What happens to a marriage when pornography invades the home? What is its relational and sexual impact on the couple? While our culture increasingly dismisses any talk about the negative impact of porn, the reality is that it’s much more corrosive and damaging than you think. Long before your marriage descends into the chaos of exposure and threats of divorce, you need to know the damage that porn can inflict on relationships. It’s never too late to change direction if you know or suspect that porn is disrupting your marriage. One way to start on the road to transformation is to honestly examine the damage porn has already done to you and to others. Sometimes God uses warning signs in our lives to get our attention. There are three major ways that porn disrupts and eventually destroys marriages.
Pornography Destroys the Beauty of God’s Design for Sex
A healthy marriage is based on intimacy. Adam and Eve were “were both naked and were not ashamed” (Genesis 2:25), a description not just of sexual pleasure but of relational intimacy. They held nothing back from each other; they were totally open and vulnerable. They knew each other in a way that no other couple ever did. Before sin entered the human heart, they experienced sex as God designed it, mutually pleasurable as both sought to selflessly please the other. God gave them the gift of sex as the means to deep relational connection.
But when sin entered the world, the perfect intimacy that Adam and Eve shared collapsed. Because God made sex such a powerful experience, it needed the relationally safe boundaries of marriage. Intimacy is not something that happens quickly between two people; it grows through the years as the couple faces problems together. That is why the father in Proverbs 5 tells his adult son to remember the years he has spent with the “wife of his youth.” He is not to throw away those years and experiences to have sex with anyone he chooses. The pleasure sex brings is better within the boundaries of marriage, with the wife he has spent years knowing and loving. “Let your fountain be blessed, and rejoice in the wife of your youth, a lovely deer, a graceful doe. Let her breasts fill you at all times with delight; be intoxicated always in her love” (Proverbs 5:18–19).
God created sexual pleasure within marriage and values it as a foundational expression of growing spiritual and emotional intimacy. But the physical intimacy with your spouse that God values so highly is steadily corrupted and ultimately destroyed when you engage in porn.
Pornography Makes You Selfish and Self-Centered
As one Christian counselor put it, viewing pornography is all about masturbation.¹ In other words, when you engage in porn, it’s all about what you can get out of it. It’s about your fantasies, your pleasure, and your desires. Women and men are reduced to mere sexual objects for your own selfish pleasures. The people on the screen, whether you are passively viewing them or actively engaged with them (via webcam, texting, or chat rooms) exist only to please you. Real intimacy, which by its nature takes time to develop, is obliterated in quick hits of self-centered fantasy.
What gets lost in viewing or engaging in pornography is this critical fact: the person you are interacting with is not real and neither are you, because the foundation of your “relational encounter” is a total lie. In real life and real relationships, there is someone you want to get to know, and someone who wants to know you as well. The fantasy of pornography is that you believe you are the object of someone else’s interest and desire, but the cold reality is that you are really alone with yourself.
Pornography Isolates You from Your Spouse and Family
The more you use pornography, the less you will attempt to relate to your spouse as God intended, because that involves effort and a willingness to care about someone else. In contrast, porn becomes the way you escape the endless stresses of life, especially the stresses that are part and parcel of marriage. Life in a fallen world is difficult. A good marriage not only lets you weather the storms; it helps you grow through them. But porn entices you with the false promise that you don’t have to face those storms. Instead, it promises pleasure and escape. In porn you will find women who are beautiful, daring, lonely but anxious to be fulfilled by you—quite different from your wife. In porn you will find men who are thoughtful, romantic, and willing to tackle any challenge to have you–quite different from your husband. But porn, very simply, entices you into a world that doesn’t exist.
Your spouse, meanwhile, continues to occupy the real world, and the more you pull away into fantasy, the more he or she will feel abandoned by you.
¹Jeffrey S. Black, Sexual Sin: Combatting the Drifting and Cheating (Phillipsburg, N.J.: P & R Publishing, 2003), 6.
This blog is an excerpt from our minibook, What’s Wrong with a Little Porn When You’re Married? by Nicholas Black, published by New Growth Press. To purchase this minibook, and other resources from Harvest USA, click here.
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.
It’s easy to fall in love, but to rebuild it after one spouse sexually sins has unique difficulties and challenges. Ellen interviews one couple who worked through the challenges and discovered how God knit them back together.
