Note: While the following article uses the example of a husband who struggles with pornography and a wife who is seeking healing, it is important to note many wives also struggle with pornography and the following principles can be applied to husbands seeking to heal after discovering their spouse uses pornography. It is also important to note that each relationship and situation is unique and should be handled with individual consideration. Find further resources for those who use pornography and their loved ones at ChurchofJesusChrist.org/addressing-pornography.
Discovering a partner’s pornography problem plunges you into a whirlpool you did not choose and over which you feel no control. But the turmoil doesn’t have to last forever. A spouse cannot control her partner or the pornography problem itself, but she can learn to respond in ways that help her rise above the pornography problem, no longer a victim, but an agent. As an individual turns from victim to agent, not only does she become a stronger, healthier individual, but the spouse is left with complete responsibility for his involvement with pornography. Thus he may be more likely to begin serious efforts to conquer the problem. In fact, the spouse’s ability to combat the problem will increase, since more energy will be going into conquering the problem rather than into an exhausting marital conflict.
When a wife finds out about a husband’s pornography problem, she feels victimized. In a way, she is being victimized. A pornography problem, sometimes defended as a “victimless crime,” in fact claims many victims. Direct impacts on the marriage can include loss of emotional intimacy, increase in sexual demands, diminished sexual interest, unfaithfulness, loss of common interests and concerns, loss of sensitivity, and dysfunction in the relationship (including loss of trust).
If a woman is to become more of an agent, rather than remaining a victim, she must first process and resolve the powerful negative emotions that otherwise interfere with making healthy, appropriate choices. Then she will be more able to make rational, healthy, and appropriate decisions, and act on them.
Processing and Resolving Anger and Hurt
A wife must, if she wants to work through her feelings, first accept those feelings. While this may sound simple, it can be a serious challenge. Acceptance is more than acknowledgment. “Acknowledgement is admitting, being able to say that something is true. Acceptance goes much deeper. . . . Acceptance means receiving on an emotional level what one admits to be true on an intellectual level” (Marsha Means, Living with Your Husband’s Secret Wars, Grand Rapids, Mich.: Fleming H. Revell, 1999, 33). We are not suggesting acceptance of the pornography problem but a wife’s acceptance of her own anger, grief, and pain. Many LDS women struggle with accepting their anger. They may acknowledge that they are hurt and angry, but they often struggle with feelings of guilt, shame, unrighteousness, or even spiritual unworthiness because of strongly held beliefs that their angry feelings are wrong.
Consider, however, how such a belief—that being angry makes them unworthy—would place Moses, Job, Nephi, Joseph Smith, and many other prophets under condemnation. The scriptures are replete with examples of angry prophets. Moses expressed anger against the hardhearted and stiff-necked children of Israel (see Numbers 11:11-15). Job expressed anger at God, questioning why he was ever born (see Job 3:11). Nephi was terribly upset about his continuing struggles with human weakness—specifically mentioning that he felt anger toward his brothers (see 2 Nephi 4:17-27). Joseph Smith felt so hurt that he accused God of abandoning the righteous: “O God, where art Thou?” (D&C 121:1). And God and Christ describe their own feelings of righteous indignation as anger.
How then can members of the Church better understand that their own angry feelings are not evil? Let’s be clear about this. First, we are talking about feeling anger, not acting in anger to hurt others. Second, we are not denying that it’s a worthy goal to be free from angry feelings. We are only suggesting that the way to become free of anger is to work through those feelings, not to repress or deny them, and certainly not to turn our ideals into a club with which to beat ourselves.
Addressing the Problem in a Healthy, Rational Way
In addition to accepting and working through anger, a spouse can turn from being a victim to an agent by addressing the problem in a healthy, rational way. In our observation, this includes several components:
1. Remember that it’s not your fault.
Men struggling with pornography addiction often stress that they want their wives to remember the following:
1. You’re not the source of the problem.
2. You’re not responsible for his behavior.
3. You’ve done nothing to cause him to go to pornography.
4. Repeat numbers 1 through 3, as necessary.
This is a mantra a wife needs to keep repeating when faced with a husband’s addiction to pornography. It’s not your fault. You did not somehow fail in the relationship. You did not push him toward pornography (Boyd K. Packer, “A Plea to Stake Presidents,” Leadership Training Meeting, April 1, 1988, 4).
2. Establish and maintain firm boundaries.
Most of us are familiar with the concept of “hate the sin, but love the sinner.” However, in a world that preaches moral relativism and characterizes the hatred of sin as intolerance, this is increasingly challenging. In sincere efforts to love a sexually addicted husband, a wife may find herself tolerating inappropriate sexual behaviors, including involvement with pornography. Where should lines be drawn? How much right does a wife have to demand that certain behaviors stop? How can such demands be enforced? As you think about the specific boundaries to set for yourself, here are some suggestions:
Don’t ignore the signs of your partner’s double life.
