Monday, January 23, 2012

A Wife Like Her, and He Still Went to Porn?

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Teresa couldn't figure it out. She knew she had it together. She was physically fit at age thirty-two, even as a busy mother of three. She had always been playful, responsive, and loving in the bedroom. Why in the world would Russ even feel inclined toward porn?

She wanted to know, but she couldn't ask Russ in person because she had kicked him out of the house the day after she discovered his stash of porn on the computer. So she asked by way of a text message. He was reluctant--he would rather have had the conversation in person. But Teresa insisted, and his old pattern was to hold things back, so he decided to take the risk and try to convey--also via text--what was going on inside when he went to porn.

Since it reflects what I hear from a lot of men, I got permission from Russ to share it here. It's a long text message, but it's worth reading. I hope it helps men acknowledge why they go to porn and find better ways to handle their emotional struggles. I hope it helps women not take his involvement in porn personally, even though that's a perfectly natural reflex to have.

Here's what Russ wrote:

"It will take a little time to explain how and why I ended up at that point. I hope you allow yourself the time to understand why men get sucked in. You will learn it isn't at all because of what you do or don't do. It isn't about you in any way. I will not make excuses or blame anyone other than myself for acting the way I did and for the choices I foolishly made.

"I think you are the most beautiful women in the world. You are the only girl I have truly desired to be intimate with. I have been attracted to you since the day we met you and you have been more attractive and satisfying to me than I will probably ever be able to convey. But it's not just about how gorgeous you are. Fifty years from now when we're both over the hill, it's your hand I want to still be holding.

"Every man, at some point in his life, is confronted with porn in some way or another. I had been a few times in the past. I didn't fall into it then because spiritually, mentally and emotionally I was in the right place and that is truly the key.

"I didn't search it out, but about two years ago I got a random email link. I saw a few pictures. I don't really remember what I was thinking, but at the time but I looked at them and that was it. A few months later I was pretty depressed. I hadn't deleted the email and I opened it again. This time I clicked on one of the pictures and three or four websites popped up. After that, sporadically (maybe every few months) I got depressed and feeling hopeless and really discouraged with how things were in my life (pretty much everything except you and the family). I felt like I couldn't talk to you about it because I was angry and felt like a failure at work and because I knew I'd caused a lot of my own problems. I was ashamed because I hadn't consulted you on any of my decisions, good or bad, which was a huge mistake. I was having a really hard time getting my confidence and happiness and my desire/drive back because I was not in the right place spiritually. Of course I was only making it worse, but I was desperate to just feel anything other than how I felt. I didn't go to porn all the time, but there were those random low points where I fell into it.

"As a woman, I'm sure it is hard for you to understand how I could do that and why men can so easily get caught up in it. It isn't something I'm very comfortable remembering and acknowledging even now. I'd get into it at those times and then after that it was out of my head--except the guilt. I'd bury it mentally and I would never think about it, ever, because thinking about it just made me angry at myself.

"It is a bad cycle and unless someone actively does what I am doing now, I suspect it would be easy to never get out of it. Unfortunately, many men have or have had an issue at some point in their life with this. Many of them may never confront it and fix it. They live in denial and hide. I have realized in going to the 12-Step groups that I don't face the temptations every day like some members do. I am thankful for that.

"I am also seeing that I have a personality that will naturally try to take the easy road, the path of least resistance. I run from situations I don't like. That's what enabled me to become spiritually undisciplined and out of tune. I'd never really had a problem with self-esteem until then. In that state, I wasn't thinking about the risks. I didn't recognize the hurt I would cause my family, and especially you. I excused myself: 'This won't hurt anyone. This isn't anyone else's concern. I can do this and it helps me feel better and no one has to know.'

"After giving in, I would very quickly try to rationalize or make excuses to myself so I didn't feel bad. I was trying to put everything hard out of my mind, not just my indulgences in porn. I was so depressed and my self-esteem was so low that I basically lied to myself about it so that I wouldn't have to feel the pain. As much as I could, I would avoid thinking about it.

"Then there were those other days, when I would be hard on myself. My perception of myself was horrible, like I couldn't do anything right. I felt like I'd failed at everything. My stress level about being written up at work was so high, and it seemed like I had nowhere to turn. Looking back, I could have and should have turned to you, but I was ashamed, I was embarrassed, I was humiliated, and most of all I was sooo afraid I would hurt and disappoint you.

