steps to make life easier for himself in the future. If his new approach works better for him, he sticks with it. He doesn’t assume that the mere passage of time makes him safe and knowingly put himself back in harm’s way.

His way is a relaxed, perceptive, easy-going, but committed one.
How different it is from the knee-jerk reaction we have when we’re fed up. We’re prone to fall into an uptight, impatient, put-my-head-down-and-do-whatever-I-need-to-do-to-put-this-habit-behind-me-once-and-for-all mode. Unfortunately, that way is inflexible and more of the same. It hasn’t worked for us before, why would it now? Even a good Navy man knows that sometimes there are better ways than “ @#!*% the torpedoes, full speed ahead!”

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Letting Her Express Her Pain

It’s perhaps the most common pattern we see among couples who are dealing pornography issues: He is reluctant to talk about it—so much so that her opportunities to work through it by reaching out to him and talking out her feelings are stifled. Thus she’s prevented from gaining more and more freedom over time from the issue of his pornography use. We’ve made sense of this pattern by exploring just how much of his world turns on how he’s doing in her eyes. To delve into exactly how and how much she’s been wounded and disappointed—for him to see the pain in her eyes and know that he’s helped cause it—is terrifying and can seem, at a very primal and convincing level, like the exact wrong road to take.

However, giving her more opportunities to freely bring up and fully discuss her hurts is the exact right road to take. Remember, if I open up and let into my ears and my head and my heart the feelings my wife shares, they become like superglue between us. Negative feelings don’t fester and grow when they’re expressed and truly heard. Rather, each time, a little of their toxicity dissipates, a little of their flammability is defused. Miraculously, more and more, I, who have hurt her, become the toxicity dissipater and flammability diffuser of choice for her. What was once the wedge between us becomes the Velcro.

The process of sharing her feelings and the tremendous healing that results does not occur in a moment or a day, but over weeks, months, and often years. Nonetheless, many couples find it helpful to have a "big talk" about her hurts and suffering and wounds and injuries to initiate this process or to catalyze it if it’s already been occurring.
Set aside adequate time—perhaps an hour or so—to talk in greater depth than usual. Use the questions I’ll share below to "interview" your wife. If needed, take more time a day or two later to have a second session to further discuss these questions and her answers to them.

Men, your goal is simply listen—to truly hear what she says and then to empathize with how she seems to feel. Try to genuinely understand what your wife is going through: what’s she she’s experiencing now emotionally and what feelings she’s been having that you have perhaps not fully understood or taken in. A man may already come into this discussion feeling like he’s had his wife's feelings regularly dumped on him as though out of a dump truck, since emotions have been so raw and abundant, and thus wonder, "How could I have possibly missed what she's feeling?" In truth, however, it has typically been hard for him to take in her pain because he feels so ashamed at having caused it and has been so are antsy to get those conversations over with. He may have been so eager to explain how the pornography meant something different to him than it did to her, convince her he's doing better now, commit to avoid pornography in the future, and so on that he neglected to first simply listening in an effort to understand. It usually takes a lot of reminding yourself to keep breathing (rather than holding your breath, eagerly waiting for it to be over) and trying to imagine what it has been like for her to have had those experiences she’s had.

Most men feel a tremendous amount of pressure to respond verbally in a way that somehow helps. However, then they start to feel afraid they’ll have the wrong response or they feel self-conscious and sheepish that they don't feel worse or perhaps worry that their remorse may not be showing on their face. If this ends up being the case for you, don’t give in to the temptation to end the discussion. Don’t try to act the way you think she wants to act—or even try to convey what you think she needs at first. Simply share with her that impulse ("Gosh, it is hard to stick with this right now because I'm afraid you won't see the response in me that you want to see. I'm afraid this will disappoint you. That I'll be a disappointment to you again.") Then go back to listening and encourage her to continue to share her feelings. There's no right or wrong way to respond, she just needs you to be present, "there for her," and really hear her. That is do-able, even if it feels threatening. It helps to have this discussion sitting knee to knee or at least kitty-corner to each other so that she can look you in the eyes your eyes. Believe it or not, what she sees in your face will be much more powerful than anything she hears you say. It helps some men to take themselves out of the equation: "Even though this is about what I did that affected her, it's not about me anymore it's about her—what is she going through. For the next hour and a half I don't have to apologize, convince her I'm contrite or that I'm going to do well in the future, or make amends... I just need to listen. She is the focus, not me or my behavior."

