|A woman's response|
I know this is something a lot of women struggle with, and I know that some of my own personal experiences may have helped me to work though it peacefully. I want to give some context of that, so others can understand the experience from which my opinion comes. Because our lives and relationships are different, I can't hope to address everything in this one post. Still, I pray there is enough commonality of shared experiences that as women, something can be gleaned from it.
I had the grace of knowing my boyfriend's, now husband's, struggle with chastity and pornography before we ever dated. We had been friends, and so much of our dark personal history had come out to the other before we were ever in a dating relationship. And for most of the time we dated, we didn't talk about it. So, while I was surprised when, years later, he told me he was still struggling to stop watching it, it wasn't a confession that took me totally off guard.
For a number of reasons, I never took it too personally, save one recent time, which I'll address later. I think the biggest reason is that, having heard Matt describe his struggle to me, I accepted habitual watching of pornography as an addiction. It can be painted as less destructive as an addiction to say drugs or alcohol, in terms it hurting the person or others physically. But the mental and emotional affects underlying all addictions are similar. The "substance" is different, but the temptations, cravings, struggles, use, and dependence are all the same. (And we now have the brain research to prove it.)
Accepting it as an addiction can be really challenging for those who have never had one. This was not the case for me. For much of my life, my "drug of choice" was food. So I have a very personal experience of wishing you could stop a behavior, and finding it tremendously hard to do so. That being said, I think we all have had an experience of a behavior or habit that we really dislike about ourselves, that we can't seem to break. Imagine falling to this habit a few times a week...every day...twice a day... Then imagine trying to break this habit. Addiction is similar, only more intense.
One of the most important things I've learned over the past several years is that we need love, friends, family, support groups, rehab, therapy, to break the cycle. In other words, we need people who love us enough to expect us to live our lives better. We also need people who have the gift of being disappointed with us without loving us less. I think I was able to do this with Matt because of my own addiction experience. I could accept that he made it 2 weeks, fell, now 3 weeks, fell, now a month, fell, now a week, fell, etc. I think Matt would say that I always set the expectation for better, but never judged him. And again, I think that ability to not pass judgment was a grace from dealing with my own addiction.
|First, we have to accept it as an addiction.|
Addiction recovery is a process, and it can be a long one. And what I've learned in the past year is that the strength to run the last 2 of 100 yards to win the victory of being fully healed requires people other than myself: Christ, my husband, and my future children. I need Christ to heal the wounds and bring light to the dark places of my soul that not even my husband can reach. I need my husband's presence because having him near reminds me that hating my body can affect my mood which can affect our daily lives together...and certainly our love making. (It's really hard to give entirely of myself if I hate something about myself...because nobody wants to give the parts they hate.) I need the thought of my future children, because if I'm not fully healed from these wounds, I will subtly pass it on to them (because that's part of what happened to me).
I offer these details of my own experience to make the point that I have a very personal, experiential understanding of what it takes to break an addiction. I found solace in Matt's efforts to try and in his progress of moving forward, even during the times he took a step back. I had patience with "how long it was taking" to be fully rid of pornography, because I knew how long it took me to gain control of eating habits that were destroying my soul. I accepted him, without judgment, for where he was at. But most importantly, having lived the experience of an addiction wielding power over the body, mind, and spirit of a person, I understood the most important fact of this situation: his struggle with pornography was not a reflection of him not loving me enough. It also was not a reflection of me being unlovable.
I know that many women whose husbands or boyfriends come clean on their addiction may not have had an experience that made possible my own empathy. So, besides trusting my good opinion, from where can you draw another parallel to give you a clear head, to support and make expectations while withholding judgment?
I think first we have to accept the fact that watching pornography is a sin...and there are a lot of other things that are also a sin. Any sin that any person commits has consequences and puts distance between us and God, us and ourselves, us and others. Which means that any sin that your boyfriend or husband commits puts distance between you. Is watching pornography worse than other sins? Possibly...but that's for God to decide for each person who does it. Does knowing that your boyfriend or husband watches pornography feel worse than other sins? You betcha.
It's probably not too hard to figure out why. We feel betrayed, that we were lied to, that part of what we saw when we looked at him was just a facade; so what else is a lie? And yet, this is likely not the only time we got upset with him because he lied to us, distorted the truth, put his own wants or needs above us. It's not the first or only circumstance in which his sin has affected us, but it is the first or only circumstance in which his sin involved another woman.
We take things more personally when there's another woman involved because it makes us wonder what's wrong with us. This feeling only intensifies when we're married, because now he sacramentally (and legally) promised that there will never be another woman. But if we want to love him anyway, we have to understand that he did not do it because there's something wrong with us. There are typically a number of reasons why he did it, and you can read Matt's blog for some of these details. But we must know it is never because of something we lack. It is never because of something we won't or didn't do. (And, for the record, if he tells you it is, that's a red flag that he's too selfish to be in a mature and life-giving relationship. He may come around someday, but don't allow yourself to be treated badly while you wait and hope for him to get there.)
