Wednesday, June 21, 2017

"I couldn't stand to talk for one more minute about how much she'd been hurt by my porn habit!"

I knew I had to write a post on this topic yesterday when I saw two clients who recalled feeling this way during the past week.

One of them was Gene, who has been off porn for seven years. He apologizes to his wife, Lori, almost every day for the pain he's caused her. He knows she still needs his understanding and support, and he's been learning to empathize with her instead of getting defensive. From my point of view he's been making great strides and the healing in their marriage has been evident.

"But sometimes when she gets talking about her hurt and the conversation goes on and on, I just can't take it. Especially if it's late at night."

They had a conversation like that last Wednesday night. He had a big work project due the next day. Because of the project, he'd been working longer hours and Lori had been missing the time they usually spent together and feeling lonely. Their conversation started on that topic, and seemed pretty benign. But then, as so often happens when she starts to express her hurt, she made a connection with the way she felt during the two dozen years they weren't close at all and Gene had a porn habit. Her tears started flowing when she recalled how empty and disconnected she'd felt during that period.

Gene tried to be patient and empathize. But it didn't take long before he felt completely spent and out of energy. All the work hours he'd been putting in had emptied his emotional reservoir and he had very little to give. He told Lori, "I want to be more help but I think I've reached my limit. I am going for a walk to catch my breath. As much as I want to keep supporting you, I can sense that I've reached my limit. I'm wondering if when I get home you'd be okay if I hit the sack and tried to get some sleep. Maybe we could continue this conversation sometime this weekend."

Lori was disappointed but accepting. And she even started to express a little guilt that she'd overburdened him by not being able to get over her pain quicker and burdening him with it. But then they both reminded themselves and each other: there doesn't have to be a bad guy here and neither one of us is overreacting. Our feelings and responses to them are understandable and they're not wrong. We can separate and deal with things on our own for the rest of the evening without going into a drama with each other over it. They decided they would pause their talk for now and she could see if she felt the need to talk more when the weekend came. Gene took a twenty-minute walk and it did seem to help him catch his breath to the point where he was able to wind down and get some sleep that night. He didn't know whether Lori had been able to sleep, or if her pain had kept her up that night feeling tortured, as it sometimes did.

I thought they both had handled the situation with grace and finesse, which is hard to do when strong feelings are in play. But I also offered Gene some suggestions about how they might approach a similar situation in the future. Gene was all ears because situations like this arose frequently and they were both unsure if they were handling them effectively.

Differing Needs of the "Wounded" and the "Wounder"

When we've been emotionally wounded, a healing instinct inside us says "Bear witness. Talk it out. Let your loved ones hear your hurt." Prolonged exposure therapy is one of the most widely used and clinically tested--and validated--treatments for trauma victims. Fortunately, we know a lot about how to help those who've been emotionally wounded.

On the other hand, our understanding of how to help those who feel awful for letting loved ones down is much less sophisticated or complete. Partners in the "wounder" position in a relationship are in just as much need as those who have been wounded. Fortunately, more and more research is being done on Perpetration-Induced Traumatic Stress, or PITS.

It's important to be cautious about generalizing, but I've found it informative and intriguing to review the research on the PITS experienced by combat veterans who have perpetrated acts of violence. Clearly, these lessons may not apply to couples dealing with pornography, but they're at least worth considering. Preliminary results on veterans indicate that prolonged exposure to (reviewing over and over) what they've done wrong is not showing promise as a method of treatment. Furthermore, for many perpetrators of trauma, shame over past actions can lead to a cycle where they're more vulnerable to repeating unhealthy and unhelpful behaviors rather than increasing in their capacity for restraint.

Again, none of this research was done on pornography viewing and the betrayal trauma that some spouses sometimes suffer as a result. But the findings remind me to take seriously the often silent--and sometimes explicit--protests of men whose instincts seem to make them reluctant to spend lots of time discussing their wife's pain.

The Emotional Heimlich Maneuver: A Possible Compromise

In an effort to find a helpful compromise, I've encouraged many couples along these lines: He can give her an "emotional Heimlich" when she finds herself in pain again over his involvement in pornography. I like the association because the Heimlich Maneuver is such a brief intervention, but it can be lifesaving. The idea is to work though pain in a way that might "clear her emotional airway" so that she feels like she can breathe again emotionally enough to move on with her day.

