When I was writing my Master’s thesis on anti-pornography campaigns, I found that the most common advice given to pornography users who want to be free is to go and talk to someone about their problem. It is an important first step, and everyone I have talked to who has found successful recovery has eventually found someone to open up to who made all the difference. As therapist Rory Reid noted, “Being truthful frees up energy previously used to maintain secrets.”

All these years we have been advising people trapped in pornography to tell someone, but is “someone” prepared to react correctly? There are two sides to the conversation. I’m afraid that we usually aren’t prepared to be really good at responding to disclosure. Sometimes we unintentionally make the problem even worse by our negative or ineffective reactions. We want to do better, but how?

It takes a lot for someone who is struggling with pornography use to open up to others. Most keep their problem to themselves and never make it into lasting recovery because they fear rejection from others. Some heed the advice to confide in someone they trust. But imagine for a moment that a friend or family member came to you for help. How would you respond? Are you prepared to react in a way that will be uplifting and encouraging? It has been my experience that most people are not prepared to respond positively to disclosure. Take, for example, the following real life experience of someone who struggled with pornography.

What We Do That Shuts Down Recovery

Ryan had been using pornography through his teenage years. He was able to abstain long enough to be a missionary for a couple of years, but when he returned to daily life in college, his old habits came back. He felt trapped and isolated with his problem. He really wanted to change, but needed some help.

Ryan’s first confession ever was to his mom as they were driving to visit family. Why did he choose his mom? Because he thought she was the most likely person to still love him. Coming clean after so many years was a big step. However, instead of the compassionate concern he hoped for, she expressed shock and disappointment. She cried and criticized. She had such a strong negative emotional response that Ryan felt even greater shame and his problems with pornography got worse. He spent many more years silently entrenched in pornography before attempting to reach out to someone again.

Ryan’s experience, unfortunately, is too common. Did you know that 79% of teens and young adults who want to stop using pornography say they have no one in their life helping them? Usually, the person they feel could help them the most is a friend (Barna 2016). Why don’t they talk to their friend? And if they did, would their friend know how respond in a helpful way? People who want to overcome pornography use often want to reach out for help, but are hesitant because they worry that someone will react negatively with anger, disappointment, an emotional outburst, or rejection. They are already struggling with feelings of shame, which will influence anyone to retreat from the possibility of rejection.

People Really Do Want to Help

It isn’t so hard to imagine a different outcome. We want to be kind and helpful. We care about our friends and family and want to be there for them when they are struggling with life. We want to be a trusted source for help. We just need some guidance to be able to give compassion, understanding, and support when someone reaches out for help with pornography issues.

What can we do to be the good friend we want to be? How can we help someone get out of the harmful behavior they are stuck in? Here’s some suggestions for what to say if a friend, a family member, or maybe even someone you are dating tells you about their challenges.

Four Steps to Being the Safe Person Your Friend Needs

These four A’s are steps to build the connection you both want in this crucial moment. We can appreciate, acknowledge, ask, and assist. These steps show your friend that you care, that you accept them, and that you will do what you can to help.

  • Appreciate

    • Thank you for telling me
    • I’m proud of you for talking, you are doing the right thing by speaking up and taking steps to change
    • I appreciate so many good things about you
  • Acknowledge

    • I’m sorry you are experiencing this
    • I know it’s common and lots of people are struggling
      Help me understand what it’s been like for you
  • Ask

    • What are your goals?
    • Have you been able to find help?
    • Would you like help finding some resources?
    • Who is helping you and how often do you reach out to them?
    • What is your recovery plan and how is it working for you?
  • Assist

    • You can trust me to keep our conversations confidential.
    • How can I help? (It’s important to understand what is appropriate help for you to offer).
    • Let’s plan when to follow up.

By practicing the four As of being a good responder ahead of time, you will be prepared to help someone at a critical turning point. Think through how a positive disclosure conversation would go if your friend or family member came to you. It won’t seem that difficult to do once you have thought through the situation. We shouldn’t be taken by surprise – since 80% of young adult men and 1/3 of young adult women are using pornography, it’s pretty likely that you will have an opportunity to be that safe place for disclosure. We can mentally practice how we would respond calmly if someone told us they were struggling with porn.

A Little or A Lot?

Be aware, full disclosure often happens slowly. Someone will tell a little at a time, to see how their friend reacts. If they feel safe, they will disclose more over time. Problems happen when either side claims or assumes that the whole story was told, and then feels deceived and betrayed when more comes out later. Be honest: “That’s what I am ready to share for now, maybe I will be ready to tell you more later,” or “I appreciate you sharing that much now – we can talk again in the future.” The key is honesty all the way through.

Advice for Committed Couples

It’s important to note that this approach to disclosure doesn’t apply to couples who are married or have been together a long time. That is a significantly different situation because of the commitments made and the more intimate relationship. For these couples, counselors often plan a joint meeting for disclosure with the therapist present to mediate and guide the discussion. Betsaida Halasima, who experienced a disclosure of her husband’s pornography addiction after 2 years of marriage, said “This specially trained therapist can emotionally and mentally prepare both the spouse and the addict for appropriate and healthy disclosure.”

What If I Turn to Someone for Help and I Feel Worse?

There is no way around it, reaching out for help involves emotional risk. However, if you find out someone is not prepared to respond well, accept that they are reacting the way the culture has taught them. This is just more evidence of the need for us to work together educating everyone. You could say, “I realize this is a surprise to you, and talking about pornography is not something we learned how to do in our culture. I know a resource that might help you learn more if you’re interested.” Don’t take it personally – their reaction is more about their upbringing, not about you. Keep talking to people until you find the right person. You might even teach them the four As yourself!

You Can Start a New Culture

Our first response to someone who is brave enough to open up has a powerful, long lasting impact. Whether we react with negativity, shock, crying, or rejection in any form, or if we respond with acceptance, respect, and compassion makes all the difference. The most important thing is to see whole people who have both strengths and weaknesses. It’s time to put the old shocked reactions behind us. This is the world we live in; let’s get on with recovery!

When we work together to connect and help each other get through that intimidating first step of disclosure, more people will be able to move on to the next steps of recovery and freedom. Thinking ahead and being prepared will make the difference. You can learn more in the books Surviving Disclosure:: A Partner’s Guide for Healing the Betrayal of Intimate Trust and Disclosing Secrets: An Addict’s Guide for When, to Whom, and How Much to Reveal by Jennifer P Schneider M.D., M. Deborah Corley Ph.D.

Think through the four steps so they will be a natural, automatic reaction. Use them when you get the opportunity. Share the four steps with 10 other people so that they are prepared to help as well. That’s how we will change the disclosure dynamic from terrifying to empowering!

Help us understand how disclosure works best. Contact us to share your experiences with disclosure and the four steps.