5 Common Mistakes When Helping Wives of Porn Addicts in Our Churches

Whether you are a member of a congregation, a volunteer Sunday school teacher, a small group leader, or a pastor, statistics show that there is likely a woman in your congregation struggling with her husband’s pornography use.

It stands to reason that a woman who belongs to a church (or any faith community) is likely to reach out to her church community as the first port of call in a crisis. Her church is likely to be the place where she has the deepest, most trusted relationships. Many Christian women who have experienced sexual betrayal desperately seek guidance from their spiritual elders in the frantic hope of salvaging their marriage.

The church holds both an important responsibility and an amazing privilege in ministering to the betrayed spouse, after all, did Christ not come to bind up the brokenhearted?

The women I meet daily through Betrayal Trauma Recovery are indeed heartbroken. Often the most important thing we can do is to ‘bind’ them up, to hold them together while they are broken. When done well, this process of healing in fellowship is both immensely powerful and incredibly beautiful and can create a closer relationship with God and each other than ever before.

5 Common Mistakes When Helping Wives of Porn Addicts in Our Churches

How Our Well-Intended Helping Often Hurts Wives

Our church leaders have a very important and a very difficult job. They need our support and prayers. They do not become experts in all manner of psychological and pastoral issues the moment they are ordained, nor do they have unlimited emotional resources available. They too will feel the pain of the disclosure of a husband’s infidelity and may be completely confused by the gaslighting, blame, and distraction a porn user throws their way. It may threaten their faith or challenge their own sense of judgement if the porn user was someone they trusted and placed in a position of leadership. They may simply not know how to deal with this or believe what a wife is saying about this man they perceive as a “good man” who serves faithfully in church.

While none of these reasons excuse a response that creates more trauma for women who have been sexually betrayed, they may help us to recognize the ways in which our church leaders need support and education.

I have heard stories of the amazing support and care that sexually betrayed women have received in churches around the world. However, sadly more common are the horror stories–the stories of an already traumatized wife suffering a secondary trauma due to poor advice and invalidation, experienced at the hands of (mostly) well-meaning yet misinformed ministry teams and church leaders.

Let’s take a look at the most common responses that cause problems for the wives of porn addicts in our churches.

Mistake 1–Minimizing their pain.

Many women tell stories of how their husbands’ secret addictions have been revealed in their church communities. They tell me that churches are quick to support their husbands, celebrating the fact that these men’s sins are now “out in the open” and giving them the opportunity to repent. Their churches rally around their husbands, supporting them as they seek recovery–all of which is extremely positive.

During this time, these wives are sometimes left out of the process—or worse, ignored all together. Even for those who are not ignored, many are offered inadequate support during this time of confusion and pain. Many women have been met with embarrassment and avoidance, only compounding their sense of shame about their husbands’ actions. Some find their peers and leaders avoiding any form of eye contact at all costs.

You see, betrayal trauma is messy, it comes out in ways and places we’d rather it didn’t. It’s inconvenient and troublesome and brings with it a great deal of challenges around confidentiality, relationships, protection, and the like.

Betrayal trauma also doesn’t just go away. It actually needs to be heard to be healed, as highlighted in this quote by author Danielle Bernock:

“Trauma is personal. It does not disappear if it is not validated. When it is ignored or invalidated, the silent screams continue internally, heard only by the one held captive. When someone enters the pain and hears the screams, healing can begin.”

It’s worth remembering that many addicts use emotionally abusive behaviors to keep their addictions alive and “under the radar.” They are very likely to lie and twist the truth, downplay the scope or frequency of their porn use, blame the problem on other people or circumstances, and gaslight others into diverting attention away from the seriousness of their sin.

As women seek church support to heal from sexual betrayal trauma, the last thing they need is more (even inadvertent) incidents of distraction, diversion, and reality distortion. As churches seek to shelter women through the process of recovering from such abuse, leaders must develop even broader awareness and deeper discernment, equipping them to recognize such tactics when they occur. Without such insight, even spiritual counselors can miss indicators that wives are suffering from these subtle-yet-devastating forms of emotional abuse, focusing only on the pornography addiction, without holding husbands accountable for the behaviors that accompany it.

Mistake 2–Rushing the partner to forgive.

Christian women (and men) are called to forgive and to love unconditionally, that is true. It is also true that betrayed women experience a lot of pressure to forgive in the midst of their trauma and confusion.

Forgiveness is usually quite high on the priority list for Christian women committed to their relationships with Jesus and their husbands. They have made a commitment to be ‘in’ this marriage, and they’re often very willing to work through the messes they’ve been presented with. I am constantly amazed by the women who come to me, talking about forgiveness from the start of this process. In fact, the grace and compassion of all the women who reach out to me strengthens my own faith everyday.

Forgiveness is possible as part of the healing process, but it takes time. Contrary to popular belief, in this case, forgiveness is the result of healing as well as the path to it. It is very damaging to push wives to forgive their husbands too soon, especially when forgiveness is often confused with trust–and no one should pressure a woman to trust a man who is not trustworthy. This can result in women never feeling fully safe within their recovering relationships, because, well, “that’s done and dusted now, and we have moved on.”

The key here is healing, allowing women time to regain a sense of emotional safety in their lives and to experience and work through their trauma, allowing enough time for women to fully grieve losing the relationships they once thought they had.

Mistake 3–Misusing scripture.

God’s word plays an incredibly important role for Christian women healing from sexual betrayal. But as representatives of God’s church, we should be very careful about how we use it. When scripture is mishandled, used in ways that invalidate the reality and pain of betrayal trauma, it becomes not only counterproductive, but also spiritually abusive.