"I was in a really awful state. Of course, it was all my fault because of decisions at work and neglect of my spirituality. I was failing to do the small things related to church that would have helped me. But it was tempting to avoid dwelling on those things because I knew that was one more area I was failing in.

"Instead of doing what I should to get my own life back on track, I tried harder to be there for you and be close to you and help any other way I could so I could feel some sort of contribution to our family. Not that I really thought I was making up for my other failings; but I had to do anything I could to make myself feel any kind of positiveness. I tried to be the husband every woman wants to be married to: putting the kids to bed, helping around the house, giving you time for yourself. But no matter what I tried to do, my conscience wouldn't let me rest.

"It took a miracle to give me the courage and strength to confront this and get myself to a point where I could really, truly fix things. You kept complaining about not feeling connected or close as a couple. I knew it was my fault. I was holding back. But there I was, trying to help you feel better about our relationship without changing the core that was rotten. Finally I'd had enough. I hurt so bad for myself and especially for you and your disappointment. At that point I would have done anything to help you, to somehow make you feel better. I felt like I'd tried everything, and yet it still wasn't getting fixed.

"I realized that the only way the Lord would help is if I allowed Him to. I needed to be honest. If I really cared about you and my marriage, I needed to resolve things with you and with him. I knew it was going to be very hard and take a long time to fix, but if I truly loved you I couldn't live with things being awry between us.

"You know what happened next: I opened up about the pornography and the handful of times I drank alcohol and the year-long period that I was abusing the pills.

"Since then I have had an incredible month. I have never hurt so deeply. At the same time, I am finally at peace--within myself and with God. It's been way too long since I felt that way. I know I still have work to do, but I know I am on the right path. I need to do the little things so that as I get discouraged and depressed I will have the Lord to turn to for help, guidance, and comfort.

"I hope and pray that at some future time we will have a marriage where we are truly there for each other, a relationship in which we feel safe and protected turning to one another for help and understanding. You have been ready for that and begging for it for a long time. Now I'm finally coming around. Sacrificing my pride a opening up to you was just the first step, but it was a hard one. Going through that showed me that I can do it, and it's well worth the sacrifice! It's given me strength to do whatever else it takes. I love you more than I ever have in my life. I am thankful you are who you are and that you are strong enough to do what you are doing now (the separation) because that is allowing me to truly fix me and change things that I so desperately needed to change.

"T, I know we have a long road of recovery ahead, but I have faith that our marriage can be better and closer than it ever has been because we will be closer to the Lord and we can learn to be there for each other in ways we haven't before. Deep down we still have that bond and connection we've always had. I know it's still there. There have been a lot of things clouding it and we've unintentionally neglected it for a long time. I am so sorry for that. I was so worried about my situation and the challenges I was facing that I was only doing the surface stuff for you, and not really seeing how you were feeling.

"Once I realized how much you'd been hurting, I tried harder in the surface ways, but then it seemed like things only got worse, which was hard to accept. Especially when you started talking to others and it appeared that you were making a connection with them. The fact that they were filling those emotional and spiritual needs made me feel very insecure and jealous. Then I recognized that even if they weren't there, I was still spiritually out of line and the Lord wouldn't allow me to be there or connect or make you feel safe unless I was clean and I was honest with you and with Him.

"So that's what I had to do, no matter how hard it was or how bad it looked on me. I didn't care, I just wanted to fix it and move on with life and be able to be happy and have the Spirit with me so that I could have the family and marriage I really want.

"I know it would be impossible for you to not be hurt by all this. I don't expect you to forget about your feelings because they are very real and very justified. All I ask is that you take the time to understand how vulnerable men are to being tempted by visual stimulation. If we're not in the right place spiritually, it's so easy to turn to that when in crisis. The "drug" we take is sexual, obviously, but we take it mostly when there's an emotional void or hurt, not a sexual need.

"It is not acceptable and I will do everything I can to avoid it for the rest of my life and be open with you if and when I fall back. I don't ever again want to feel the way I did. I know it's going to take work. I will have to confront my personality weaknesses, which may be even harder for me to work on than my inappropriate sexual behavior. But the price for not doing it would be losing you, and that's way too high. And I care way too much about my salvation to not keep going and improving and being honest with myself, with the Lord, and with you.

"I hope this gives you some peace in some way if that is possible. I never did anything to intentionally hurt you and I hope that, deep down, you know I never would. Now I know more than ever that I need to keep myself clean and worthy, not only for myself but so that I don't unintentionally injure you and the kids and erode what we can have as a family. I am so sorry for where I was and the way I let it lead to that course of actions.