Women: It can be very helpful to your husband if, during this discussion at least, you let him off the hook in the above regard. Remember that at least during the time you’ve set aside, he is not trying to say anything right or effective or helpful. His focus is not on saying anything at all, but on simply listening and trying to understand for a while. Someone who knows they need to respond is often thinking about how they’re going to respond rather than taking in what is being said. Therefore, resist the impulse to demand a verbal response from him during this process. "So now that you see how badly I’m hurting, how can you just sit there and not respond? What in the world do you have to say for yourself?" Please give both of you the gift of letting him remain free to receive what you’re trying to convey.
Questions to Discuss

Rory Reid, Ph.D., one of the preeminent researchers on pornography’s effect on relationships, has developed the following questions to help facilitate—and deepen—a discussion between partners. I’ve shared them with many couples in my practice and received feedback that quite often they really help get a dialogue rolling and stay on a productive track. We’re grateful to Dr. Reid for letting us share them with you here:

  • What has it been like for you to have the sacred trust you placed in me betrayed by my choices?
  • How do you experience your days differently now than before the discovery of my behavior? What ongoing events or activities trigger painful feelings for you? How often do these experiences occur?
  • How have my choices impacted your beliefs and feelings about intimacy in our relationship? What boundaries would you like to establish or change about intimacy?
  • What fears do you currently have about me or our relationship? When are these fears more intense? Less intense? What helps reduce your fear? How do you physically experience fear (e.g., bodily sensations, headaches, tension, restlessness, etc...)
  • What aspects of our relationship need to be reorganized in order for you to feel more safe? What boundaries are you currently uncomfortable with? What things need to change in order to you to feel like you could begin to start trusting again?
  • What aspects of my behavior were most offensive to you?
  • What aspects of this problem am I closed about? How do I shut you down from expressing your feelings? What is one thing I can do differently to help improve our discussions about difficult topics?
  • To what extent do you feel trapped because of my choices? How can I help you feel like you have options and choices?
  • What impact have my choices had on spirituality in our home or in our relationship?
  • As I work towards restoring trust in our relationship, what are some specific things I will need to pay attention to? What things can I change that would give you some hope?
  • What do you see as being the most important priority for our relationship at this time?
  • In all that has happened, what has been the most painful aspect of your experience?
  • What do you need most right now in our relationship?

Monday, September 20, 2010

Feel Closer, Do Better

It seems kind of funny to talk about the benefits of feeling close as a couple. The experience itself is, after all, it’s own greatest reward. That said, such closeness also works wonders in the arena of our addiction recovery efforts.

Marcus told me, "I haven’t been triggered as much lately. Not nearly as much as I’m used to."

What did he think made the difference?

"I’m talking to Dorothy a lot more. Quite a bit, in fact. I told her about my relapse, as you were encouraging me to do. That was hard. She was mad at me for three days. But then she was over it and in fact she seemed more open and at ease with me. Since then we’ve just kept talking about other less difficult topics."

What kind of things are they talking about?

"It’s often about the addiction, but lately I haven’t been giving in, so it’s just about the initial pull I feel. It’s funny, when I talk to her, it feels like less of a burden. Having it out in the open, between us, dispels it somehow. Beforehand, there’s some kind of pressure inside that makes me feel "lit up" or super-oriented toward sex. Then I talk to her and it grounds me again. Makes me feel more stable… calm… settled… peaceful. I like it."

I’ll bet he does. Compared to feeling on that edge. Is it hard to bring himself to talk to her?

"At times I have to force myself to do it. And there are still times, honestly, when I don’t do it. I default back into handle-it-on-my-own mode. It’s hard to have these conversations. It’s hard for her to hear that I’m still craving this thing that has wreaked havoc in our lives. But we both feel better after talking it out. And she almost always thanks me for bringing it up, which at first seemed strange to me because it seemed to reopen the wound for her. She told me, ‘The wound was always there. Just because you weren’t pressing on that spot didn’t mean it wasn’t tender.’"

He'd heard about the importance of honesty, openness, and teamwork in your recovery before. What has enabled him to open up more now?

"Something shifted last month. I was reaching the point of desperation. I knew I had to do something different. I’ve had plenty of moments of resolve in the past, but those were usually associated with a new regimen or a book I was reading. It was always some plan I was going to follow to a tee by sticking more thoroughly to my checklists. This time, I’m being very loose by those standards."

It sounds like he's loosening his boundaries with your wife instead of trying to tighten his control over his urges. Instead of racheting up his efforts, he's lowering the wall he kept between the two of them, letting her in, and sharing these sexual struggles, which are deeply personal. It's so good to see him let her in. Marcus is a great guy having a common struggle. He deserves to feel close even when he's struggling. And he needs connection even more when he's struggling.

