11 minute read

How Can I Prepare for My Husband’s Next Porn Relapse?

Last Updated: April 13, 2020

Gaelyn Emerson

Gaelyn Rae Emerson works as a full-time betrayal trauma recovery coach, trained and certified by The Association of Partners of Sex Addicts Trauma Specialists. Within this field, she combines 16 years of personal and professional experience, “down in the trenches” with other men and women, reeling and healing together from sexual betrayal. In addition to her work with recovering couples, Gaelyn is a passionate advocate for women whose relationships do NOT survive, creating programs for groups of divorced, divorcing and/or separated partners of sex addicts. Formerly a coach for Betrayal Trauma Recovery, Gaelyn now coaches primarily through her own private practice, Women Ever After, LLC. 

Once upon a time, I was blissfully happy. No, my life wasn’t perfect or easy. Instead, it was real–messy, but meaningful. I lived and worked passionately within the world of pornography addiction and betrayal trauma recovery, with a job I adored and the marriage I’d always wanted.

And then, without warning, it all came crashing down.

My story is a bit unusual. The incident I’m describing didn’t occur at the start of our recovery from my husband’s porn addiction, it happened after nearly a decade of intensive “his, hers, and ours” recovery work.

I’d thought that, surely, the worst was behind us. I believed I was one of a lucky few whose husband grasped the make-or-break importance of staying sexually sober, who understood the imperative of gut-level honesty. I trusted my husband deeply (not entirely, but significantly), and I thanked God every day for giving me the most empathetic pornography addict I’d ever met.

And then, out of the blue, my husband disclosed a pornography relapse that knocked me to my knees.

And there I sat. Unknowing. Unraveled. Disbelieving. Disoriented. I felt an entire dictionary of adverbs and adjectives, dizzy with a cyclone of fractured vocabulary.

And yet, despite that flood of emotion and experience, I can identify, with razor precision, the one single word that embodies that horrific day. Unprepared.

Relapse Preparedness vs. Relapse Prevention

As a betrayal trauma recovery coach, I work with women whose husbands struggle with compulsive, addictive, and problematic sexual behavior. Instead of focusing on relapse prevention, I coach these women to explore the value of relapse preparedness, relapse recovery, and relapse resilience.

I do believe (emphatically) that relapse prevention matters. But as I don’t possess the formula for making it happen, I lobby instead for the next best thing: I work to ensure that my clients are well prepared for the possibility of their loved ones’ relapse, no matter how large or small.

How Do You Prepare for What You Hope Will Never Happen?

Preparedness doesn’t necessarily mean bracing for an event that’s inevitable. Sometimes, preparedness simply means taking proactive steps to protect oneself just in case an event may (or may not ever) happen.

Here’s an easy example of preparedness: As a child, I lived in the Midwest, where tornadoes could flatten small cities within minutes. I later lived in the Middle East, where bus bombs, gas masks, and air-raid sirens were everyday encounters. I currently live in Southern California–home to earthquakes, wildfires, and an occasional mini-tsunami. In other words, I’ve never lived anywhere that isn’t highly susceptible to crisis or disaster.

In situations like these, preparedness doesn’t mean waiting, worrying, or wishing against bad outcomes. Preparedness means knowing how to navigate and survive a crisis, should one occur despite all available safety measures and preventative precautions.

Prepare—Or Go Crazy

If your husband is addicted to porn, I’m guessing you can recite this conversation in your sleep:

(Me): It’s been a long time since he’s looked at porn. (Myself): Well, that we know about, anyway. (I): Can’t you two relax already? If he’s using porn, don’t you think we’d know? (Me): I knew you’d say that. But you said that last time, and look how that turned out. (Myself): But this time feels different, doesn’t it? And besides, our therapist says our intuition is getting stronger. (I): Either that, or he’s got us all fooled. Addicts can do that, can’t they? (Me): Whose side are you on, anyway? Can’t we give him a chance? He’s doing everything the book says to do. (Myself): I suppose it’s not fair to assume the worst. Maybe we’re overreacting. (I): No, I don’t think so. You’re right. This is our life now. We can’t let our guard down, no matter what. (Me): So what then? We just wait for the other shoe to drop? (Myself): I don’t know what other choice we have. It’s either that or divorce, isn’t it? (I): There’s gotta be some kind of middle ground here, ladies. (Me): I don’t know. Like I said, it has been a long time since he looked at porn.