"I feel the reality of the atonement and I have a much greater appreciation and love for my Savior. There are points in the Gospel that I conveniently put aside and didn't truly understand and that has led me to a lot of heartache and pain. I know it brought pain upon you as well. I don't know why we've had such limited Gospel discussions throughout our marriage. I guess it is because I felt very inadequate and I worried that you'd think it was a weird topic for us to launch into. I felt awkward about it. Regardless of the reason, it is sad and I vow to change that in the future. I hope our understanding, acceptance, and reliance on the atonement will continue to grow and be a big part of our marriage so that we can heal, accept each other, and help each other instead of living in fear, contention, or separateness.

"I love you with all my heart and wold go to the end of the earth for you and to heal our relationship. I am an open book. If you have questions or feel like you want to talk more about it, I am here to do that. You can ask me whatever you want whenever you feel a need to. I will put checks in place that will give you peace of mind. I hope that eventually we can rebuild the trust we've had so that eventually you can have confidence that I am clean."

Thank you Russ, for putting into words how you got caught up in porn and the true, deeper desires of your heart. And thanks for letting me share your experience with others. Women, what's it like to read what he's gone through? Men, how does your experience compare to his?

Monday, January 16, 2012

His Connection with Her Helps Him Avoid Porn

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Vaughn attributes much of his success in recovery to the growing sense of protectiveness. He wants to shield his wife, Holly, and their relationship from the damage pornography can do.

Despite knowing that this mentality should help, it hasn’t always seemed to. “I recall many times trying to think about Holly and her feelings about pornography when I was tempted. To be honest, it was never a big deterrent. I felt more guilty about acting out, but that didn’t seem to hold me back when I was at the brink.”

“Something about the way our relationship has been developing over the last nine months or so has seemed to make the difference. I’m more open and honest with her about everything, not just my struggles with pornography. I’ve let her in on my worries as breadwinner and as a father. I’ve shared my doubts about our religion and the wrestle I’ve had with my career path.

“These were all things I used to deal with on my own to avoid burdening her unnecessarily. In a way, I’d gotten so good at pretending that I rarely even acknowledged these struggles and doubts to myself.

“She’s opening up more to me, too. The array of feelings she deals with as a stay-at-home mom. Even her turmoil and ambivalence about having chosen me as a husband. She tells me when she feels the draw to fantasize about how things might have gone if she’d stayed with her ex-boyfriend.

“It seems like we have a much better handle on who I really am, who she really is. We can talk about anything now. No matter how difficult or sensitive the topic, it’s all fair game. I feel like we’ve become much more real with each other.

“Pornography seems like more of an offense against that. Before I could rationalize that what she didn’t know wouldn’t necessarily affect her. Now pornography seems interruptive of the closeness and connection we enjoy. We are more emotionally intimate, and pornography seems like a rupture of that.”

Vaughn is finding the emotional bond they share to be extremely rewarding. “The idea that pornography is the best game in town, my favorite pleasure, doesn’t ring as true anymore.”

Their sex life has certainly changed. “In past years there were lots of times when I thought I needed to fantasize about images from pornography to get stimulated. And typically I didn’t feel satisfied after sex with Holly, more let down. Of course it was my own fault: I had conditioned myself to expect hours of stimulation before the release. Regular sex couldn’t compete with that.

“Now, we’re more connected and open and real with each other, and that extends to our lovemaking. I want to be with her, this person I know at a deeper level, and I want to share who I really am. She has accepted and loved me through thick and thin, and my gratitude for her and amazement at her just overflow sometimes. We’re both more in the moment. I’m not grasping for something else, something more. It’s enough, both during and after sex.

“So when temptations come, I remember how good things are. Rather than conjuring guilt, I’m trying to preserve that warmth. I treasure knowing that I’m honest with her and things are right with us. That’s a good place to be. I think about Holly and I don’t want her to feel like she’s losing me. I’d hate for her to feel put down in the way she did when she knew I was going to porn.”

If you want to jumpstart what Vaughn is enjoying, here’s an experiment to try out. It will set the stage for you to develop a stronger emotional bond with your partner by giving you a better sense of empathy for her and what she goes through. Spend a few minutes a day observing her, pondering what’s going on inside. At least some of the time, watch her when she doesn’t know you’re looking. Track her movements, note what she looks at and for how long. Listen to the words she uses. Who is she talking to and what’s her purpose in saying what she says? What’s on her mind and in her heart? What are her hopes? In a spirit of exploration and discovery, inhabit the world she lives in. See if you can start to view it through her eyes. What’s life like for her? What matters to her? What moves her? What lifts her spirits? What dampens them? To know her IS to love her, and you miss out on much of what you might otherwise enjoy as porn fouls with your capacity to empathize.

