It’s no secret that pornography use and accessibility is on the rise. With a simple 5 minute scroll through Instagram, Pinterest or Facebook, it is very possible that you’ll find unsolicited sexually explicit material. Has that happened to you sometime in the past few days?
At some point in your life, it’s almost guaranteed that you will have a relationship with someone who has struggled with a past problem or even addiction to pornography. As a young adult, I can easily think of at least 10 of my friends and loved ones who are currently in recovery. As I pondered on the resources available for those who are helping people recover, I realized that there wasn’t enough being said about the recovery process and the best way to maintain and strengthen relationships with someone in recovery.
This article will focus on four aspects of how to navigate a marital relationship with a spouse who has struggled in the past or who currently is struggling to overcome a problem with pornography. Although this is specifically geared toward romantic partners who are in a committed marriage relationship, these general principles will help us all know how to better build and strengthen relationships with any of our loved ones or friends who are overcoming issues with pornography. We will talk about connection, accountability, safe havens, and boundaries and what each of those things look like.
What is Recovery Anyway?
To have a relationship built on trust, it’s important to be able to talk about what recovery really is. The first step, of course, is to not be using pornography any more. This is called abstinence or sobriety. Being able to get to that point is an achievement to celebrate!
However, I have seen in my friends and loved ones that there is much more to a full recovery than simply not viewing pornography. It involves being aware of the situations, stresses, and triggers that are a problem and having a plan to deal successfully with those. In recovery, we will be honest and humble about our struggles —without wallowing in shame.
It is a sign of good recovery when someone can describe what they are doing to stay safe and strong, often including working with a qualified therapist, participating in a 12-step group with a sponsor, continuing to learn about this issue, and regular visits with a spiritual adviser or accountability partner. Recovery means learning to live in new, healthy ways and being committed to keep doing the things that have helped throughout our lives.
Karen Broadhead, founder of Mothers Who Know, frequently shares the idea that, “Recovery is not a destination. It’s a journey. A lifelong journey to stay in recovery.”
Dr. Adam Moore, Ph. D, LMFT, at Utah Valley Counseling, specializes in treating pornography and sex addictions. He suggests that there are two other important factors to assess whether someone is in recovery or not: observing their ability to allow real human connection, and their individual accountability.
Connection in Recovery
What does human connection look like?
Real connection comes when two people make a sincere effort to be there for one another through all types of difficulties in life. It also means being present to feel the joys of life.
Pornography messes with our ability to find true and healthy connection. For example, trying to make a real connection with someone struggling with pornography can be like trying to talk to someone on the phone while you’re driving through the desert with spotty reception. Sometimes you feel like you just can’t get through.
Pornography use creates a false sense of connection; the user is actually disconnecting from reality and from other people. Often the user isn’t as satisfied with their marriage as they would be if they weren’t using pornography (Minarcik 2016). Porn is a tool that is used in order to feel acceptance and control over one’s life, but in reality, it actually increases feelings of shame and loneliness which distances individuals from connecting with their spouse.
True connection happens better when each mind is free of the buzz of pornography.
A increasing depth of human connection and empathy shows progress with a past problem with pornography. It’s crucial to remember that there’s a difference between sobriety, or being clean from viewing pornography, and true recovery. Genuine connection is that difference, and it is a beautiful thing to see connection being rebuilt in marriage relationships!
A spouse that has had a problem needs to know that regardless of their past struggles, they still are worthy of your love and acceptance. This can start with responding with compassion when you have those first discussions about the problem. We can be a support to our spouse as they recover by seeking to meet their needs in healthy ways, and to feel their joys as well as sharing some of their pains of recovery.
If you have a spouse in recovery you should know that it will take time to fully heal, but with your support and love, your partner will be able to begin to connect with you again in a deep and fulfilling way. Connection and healing for ourselves and our spouse comes as we encourage others in their recovery process. I have spoken recently with two couples who are in recovery. Each of them has brought up how much closer they have grown together through the process of recovery together. Connection requires effort from both sides, and both spouses can support and encourage each other in the challenges they face in life.
Accountability in Recovery
Many of the thoughts in this section are from Dr. Moore, and his many years of experience as a therapist and clinical director. He said, “I don’t see anyone getting better when they’re not being accountable.” All individuals who have struggled are in continuing recovery and healing, so it’s important they are able to be accountable to others who care about them, and most importantly to their spouse.
Accountability manifests true recovery because being accountable is a way of being honest with one’s self and others. Dr. Moore shared that when someone makes the choice to be accountable to another person, this helps the person struggling feel more accountable because someone else is depending on them to get better and stay better! Growth increases as we are expected to report our honest progress.
Accountability helps people see how they are handling their difficult emotions. Does your spouse reach out to you when they are overwhelmed? Do they share things that trouble them? Or do they stuff it all away? We should remember that it’s not our role to force their accountability, but rather to be there if they are willing to choose to be open about their progress.
