Blaming Wives of Sex/Porn Addicts is Counter-productive
By Eddie Capparucci, Ph.D., LPC, C-CSAS
“He told me I should learn to be a better wife and lover,” Karen said with tears in her eyes as she recalled visiting her pastor for advice on how to deal with her husband’s pornography addiction. “I was shocked to hear him say that, but I trusted his advice. Besides, whenever I confronted Tom about using pornography he would always turn the tables on me and complain that if I could be more sexually available he wouldn’t need porn; so maybe there was some truth to what my pastor was saying.“
“So I have spent the past eight months trying to please him sexually. But guess what?” she asked. “He’s still looking at that filth. I can’t believe that I allowed both of those men to hoodwink me into believing it was my fault.”
Unfortunately, the story shared by Karen is far too familiar among women who seek counseling to help them deal with the betrayal of their husbands’ sexual infidelities. Many clergy, Christian counselors, and coaches don’t understand the extent of the trauma faced by these victims. In many cases, a woman is mislabeled as co-dependent and an enabler.
“I spent almost a year in counseling after my therapist diagnosed me as co-dependent,” said Maria whose husband’s sexual addiction involved numerous betrayals including prostitutes and strip clubs. “The counselor kept telling me I was too emotionally volatile and I needed to learn to get over what happened and forgive. I tried, but I was just so angry, and I couldn’t stop thinking about how he hurt me. I could not figure out what would lead him to do this to me and the kids.”
It is not uncommon for a woman in the initial counseling session to present in a highly emotionally-charged state after discovering her husband’s secret. In fact, that “discovery” meeting with a couple is one of the most heart-breaking sessions to facilitate. A woman often will appear out-of-control emotionally, which could lead some therapists or clergy to believe the husband has been dealing with an irrational and over-the-top wife for years.
Following the discovery, higher levels of anxiety, lack of sleep, depression, and indecisiveness all contribute to a woman presenting to a professional as someone who may have trouble regulating her emotional state. However, that is rarely the case.
The emotional trauma suffered in finding out your husband has been sexually betraying you can wreak mental havoc on an individual. When a woman has uncovered the devastation of her husband’s action, she equates it to her world collapsing. Most wives wonder if their marriages can survive, and all have serious doubt they can ever again trust the men who they thought would always nurture and protect their hearts.
It is important to understand that in times of extreme stress the neurochemistry of the brain is altered leaving these women emotionally stuck and struggling to determine how to move beyond the shock. It is critical that Christian counselors and clergy provide a wife enough time – weeks or sometimes months – to process the initial betrayal and begin to self-regulate their emotional state. At that point, the professional will have a better understanding of the woman’s ability to move forward in the healing process.
It is incumbent that we take a Christ-like approach with these broken individuals to help them in the long healing process. “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” Galatians 6:2
It is generally agreed among certified sexual addiction specialists that recovery time for a woman who has suffered a sexual betrayal is on average 12-24 months. During this time, women need the ability to grieve the loss of the safety they thought their marriage provided. But many women are denied the opportunity to grieve as they are instead pressured to forgive and forget.
Take the case of Deborah who discovered her husband had been engaging in sexual fantasy and masturbation with multiple women via video chat rooms.
“When I found out, I immediately told him he needed to get into counseling, and I decided to do the same,” she recalled. “I saw a female Christian counselor and she proceeded to tell me it is just the way men are wired. I was told I should just accept the fact that all men out act and focus on ‘treating him right in the bedroom’ to prevent him from straying in the future.”
It is incorrect and harmful advice like this that goes against the counseling principle of “do-no-harm”. It also can lead a woman to feel shame and believe she is responsible for her partner’s abusing sex. However, we find in a large majority of cases involving sexual addiction that the husband had difficulty controlling his sexual impulses before he ever met this wife. He brought the sexual addiction into the marriage. But women are being misinformed and led to believe his ‘problem with sex’ is the result of mistakes she made in the marriage.
The truth of the matter is that a large majority of wives who discovered they are married to a sex addict meet the criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In her book, Your Sexually Addicted Spouse, Dr. Barbara Steffens notes in a study she conducted with women who were married to a sex addict that 70% presented with symptoms of PTSD.