Conversations like these do one of two things: They give a girl nightmares or they keep her up all night.

In a perfect world, our husbands stop looking, lusting, and lying–allowing us to stop wondering, worrying, and guarding old wounds.

But when that doesn’t happen, it’s time to switch gears, switching from reactive mode to proactive mode. It’s time to launch a strategy of soul-intervention and self-preservation, calling an immediate halt to those tortured, circular conversations.

Because if we don’t? Conversations like these will cost us our sanity.

Why Does Relapse Preparedness Work?

I could list a dozen reasons, but here are my two immediate favorites:

1. Incidents of betrayal trauma hijack our “executive brain”—the part that makes intentional, organized and prioritized decisions. Trauma diminishes our ability to act within our best interests, reducing our capacity to act responsively and responsibly. With relapse preparedness, we compensate for this anticipated interruption, assigning a virtual “executive assistant” to step in when we need reinforcement.

2. Relapse preparedness empowers us to “stare down” one of our deepest, most painful, most paralyzing fears. By investing ourselves into relapse preparedness (ideally as part of a strategic, long-term plan for personal healing), we’re able to live more fully and freely, without constant worry about the imminent “drop” of that infamous “other shoe.”

So, What Makes a Good Relapse Preparedness Plan?

There is no one-size-fits-all script for relapse preparedness. However, having coached women through this process, I’ve identified two primary features that MUST be present for any relapse preparedness plan (RPP) to do its job effectively:

1. An RPP must begin and end with you.

It must feature independent actions that you alone can take, to help yourself through the crux of your emotional crisis. Taking ownership is the fastest way you’ll develop an effective sense of relapse resilience, reclaiming your powers of choice, personal agency and emotional autonomy.

2. An RRP must be strategically designed.

An RRP must be strong enough to support the weight of emotional trauma, yet flexible enough to accommodate unexpected twists of circumstance. In my relapse preparedness planning workshops, I recommend an S.O.S. approach:

S = Support. Without support, RPPs are vulnerable to individual blind spots. Success relies upon soliciting the support of others—precisely when you’re feeling injured, abandoned or estranged from your spouse.

O = Options. Without options, RPPs become impractical and ineffective. A plan that leaves you “trapped” can deepen your sense of vulnerability. Like trauma resolution, the power of choice is what fuels relapse resilience. By incorporating a broad spectrum of options, your RPP is likely to fulfill its intended purpose.

S = Safety and Stability. During a relapse, safety and stability are compromised, damaged, or even decimated. Creating and restoring safety becomes top-priority. Under the training of Dr. Barbara Steffens, author of Your Sexually Addicted Spouse, I’ve learned that safety and stability are crucial bedrocks of trauma recovery, making them the primary cornerstones of relapse resilience.

A Few More Tips for Relapse Preparedness

Curate the Right Support Team.

Finding just the right support is more important than securing any available support. This is true during all phases of recovery from sexual betrayal, but it’s essential during that brutally raw, post-relapse period.

Hint: Do yourself a favor, and don’t assume that a close friend is able and willing to support you through a potential relapse. Get gutsy, get proactive, get verbal, and just ask. You’ll thank yourself later.

Set Aside Some Money.

Money may seem superficial by contrast, but a dedicated “relapse preparedness fund” can provide material means to an emotional end. This isn’t your “I feel like buying a new dress this week” money. This is your “Life feels like it’s unraveling, and I need to buy myself time and space to plan my next steps” money.

Hint: Has your husband asked how he might “make amends” for the harm he’s caused in your relationship? Consider suggesting this “relapse preparedness fund” as a purposeful way for him to do that.

Prepare a List of Self-Care and Self-Comfort Activities.

Eating broccoli is self-care. Eating Ben & Jerry’s is self-comfort. In the aftermath of a relapse, self-care equals self-survival. Though different, self-comfort is equally crucial to relapse recovery, involving actions that soothe your senses, calm your central nervous system, and bring your “executive brain” back online.

Hint: In her book, DBT Skills Training Handouts and Worksheets, Dr. Marsha M. Linehan compiles an impressive collection of lists for sensory awareness, distress tolerance, and emotional regulation.

Prepare an “Absence Excuse.”

Relapses happen at inopportune times (Murphy’s Law, anyone?), so you’ll want an honest excuse or two to utilize on the fly, should you need a “timeout” from social, occupational, and family obligations. You’ll likely need to tweak the details, but it helps to prepare a copy-and-paste starting place.

