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Finding Healing for Both Spouses When Battling Addiction

To truly understand Tara and Jared Madsen’s story, you have to start in the present. Skip past the first five years of their marriage, when she felt lonely, confused, and disconnected from her husband. Get past the excruciating discovery of Jared’s pornography addiction and the infidelity to which it led. Skim the subsequent five years of recovery work they slogged through to get to this place. Because this place is a really good place.

Sitting in her beautiful home, surrounded by keepsakes and pictures of a treasured family, Tara radiates serenity and wisdom beyond her years. And when she talks about her marriage, she highlights the fact that even during the most painful work of recovery, the intimacy and closeness she and Jared have today have made it worthwhile. Now that they’re in a better place, she and Jared share a friendship she never could have imagined back when she was blind to the challenges they faced. Tara and Jared are really lucky. Along with vital spiritual guidance through the long, slow road of repentance, their bishop provided a referral to an excellent recovery program that proved invaluable to them. 

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Couples facing a sexual addiction often struggle to know what sort of treatment will best suit their needs and how much of a financial investment they are willing to make. Many begin and end their treatment with their bishop, or perhaps by participating in a 12-step program. While it is essential to seek spiritual healing during such a pivotal moment in a marriage, it is vital to spend equal time and resources on addressing the addiction and its effects in a clinical setting. A sex addiction recovery treatment program based on the growing body of addiction science—as well tried and true clinical practices—will help the couple get solidly into recovery, heal from the pain of the past, and achieve a closeness that could not have been found in any other way. Such treatment is emotionally exhausting, time consuming, and does require a financial investment, but it is worth the sacrifice to those who believe a happy marriage is the foundation of family life. 

Sober, but Stuck

Tara and Jared stumbled into an excellent recovery program within weeks of confronting the addiction, but most couples have to search high and low for something that will help. Options range from family therapists to online support groups to 12-step manuals you can do on your own. This dizzying array can overwhelm and confuse couples into thinking that a patchwork of whatever is convenient will lead to the healing they seek. Considering the severity of this addiction and its effects on others—as well as the primary importance of marriage and families—it is wise to address this issue with the best resources and expertise available.

One of the easiest ways to illustrate what works in addiction therapy is to point out what doesn’t work—and why. Two of the most common mistakes in seeking treatment are 1) failing to treat the betrayal trauma of the spouse and 2) failing to distinguish between sobriety and recovery in the addict. Neglecting either or both of these critical recovery components often delivers a close imitation of healing, leaving the couple temporarily sober, but stuck.

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As Dr. Jill C. Manning’s research indicates, betrayal trauma is distinct from other forms of trauma in that the victim is in a close relationship with the perpetrator, and the risk of recurrence is high. Symptoms are similar to those experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder, and some of them will have a delayed onset. It is extremely common to focus all recovery efforts on the addict, while leaving the spouse to grapple with his or her fallout alone. Fear of opening up to outsiders who may judge or give bad advice often leads the spouse of an addict to extreme isolation, which continues to damage the individual and the marriage. 

Failing to distinguish sobriety from recovery in the addict can take many forms. One of the most common in religious communities is to equate ecclesiastical and even divine guidance and forgiveness with the practical hard work of recovery from an addiction. While the repentance process is a vital element of recovery, it constitutes only a part of the work necessary to heal the brain, body, and soul of the ravages of the addiction. The Church’s website overcomingpornography.org states, “As a general rule, professional help should be sought when the individual has made repeated attempts to resolve the problem without success. . . . The individual must understand why the addiction occurred and how to change emotional and behavioral patterns that will lead the person back to the addictive behavior.”

The physiological and psychological effects of addiction in the brain as well as decades of addiction research point to high relapse rates without clinical treatment. A good addiction recovery program will help the addict and the spouse find and address underlying causes of addiction; learn life skills to help cope with negative emotions, stress, and triggers; and help reprogram the brain to cope with daily life without resorting to the addiction. Without this sort of treatment, couples may be on a revolving door of relapse, earth-shattering discovery, and repentance for decades to come. 

Knowing a Good Program When You See It

Tara points out a main tenet of addiction therapy: the opposite of addiction is not sobriety (or abstinence from the substance or behavior one is addicted to)—the opposite of addiction is connection. She says, “Sobriety is not the goal of recovery. It is a positive consequence of good recovery behaviors.” Rather than establishing the bar right above sobriety, effective programs for addiction recovery will push for personal connection and positive life skills in both spouses.

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In a 2007 paper published by Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity, Jill C. Manning and Wendy L. Watson identified five elements of support that women found most helpful in dealing with a spouse’s sexual addiction. These are: connection, advocacy, validation, education, and direction. The program Tara and Jared participated in was strong in all five of these elements. It taught them how to find safe confidantes within their therapy group and among friends and family, too. Most importantly, it helped them find and more firmly establish their marital bond. Their marriage therapist and their individual therapists were able to advocate for Jared to change, giving Tara the freedom to focus on her own recovery work. Of course, validation is a core tenet of therapy, and it can be invaluable for both spouses who are grappling with the sense of isolation that can come with this specific challenge. But perhaps most importantly, the education and direction they both received in this program was second to none—the therapists were well-educated and experienced in the field of sex addiction therapy, and they provided excellent guidance and education through the long recovery process.

Leslie Haws, a certified sex addiction therapist who has been treating spouses struggling with addiction for over 20 years, points out that a good program of recovery will include individual therapy for each spouse, marriage counseling for the couple, and regular group meetings with other couples. “Whenever possible, it’s essential to have these treatment components under one umbrella, because otherwise hope for the marriage may be lost in the midst of all the great work the couple is doing,” she says. “The couple’s therapist holds the hope and becomes the guardian of the relationship, helping the couple avoid common pitfalls of recovery and build secure foundations for a new marriage.”

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Time and Money

The percentage of couples who get into and stay in recovery is dishearteningly low. Overwhelmingly, they quit because of time and money. Effective recovery programs are time-consuming and will require a financial sacrifice. Some families feel they cannot make that sacrifice happen.

In the question of how much we are prepared to sacrifice, a little perspective may help. If your spouse were diagnosed with a life-threatening disease, would you procure the best treatment available, or would you buy her a self-help book? It’s not as dramatic a metaphor as it may seem: addiction threatens personal health, success at work, the mental and spiritual health of close family members, and especially the marriage itself. 

The good news is that we are not alone. Many bishops are willing to help pay for treatment costs—and if not, may be willing to help cover food or shelter so that couples can pay for treatment. Extended family can help with the expense and with providing child care on nights when the couple goes to treatment. 

During their years of treatment, Tara and Jared sacrificed a great deal. They went to hours of therapy every week, even attending just four days after the birth of their son. Asked about how hard it was to pay for treatment, Tara says, “The financial sacrifices have always been worth it. To save our marriage was like saving a living, breathing life. It didn’t matter the cost. There was so much good to save.”

The Middle of the Story

Tara and Jared’s happy ending is really more like the middle, as they both work daily to be healthy individually and together. They do a lot more talking and listening together than most couples. They write in their journals religiously. The visit occasionally with their therapist, and often volunteer to share their story with other couples in the addiction recovery program they attended. Mostly, though, they just take care of their kids, serve in church, and enjoy the fruits of their labor: a rock-solid friendship that would make most couples jealous. Asked if she would trade what they have now for a “normal life,” she says, “No, I wouldn’t—because I want what we have now, more than perfect, more than healthy. I feel a lot of gratitude. He chose to get better, and so did I, and because we chose to get better, we have all this.”

When it comes right down to it, addiction recovery of any kind is like most other things in life: we get out of it what we put into it. 

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