While scripture will always contain truth and guidance, the context, timing, and means of presentation are keenly important factors that determine whether that scripture is ultimately helpful or harmful. When making such attempts to help, church leaders may need to question their own perceptions and preconceptions. It is important to seek and consider, really consider, what each betrayed wife is currently experiencing. (While some themes are consistent, betrayal trauma presents differently in each individual).

I suggest that churches begin by asking questions like:

  • What do you need us to know about your situation?
  • What should we pray about when offering our support?
  • What should we look at when offering our counsel?
  • What are you feeling about God in the midst of this mess?

Remember that many women experience a deep crisis of faith after sexual betrayal, absorbing the reality that their “God-given” spouse has tragically wounded them.

In situations like these, mishandling scripture can lead to soul-crushing results. For example, I have heard stories of wives who were told, “Remember, God called you to “remove the plank from your own eye before pointing out the speck in your husband’s,” which inadvertently asks women to endure emotional abuse and perhaps even physical danger from STI’s and other dangerous consequences of infidelity.

Related: Stop the Abuse of Partners of Sex Addicts

In even worse cases, women have been admonished to focus on their own sin (perhaps anger or unforgiveness) rather than upon their husbands’ sexual immorality, stating, “All sin is equal after all, and if you tell anyone else about this, you yourself are guilty of gossip.”

The wives I hear are desperate for their ministers and churches to acknowledge the utter devastation of their husbands’ sin and its impact upon them. As one woman characterized it, “Why can’t they see that I actually am an innocent bystander, one who deserves a medal for even thinking about forgiveness in the first place!”

Mistake 4–Suggesting ways in which she has contributed to his unfaithfulness.

Church leaders and communities need to know that emotional abuse and infidelity are not couple’s issues. They are not the results of communication problems, too-busy schedules, or differences of opinion.

Porn use is a porn issue, indicating a problem with the porn-user’s heart. And regardless of their own faults (real or imagined), wives have nothing to do with their husbands’ addiction to porn. Most men who are dealing with a pornography or sexual addiction were already addicted when they entered the marriage. In fact, many men lived in hope that marriage would resolve their attraction and addiction to porn, only to discover that it simply didn’t.

Related: Myth Busters–I’ll Stop Watching Porn When I’m Married

When first exposed, many porn users attempt to describe their compulsive lust, infidelity, and emotional abuse as a “communication issue” or “a breakdown in our relationship,” thereby avoiding complete and exclusive accountability for their own actions.

Today’s churches cannot afford to endorse or enable this line of thinking: first because it isn’t true, but also because it does not help!

This response signals a lack of understanding about pornography and related behaviors, while simultaneously ignoring  the science and psychology of addiction. Porn addicts cannot heal by suggesting or believing that anything about their wives has contributed to their addictive behavior—from physical appearance to sexual availability, communication style, professional identity, occupation, spiritual maturity, personal disposition, or anything else.

Most wives will go through a process of internalizing their husbands’ addiction. Women commonly translate their husbands’ behavior into messages about themselves, their value and worth, their sexual ability, about being a “good enough” wife.

Related: 6 Common Myths Wives of Porn Users Believe

As they do this, women almost always “come up short” in their own minds. Hearing this confirmed by someone else within their faith community, someone they respect, will compound those feelings of inadequacy. That can result in a severe delay in healing for women who were never even broken in the first place. All parties involved will heal much faster when responsibility for this brokenness is assigned where it belongs.

Sexual addiction is not about the betrayed spouse, her value as women, nor her worth as a wife. This is about the brokenness of a society that values women’s body parts more than their hearts and souls. Even Christian men have been sold this lie and paid for it dearly, a lie which leaves them dissatisfied with the wives that God has chosen for them. That’s on husbands, not on wives.

As people of God, let’s empower our Christian brothers to be responsible for their own walks with God, to take responsibility for their own behaviors, to seize the power and authority over sin given to them by Jesus Christ, and to stand together, supporting one another as they seek to live a life of purity.

Mistake 5–Ignoring our own hearts and behavior.

I’ve realized through countless interactions with women in trauma that we need to understand our own values around marriage in order to effectively minister to others. Honesty is an essential component to an addict’s recovery and in being a trustworthy person.

The truth is that if–as clinicians, coaches, pastors, and servants of faith–we hold any belief that dishonesty is permissible in a marriage, in whatever form (even if it’s hiding the fact that we got a parking ticket), this will render us ineffective in authentically supporting recovery for pornography addicts.

This principle also holds true when supporting wives through their healing from sexual betrayal trauma. If we ourselves are engaged in any form of questionable or compulsive sexual behaviour, we will be incapable of offering the love and empathy sought (and desperately needed) by heartbroken wives.

Statistics show that pornography use is alive and well in the Christian church worldwide, and we cannot ignore the fact that some of our own pastors, leaders, and healers are struggling with this very issue. Because of this, it’s imperative that churches create their own process and standards for accountability at the level of leadership (and beyond), allowing God’s children to confidently follow those who serve, support and counsel us.

Related: Should a Pastor Be Fired for Watching Porn? 

Let’s help them heal!

I truly believe that our churches aim is to do a good job of supporting God’s followers through all life events. I also believe that betrayed spouses are rarely intentionally harmed by church representatives, and I believe that God’s church will continue to grow and develop in its understanding and approach towards betrayal trauma survivors. I and my APSATS colleagues work tirelessly for this very cause: to inform, influence, and encourage churches who seek to handle this issue responsibly.

If you find that you are unable to receive the support that you need through your own church community, please reach out to me and my fellow coaches at Betrayal Trauma Recovery. We are committed—and honored—to walk this path by your side and can even include your church-based support people in your sessions if appropriate.

If you are a church leader or part of a ministry team and you would like to know more about how best to support women in your community, you too can schedule a support call with one of our coaches to gain a better understanding of how you might offer them support. Email cat@btr.org to receive information about our webinars for clergy.