Hint: Don’t be afraid to claim a sick day! (And yes, betrayal trauma counts as a legitimate illness.)

Plan What You’ll Tell Your Children.

As a mom, your kiddos likely come first, even during your own emotional breakdown. Draft a simple, age-appropriate explanation, to help your children understand the fact that you’re struggling.

Hint: This becomes particularly important if you or your husband is leaving your home.

Channel Your Anger.

Sometimes, in the aftermath of a relapse, hurt and anger fuel us to make stuff happen—and more often than not, it’s the stuff we wouldn’t have the means, motivation, or chutzpah to initiate otherwise. In her book The Journey from Abandonment to Healing, author Susan Anderson describes rage as an expression of grief, a psychobiological response to relational or sexual abandonment: “Rage insists upon righting the injustice and restoring [our] sense of self-worth. Despite its turbulence, feeling and expressing rage are necessary parts of recovery. It is an active protest against injury that demands change. It helps us to start functioning again.”

Hint: Anger can be powerful, either helping or harming your efforts toward relapse resiliency. While recovering from a relapse, exercise sensitivity toward your own thresholds for expressing anger in healthy (versus harmful) ways—and lean upon your support team to help you recognize the difference.

Occasional Relapse vs. Chronic Relapse

As long-time member of twelve step communities, I’ve been schooled in the wisdom of “just for today,” and “one day at a time.” But a few years ago, I was struck with an awareness that shifted my perspective:

At what point does “one day at a time” serialize into a lifetime? At what point do we look back upon our sequence of individual days in succession, only to realize we’ve spent a cumulative lifetime without addressing the impact of those daily decisions?

What I’m about to say next might lose me a few friends, but I believe in speaking truth, so I’m going to say it anyway: One relapse on one occasion—or even several relapses on a several occasions—is VERY different than chronic daily, weekly, or monthly relapses.

Perhaps it’s unrealistic to expect that a porn addict will never relapse. (Depending upon whom you ask, that remains a heated topic for debate). And though I’m not qualified to speak firsthand about the experience of being a porn addict, I’m unequivocally qualified, both personally and professionally, to speak about the experience of being married to one.

It’s impossible for a human being to heal from old wounds (for example, the trauma she suffered during initial discovery or early recovery) when chronic relapses rip open those wounds, time after time, with no end in sight.

As the wife of a porn addict, I wish I didn’t know the difference between occasional and chronic relapse. And as a betrayal trauma recovery coach, I wish I didn’t know the precarious impact of chronic relapse upon families and communities. In spite of that knowledge, I’ll spare you the gory details and leave you with this comparison:

Once upon a time, I lived through a relatively minor, one-time relapse, sandwiched between two long periods of my husband’s solid sexual sobriety. It caught me off guard, and yes, it hurt horribly. But to my surprise, I healed in record time (less time than I’d ever imagined possible), with minimal damage to my long-term wellbeing.

Once upon a different time, I lived through a comparatively major, years-long relapse, sandwiched between sporadic periods of my husband’s tenuous sexual sobriety. The hurt from that relentless experience went immeasurably, irrevocably deeper. And if I’m gonna be really, really, really honest? I’m only half certain I’ll ever fully recover from the damage I sustained from that series of betrayals.

I’m writing this article because I truly believe in relapse preparedness, recovery, and resilience. But just like an earthquake preparedness plan won’t rescue anyone from a flash flood or wildfire, neither will a relapse preparedness plan insulate anyone from the trauma of chronic relapse. The premise of relapse preparedness is that it works as an emergency contingency—it’s designed to carry someone through an occasional crisis, not to alleviate the trauma inflicted by a breathless succession of relapses.

Identify Proactive (vs. Reactive) Relapse Resilience Goals

Remember, relapse preparedness is about reclaiming our power of choice within our own lives. That is why proactive goal-setting belongs within a solid RPP. After a relapse, 90% of the process involves responding to stuff that has already happened. But within that remaining 10% margin, the work of self-reclamation can flourish like never before.

If you take away only one point from this article, let it be this one:

Sexual betrayal steals so much from us—but as women who are developing relapse resilience, we don’t need to shut up, shut down, back off, or let porn have the last laugh.