Monday, January 9, 2012

How Therapy Helped Him Overcome Sexual Addiction

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Jay has been "sober" from porn now for over a year, but he still comes in to talk once a month. I asked him the other day how intensive therapy at our clinic helped him overcome the habit.

Jay is a married father of four, in his early fifties, and he works as a sales manager for a medical device manufacturing company. Pornography was an addiction that had haunted him for most of his life. Over the final five years of his involvement in porn, his acting out behavior deteriorated into involvement with prostitutes. He was arrested two years ago in a sting operation. He agreed to complete therapy as a condition of his probation.

Now, two years later, Jay had a ready answer to my question about how therapy had helped: "I got rid of all that baggage. The root causes of my low self-esteem. It was in therapy that I finally worked through the way I'd been treated by my dad."

I remembered all those hours Jay spent processing experiences from his childhood. His dad was a rigidly moralistic man who held extremely high standards for everyone else, especially his children. He would lecture Jay endlessly whenever he thought he'd stepped out of line. "That music is of the devil," "You're not raking those leaves right," "The Sabbath is not for your enjoyment," "You're not holding that golf club right," "You're letting your schoolwork slide."

Ironically, this same man allowed himself all kinds of leeway. He call in sick from work whenever he felt like he deserved a break. He blatantly ogled the bodies of Jay's step-sister's friends. The ugliest part of family life was how dismissive and disrespectful he was of Jay's mother. Everyone dreaded family dinners, where his misogyny was on full display. "Dear, please tell us you got more done around here today than what we can see." "Someone get me a jackhammer, I'll need it to cut through this roast!" She'd often end up in tears, but remained in her chair rather than risking more derision for leaving the table.

Once he was living on his own, Jay had moved two states away from his dad, in part to diminish the ugly influence of the man. It was in therapy that Jay discovered just how much his father's criticisms were still eroding his sense of self worth. "My dad was no longer there, but I was equally hard on myself. His voice stayed alive inside of me and never let up." At a young age Jay discovered that he could use sex to escape all that negativity. "It was a coping mechanism I kept using into adulthood. If I was fantasizing or planning or seeking or gratifying myself, I didn't have to think. And thinking was the sucking whirlpool for me, because it always seemed to go negative. Instead of staying stuck in that, I'd just go into this other world where there was only pleasure."

Looking back Jay could see why porn and sex were his drugs of choice. "The sweet spot they hit was just what I seemed to need. With pornography, you're accepted. The feelings are the opposite of what you were just experiencing. There's the fantasy that you are the one this attractive person wants to be with. With the prostitutes, I was trying to feel that same thing in person. Of course you know that none of it is real, but the feeling makes it seem real. There's the part of you that knows you'll be dealing with the negative effects later: the guilt and shame, more blows to your sense of value as a person. But at the time you just need the fix, the escape."

So how did therapy help Jay give that up? "In therapy I finally got answers to questions like 'Why was my relationship with Dad so traumatic for me?' 'Why was he like that?' Those old traumas were still alive inside of me. I talked about it in individual therapy and with the other men in group. They were all supportive. It meant a lot to have other people acknowledge that it really was as painful as I remembered it being. It was forty years after the fact, but they stood with me as witnesses of what I'd gone through.

"I also started to see that I was repeating in my marriage some of those unhealthy patterns I learned growing up. Just as I tried to stay at the opposite end of the house from my dad because I didn't want to be criticized, I also walked on eggshells with Elise, hoping to avoid her displeasure. I put my best foot forward--emptying the dishwasher and doing the laundry--while at the same time hiding from her all of my ups and downs, any weaknesses, and especially my sexual acting out.

"Well, of course, this pile of raunchy stuff that I thought I had to hide from her kept growing and growing. I felt worse and worse about myself all the time. I became more and more convinced that if she really knew me, she would see me as this disgusting creature I thought I was. I had no doubt that she would leave me if she discovered what I was doing. And I knew that I was already going to @#!*% . That was a given. So the best I could hope for was just to keep pretending I was a decent person, keep living the lie. Then at least she and my kids wouldn't have to suffer for my failings.