So here's my advice on what to do when your boyfriend or husband tells you about his porn use (or, tragically, you find out another way). First, allow yourself to be upset. It's important that he faces the reality about how much it hurts you. While he's not doing it because of you, he certainly won't be motivated to quit for the sake of your relationship if he thinks it doesn't really bother you. Let him know it does, let him know you deserve better, but do so honestly - don't embellish your feelings just for the sake of making him feel as horrible as you do at the moment. Hopefully, he'll make a sincere apology. Accept the apology, but don't do it by saying, "it's ok." It's not ok. "I accept your apology" is genuine, and yet also implies this is a serious thing that we can't just be over simply because he said he was sorry. When you find the ability within yourself to do so genuinely, let him know you forgive him. This is the Christian thing to do, no matter how it made us feel.
Then it's time to do some praying and soul searching. Feelings aside, is he making a genuine commitment to be better? Is he ready to reach for the bar that you're setting for him? Remember, if he's not, it's not because of something you lack or something you're not doing. If he's not, you do not have to accept that behavior. Loving him for who he is can mean you aren't going to try to force change on him when he's not ready. It doesn't mean you have to stick around until he is. And hey, maybe that's what he needs. Maybe it takes you breaking up with him to wake him up to manning up (if he's your boyfriend). Again, being sharp or petty about this is not going to help him grow. You just need to be honest. It will hurt you every time he does it, and now that he knows that, you are not willing to be with someone who continues a behavior when they know it hurts you.
On the other hand, if you ask those two questions (genuine commitment and ready to reach the bar) and the answer is yes, you have to be prepared to love him through his struggle. You have to hear that he's joined a group, he has an accountability partner, he put a filter on his browser, he turns off his computer after 10 pm, he committed to going to the gym 3 days a week, Mass more than just on Sunday, confession whenever he falls, he’s fasting, etc. Something, anything, maybe not all at once, but tangible proof that he sees the bar and he's trying to get to it. Until he gets there, you leave it where it is-never lower it. And pray for him that he does reach it. When he gets to it, raise it. Meanwhile, remember that he’s working through an addiction, and that his genuine commitment to change does not necessarily mean he'll go cold turkey all of a sudden. And as things change, or not change, reevaluate your role in his growth; pray about God's plan for your role in it. If you are not the one to help him finally break his addiction, it is not because of something you lack or are not doing. It is not because you are not good enough. Even though it feels worse than other sins against you, focus less on "the other woman" and more on sin itself. Twisted "day-dreaming" about the specifics does not help you heal, so stop thinking about it. Wondering if that scantily clad woman on a billboard, on a Facebook ad, on the runway during a commercial for a special, televised Victoria's Secret Runway show, is going to tempt him to sin later, does not help you heal, so stop thinking about it. He knows your bar, he knows how not meeting it will upset you, and while you love and support him, it is his responsibility to take steps to changing it.
Of course, this is even more challenging in marriage. You can't take the first option of just leaving him. I don't know what it's like to suddenly find out your husband has a pornography problem. I will say that, a couple months ago, Matt did fall. It was one of the rare times he has fallen (and the last) since we've been married, but it led me to tears for the first time ever (about this issue at least). Partly because it was two days before an event that I knew would be hard for me, and he knew I needed his support and strength to get through. But also because, for the first time, I felt it must be something I wasn't doing, or wasn't doing well enough. I worried that he wasn't satisfied with my body, that another woman's was more attractive and pleasing to look at than mine. I feared that now, having seen it again, he would start to expect me to do things I wasn't comfortable with, and I'd disappoint him if I didn't. I can't tell you how many times he's told me how beautiful I am, how much he loves me, how much he would never be disappointed if I felt uncomfortable about something, and yet this one instance sent me into a flurry of doubt. So I told him how I felt, and did not hold anything back. Because he's a great man, he felt terrible, and apologized profusely. I told him I didn't want to have this conversation ever again, raising the bar to where he's at, to what he's finally ready for: total freedom from pornography and not looking back. For my part, in addition to continuing to pray for him, he asked if we could fast together, and it started off as simply giving up chocolate for a month. Furthermore, after accepting his apology and forgiving him for hurting me, I had to let it go. To continue to dwell on the doubts would have been an offense to his apology and an impediment to my genuine forgiveness. It would allow his one transgression to continue to affect our marriage because I gave in to the lies about myself. It was not because of something I lacked.
Life is hard, so marriage is hard. And while we're both trying very hard to keep all sin out of our life and marriage, we both accept that the other is imperfect. With God's grace, I accept the fact that even the strongest can fall, yet expect my husband to not ever again.
Learning how to love ourselves and our "others" is a life-long project, and we are always learning and changing. I don't think I've set forth all the answers, but I hope there is something I've said that can help one of my sisters. And I welcome any feedback that can help me grow or further reflect.