Thursday, March 22, 2012

From Fixing to Feeling

Image: Ambro /
Nate had been in recovery for almost two years. He had a rare relapse to porn four months in, but other than that he'd done remarkably well during the first eighteen months of his work on the issue. He felt great about his progress.

He wasn't so enthusiastic about the state of his marriage relationship. The issue of Porn remained supercharged for his wife, Amanda. She told him that she hated looking over at the nightstand and seeing the book he was reading and being reminded that porn is an addiction he has to overcome. 

As I explored Nate's approach to communicating with Amanda, it became clear that over the last couple of years he he had been trying to "fix what he'd broken" during the first nine years of their marriage. He would look to her to see how his efforts were paying off. When she had a hard day, he'd offer her suggestions and encouragement. Since he'd been overjoyed to find Sexaholics Anonymous, he encouraged her to attend S-Anon and "do her own recovery work." He was frustrated because he'd been through the 12-steps three times over, whereas she was still on step 3 the first time through. 

"She asks me if I feel like she's the one holding us back now," he admitted, "and I'm sure she feels that way because I'm so often trying to manage and coach her."

I gave Nate the assignment described in this post. I encouraged him to explore what it's been like for her to learn of his addiction. Simply ask and then listen, without trying to fix. 

The next time we talked, Nate said he used the questions as directed, without making promises or asking for forgiveness or trying to reassure Amanda what a great job he was doing these days.

"I'd ask the question, let her talk, and then go onto the next question. She was bawling the entire hour. But for the next few days things were better. The air seemed a little clearer. She even seemed to sleep better."

Nate's description reminded me of the findings from research by James Pennebaker. His interventions are quite simple, but they can have profound effects. 

In most of his studies, he gives subject the simple assignment to think about the worst thing that has ever happened to them and write for fifteen or twenty minutes for four consecutive days about their innermost thoughts and feelings about that experience.

Then he checks in later to measure the differences between the disclosure group and the control group, filled with individuals who didn't go through his little writing exercise. 

Those who get their feelings out on paper later feel happier and less negative. Their immune systems function better. Depression tends to lift. Self-destructive behaviors (such as eating disorders) become less compelling.

If you get that from putting it down on paper, how much more meaningful to have an attentive audience? And to have that receptive individual, that witness of your pain, be your primary attachment figure instead of some therapist or church leader (or buddy or bartender or hairdresser), that's even more powerful! 

Try it out. 

And then, please, let us know how it goes.

Monday, March 12, 2012

How Couples Heal Porn's Damage

image: photostock /
Last week Ray and Kelly came to our clinic for an assessment. Because they live out of town, it was a one-time visit. They were looking for homework they could do on their own, and a written plan they could share with their local marriage counselor. After writing them up, I realized the observations I wanted to share with them apply to most of the couples we see. So I thought I'd share them here:

1. The first challenge that afflicts many couples in your situation is a husband unmotivated to work on his pornography problem. In fact, many don't even want to talk about it and want their spouse to "accept that I'm working on it and leave me alone." This doesn't work well for them as a couple and for their relationship bond. Fortunately, Ray expressed a strong desire right from the start. When asked about his goals, he mentioned three: "1. more understanding between me and Kelly, 2. Help controlling my pornography problem, and 3. Help managing anger." He said that he is working to avoid pornography by restricting access on the computer and has been doing well for the last few months, but recognized that ongoing help will be helpful and needed.

2. To work on overcoming a porn habit, it helps most men to reach out in their marriage for support when they're experiencing the stressors that so often fuel sexual temptation. As couples work together, men start to recognize that this is not primarily sexual desire at all that fuels their lust. Their struggle with porn is rooted in a difficulty managing emotions. This is helpful for wives, because they see that it's not about "he's dissatisfied with me, so he's tempted." Rather, it's that he is struggling with something internal, so he's tempted. These internal struggles for Ray are probably fueling his anger outbursts, too. Over time in couples and individual work, it's helpful to recognize the "attachment needs" that are at creating his inner turmoil. Brent will learn to reach out rather than to stew. This process is described in our book, Love You, Hate the Porn in chapters 5 through 7. I love the following quote on the topic:

"When a man is borne down with trouble, when he is perplexed with care and difficulty, if he can meet with mildness, it will calm down his soul and soothe his feelings; when the mind is going to despair, it needs a solace of affection and kindness.... [His wife ought to be] one into whose bosom he can pour all his complaints without reserve, who is willing ... to take part of his burden, to soothe and encourage his feelings by her gentle voice."

As wonderful and healing as this kind of support sounds to most of us as men, we are typically the ones keeping it from happening--because we don't reach out and open up.

3. For many couples, before the work described in #2 can be done, he needs to have a greater understanding and empathy for what she's gone through. We typically "don't get" just how much she is impacted by the pornography and exactly what that impact is. That's not a crime, it's just a situation that needs to be corrected. For most couples, it is quite a lengthy and involved process for him to open up to her experience and to really hear how she's been impacted. This process can be facilitated by him using the content in chapter 4 of our book, Love You Hate the Porn. Here's a post that gives couples some helpful questions to jump-start the discussion process. At first she may hesitate to share fully. That's common. She needs to see over time that he lets in what it's been like for her at a deeper, emotional level. He truly empathizes. It helps if he validates, expressing to her that he can see how she'd feel that way. Some men can't see why it's such a big deal to her. Again, there's no crime here, just a lack of understanding. The big question is, is he willing to work to understand? Ray, in your case it will also include Kelly's feelings and experiences with your anger, not just pornography. She has probably put up an inner wall to keep you at bay emotionally because she doesn't know what's going to set you off or when it might happen. Don't underestimate how long this process of increased safety and and emotional softening will take. I recall one couple: nine months in he said, "I don't think she'll ever forgive me." I assured him, "Nine months is nothing (Easy for me to say!). Don't give up! Your efforts are sinking in. Have patience. There's just been a lot of pain over years. Sure, there's pain from your behavior, but even more pain from feeling emotionally disconnected and distant from you, the one person in life she cares most about!" He realized that nine months was nothing compared to all the years when he hadn't been understanding and trying to empathize, and he got back on track and kept trying. They are now happily working together as a couple and continue healing. Remember, this isn't replacing an alternator so your car will run again. It's healing the human heart so that your bond can the deepest, most fulfilling, reassuring, and boosting thing in both of your lives!

God bless you both in this worthwhile endeavor!