After Drew’s admission of years of secret pornography usage, he and Tilina got involved with Harvest USA’s biblical support groups. Ellen Dykas, Harvest USA’s Woman’s Coordinator, asked them to share their story on what helped them reconnect and rebuild intimacy back into their marriage.
Ellen: Can you share briefly what happened in your marriage?
Tilina: Two years into our marriage, Drew confessed to years of pornography addiction. Our sexual intimacy had grown distant and infrequent, as his sexual sin caused him to experience arousal only through images and not a real human being: me, his wife! When his years of deceit came to light, my trust broke to pieces.
Ellen: What was most difficult—and most helpful—in rebuilding trust?
Tilina: Rebuilding trust certainly required effort from both of us. I needed honesty from Drew at all costs, no matter how minor the situation, because I had no gauge of what was true anymore. Hiding or omitting anything would be detrimental to me emotionally. I also needed answers to many questions, even those to which I feared the answers. I started with trusting God, knowing he had my best interest at heart and would help me to trust Drew again.
Drew: It was difficult to disclose and then handle the harsh results of my sin. I had to trust that God could redeem and heal the relationship by shedding my pride and selfishness, learning that the two of us couldn’t rebuild the intimacy of our marriage on our own. The most helpful thing for me was learning how to depend on God by being on my knees and crying out to him. Only the gospel and prayer allowed Tilina and me to grow into a restored marriage.
Ellen: How did Drew’s sexual betrayal impact your sexual relationship?
Tilina: I was stunned when I found out why Drew was so lacking in sexual desire and response to me. After discovering that, I not only lacked any desire to be intimate with him, I felt unattractive, unloved, and, most of all, not good enough as a woman. I didn’t trust him, and I didn’t feel safe around him. But I also desperately wanted to be enough for him. I felt trapped. I didn’t want to share myself sexually, but I would force myself in an attempt to keep him from viewing pornography, and he feared me thinking he was going back if he wasn’t petitioning me for sex. A year after Drew’s confession we were having sex often but not exactly for the right reasons. Our sexual relationship was driven by fear.
A year after Drew’s confession we were having sex often but not exactly for the right reasons. Our sexual relationship was driven by fear.
Ellen: So if you realized that your sexual relationship at that point was unhealthy, what did you do then?
Tilina: In order for us to reconnect inside the bedroom, we first had to develop a strong connection outside the bedroom. The most important thing was being vulnerable. We wanted our sexual relationship to be the “icing on top” of our increasing emotional and spiritual intimacy. After much prayer and discussion, we decided to fast from sex for 90 days.
Our purpose was to grow emotionally and spiritually, and also for Drew to attempt to rewire his brain from the damage caused by years of pornography. This trying and grueling task showed us how God knit us more closely together even when sex wasn’t an active part of our relationship. During that time we daily prayed and read devotions together. We also practiced extended cuddling and uninterrupted listening, both of which allowed us to grow closer. All this helped us to put our sexual relationship in a much better place.
Ellen: How would you encourage a hurting spouse who is fearful about moving forward sexually, post-betrayal?
Tilina: Rebuilding sexual intimacy is tough, because you’ll both feel so far apart. You may find that what cannot be said can instead be felt through touch. Other times, you may be able to talk but still be unable to let yourself be vulnerable enough to touch each other intimately or make love like you used to. Talk to each other directly about your feelings. Be honest if you don’t want to have sex. If you’re open to being physical, but not sexual, tell your spouse what those things are. If you both feel safe, this can move toward sexual intercourse, but it doesn’t have to. Touching, hugging, snuggling, or even showering together may be the goal for the first few weeks or months. Try to be patient with one another and take your time.
Let me encourage you that there is beauty in the struggle. I heard a pastor once say, “Whatever we seek to cover, God will expose it. Whatever we expose God will cover.” Through all this our desperate need for grace becomes illuminated by a perfect loving Savior who grips us into his arms.
Drew: I would encourage a husband who was the betrayer that moving forward is going to burn. I cannot sugarcoat this. But it’s not a furnace of annihilation; rather it’s the grace of refinement. Your pride and self-worship will be chiseled away. Though at first fear and uncertainty may set in, don’t give up; when you realize that God is working all things for your good, you can be more vulnerable to expose your weaknesses and disclose the warfare in your heart. You’ll see your spouse as a helpmate, a friend who truly loves and cares for you, rather than feeling like she’s a drill sergeant or CSI detective.
