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?