18 Oct 2018
Just heard it again. Another wives and porn story. A sad and frustrating story from a wife who discovered her husband looking at porn again. She had hoped for the best, believing he had been walking out a path of faith and repentance and was “doing okay” (his consistent answer when she asked him).
But then, a quick slam shut of his iPad when she unexpectedly walked in on him. Porn. Again.
But then the story went from wives and porn to busy church leaders. I celebrated her courage to approach her pastor and ask for help, confide in him about her hurting heart, and to open a window for him to see into a very broken and fragile part of her life: her marriage. Thankfully, he listened, he prayed, and then he told her he’d leave it in her court if she needed anything else.
Yes, this pastor did enter in, he did listen, and he did make himself available for a ten-minute conversation after church. But then he left her on her own.
It’s hard enough for many women to approach male pastors for help, but it’s worse when they do and are given little time and dismissed afterward on their own.
A wife who is sleep deprived and emotionally beaten down will struggle to feel safe approaching a church leader who seems to only have five minutes to spare.
First, let’s be fair and honest. Church leaders are busy and overwhelmed with the needs of the sheep under their care. There are dramatic and complicated things happening in the lives of people in our churches, and pastors are typically on the front line of being asked to help. Pressured by crises and meetings and other commitments, church leaders can come across as disinterested, uncompassionate, or dismissive. Sometimes these perceptions are true, but not always.
In this context of seeking help, a wife who is sleep deprived and emotionally beaten down will struggle to feel safe approaching a church leader who seems to only have five minutes to spare.
Secondly, another more disheartening reality is when wives are under the authority of church leaders who preach an anti-biblical message about husbands who struggle with lust. It’s just what men do. It’s just who they are. Wives need to trust the Lord and get on board with what he wants to do in their husband’s lives. Get behind his recovery and help him however she can.
Of all the hundreds of wives I’ve gotten to sit with, not one of them feel safe (or cared for) in churches where that message (of minimizing the effect of porn use or ungodly sexual behavior) is taught or implied by church leaders.
Third, I’ve read how many wives manifest symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in the aftermath of a husband’s sexual betrayal. It’s important to keep in mind that when wives come to us for help, that the teary or paralyzed or embittered (or all of the above) woman sitting in front of us may not be her true self. Traumatic experiences have the power to reshape people as pain washes over every aspect of life.
“PTSD identifies traumas that don’t seem to fade. Although many difficult events in life such as the death of a loved one don’t really fade, PTSD is used to describe events that intrude into daily life by way of complex emotions rather than simple grief. You can feel numb, you avoid anything that could possibly be similar to the inciting event, you feel depressed and hopeless, or you feel restless, irritable, hyper-vigilant, anxious, and over-reactive. And you can feel all these things at once.”
These are the behaviors and emotions I see time and again in working with wives whose husbands have betrayed their vows by habitually looking at porn or have been involved in an emotional or sexual affair.
Don’t give up, don’t grow weary in well doing when it comes to resting in the comfort of Christ and then offering that same comfort to hurting wives.
Now, imagine all of these scenarios converging. A busy pastor (or a church leader) getting a phone call from a wife who is in the throes of a PTSD-ish response to her husband’s sin. She’s anxious, brokenhearted, unable to accurately form her thoughts, and breaks into sobs with no warning. Her heart has been shattered, her thoughts are a scrambled mess, and most likely she is exhausted. And she’s asking you for help, but she probably doesn’t even know what she needs.
Honestly, it doesn’t surprise me that church leaders, even those who are well-meaning, just don’t know how to engage a wife when she’s in this state. Seminaries don’t train future pastors how to do triage counseling, much less how to walk with a hurting wife over the long haul.
Here’s some steps to help you grow in wise, effective pastoral care for a hurting wife.
- Learn. Read books, blogs (check out our Harvest USA resources!) and articles that will educate you in what sexual betrayal feels like and the impact it has on a wife.
- Ask. Whether you are a woman or man in leadership, ask women to submit anonymous stories about their experience in seeking help. What helped them? What didn’t?