During this time take steps to build your relationship with your wife vertically; that is, reintroduce God. Pray together, read the Bible together. Horizontally, set up date nights, sleep naked with each other, and fast from sex to rebuild intimacy as you learn to love each other once again without the mask.
Let me encourage you that there is beauty in the struggle. I heard a pastor once say, “Whatever we seek to cover, God will expose it. Whatever we expose God will cover.” Through all this our desperate need for grace becomes illuminated by a perfect loving Savior who grips us into his arms.
Drew and Tilina Chheang have been married for four years. They have a two-year-old son and two daughters, ages 12 and 15, from a previous marriage. Drew works in the housing industry and plans to attend seminary in the near future. Tilina is a stay-at-home mother and intends to continue her education with a Masters in counseling.
Watch Ellen’s interview with Drew and Tilina Chheang here. These short videos can be used as discussion starters in small group settings, mentoring relationships, men’s and women’s groups, etc.
For a large majority of men today, the ubiquity of porn on the Internet and its ability to provide unlimited access to it (especially via search engines) means that the issue is no longer, “Have you looked at porn?” but rather, “Are you actively looking at porn?” Many wives may already fear or suspect that their husbands are engaging in pornography.
Looking at porn is not harmless (see the short video of Bob Heywood’s struggle with porn and its impact on his marriage). But the problem is that pornography usage is usually hidden, a closely guarded secret. What if you suspect that porn is impacting your marriage (or your relationship with your boyfriend or fiancé)? Here are some things you can look for, as well as steps you can take to bring healing.
Signs that may indicate usage of porn:
- Unusual decrease in sexual activity between you and your husband—and increasing relationship distance physically.
- Mental distance between the two of you. He’s physically present but not mentally there when you seek to engage him.
- Late-night computer activity, especially a pattern of needing to use the computer after you have gone to bed.
- He quickly changes the screen when someone comes into the room, and he is spending more and more time on the computer.
- Secrecy regarding finances, like not letting you see credit card statements.
- Any gaps in accountability for time and finances.
- No history on the web browser after he spends time on the computer (keep in mind that private browser windows are pretty standard today, leaving behind zero web history).
What steps can you take?
Viewing pornography is sexual sin and is not “just what men do.” While painful and devastating for any wife to acknowledge, you must honestly face the reality of sexual sin impacting your marriage. Now is not the time to be passive. You have a vital role to play in helping your husband break free.
- Know that the Lord has comfort for you! He has not abandoned you or your marriage. Feelings of grief, shock, fear, and despair are normal for the wife who’s just discovered her husband’s porn usage. God is your compassionate Father and source of comfort and strength. (Read 2 Corinthians 1:3-4.)
- See this as a real threat to your marriage. Don’t deny it or hope that it will just go away. Now is the time for you to battle hard for your marriage through prayer, courageous confrontation, and humble reliance upon the Lord.
- Talk openly with your husband about your concerns. You may need to acknowledge that this is a common problem for men today, even Christian men, so come alongside him rather than take an oppositional role. Watch for his response to your inquiry. Is there defensiveness, anger, deflection? Check your own heart for self-righteous indignation.
- Pray for and seek helpers who can encourage you and pray with you. Seek out godly Christian women or any ministry leader who is a “safe” person for you to talk with (someone who has track record of godly living, is compassionate, and is trustworthy with confidences). Talk with your pastor.
- Don’t put yourself in the position of being his “porn police” or primary accountability partner. If he admits he is struggling, tell him to talk to one of his friends or his pastor to set up accountability. If there is a group of men who meet regularly for these issues, encourage him to attend.
- Do not think or accept (if your husband suggests) that his porn issue is your fault. He is responsible for his own behavior. His behavior comes from within his own heart (Matthew 15:17-20), and your behavior cannot cause him to look at porn.
- Consider marriage counseling with a pastor, counselor, or a trusted couple. This may be a perfect time for both of you to seek assistance to talk through ongoing issues or problems. Couples that do not talk openly about their struggles, needs, and disappointments (especially sexual problems and disappointments) are wounding their marriage. They need to be willing to look deeply at motivations and past events that affect their relationship with each other. Since sexual sin is so dangerous and powerful, it is something which must be dealt with openly—with the help of other Christians. Your marriage will not survive if this is not dealt with and if your husband refuses to seek help.
- Run to the Lord as your refuge! Psalm 16:1-2 says that God is your strength, hope, and safe place as you navigate these painful and scary waters in your marriage. You cannot control your husband’s heart or his response to the Lord, but you can bring your own needs, pain, and confusion to him, and you need to!