Couples should talk about how much information to share – too much detail can sometimes be hurtful. Decide what is relevant and helpful for recovery. It is a good idea for someone working on recovery to have many people they can reach out to when needed, so the spouse doesn’t bear all of weight all of the time.
When your spouse is choosing to be accountable to you and others, you can know they are making positive progress towards recovery. Although being accountable may bring heartaches and tears at times, in the long run this will bless your relationship with a deep and abiding trust.
Creating a Safe Haven for Recovery
It’s natural for us to want to leave a spouse’s addiction behind and not bring it up again, but remember Karen’s statement earlier that recovery is a journey of healthy living for a lifetime? Since we want our spouses to be better and stay better, we should do our part to help them feel connection and encourage them to be accountable. Their recovery is their decision and is up to them, but we can be a great help and support to them as they are on the road of recovery. We can choose to listen without stone-walling. We can refrain from shooting negative, judgmental statements as they tell us something we don’t want to hear. We can create in ourselves a safe haven to help our spouse as they work on recovery.
A few suggestions of how to create a safe haven from Dr. Moore:
- Choose to ask yourself, “How can I best support my partner?”
- Choose to be compassionately honest in your communication with your spouse. “Your partner will be honest with you and expect you to be honest back. They want to know if you are hurting or how you feel when they confide in you.”
- You don’t need to tell everything in detail, but be honest about your feelings and associated causes even if your spouse gets upset. Also be sensitive to your spouse’s emotions and feelings.
Boundaries in Recovery
What first comes to mind when you hear the word “boundary”? Maybe you think of fences or high walls, which are meant to keep people or things out of a private space.
But what really are boundaries in relationships?
A few thoughts from Dr. Moore:
“Boundaries are a way to communicate what we are ok with and not ok with in a relationship. Boundaries are not trying to get a person to behave in a certain way. It’s how you respond in a healthy way when people don’t do what you expect them to do.”
Boundaries say a lot about who we are willing to be in a relationship. Are we an observer of our spouse in recovery or are we a fighter alongside them?
Can we have too many boundaries? Dr. Moore reminds us that “the moment you start setting boundaries, you are risking the relationship ending.”
The biggest misunderstanding about setting boundaries is that boundaries exist so we never get hurt by our partner.
Boundaries exist for us to “stand up” for ourselves, not so that we never get hurt.
Boundaries are about the way we choose to respond. Sometimes pain is only natural when a spouse we love chooses to confide that he/she has relapsed or when they are feeling guilty or suffering from low self-esteem even after being clean for many years.
“Boundaries help us say, I know that my spouse is hurting because of a past problem and although that problem has nothing to do with me and is not my fault, I am willing to help him/her through this, because that’s the kind of support I’d want him/her to give to me.”
Boundaries help us be honest with ourselves. They helps us realize that although a spouse may not have been honest with us in the past, they are committed to being honest now, so we can choose to trust them.
Many spouses believe that they need to neglect their own needs in order to fully care for their recovering spouse, but it is not healthy to forgo all your own needs. Boundaries also mean that you are caring for yourself in the way you need to be cared for – making sure your needs are being met. That helps both partners in the relationship!
Although there will be sacrifices and occasional discomforts when you must reach out to help your spouse in recovery, you must set expectations with your spouse and have him/her set expectations for you of what they need and when in relation to their recovery. For example, one of my friends asks her husband to tell her immediately when he relapses before he comes home, so she has time to process what has happened on her own before discussing and dealing with the relapse together.
Similar to the oxygen mask analogy of always putting on your own mask first, make sure that you are personally and emotionally prepared to help your spouse with their recovery. Your recovering spouse should be willing to help support you in your emotional healing as you are helping them.
When boundaries are set and followed in a healthy way, they don’t act as a fence to keep spouses at a distance from each other. They help couples to grow together, rely on each other and sincerely trust one another.
Keep Building Connection, Accountability, Safe Havens, and Boundaries
Strengthening a relationship can be a hard thing to do after being hurt by a loved one’s addiction or feeling like you have hurt someone with your behavior, but as we keep in mind that recovery is a lifelong process, we can create safe havens for ourselves and our partners as we establish reasonable boundaries and encourage connection and accountability within our relationships.
Healing and hope may take some time to find, but by putting these the principles into practice, joy and peace can be felt along the journey. Although these are definitely not all the solutions to deal with recovery, I hope they have been of help to you. As you receive professional advice from licensed therapists and recovery specialists, you will understand these principles in greater depth and will continue on the path toward staying in full recovery and enjoying a wonderful relationship together.
MINARCIK, J., WETTERNECK, C. T., & SHORT, M. B. (2016). The effects of sexually explicit material use on romantic relationship dynamics. Journal Of Behavioral Addictions, 5(4), 700-707. doi:10.1556/2006.5.2016.078