- Teach. Use your platforms of influence (the pulpit, the Bible study podium, the home group, etc.) to teach Christ’s heart for hurting women, including wives betrayed by their husbands.
- Hope. Yes! There is real, transformative, life-changing, and healing hope through Jesus for couples impacted by sexual sin. Don’t give up, don’t grow weary in well doing when it comes to resting in the comfort of Christ and then offering that same comfort to hurting wives.
- Engage. Move towards hurting wives, listen, ask questions, and connect her with others who can encourage her and provide the support and counsel she needs.
Ellen shares more thoughts on this topic in the accompanying video: How Can Church Leaders Help Hurting Wives? These short videos can be used as discussion starters in small group settings, mentoring relationships, men’s and women’s groups, etc.
18 Oct 2018
It’s a weighty responsibility to shepherd God’s people. Ellen shares how Psalm 34 can instruct pastors and church leaders in wise ministry to hurting wives who are crushed by their husband’s sexual sins.
To learn more, read Ellen’s accompanying blog: Wives and Porn and Busy Church Leaders.
11 Oct 2018
An essential aspect of walking alongside married couples dealing with a pornography issue is helping the husband see how this sin hurts his wife. Helping him understand how porn hurts will be a necessary part of his true repentance.
In Christian circles, pornography use carries a heavy weight of shame. A husband caught in porn tends not to see beyond the shame to face its true nature. Typically, the response is a surface repentance which is merely an effort to shed an embarrassing habit. This is not only ineffective; it is not true repentance. Good pastoral intervention is to help him see the particular ways his wife suffers as a result of this sin and the related behaviors that often go with it.
When Nathan confronted King David on the adultery and murder that he was hiding so carefully, he did so by drawing David into a story of a man whose actions were so selfish, so unloving, so disturbingly hurtful that David’s sense of justice and right was acutely aroused. Only then was David able to finally view his own hurtful actions from God’s point of view. Until then, repentance was impossible. The goal was to get David to deal with God (Psalm 51:4), but he would get there by facing how he had hurt people.
A husband caught in porn tends not to see beyond the shame to face its true nature. Typically, the response is a surface repentance which is merely an effort to shed an embarrassing habit.
It is helpful to identify three different levels at which a husband, mired in a porn habit, may be hurting his wife. As with King David’s sin, you will notice that this one sin draws into its service other, more aggressive sins. So, each succeeding level is more than just a step up in hurt; each represents an exponential increase in relational disruption and personal injury.
Level 1: Pornography itself.
Too often this is viewed as merely a shameful habit and not the serious breach of covenant that it is. I cannot give a detailed theology of sex here, but I will summarize by saying that sex is designed by God to function uniquely as the physical, literal culmination of the one-flesh union of the husband and wife, and as such is in multiple ways a picture of the gospel itself, as union with Christ (1 Cor. 6:12-20; Eph. 5:25-32).
Sex is designed to express the permanent, exclusively faithful, self-sacrificial love that characterizes our Savior’s love for us. When a man takes what is supposed to express his highest, most profound love and commitment to his wife, and repeatedly focuses it on other women’s bodies, it becomes an anti-gospel message to his wife:
“I am not yours forever, but belong to whatever turns me on for a while; I have not set you apart as the object of my affection, in fact you don’t compare all that well to the hundreds of women I look at; I am not giving myself to you to love you, nurture you, and cherish you, because all I want is for you or anybody who is available to meet my needs and desires on my terms.”
Pornography in a marriage makes a wife feel unloved, insecure, and worthless. An addiction to pornography, if we use that word, is not merely something a husband struggles with— it represents serious mistreatment of a wife.
But there is a worse level of deception. That is when even after the sin is exposed the husband persists in refusing to commit to complete honesty.
Level 2: Deception.
At some point the use of pornography involves deception. But deception comes into a marriage relationship in some deeper and more damaging ways.