Christian couples dare not keep sexual sin hidden in the shadows. It will only get worse, and its potential to destroy the marriage is real. The hope of the Gospel is that in Christ we can find restoration, reconciliation, and victory, even over deeply embedded sin patterns. There is hope for deep change and profound healing through the power of Jesus Christ.
We have a great devotional book for wives dealing with this issue in their marriage. It’s called When Your Husband is Addicted to Pornography: Healing Your Wounded Heart, by Vickie Tiede. You can check it out here.
14 Jan 2014
Look for the signs
In a broken world, we all must face the consequences of sin—our own sin as well as the sin of others. For a woman whose husband is addicted to pornography or sexual sin, this dual battle of facing both her husband’s betrayal and her own struggle to respond appropriately can be excruciating. How can she best love her husband during his gradual, often lengthy, journey of growth, maturity, and change?
And how can she endure if he refuses to work on restoring their marital unity? These are important questions for wives whose husbands struggle with any form of sex addiction.
The shock of discovery and his initial pursuit for help often give way to an unsettling sadness and real confusion about how to move on down the road. Fortunately, some women married to sex addicts eventually find that their husbands’ movement into change and accountability has actually strengthened their marriages. Spouses who choose the path of ongoing honesty and repentance can enjoy the reward of a more satisfying union. However, many wives find themselves facing an ambiguous husband, a husband not committed to working hard on his issues, a husband who promised faithfulness but won’t sever ties with his idolatry of lust. How is such a woman supposed to live as God’s daughter in that kind of circumstance?
There are, of course, no easy answers. Wives of sex addicts are on a path that is both frightening and largely uncharted. But there are signposts that mark this path of marital disappointment, landmarks that identify for travelers that they are on the road that will bring them to their destination. When the way to a destination is new, it is comforting to know what to expect. What signposts can a disappointed wife expect to see along her journey toward renewal in her life and marriage?
Signpost #1: Anger, shock, and numbness
When the issue of sexual unfaithfulness comes out into the light and a wife finally is confronted with the reality of her husband’s struggle, it is common for her to react with shock. There will likely be much anger and crying, which may not be pleasant but is healthy and normal. However, within a few weeks it isn’t uncommon for the wife to then feel numb. The initial adrenaline of discovery and the burst of energy to find help wear off as the realities of daily living settle in.This is a crucial time during which a woman needs support and guidance. Her overwhelming pain will surely tempt her to shut down emotionally or to build walls, protecting herself from more hurt. Under the layer of shock and numbness are her broken dreams about marriage and life. She rightly expected marital faithfulness but found betrayal, and it is enough to stagger even the most pragmatic wife. Having discovered her husband’s addiction to pornography or sexual sin, her life has been profoundly altered. Certainly no wife is foolish enough to think she has married a perfect man. But living with a husband who has deeply failed her at the core of their intimate relationship plunges a woman into huge ambivalence. She longs for the intimacy of marriage, but how can she go on giving her heart to her wayward husband? This part of her journey is neither pretty nor simple, but it is, in fact, God’s invitation to the redemptive process of grief.
Signpost #2: Good grief—mourning the loss
Grieving is not a popular experience, but it is absolutely necessary for the restoration of a marriage in which a spouse has crossed moral boundaries. Grief is a deep, emotional reaction to a loss. Our culture legitimizes mourning the death of a person who is important to us. Less supported, however, is grief when something less tangible “dies.” Moreover, the shame attached to sexual sin and the fear of exposure to others (especially in the church) makes this experience of loss even more isolating.
Scripture, of course, is not silent about grief. In fact, mourning is often spoken of as a normal part of living in a fallen world. Did not Jesus say in Matthew 5:4, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (ESV)? Comfort comes to those who mourn, and Jesus was speaking to a very large audience when he said those words. The psalmist reinforces this concept by reminding us, “The Lord is near the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit” (Psalm 34:18). God seems to expect that our hearts will be broken relationally, and when we experience this, he intends that we bring our crushed and broken hearts to him for his comfort. Nor does God expect our expressions of sorrow to look pretty or to be worded in calm and logical prose. David’s psalms were anything but serene. He often began by complaining or beseeching God to pay attention to his circumstances and to punish those who were harming him. Of course he usually made a shift from distress to worship and from anger to gratitude for God’s love. But never does he pretend that life is not difficult.
