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Why some accountability partners don’t work for porn addicts

Last Updated: November 3, 2020

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Most of the men I work with have a long history of failed attempts at overcoming sexual temptation. A common strategy for people in churches is to have an accountability partner. I have nothing against accountability partners . . . they just don’t work.

Even during the 15 years I served as a pastor, I always thought accountability was over-rated. If a man will lie to his wife about his sexual behavior, why do we think he’ll be honest with his accountability partner? Of course that’s assuming he and his accountability partner are meeting frequently enough, and talking pointedly enough that he even has to lie.

For the last four years I have been working full-time with men who are recovering from ongoing sexual struggles (some identify with the term sex addicts; some don’t). This work has made me even more convinced that accountability is over-rated. If we are dealing with behaviors that have become (choose your term): compulsions / addictions / dependencies / besetting sins, we need more than accountability, and certainly we need more than a single “accountability partner.”

When accountability works

Accountability only works if the problem isn’t severe. If something is a minor issue, and you have the ability to control it, and you don’t feel enough shame about it to feel the need to hide it . . . then accountability will work. But if you’re out of control and ashamed about some area in your life, you will drift out of touch with your accountability partner, or even lie if you have to. For sexual strugglers accountability is a speed bump that slows them down, not a wall that keeps them from sexual sin.

People need a program, they need a process, to help them recover. Beyond that, they need a group, not a partner, to relate with. Accountability works when it is built around a process—a structure—not a single person who might or might not be there when you need them. Don’t think of a single accountability partner, think instead of accountability partners. If you use accountability software like Covenant Eyes, make sure that more than one person gets the reports. Relying on one person is a setup for disappointment.

Accountability is often blind leading the blind

Don’t misunderstand: an accountability partner can be helpful . . . as long as that relationship is a small part of a larger program of recovery. The problem with accountability partners comes when we build too much dependence on them. When we need that person the most, it’s possible that he will be on vacation, or struggling himself.

Even if a sexual struggler gets a hold of his accountability partner, and even if he is willing to be honest about his failings with the accountability partner, then what? The accountability partner doesn’t know any more about how to find freedom than the struggler does.

If you didn’t know how to swim and were drowning in a lake, how helpful would it be to have another person jump into the water with you who also didn’t know how to swim? He wouldn’t be able to help you. In fact, rather than helping you, he might pull you down with him.

Accountability is about supportive friendship

There is another issue with accountability partners that we need to face. What most people in recovery need is friendship and support to pull them out of shame and isolation, not confrontation. If not handled with wisdom and compassion, accountability confrontations can wind up heightening struggler’s sense of shame, and reinforcing their tendency to keep their struggles secret.

All addictions are terribly isolating, and sexual struggles are the worst. The shame keeps us from being honest, and the time it takes pulls us away from developing friendships. Not only are we busy with life’s obligations, we’re busy with our patterns of sexual sin – which are very time-consuming! And when we’re done with whatever sexual behaviors we’ve fallen into, we feel too guilty and ashamed to talk about it.

In that dark place, how will sexual strugglers respond to accountability partners who confront them? They will probably be contrite and humble at first (after all, they are struggling with feelings of shame and unworthiness). But nine times out of ten what happens next is that the sexual struggler will find ways of drifting away from that accountability relationship. He or she will be evasive, dishonest, or (more likely) too busy and unavailable to meet.

This evasiveness might be labeled as further evidence of the selfishness and sinfulness of the sexual struggler. In reality it’s often a failure of the accountability relationship itself. The confrontation has just heightened the struggler’s sense of shame, but probably hasn’t given any productive direction for how to change. The subtext of these conversations usually ends up being, “You’ve been a bad person. Stop that. From now on, try harder to not be bad anymore.”

In the absence of a program of recovery that offers positive steps to bring change into the struggler’s life, accountability actually makes things worse. Sexual strugglers need groups to support them, a program of recovery to change them, and friends to accept and love them. After that, accountability partners can be added to the equation to help the struggler stay on track.


Mark BrouwerThis is a post by Mark Brouwer. Mark is a trainer and practitioner in the field of sex addiction and recovery. He provides teaching to groups of all ages about how to move towards sexual sanity, as well as coaching for people who are struggling with compulsive sexual behavior. He is the author and director of “90 Days to Sexual Sanity” a unique program to help sexual strugglers find healing, and editor of the award-winning “sexualsanity.com” blog. Having taught and coached hundreds of people about recovery from sexual addiction, he understands what moving towards sexual sanity involves.

 

 

  • Comments on: Why some accountability partners don’t work for porn addicts
    1. Victory Is Possible on

      Mark:

      I couldn’t agree with you more! Great article! Often you hear the expression “All I need is to find a good accountability partner”. I find that usually that thinking falls in the category of “magical fix”. The one easy thing that can be done that will magically fix the issue without much actual work on the part of the person with the problem.

      After saying this I do think accountability relationships can work but it seems to me that they only work when the person is honest and when the partners are walking side by side helping each other think things out. When something goes wrong it’s critical that shame is not a part of the picture…just looking at the issue in the context of a safe relationship and finding a way together to resolve it.

      Thanks for the post!

      Reply
      • Luke Gilkerson on

        @Victory – I believe that as long as “accountability” is the absent-minded, ignorant, structureless, condemning sort, it is doomed to failure. I agree 100%. This is why a bigger vision for accountability is needed in the church. Thanks for this post, Mark.

    2. B. on

      100% on point. I couldn’t agree more with this!

      Reply
    3. Tim M on

      Isolationist: shame, desire to hide from something, sometimes what it is known sometimes hidden in the depths of an addicts mind. I am a sex addict and I didn’t realize I had a problem, not until I realized I had no control over my obsession to either internet porn, porn movies, compulsive masturbation and the list goes on. I denied my wife “intimacy”.What’s that? In my mind I thought sex was love and showing I cared for another woman. I have hurt many of my girlfriends in the past. There was very little love in my family or bonding. Pretty much no closeness. If anyone says their is no such thing as sex addiction really does not know the word “insanity” in the mind of people such as me.

      Reply
      • Mark Brouwer on

        Tim – thanks for commenting, and I’m sorry to hear about what’s going on in your life. It’s sad but true that while sexual addiction wreaks havoc in our lives, it brings devastating pain to the people we love. We all need to move out of isolation as part of the process of recovery / healing. The right kind of accountability is an important part of that. I guess what I’m reacting to in the article when people use an accountability partner as a band aid to a wound that really requires surgery (therapy to deal with unprocessed early life trauma) and stitches (a full-orbed program of recovery in a support group with a sponsor). I hope you’re able to find that, and find hope and grace in the midst of the darkness of this struggle.

    4. Dan on

      where can i find a support group? i’m in new jersey.

      Reply
    5. Kevin Prindiville on

      I found this article by Mark and after watching the promotional video for Covenant Eyes, by searching for the way to choose an accountability partner and now I’m more confused.
      It’s like Covenant Eyes want to sell me their product for $16.99/mo. for something that doesn’t work. Please help me understand this. I came to Covenant Eyes looking for help.
      I wanted to purchase Covenant Eyes but I think I need to choose an accountability partner before purchase so that I can set up my account .
      Please advise.

      Reply
      • Moriah Bowman on

        Hi Kevin!

        We encourage all of our users to have an ally (accountability partner), but you can still use our software successfully without one! Our product does work, with or without an ally, but I would agree that it does work better WITH an ally.

        That being said, I encourage you to reach out to someone you trust and ask them to be your ally! Here’s a great blog post on how to get started. Also, you can set up your account and start using our software while you pray about who should be your ally.

        Blessings,
        Moriah

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