First, there is the accumulation of deception over time. The longer a man uses porn without fully confessing to his wife, the harder it will be to restore trust in the relationship. If a man spends significant time hiding his sin, and eventually confesses and commits to complete honesty and transparency going forward, a wife will be rocked by the realization that he had been deceiving her for all that time. It is not uncommon for a wife in such a circumstance to say, “I don’t even know who I married!” With real repentance, trust can be mended. However, to restore trust, it is likely that a husband will have to spend just as much time practicing total openness and transparency as he spent hiding and deceiving. Long-term deception seriously handicaps a relationship.
But there is a worse level of deception. That is when even after the sin is exposed the husband persists in refusing to commit to complete honesty. This could be rejecting outright to be completely transparent, or just delaying that transparency. Delaying transparency has virtually the same effect as denying it altogether—on what basis can a wife believe him when he suddenly decides to “tell the truth?” He has already proven that there is much he values over being honest with her. This persistent kind of deception destroys the relationship.
Level 3: Abuse.
I am always nervous about using this word. It is a severe word, and not to be thrown around lightly. But I am using it for this third level because a strong word is needed. The key word in abusive behavior is control.
The desire for control is a common heart-idol fueling pornography use. Pornography caters to that need for control in obvious ways. And, to varying degrees, the control impulse porn caters to also takes aim at the wife. Who she is isn’t enough; he needs her to be someone of his own desires and imagination.
So, a husband will learn to think of his wife like a porn object—there for his pleasure, at his bidding, on his terms. He may control her sexually—pressuring her to do what he wants, when he wants, how he wants, even against her wishes. This is sexual abuse.
It can be even worse—the control impulse that porn feeds on can manifest in broader emotional abuse and manipulation. But it’s important to realize that even if one’s behavior is not yet overtly abusive, pornography always trains a man to think abusively—people exist for your own pleasure, entirely under your control.
This is not love, and a wife knows it. She feels used, cheap, and dirty. To the extent that a husband exerts abusive control over her, she will also feel trapped, helpless, even hopeless. This kind of treatment destroys a person.
This is how hurtful pornography, and all that comes with it, can be to a wife. If you, like David, are hearing, “You are the man,” as you read any of these levels of hurt, then remember also that Nathan’s rebuke was the instrument of God’s grace to David. Restoration of worship, love, and joy is offered to you, but it begins with a clear view of the hurt you have done.
Jim Weidenaar shares more thoughts on this topic in the accompanying video: Why Should Husbands Know How Porn Hurts Wives? These short videos can be used as discussion starters in small group settings, mentoring relationships, men’s and women’s groups, etc.
11 Oct 2018
To learn more, read Jim’s accompanying blog: How Porn Hurts: Husbands and Porn.
Devastated! For most wives, that word describes sexual betrayal. When a woman confides that she’s discovered her husband’s porn habit or his infidelity with an online sexual encounter, what do you say to help? What can you do?
Here are five good first steps to take:
- Listen, listen, listen
The woman in front of you just had her world rocked, and a primary way to love and help her NOW is to know her and understand her situation. Too often, wives who find out about their husband’s porn problem hear others minimize their pain. “Is it really that bad? You’re making such a big deal out of this! It’s not like it’s with a real person!”
No, this is a big deal! Porn, along with its many ancillary behaviors, means that her husband has gone outside the marriage and engaged sexually with others, and the fact that it’s an online image, person, or fantasy persona doesn’t matter.
You’ll need patience and self-control too, to hear her heart and resist the urge to overwhelm her with interrogating questions, advice, resources, or actions you think she must take now. No, make your initial priority to love her through listening, comforting, and knowing. Don’t be afraid to cry with her and get angry at sin with her. Give her hope from Scripture, like Psalm 32: 8: “I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you.” Leaning into Jesus will give you everything you need to gently help this wife do the same.
- Understand that sexual betrayal is traumatic
This wound can trigger paralyzing fear, depression, sadness, confusion, and bitter anger. Any combination of these is a normal response! Your willingness to grasp trauma’s impact is vital. God will enable you to hold the pain of sin and the hope of Christ together as you enter into this wife’s situation and the swirl of emotions that are crashing over her, and perhaps onto you, as well.