Talking Is Not the Only Way to Reach Out

Even after trying it for several weeks, Jay found that it was never a relief to come home at the end of the day and try to talk to his wife, Wendy. He often had a hard time putting into words why he was feeling off kilter or wound up. He came up with a blank most of the time. He just knew he wasn’t feeling at his best. He didn’t know what to talk about, but he kept trying. After he and Wendy had talked, he always seemed to feel just as stressed out as he had before.

I didn’t think Jay was just resisting something that was good for him. I encouraged him to honor his own experience and keep exploring options. Even though it didn’t seem to particularly help him to connect through words, I knew that connecting with Wendy in some way might provide what he needed at the end of the day, the very time he was the most vulnerable to the pull of pornography. But how could he let her know that he was in need when he was feeling off without talking about it? He decided that it would be easier for him to hold her longer when they hugged or give her the thumbs down about his day. He thought that when he was feeling particularly in need he might even put his head on her shoulder as they watched TV together. Then, what could they do together that would feel more natural and satisfying to him than trying to verbalize his uneasiness right when he had the least desire to talk? We came up with a short list of options:
  • Sit close to each other out on the back porch swing
  • Listen to music together
  • Take a walk together
  • Scratch each other’s backs while they watched TV
  • Leave the TV off and just spoon on the couch or bed
  • Turn off the phone and all other electronic devices and just sit together in a quiet, dimly lit room or out on the grass in the backyard.
I saw the faraway look in Jay’s eyes as he described this last option. It became apparent to me that he wasn’t trying to avoid Wendy. He wanted to be with her; he just didn’t want their time together to become one more situation that set him up to feel like he wasn’t doing things right. I knew that in the future, he’d need to talk to her some of the time in order to meet her need to communicate. However, if he was going to reach for her instead of reaching for his addiction, he needed to also be able to feel that, at least some of the time, he could be completely at ease with her in a way that was most comfortable for him. There didn’t have to be the requirement of and pressure to talk about things if he didn’t feel like talking.

Conveying Raw Feelings

"I don’t think I’ve ever viewed pornography before noon," Chester said. "I feel strong in the morning. I’ve had my personal devotional. I usually get in to the office early. I have my checklist made up of tasks I’m hoping to accomplish for the day. I usually start out the workday clearheaded, hitting on all cylinders, and optimistic that I’ll get everything done.

"Very rarely do I cross the finish line at 5:30 feeling the same way I did coming out of the gate. I usually tear myself away from my desk barely in time to catch the train, my head overflowing with all the stuff that didn’t get done.

"I’m most likely to get caught up in porn in the afternoon. Like last Thursday: I finished all my corrections to one audit at about 3:00, then realized I had four more to do by the end of the week. I was either going to have to stay ridiculously late that night and perhaps still not get everything done by Friday afternoon, or give my boss the bad news that we’d have to push the deadline into the following week. I hate that kind of conversation, I hate letting people down. I do everything I can to avoid it. So I sat there, trying to work, but mostly stewing over what to do—call my boss or not—and feeling crappy about both options."

When I asked him if there were times when it went better, Chester admitted that it really helped to call and check in with his wife at such times. "She’ll update me on how her day is going. Then she’ll ask about my day. I don’t usually say much, just ‘fine’ or maybe a brief comment about something that bugged me that day. Things seem to go a lot better when I take a break from the mounting pressure, take a walk around the courtyard of our office building, and check in with Linda."

Having seen lots of men progress in their recovery, it was clear to me that, although it helped some, it wasn’t enough for Chester to say "fine" or comment briefly about his day. He was grabbing an emotional snack; he needed the nourishment of a full meal. That level of emotional connection and release left him hungry still.

I’m not faulting Chester. He didn’t realize how much emotional support he needed, nor did he know how to ask Linda for it. It’s not easy to put into words, the way Chester sometimes got feeling in the middle of the afternoon. How could he be more open with Linda about it? If he were to simply go with what he was feeling at the time in its most basic, raw and unvarnished form, he might just call her and moan on the phone. Sort of like he felt like doing when he was starting to come down with the flu. I asked him to give her a heads up that he was going to try that out—call and moan to her when he was out on his walk—and ask her if she’d be willing at such times was to simply respond with a soft, sincere, sympathetic, "Oh, honey," "There, there," or just "Ohhhh."

"This might sound like a pretty infantile, wimpy form of communication," I acknowledged. "Just remember, and perhaps remind your wife: you can be vulnerable by reaching out, or you’ll be vulnerable to acting out."