When their wives start talking about their hurt, many men fear that engaging with her in the discussion will become an hours-long process, much like the commitment that is required once you start CPR on someone. If CPR works right away, great, the person in need might be up and going again soon. But if it doesn't work to revive the person right away, you might be stuck pressing on their chest for hours, all to no avail. Unfortunately, that's the way many men feel about long discussions about pornography and the emotional impact it's had on their wives.

The Emotional Heimlich can be a reasonable compromise between not talking at all about pain on the one hand and talking for hours on end on the other hand. But you'll only know whether it's workable and helpful for you as a couple by trying it out.

For those willing to give it a shot, here are some pointers (not so much guidelines):

To get an Emotional Heimlich: When you realize something's eating at you or weighing you down ask your spouse, "I need your help" or "Could I get your support about something for a minute?" Briefly put into words what happened ("On TV there was a joke about infidelity--like it's a laughing matter"), what you're feeling emotionally ("That left me feeling hurt and angry") and what it feels like in your body ("Now there's an ache in my chest"). Explain very briefly the scenario so they understand the gap between what you wanted and what you got instead: "When I turn on the TV in the morning it's to help me enjoy the busy work I have to do on the computer and instead some of those icky feelings got awakened again inside me." It may help to let your spouse know "It's not your fault" if it's something they might otherwise feel blamed for or get defensive about. Hopefully, it will register to them that you're reaching out, not lashing out. Then let them know how they can "be there" with you in that feeling for a few moments. You might say, "Will you just hug me for a minute and feel that achiness in the chest with me so I don't have to stew in it alone anymore?"

To give an Emotional Heimlich: We don't need to help solve the problem or even necessarily say anything. Sometimes empathy is shown when we let out a simple, sympathetic "Mmmm" accompanied by slight raise of our eyebrows and protrusion of our bottom lip. It sounds so mechanical when I put it that way, but I'm just describing what might happen to point out that the body and face do naturally respond when we really let in someone else's feelings. You're not shooting for a well-choreographed response, just trying to let your body do what it naturally does as you feel for your spouse when they're struggling. An "Ouch" or a cringe tells them we're genuinely trying to let in and "get" what they're' going through, not just conceptually, but emotionally and physically, too. And, of course, a hug might mean the world to them when they need it.

If you've wounded your spouse emotionally and this process helps you empathize, it will be freeing because the end result will be to mentally and emotionally "break out" of the shame you've been feeling so that you can find yourself less immersed in it. Here's the way that liberation was described by one of my clients whose wife was hurt by his multiple affiars:

"Even though it's hard to pull off and I don't always get there, I've had some magical moments of true empathy with her and it really affects both of us." When I asked him to describe in more detail what it's like he said, "You get so focused on the other person--how they viewed it, what happened to them--that your 'soothing self' who is supportive and caring can be there for them and you're not embodying quite as much in those moments the addicted, struggling self who let them down. All you want to do is be there for your spouse to soothe them. You sort of lose yourself in their experience instead of staying pinned down by your own and it frees you up to let their feelings flow in. And at the same time it helps get the message to your struggling self, 'This isn't what we're going to do anymore, this isn't how we're going to act.' It knocks through the pride and closed-off-ness of the struggling self. Heaven knows I've tried so many other ways to get through to my craving self. This allows you to really see the results of your actions. They really hit home. With addiction you spend so much time thinking about yourself; this helps you break that cycle and think about someone else for s change. But it's really hard to do that without falling into shame. The selfish, worrying about myself, 'woe is me', instead of feeling for the person you've hurt. The idea of giving her an Emotional Heimlich has helped me find a middle ground between staying aloof from her pain on the one hand, and being overwhelmed and incapacitated by it, on the other."

I've heard similar things over and over again, but every time I hear it, the process amazes me. It's almost miraculous. Empathizing even briefly when a loved one shares their pain really can do for them emotionally what the Heimlich Maneuver would do for them if they were struggling to breathe physically.