- Offer practical help and love-in-action
Are there practical ways to help her today or this week? Childcare, meals, making phone calls? If she discovered her husband’s sin rather than him confessing it, she may need help knowing how and when to confront him and may desire that someone be with her for this scary conversation. The goal is for all things to be “brought into the light” (1 John 1:7) so that the couple is facing the truth of their situation and not a façade. This is the healing path that Christ is calling them to walk: honesty, humility, and a new beginning through the gospel of grace which enables repentance.
God will enable you to hold the pain of sin and the hope of Christ together as you enter into this wife’s situation and the swirl of emotions that are crashing over her, and perhaps onto you, as well.
If everything is out on the table already, yet her husband is resisting repentance (say by minimizing what he has done), and refusing to get help, she may need guidance and encouragement to speak with a pastor or another trusted spiritual leader, effectively ‘outing’ her husband and his sin. This marriage is in crisis, and it needs outside help from one or two mature believers. This kind of sin and the pain it causes won’t just work itself out in isolation.
- Check in on her and follow-up
Follow up is not just important, it is probably the most powerful help you can give. A text, call, FaceTime chat, walk around the block are simple ways to help her not feel so alone.
Do not fear getting in over your head, or that to love this woman means signing your life away. Yes, you will be giving her your time because right now she’s hurting and needy. Focus on this week and not on an unknown future. Reach out to her with love, even if this week your presence can only be a series of text messages that say you are praying or a Scripture passage. The main thing is: keep in touch.
- If you’re her husband reading this, you must be completely honest
This means full disclosure of what you’ve been involved in. Not the nitty-gritty details, but enough to be fully known. I cannot emphasize how painful it is when a confession comes in like a slow trickle of admissions over weeks or months. Ongoing deception will be crushing to your wife, and it will profoundly damage any attempt to rebuild trust.
If you need help, listen to a podcast by Brad Hambrick called False Loves. Steps 4 and 5 regarding repentance and confession are particularly practical. God is with you in this humbling and scary process, and you can only take responsibility for your obedience and not your wife’s response to your confession.
These 5 points will help you connect well with a hurting wife. She, and the marriage, will need lots of different kinds of help over time. But utilizing these five things will help her move forward on the right foot, gently helping her to trust Jesus to bring healing to her heart and wisdom over the long haul.
As I mentioned in Part 1 of this blog series, every broken marriage has two sinners contributing to it. A wife is never responsible for her husband’s sin, yet I’ve seen God use the trial of sexual betrayal to bring transformation to so many wives. One woman said,
“I was not only bitter towards my husband but marriage in general and ultimately towards God as well. If God was sovereign, why did he allow me to marry a man with such a struggle that was so isolating for me? As God worked on my heart through a couple of friends who journeyed with me through this season, I began to see that I needed grace as much as my husband. My lack of forgiveness was just as despicable to God as his pornography. At the foot of the cross, we were equally in need of Christ’s mercy.”
Hurting wives and struggling husbands need Christ’s mercy, just like those of us who want to love them well and wisely. Hopefully, these five steps can assist you in doing just that.
Ellen talks more about this on her accompanying video: What Should I Say to a Hurting Wife? These short videos can be used as discussion starters in small group settings, mentoring relationships, men’s and women’s groups, etc.
14 Mar 2018
In the second part of this two-part blog on how to help wives whose husbands are looking at porn, Ellen gives five key things to say and do, at the beginning, to effectively help.
Click here to read more on what Ellen is saying on her blog: Wives and Porn: What to Say or Do that Really Helps – Part 2
08 Mar 2018
What to say to a friend who has discovered her husband has been looking at porn is important. What NOT to say is even more critical. Ellen gives five common remarks wives hear from friends and leaders, well-meaning comments that are anything but helpful and encouraging.
Click here to Ellen’s blog, “Wives and Porn: What Not to Say after She Knows.” And click here to read our harvestusa magazine, “Just What is Godly Sex?” where there are two articles on how marriages can heal after sexual sin: www.harvestusa.org/magazines
Another wife, another victim of her husband’s porn problem. Another marriage reeling in pain and shame. I kept listening to her reading her journal.