Chester was in a raw, primal, emotionally driven state every time he decided to go to porn. We can’t pacify those kind of feelings by trying to be mature or snap out of it. We need to acknowledge our neediness at such times. The genuine need we have is to connect, and we can only do it by revealing that inner unwieldy, ineffable yuckiness to someone who cares to hear it, is strong enough to handle it, and loves us enough that, most of the time at least, they’ll stay attentive, responsive and engaged with us even when they see firsthand, up close and personal, that we’re struggling. If we don’t even let ourselves stay with the feelings that are going on inside at such times, let alone ask our beloved to be with us in the midst of them, then we’re bound to keep hankering for our old familiar illicit form of soothing and deliverance.

To Break Your Addiction to Porn, Connect with Your Wife

He just knew he’d be going to hell.

Throughout almost a decade of his life, Gene had resigned himself to the idea that he was hopelessly addicted to sex and would be spending the eternities suffering for it.

A year ago he was convinced by a mentor in his church who had travelled the road before that there was a way out. It would require, however, this friend insisted, complete and utter honesty. Deep down Gene felt that what he was hearing was true. So, as painful as he knew it would be, he decided to be 100% honest with God, the leaders of his church, and with his wife. "I threw myself at God’s feet and put my neck under his heel. I was at his mercy. I opened up about everything. I half expected to be struck by lightning."

He wasn’t. Instead, his church leaders, including this mentor, were loving and helpful. They’ve also been patient, continuing to work with him regularly over the months. Compared to how it’s gone with his wife, that part has been easy.

Gene started out trying to be completely honest with Lillian, but when he’d talk to her about feeling tempted, "There would always be tears and hurt." Too often, when he wished he could report growth and successes, he had to admit faltering and failures. It became very difficult for him to open up. One day, he acknowledged to her that he was tempted: "I’m really struggling wanting to call a prostitute."

What happened to Lillian when Gene said that felt catastrophic to both of them. "I started to wonder, ‘Who is this person I’m married to?’" recalled Lillian.

Gene said, "I saw that in her eyes. I couldn’t believe I’d done that to her again, hurt her so badly. These disclosures were like a punch in the face to her, and I was continuing to punch her in the face. I thought, ‘Not only am I not getting better from this addiction, I’m hurting my wife even more in the process by letting her in on the gory details.’ I couldn’t do it anymore. I didn’t shut down completely after that, I just substituted lesser disclosures for the real ones, the difficult ones. I struggled with the hard stuff on my own after that."

Not surprisingly, his addiction took a downward turn, as addictions do. And once again, he was alone in his struggle against it. Then Gene relapsed in a very bad, illegal way. Even worse, he secretly stayed caught up in that pattern over a period of four months. It all finally came out into the open. He wasn’t discovered; he mustered the courage to break the secrecy himself. He resigned from his job, was headed toward likely excommunication from his church, and was facing the possibility of incarceration. However, his life didn’t fall apart completely: Lillian decided to stay with him and try to work through the problem.

In addition to continuing to meet with his mentor, his church leaders recommended counseling. During my second session with Gene and Lillian, I explained to them that disclosing our behavior is the top, most superficial level of honestly. Revealing our urges and cravings requires honesty at a deeper level. However, the most difficult honesty, and the most productive, is deeper still. Think of it as honesty at the tips of the roots of bad behavior. Before we act out, we’re tempted. Before we’re tempted, there’s something else still. And here’s what that something is for most of us: there’s an emotional upset that creeps in like a cloudy haze and obscures our ability to think clearly and make the best decisions for ourselves. It’s difficult to stay aware of what’s going on at such times—to be honest even with ourselves about how we’re doing. It’s easier to turn on some music or eat something or brood. All of these are easier than acknowledging that we’re feeling off, that we are emotionally out of sorts. And there’s something even more appealing than the radio or food or feeling sorry for ourselves: sex. Even if we don’t go to it straightaway, when we turn on the TV or start clicking around the internet, we’re sitting ducks at such times. Sexual content is never more titillating, never more erotic, than when it beckons us to step into its light and out of emotional darkness, into its warmth and out of emotional chill, into its blissful rest and out of emotional turmoil. No other drug can offer what sex offers at such times. And so we keep going back, despite all intentions and commitments.

Gene and Lillian have already travelled a long road. The road will be longer still. However, if they work on developing emotional awareness and expressiveness, they can be close again as a couple. Over time (and with dang good professional help) Gene can develop the ability to reach out instead of acting out. Then, feeling more connected with each other than before, more support from each than ever before, the distance of the road and the length of time it takes them starts mattering less. Patience is easier to muster. Somehow, each mile, each day, each step feels lighter and the entire journey more worthwhile when you’re walking hand-in-hand.