Sometimes, an event we can’t prevent (unwanted, unthinkable, unbearable, or unacceptable), reminds us of our deepest priorities, prompting us to draw that line in the sand, saying, “Sorry porn, but your game stops here. You’re done playing fast and loose with my sanity.” Healing may surprisingly eclipse our pain, with larger-than-life passion and not-of-this-world purpose, saying, “Not so fast, porn. This time, the joke’s on you.”

Has healing from your husband’s porn addiction interrupted a dream you once cherished, before the bulk of your life began to revolve around this exhausting battle? Perhaps today’s the day you pick up that dream, hold it close to your heart for a moment, then weave it back into your plans for the future.

In Closing

We don’t live in a fantasy world, so here’s the black and white truth of the matter: Even with a perfect relapse preparedness plan, if that day comes, it’s gonna hurt. Your heart’s gonna bleed all over everything, and your eyes are gonna flood with grief you hoped was gone for good.

But guess what, sister? You may have forgotten this, but I haven’t: Your life is so much bigger than porn!

You may have lost faith in this, but God hasn’t: You are so much deeper, more beautiful, and more victorious than this addiction.

In the case of a relapse, porn wins the battle. But you, beautiful girl, can still win this war.

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  • Comments on: How Can I Prepare for My Husband’s Next Porn Relapse?
    1. Lori Pyatt on

      Awesome article, Coach Rae. You’ve provided many tips partners need to hear. There’s always an unspoken of “What if he relapses?” in the wives and girlfriends.

      The possibility is so painful they are afraid of even voicing it–and that’s definitely how it was for me.

      So I’m so glad you addressed this issue so pointedly.

      I personally will be using one of your tips with the couples we work with (the ‘relapse preparedness fund’ and how to get him to agree with it.) Awesome!

      Reply
    2. Wren on

      Rae,
      I have a question for you. Let’s change the players a bit. You had a one night stand. (sexual not a rock band). You & your hubby are committed to restoration. Your two yrs. out from the full disclosure , therapy, etc.

      At your workplace one day after an office meeting you linger to discuss a project w/a co-worker. He’s hot. In this discussion you happen to kiss him. Its brief, just once & you feel devasted!

      You tell your hubby & he forgives you & you discuss w/your therapist.

      Six months later you have to go on a business trip. After the meeting w/client you stop for a drink in the hotel bar. A guy asked you to dance. He happens to “touch” you all the while you know he is up for more, if you are. It felt good to be held & a little touchy not bad.

      Then back in the room (alone) your devasted again. Upon returning home you disclose fully to hubby AND….does he forgive you AGAIN?

      In a large survey 75% of married men stated if their wife committed adultery they would LEAVE her. Only about 25% of women said they would leave if their husband was the Adulter. Interesting.

      Change the sin…do we continue to allow a spouse to be drunk or stoned? An alcoholic in real recovery can’t continue taking a drink. Neither the drug addict.

      Bottom line if a husband continues in Porn there has not been the “Godly Sorrow” that the Apostle Paul stated in the NT that leads to REAL repentance.

      And the wife & children are in real danger for the Spiritual, Emotional & even Physical safety.

      Reply
      • Chris McKenna on

        Hi, Wren – thank you for sharing a clear, calm, logical response. I appreciate it.

        Chris

      • J B on

        Amen!

        True Godly repentance is a complete 180 change. Go and sin no more (stop all habitual sin).

        At one point in my life, I CHOOSE to control the only thing I felt I could with bulimarexia.
        There was a definite wake up point, I sought help, repented, got rid of any stumbling block (if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out) and instead turned my focus to who I am in Christ.

        This was decades ago and I have not turned back to it, nor replaced it with any other excessive behavior.

        God promises that we are more than conquerers through Christ our Lord.
        Make Him and pleasing Him the focus, so our gaze does not stray from the narrow path.

      • Bob Jones on

        Here’s something that has been driving me crazy: Here I am, a porn addict, and despite my best efforts, I seem to not be able to stop slipping and viewing porn every couple months, always feeling despair, disgust and shame afterwards. So here I am, hurting my wife (who I am separated from at the moment, and whom I love dearly), giving her every reason in the world to leave me (and I wouldn’t blame her!).

        Yet, I am consumed with the fear that she may be going through the very same temptations you describe above in your scenario above. She is gorgeous, and many many men have tried to hit on her, I am sure all of them better men than I. What if she gives in to her desire to be loved and taken care of? I would be devastated beyond words. But yet, here I am, a porn addict!