“God, I come to you very weak and broken, grieved over my husband’s sin. I feel shocked, betrayed, angry, distrustful, and sad at sin’s corrupting power – very aware of my own desperate need for grace as I confront him.”
I wrote these words in a journal entry when I discovered that my husband had been viewing porn. Although I knew of his struggle prior to our marriage, I naively assumed that he was finished battling porn and that our marital bliss would provide the antidote he needed against temptation. I felt my dream of a happy, secure marriage in which I felt compellingly beautiful to my husband were instantly shattered that afternoon.”
In the ache of her raw emotions and pain, what would you say to this woman if she reached out to you?? I’ve sat with hundreds of women over the years who’ve faced the trauma of a husband’s sexual unfaithfulness. As if being betrayed wasn’t enough, many people tell these women unhelpful things that heap more confusion and pain onto their situation.
Here are five things never to say immediately to a wife after she learns her husband has been unfaithful sexually through sins like pornography, adultery, and sexual fantasy.
- “Well, you do realize don’t you, that most men, including Christians, struggle with these things?”
This kind of response minimizes both the ugliness of sin and the real pain a wife experiences. Yes, reports keep coming in with staggering and sobering statistics regarding how many men (and increasing numbers of women) are struggling with pornography addiction. However, as well meaning as it may be to attempt to normalize sin, these words will wound rather than help a wife just after she has learned that her husband is also a struggler.
- “I know it seems impossible now, but God is going to make something so beautiful out of this! Before you know it, you’ll be looking back on this with praise and thanksgiving!”
Those who want to truly offer comfort and help to a wife need to avoid spiritualizing her pain, which is something so easy for us to do when we feel uncomfortable.
A time will come when we will need to challenge and exhort this hurting woman with God’s redemptive purposes through trials. Often however, a wife first needs to be comforted and known by someone, to be able to hear and comprehend what God’s bigger picture may be. It’s always a good idea to encourage someone to look to Christ; it’s just as important, however, to discern what a traumatized person is ready to hear and receive.
- “Wow, if you think that’s bad…listen to what so and so’s husband did! At least what your husband did isn’t ___________________.”
One-upping someone’s difficult circumstances rarely leads to Christ-centered encouragement. Furthermore, minimizing a woman’s specific situation and pain attached to it can be devastating. Comparing stories so as to make a wife’s own not seem so bad will actually communicate that she shouldn’t make a big deal out of it.
- “I know you’re hurting right now, but I have to ask you, how often are you having sex with him? Have you asked him recently if there were ways you needed to change your appearance to please him?”
Oh, the anger that boils up in my heart when women tell me this is what friends and spiritual leaders have said to them in the vulnerable minutes after they reveal their anguish! Sex shared in love between a husband and wife is important. However, a lack of sex is never the cause of another’s sinful choices. Never place blame on a wife for what her husband has pursued and done. Two people contribute to every broken marriage in one way or another, but God holds each of us responsible for our own sinful choices.
- “What?! Are you kidding me? Men are all the same…and we all know they’re after one thing: satisfying their own selfish lusts. Time for you to get OUT of this marriage.”
Sexual sin is a grievous breaking of the marriage covenant between a husband and wife. There are many marriages which do not survive the anguish of this form of betrayal. However, there are many marriages which not only survive but thrive in a rich new flourishing after a long season of healing, hard work, forgiveness, and restored trust. You don’t know what can happen, so never make definitive pronouncements to a wife whose world has been rocked.
Now that we’ve covered some of the don’ts, next week I’ll share several do’s that can guide you in offering both truth and mercy to hurting wives.
Ellen talks more about this on her accompanying video: What should I NOT say to a hurting wife. These short videos can be used as discussion starters in small group settings, mentoring relationships, men’s and women’s groups, etc.
14 Jan 2014
The discovery of sexual sin in a marriage is usually a devastating experience for the faithful spouse. In an instant, everything is forever changed by the disclosure. The marriage you thought you had does not exist. Maybe it never did. Your whole world is turned upside down.