What do those symptoms look like? Here are several keys: inability to concentrate, insomnia, paranoia, re-experiencing through invasive thoughts, and in some cases affecting their ability to function with day-to-day responsibilities.
“This level of symptoms is consistent with someone exposed to a natural disaster or sexual assault,” says Dr. Steffens. “To me, that is significant information for the spouse and for those who seek to help heal.”
The proper course of treatment for women attempting to cope with their husband’s sexual acting-out requires counselors and pastors to allow her significant time to process her emotions and tell her story. These women also need to be assured this is not their problem, but instead, the problem is their husband’s.
“I saw the importance of this firsthand, after five years of counseling the wives and girlfriends of porn addicts, from 6 pm to midnight every night,” Tiffany Leeper, Founder of Girls Against Porn & Human Trafficking recalled. “I had gone through what they did, taking me seven years to recover, so I knew exactly why they were desperately trying to find someone who was empathetic and who understood betrayal.”
Another important step is obtaining full disclosure from the addicted partner. A large percentage of wives have at some point suspected their spouses had been acting out inappropriately, but when confronted, their husbands covered their actions with lies. This dishonesty can be as devastating as the betrayal itself. It also can leave women questioning their own judgment when they are told their suspicions are unfounded (which further deepens the trauma).
Because of this pattern of dishonesty, it is critical for the addicted partner to come clean regarding all inappropriate behavior that occurred throughout the relationship. We see time and time again a husband swears that his wife knows everything only to have another transgression discovered. What this does is push the healing process back to square one and reinforces in the wife that she will never overcome the depth of the betrayal.
Christian counselors and clergy who work with women suffering from betrayal also need to be aware that the self-worth of these individuals has taken a strong hit. There often is a sense of worthlessness that is established as a woman tries to understand why her husband sought sexual stimulation with others.
“After I saw the images of the young women he was video chatting with I couldn’t help but start to compare myself to them,” said Naomi during one of her counseling sessions. “Here I was a mother of three weighing 25 pounds more than I should. How could I measure up to those women who didn’t have an ounce of fat on them? It’s obvious I am not good enough for him, which leads me to believe I would not be good enough for any man.”
It is critical to help them understand their self-worth is not found through their husbands but instead in Jesus Christ. “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.” John 1:12
As for forgiving and trusting again, a woman who has been betrayed needs time to process her emotional anguish. Forgiveness and trust are gifts that are hers along to decide if and when to give. To push a woman to this stage too soon will result in stalling the grieving process. While she may put up the appearance of forgiveness, she will be sitting on negative feelings and distrust that will likely manifest in other ways including passive-aggressive behaviors.
Tiffany Leeper expanded that, “Due to the addictive components of porn and the way it chemically changes the brain causing the addict to oftentimes, retreat, pull away, and express anger towards their spouse, many women instantly take this upon themselves and incorrectly assume they caused it. They don’t realize at first that they have to go through a grieving process for who they believed that person to be and how addiction changes someone. It is vital that pastoral communities especially know how to create a safe and empathetic environment for these spouses, and most importantly provide knowledgeable responses and counseling referrals to a Christian counselor who is trained in sexually addictive behaviors properly.”
The wife of a sexually addicted spouse is vulnerable to re-traumatizing if the professional she turns to for assistance is not careful. As competent mental health professionals, we owe it to these women to put our biases aside and engage with them by making them feel valued, honored, and respected as children of the King. It is the same approach we take with their addicted husbands.
Eddie Capparucci is a licensed Christian counselor with a private practice in Highlands, NC and is certified in the treatment of sexual and porn addiction. Among his clients have been NFL and MLB players. He is the creator of the Inner Child Model for the treatment of sex/porn addiction and the author of the book Going Deeper: How the Inner Child Impacts Your Sexual Addiction.
His latest book is entitled, Why Men Struggle to Love: Overcoming Relational Blind Spots and explains why being sober is not enough. It provides insight why those who have been betrayed need to see more from those who hurt them besides not engaging in their problematic sexual behaviors.