Don’t accede to your partner’s unhealthy sexual demands.
Don’t tolerate abusive behavior toward yourself or your children.
Don’t cover up for your partner’s behavior by lying or making excuses for him to bosses, coworkers, friends, and family.
Establishing healthy boundaries can be a strenuous task, and it may seem terribly unfair that so much is required of you when the problem was brought into the family by the choices of your husband. As challenging as it may be, however, a great opportunity exists to turn your weaknesses into strengths. This is not about “blaming the victim,” it’s about learning to be an agent. The spouse of someone with a pornography problem can gain understanding, develop skills, and establish boundaries to deal with the problem and no longer, in any way, support the behavior that victimized them and others.
Some are concerned that the determination to establish firm boundaries seems unforgiving. However, when we quickly forgive someone who continues to choose behaviors that hurt us, we are not so much exercising a Christlike response as we are assenting to our own victimization and the self-destruction of the sinner.
►Related Article: 3 Truths You Must Understand for the Atonement to Work in Your Life
Seeking to Forgive and Trust Again
A clear message on forgiveness is given in scripture: “I, the Lord, will forgive whom I will forgive, but of you it is required to forgive all men” (D&C 64:10). Eventually, any of us seeking to be acceptable in the kingdom of God must forgive any who trespass against us. However, don’t try to force forgiveness too soon, particularly before substantial change has occurred or sufficient time has passed for healing. In order to forgive in a healthy and complete way, we must first be safe from the destructive behavior. Safety is achieved through consistently improved behavior on the part of the responsible party or through distancing ourselves from the hurtful behavior, if necessary.
Forgiveness can also be premature if we haven’t fully worked through our feelings of pain and anger. “If forgiveness eludes you and you feel stuck in your pain and anger, I encourage you to return to the grieving process. . . . Forgiveness comes as a gift when we’ve completed healthy grieving” (Means, Living with Your Husband’s Secret Wars, 163). Of course, being cautious not to jump prematurely to forgiveness while a person struggles with learning how to change does not leave us free to seek revenge or be hurtful in other ways. That response would turn the victim into a victimizer, now also culpable.
President James E. Faust spoke on this subject, giving this explanation and example:
The Atonement not only benefits the sinner but also benefits those sinned against—that is, the victims. By forgiving "those who trespass against us" (JST, Matt. 6:13) the Atonement brings a measure of peace and comfort to those who have been innocently victimized by the sins of others. The basic source for the healing of the soul is the Atonement of Jesus Christ. . . . A sister who had been through a painful divorce wrote of her experience in drawing from the Atonement. She said: "Our divorce . . . did not release me from the obligation to forgive. I truly wanted to do it, but it was as if I had been commanded to do something of which I was simply incapable." Her bishop gave her some sound advice: "Keep a place in your heart for forgiveness, and when it comes, welcome it in." Many months passed as this struggle to forgive continued. She recalled: "During those long, prayerful moments . . . I tapped into a life-giving source of comfort from my loving Heavenly Father. I sense that he was not standing by glaring at me for not having accomplished forgiveness yet; rather he was sorrowing with me as I wept. . . .
“In the final analysis, what happened in my heart is for me an amazing and miraculous evidence of the Atonement of Christ. I had always viewed the Atonement as a means of making repentance work for the sinner. I had not realized that it also makes it possible for the one sinned against to receive into his or her heart the sweet peace of forgiving” (James E. Faust, “The Atonement: Our Greatest Hope,” Ensign, November 2001, 20).
Struggling with a partner’s pornography problem can be a frightening, exhausting experience. However, this struggle doesn’t have to continue without hope. Learning and living by the principles discussed here can imbue that struggle with meaning and direction whereby the spouse can move from being a victim to being an agent. If your partner addresses and works to conquer his pornography problem, together you can become healthier, happier, and eligible for continued blessings in your relationship as you progress together. If your partner remains involved in pornography, it does not have to destroy you or your children. Healthy handling of emotions and healthy boundaries can be learned and practiced and safety can be achieved. Whether we move ahead alone or with our partner, we must move ahead. There is a place of peace waiting for us.
Image from Shutterstock
Confronting Pornography is a collection of chapters and essays from professional counselors and Church leaders, as well as from people who have overcome the addiction. This book is designed to offer help to those individuals caught in pornography's clutches and hope to all those who love them.
Read more about overcoming pornography as an individual and working through your feelings as a spouse in Confronting Pornography: A Guide to Prevention and Recovery for Individuals, Loved Ones, and Leaders, available at Deseret Book stores and deseretbook.com.