You might not be able to think straight, sleep, or eat. Your emotions may feel out of control. All these are typical responses you might have to the relational betrayal of sexual infidelity.
Sexual infidelity is clearly contrary to biblical teaching (Matthew 5:27 –28). As the reality of sexual betrayal sets in, the first question that you may begin to ask yourself is, “What do I do now? Do I stay in this marriage or do I leave?” This is never an easy question to ask or answer. Leaving a marriage is clearly an option in the aftermath of sexual sin (Matthew 5:31-32). However, there is no biblical mandate that requires leaving the marriage after sexual sin.
As difficult as it may sound, waiting a while before making this important decision is often the best option. The betrayal of infidelity triggers a trauma-like response that can last from six to eight weeks. During this period of time, it is often difficult to think clearly, making it unwise to make important life decisions. Only after the initial trauma response has subsided can difficult decisions be addressed. Inviting wise counsel and resources to join you in the process of making those decisions may be profitable to you and your marriage. This is not a decision that should be made alone or impulsively.
So how do you decide whether to stay or go? Wrestling with this issue after sexual betrayal is normal. It is natural to look for ways to eliminate and reduce pain. If your goal is to feel better or lessen your pain, leaving might do that, but it probably will not bring you the relief that you desire. Unfortunately, broken hearts are painful, whether you remain in the relationship or not. Leaving the marriage will cause separation, but not necessarily pain relief.
Remember that while the marital covenant between you and your spouse has been breached, the relational covenant between you and God is still intact. No matter what circumstances we find ourselves in, we are called to fulfill the commandment to love God and others well (Matthew 22:37-39). As difficult and insurmountable as the issues in your life seem, God can make a way through the current difficulties for you and your spouse, if you choose to pursue that path. Your goal then should always be to do what loves your spouse and points him or her towards God. Whether you choose to stay or not, you need to first answer the question, “What loves my spouse best by pointing him or her to God?”
There are three issues that might be helpful to think through as you wrestle with your decision: safety, repentance, and reconciliation.
If it is unsafe for you or your children to live in the same house with your spouse, then separation is recommended. Safety is not simply related to dealing with a violent or threatening spouse. Safety issues include how the spouse is responding to concerns about medical testing. If physical sexual contact has been made with someone else or is suspected, issues like testing for STD’s and HIV need to be addressed immediately, regardless of any decisions about the future of the relationship.
A marriage that feels unsafe to a betrayed spouse can be made safer by the assurance that comes from knowing that the sin is being addressed through appropriate accountability, church discipline, and counseling. No one can promise that the infidelity will never happen again, but strong stop-gap measures can be put in place as some insurance that it will not. Sufficient attention to stop-gap measures that address the sinful behaviors and relational patterns that accompanied them can make a distressed marriage feel safer. Restoring trust in your spouse is going to take a long time, but you can feel a certain level of safety when such measures are invested in for positive changes in your marriage.
Repentance is turning away from sin and towards holiness. Nothing can give you more hope than watching your spouse actively pursue repentance by deepening his or her personal relationship with Christ. Failure to see this, on the other hand, may be a sign that repentance is not really taking place. Sometimes when there is a long history of the sexual sin, what loves a spouse best and points him or her towards God is the exact opposite of what has been tried in the past. Old sin patterns often need new interventions, and sometimes this might include separation or divorce.
Reconciliation requires a decision from both you and your spouse to re-enter the marital relationship. Reconciliation is an emotional process that will include many difficult ups and downs. God will invite each of you to reconciliation with him and then with one another. Invariably, the marriage at the end of this process will be stronger than the marriage was when it entered the process. In the midst of this, there will probably be times that you will question your decision to stay all over again. If there is a focus on reconciliation by both partners, then there can be perseverance through the hard times.
Finally, there is nothing more that you can do than attempt to fulfill the law of love that Jesus has given to each of us. Whatever your decision, to stay or to go, you will have loved well if your goal is to bless your spouse by pointing her or him to God.