Many other men and women in Scripture struggled with painful relationships and disappointing events, and they did not hesitate to bring their grieving hearts to God in earnest prayer, telling their Creator how they felt. Consider Moses’ complaint in Numbers 11, Hannah’s prayer in 1 Samuel 1, or Job’s many lamentations, especially in Job 23. Even Jesus “offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears” as he faced his imminent death (Hebrews 5:7). God’s people do not run from grief. Rather, they boldly enter it, for there they find the waiting arms of their heavenly Father.
Our culture, unfortunately, seldom teaches us how to handle our emotions when our world is shaken. People today don’t often share the Scriptural perspective that sin has altered the experience of life and all of creation groans in waiting for the finality of redemption. But we can take God’s word for it: It is normal to groan about damage to one’s heart and marriage. Naturally we want to know how long this grieving stage will last, but there is no perfect timetable. Grief must run its course. We will know when our grief has crossed the line from healthy mourning to entrenched self-pity. God will surely show us (even while we’re still grieving) how to move toward loving others who have hurt us. And be prepared: God always starts with the person whose attention he has at the moment—which may be the offended one, not the offender.
One winter’s day while journaling about my own heartache at having been disappointed by someone I trusted, I (Penny) felt entitled to list for God all the reasons I should never trust my heart to anyone again. Tired of being hurt, I was on a roll. My litany of mistreatment went back to childhood, including such sorrows as sexual abuse, being stood up for two proms in a row, and several experiences of being betrayed by close friends. I ended up feeling justified for never letting my heart be mishandled again. “It just isn’t safe!” I self-righteously concluded. Quietly I waited in the sun-drenched warmth of my room, confident that God would comfort me by affirming my self-protection. Instead he gently guided me to this question: “And just whose definition of ‘safe’ shall we use—yours or mine?”
I was caught; the sin of my own heart exposed. My view of safety had been entirely self-focused: I wanted to never be hurt again. Furthermore, my commitment to safety meant I would never love deeply again, and thus I would cease to reflect the Father I was called to imitate. My own self-consumed heart was juxtaposed to my Father’s long-suffering heart, he who had not spared his own Son to insure my eternal safety. In repentance I saw once again God’s commitment to love the unlovely, which of course included me. How could I not show to others the same love I had myself received? Grief does not nullify our obligation to love others. Rather it reinforces it.
Signpost #3: Accepting the risk of loving the unlovely
Any woman married to a sex addict wonders how to move from the anguish of betrayal to the risk of trusting her husband again, knowing she is likely to be re-disappointed because sensual gratification is such an easy-to-obtain commodity. If she understands that her husband’s sin is to seek refuge from stress and to sexualize his disappointment with life, she knows there will probably be further failures. But a wise woman becomes a helpmate ever better suited to her husband if she will remember that she no less than he is tempted to handle the pain of life in sinful ways.
The ground is always level at the foot of the cross, each of us carrying our dignity and depravity in ways unique to our own particular history and temperament. And because of the hope of the gospel, a marriage can be rebuilt when both husband and wife enter together the humility of being sinners who need grace. The process may be long and painful, but the rewards are sweet. One major part of loving the unlovely, therefore, is the risk of offering forgiveness, which essentially means not “holding on to wrongs suffered,” as described in 1 Corinthians 13:5. My pastor says it like this: “Forgiveness means taking the snapshot you have of this person (a snapshot that may have been at one time accurate) and shredding it.” How can a wife begin to shred this picture of her husband as infidel? This is the work of warfare praying.
Signpost #4: Prayer warfare
A wife begins to risk her heart as she prays for God to change her so she can love her spouse as God himself loves him. Inviting God to show her his view of her husband will allow her to see him not only as a sinner, but also as a man designed to reflect God’s purpose in a dark world. How would her husband be if he no longer were in bondage to sexual sin? What kind of man would he be if he understood the depth of God’s love? What would it look like if he became the protector to her that he was designed to be? How might their marriage change if his heart was captivated by the beauty of God ‘s gift of sexual unity in marriage and he cherished his wife as he found himself cherished by his Holy Suitor?
Seeing her husband from God’s perspective can rejuvenate a wife’s respect and passion for him. As a woman reflects on how her husband is caught in the foolish web of illicit sexual gratification, she can begin to pray for his soul in ways that honor him as the image bearer he is called to be. In prayer she can re-commit herself to her marriage, longing for her husband’s restoration and allowing God to bring his grace to her so she can in turn offer it to her fallen husband. Such a wife cannot stay hard or bitter. When she aligns herself with God’s purposes, offering her heart to God to soften and fill, she will be able to love well the man who has caused her much sorrow. What a reflection this is of God’s own love, which ever extends toward those who have caused him sorrow.
