After his wife had caught him for the third time, Steve came into Heart to Heart Counseling Center and admitted he was trapped in a secret world of pornography and masturbation. In his first counseling session, one major question replayed in his mind.
No, the question wasn’t, “How do I stop this behavior for the rest of my life?” He didn’t ask, “How do I stop hurting the people I love?”
His question was: “Should I tell my wife the truth, and what should I tell her in the future if something else happens?”
I want to answer this question, but before I do, let me introduce myself. I am Douglas Weiss, Ph.D. I am the President of the American Association for Sex Addiction Therapy, author of more than 20 books on sexual addiction recovery, a regular national media guest on this subject, and I have counseled sex addicts and their wives for more than 20 years. So, I come at this question with more than two decades of experience.
Who protects the wife when a man protects his secrets?
Surprisingly, over the years I have heard counselors advising clients not to tell their wives anything they haven’t already discussed, and to work through their recovery without being accountable to their wives.
Steve’s question needs to be looked at from a couple of perspectives. First, who gets to decide what information is shared and why? Does the husband, who is viewing pornography or who has cheated on his wife, decide whom he should tell? We know that all addictions rob addicts of emotional, spiritual, and moral maturity. So why does the one who has the least maturity and the longest record of bad choices get to make this choice?
Does the therapist get to decide? Is the therapist risking anything here other than a client not coming back for the next session?
The wife, however, could be risking her life (AIDS or other STDs) if he is lying about cheating in the past, present, or future. She is taking the emotional, sexual, and financial risks now and in the future. Often, she is also writing the check to keep their marriage together, and in most cases, she is more mature than the addict at the time.
In my opinion, it is the wife’s prerogative to decide how much general information about the past or present she should know. This general information includes what his acting out entails, how often he acts out, how many times, and when the last time occurred. Hearing specific details about behaviors can be dangerous, and the consequences of knowing every detail should be considered with a professional. In my experience, most women may not have the facts, but know the truth through their intuition.
To clarify the past and to measure future recovery, I offer addicts the opportunity to take a polygraph during a three-day intensive therapy program at my office. Because most sex addicts are rarely mature enough to stop lying without polygraphs, I recommend ongoing polygraphs during the first year of recovery.
One thing I have learned for sure is that what a man protects, he loves. If a husband is protecting his secrets or his addiction, then who is protecting his innocent wife? The men I have seen successfully recover are the ones who kill the secrets and the addiction and protect their wives.
I have another qualm with secrecy. Often, a man who has had a secret sexual life with himself or with others also wants to have a secret recovery with his therapist, group, or accountability partners. This typically means keeping the wife out of the loop.
Yes, this man should be accountable to another man for his thoughts and actions in sexual recovery. However, I believe it’s the wife’s choice to decide how much she should know about her husband’s ongoing recovery and his relapses. If she doesn’t want to know about any future porn, masturbation, or cheating, then he can honor this, but it should be her choice. Most women want to know about behaviors like porn, masturbation, flirting, grooming, visiting sex establishments, or sex acts with other people. If a wife wants to know, a husband owes that level of honesty to the woman who is trying to stick around while he is recovering.
That being said, reporting every inappropriate thought is accountability only another guy should hear, because an addict’s thought-life can be overwhelming for a wife. This much information doesn’t benefit either the man or the wife in the relationship.
Telling the truth is the cornerstone of all 12-step recovery programs. A man who lives with secrets makes his recovery harder for himself, his wife, and his marriage. Based on my professional experience, a man who has a system for continuing to keep secrets is much more likely to relapse.
So for me, it’s a both/and–not an either/or–proposition. A man overcoming a sexual addiction can be accountable to his therapist, group, or accountability partner; however, he can also be honest with his wife. For instance, if a man has designed consequences with the help of his accountability partner or group for relapses or failing to complete goals, it is important that his wife knows about these consequences.
I recommend that couples, facing pornography or sexual addiction recovery, schedule a weekly or bi-weekly recovery meeting between themselves. This specific meeting time keeps them both in the loop about what each of them is learning and doing in their personal recovery. This also prevents them from being bombarded by questions every day about the past or their recovery progress.
When sex addiction impacts a couple, they do best when both are being honest, working through a guidedrecovery program, and exercising
The men who are brutally honest about their past and present do better in the long run. They go forward with no more shame and actually build respect from their wife and for their future recovery.