"I got pretty good at faking. And I had convinced myself on some level that I was handling it as best I could. I wanted out, sure, but since there wasn't an apparent way out, you just persevere best you can. You find a way to live in @#!*% and yet keep getting up every day and going through the motions."

Jay shook his head in dismay as he thought back on the torture of living a double life for so long. But then his face seemed to lighten. "Going back, remembering what it was like to be a kid, I could more easily see that I wasn't a bad kid. I didn't fail. In fact, I was a good kid. I did a lot right. I had a kind heart. All of that crap I dealt with was my dad's struggle. Sometimes adults handle things wrong, and he was dead wrong in the way he raised me, in the way he lived, in the way he treated women. I accepted that I couldn't have made it any different or better. The longings I'd had to connect with him and to please him, they were normal. But I had to give up the fantasy that we could have had this great relationship. No. It takes two people who are willing and able to have that.

"I came to terms with the fact that I was never good enough to please him and I never could have been. If I'd have become a seminary teacher like him or made millions on the PGA, there still would've been something he needed to correct me about. I finally accepted that as inevitable. It's just part of who he is. That enabled me to get off the little gerbil wheel of thinking I needed to please him. I don't have to dread displeasing him, I can just accept it as a part of my life that stinks, but it's beyond my control.

"I still have negative experiences. They're a part of life. But I don't get caught up in the negativity anymore. It's not worth hanging onto. I'm in the driver's seat and I let go of trying to control people's impressions of me. The hard experiences don't have to linger and affect every other situation in my life."

As I listened to Jay, I thought back on all of the therapy sessions focused on acceptance, surrendering control, and accepting life on it's own terms. I could see the look of serenity in his face that is a hallmark of solid, long term recovery. Jay felt the difference, too. "There had been times before when I've abstained from acting out sometimes for a year or two, but I hadn't really healed.

"Now," he said with a smile, "I'm not just two years since my last relapse, I'm two years stronger."

Monday, January 2, 2012

How Therapy Helped Him Stop Looking at Porn

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Last week I talked with Jacob, a 22 year old young man who has been porn free for three years. That’s no mean feat, since he indulged regularly during his teen years. “How have you done it?” I asked.

“Group therapy helped quite a bit,” he responded.

“In what way?” I wondered.

“We were accountable to each other. We all wanted to stay on track so that we could report back that we were successful. We would celebrate each other’s victories.

“Also, it helped to talk about the addiction. If someone had lapsed, we’d help them problem-solve. We would ask about the events leading up to it.

“Back then, when I gave in, I was pretty hard on myself. It helped to have others ask about it who weren’t inclined to beat me up. They weren’t angry or frustrated. They were just curious. They cared about me and wanted to see me conquer. They were convinced that this problem would respond to our combined efforts, and that gave me hope.

“It turned out to be true: all our heads together were better than mine alone. After talking out what had gone wrong--for me or for one of the other group members--I started to see contributing factors I hadn’t recognized before. Little things, some of them: what time I got up in the morning, what I’d been watching on TV.

“It honed my senses. Then I was more on guard against those risk factors in my life. I could see them coming and I saw them for what they were: gateways into the danger zone. I knew those things heightened my risk, and I was able to steer clear of problems by interrupting the sequence earlier on.”

Jacob also learned that merely recognizing the risk and mentally deciding not to pursue porn wasn’t enough. “I couldn’t remain passive. Once I saw that I was at risk I had to actively do something positive to replace the seeds of thought that were starting to sprout in my brain. I would review a scripture I was memorizing or do a kind act for someone.” Proactively moving in a positive direction rather than just trying to avoid problems was a key in getting his recovery back on solid footing.

Talking with Jacob reminded me of a principle described by the relapse prevention guru Alan Marlatt. He encouraged us to scrutinize failures in order to flesh out the details of our personal “cycle” back into addictive behavior. He advocated taking particular interest in those little, everyday forks in the road where one direction mildly heightens the risk of later faltering. He called these “Seemingly Unimportant Decisions”--SUDs for short.

I’m sure there were many other factors that also played a role for Jacob, but he attributes much of his success in recovery to the group therapy process that illuminated these earliest steps on his usual pathways back to porn. He started to see those SUDs and turn the other direction instead. And now he has three years of freedom to show for it!

Of everything you’ve tried, what’s helped you the most? What boosts your recovery and helps you stay on track? Even if you’re not porn free yet, you’ve learned some valuable lessons. Please share them with us!