Signpost #5: Facing an ambiguous outcome
There are times, however, when in spite of a wife’s perseverance in warfare praying, her husband remains in bondage to sexual sin. Despite her seasoned prayer on his behalf he refuses to become the man God and she are inviting him to be. What can a wife do in the face of his hard-heartedness? Such was the plight of Abigail, as described in 1 Samuel 25.
She was married to a foolish and rude man, Nabal, and though we know little about her, surely her life with a boorish man occasioned many moments of intense prayer between her and God. And out of the wisdom and faith nurtured in Abigail’s walk with God, she took an amazing risk, jeopardizing her life to save her household and to protect David’s reputation as God’s man. This she did by literally standing in David’s way as he marched to take revenge on Nabal for disrespecting him. Abigail’s intervention not only saved the lives of many, but it also changed the course of David’s personal history. Then, when Abigail went home to her drunken husband, she shrewdly timed her intervention of truth telling for when he was sober, at which time Nabal appears to have had a stroke. Scripture then says, “About ten days later the Lord struck Nabal and he died” (v. 38, emphasis mine).
For ten days, God let Abigail live in a situation that had gone from bad to worse with no guarantee of a positive outcome. If I had been Abigail, I would have been furious. “Oh, great! This is how I’m rewarded for following you? Now I have to take care of an abusive stroke victim?!” How could Abigail have gone on? I am convinced it was only because of her connection with God. Only by his grace could she have lived without allowing her circumstances to harden her heart toward God. For wives whose husbands are in bondage to pornography or other sexual sin, it will take much prayer and shrewdness—which only come from hours spent in prayer, asking the hard questions about what the next step should be. It also will involve at times a willingness to fight with her husband as well as for her husband’s soul.
Signpost #6: Productive fighting—hard consequences for hard hearts
How can a wife engage in productive fighting on behalf of her marriage? For one thing, she must choose her battles carefully, discerning which issues are worth being addressed and which must be overlooked. Nor should she struggle by herself. She may need a mentor to come alongside her, helping her to see her situation with “new eyes.” Also, if her husband is a believer, she may be able to bring her situation to the attention of the elders of their church. The discipline outlined in Scripture is designed to reach a soul dulled by sin to matters of conscience. Moreover, the hardest consequence a wife may face because of her husband’s continued disobedience could include divorce, and she will need the support of good men from her church to pursue this difficult step if it becomes necessary.
In the meantime, keeping a soft heart but a hard line is a difficult balancing act. A godly wife’s tone and mood should be firm, winsome, and brave. She must require what God requires of her husband: faithfulness and holiness. A wife can say hard things to her husband if her words communicate her sorrow if he persists in sin. For example, in order to protect her health, she may need to require that her husband be tested for sexually transmitted diseases before she can receive him again sexually. She might say something like, “It grieves me to enforce this, but it is necessary for our future relationship. I will be deeply sorry if you refuse, but I will also celebrate your repentance as I see the steps you make toward restoration in our marriage.” A hard line need not be drawn with a hard fist. Being available to fight with her husband for her marriage will require much strength.
A wife focused on challenging her husband in these ways will need support. Talking with a counselor, being involved in a support group and coming to her pastor with her concerns will be an important practice to keep her from feeling isolated. She also needs a wise ear to help her discern her own motives as she plans how to respond to her spouse.This work will be exhausting.
To love another this well will cost her dearly. She must compensate for the sorrow she embraces by seeking rest in her Heavenly Father, who promises his presence to “those who are brokenhearted and crushed in spirit” (Psalm 34:18). Allowing mature friends to walk along side her as she does this work will also provide her with strength and refreshment.
These then are six signposts along a wife’s path toward wholeness when her husband’s sex addiction has been exposed. Recognizing the signposts is not always simple, nor is the journey linear or clean. But it is a journey of hope for any woman who will allow her heart to be broken by the effects of her husband’s sin, and yet be softened toward God and toward her husband. Only as she commits herself to spend time with her heavenly Father can she love from a heart that longs to see her husband restored and conformed to the image God has for all his men. On such a journey, no woman is ever alone, for Christ himself will companion with her and bring her finally Home.