        How insane is that?

      • Dawn on

        I totally agree Wren.

    3. Anne on

      My husband’s next relapse is us getting divorced b/c I refuse to live like this anymore. Either quit or get out. We are already living in separate bedrooms and his addiction spilled over into my oldest.

      I hate porn. That is all.

      Reply
    4. J B on

      Amen Wren!

      True Godly repentance is a complete 180 change. Go and sin no more (stop all habitual sin). Matthew 5:28,29 is very clear about adultery.

      At one point in my life, I CHOSE to control the only thing I felt I could with bulimarexia.
      There was a definite wake up point, I sought help, repented, got rid of any stumbling block (if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out) and instead turned my focus to who I am in Christ.

      This was decades ago and I have not turned back to it, nor replaced it with any other excessive behavior.

      God promises that we are more than conquerers through Christ our Lord.
      Make Him and pleasing Him the focus, so our gaze does not stray from the narrow path.

      Reply
    5. Lil J on

      My porn addict husband relapsed this week when the porn blocker app on his phone suddenly stopped working. I discovered this last night when I did my routine check up on his phone. He now has a new blocker app installed. Hopefully this one won’t just stop working out of the blue. Not only did this scare me because his porn addiction led to an online affair that almost became physical in the past, BUT he was looking at the porn this week WHILE HE WAS DRIVING TO WORK! He got “bored” on the road. Boredom and porn could potentially kill my husband. We’ve gone over the recovery and prevention plan again. He is starting over at his SAA meetings. But this cuts me deep.

      Reply
      • Kay Bruner on

        I am so sorry for what you’re going through. I hope you’ve got good support: a therapist, a group, the online resources at Bloom for Women. No matter what he chooses, you can choose to be healthy and whole. Peace to you, Kay

    6. Mrs Still Trying on

      Good article. I’ve been living this for 6+ years. The first 8.5yrs were BLISS. I thought people who said marriage was hard were just sad.

      Now I’m surprised to find I’m still married, and boy I’m committed. I don’t take my vows lightly. But…. you know porn is such a painful thing. So very hard. And the deception is even worse.

      I’m still trying to figure out if these are relapses…. or a bigger pattern. I’ve started keeping a daily planner this year of all relations to see if I can figure it out.!

      Reply
      • Kay Bruner on

        Wow, you really ARE trying!

        Is your husband trying as hard as you are? Is he keeping a daily planner?

        My guess is that he’s not.

        I would suggest reading up on boundaries, as his recovery must be his work.

        Your work is you: processing your emotions, creating healthy boundaries for yourself. Here, here, and here are some articles that might help.

        I can only image the pain you must be in, losing the bliss of those first few years to the struggle of now. The community and resources at Bloom for Women are wonderful, and another great way to work on YOU, while your husband does his own work.

        Peace to you,
        Kay

      • Imazay on

        Kay’s suggested resources are smart. Boy, I was committed, too. I wouldn’t call the first 12 years “bliss” because he was a high-functioning abuser of alcohol and pain meds, but we worked hard and built a solid life. I took my marriage vows seriously. Twelve years in I turned on my computer to enter financial info and was met with multiple tabs open to porn. Over the next 18 years filled with multiple broken promises, I held fast to those vows to the near loss of relationship with our two children. I thought I was doing the right thing by remaining steadfast in my commitment to my marriage and to raising our children in an intact family. You know what happened, though? Those children grew up and began to see that Mom’s commitment to her marriage was actually Mom stuck in the abuse cycle. He never laid a hand on us, but the lies, and manipulation and other behaviors employed by addicts attempting to avoid responsibility are psychological, emotional, and verbal abuse. So, the kids got out, and then Mom was left with the choice to honor her vows while Dad doesn’t, or protect herself and her relationship with her children. It’s been very hard, but I had to accept that I wanted his recovery far more than he ever did, and having the opportunity to be a part of my children and grandchildren’s lives was important to me. At the very least, porn use is abusive because of the lying used to hide it. It’s going to take a long time to heal, but I’m committed to making that happen for me. My beliefs tell me the husband is the spiritual leader of the family. What I learned too late was to ask myself, “Is he leading in the spirit of light or the spirit of darkness?” After 30 years, I have a lot of healing to do. Peace to you,
        Imazay

    7. Dawn on

      Again, another article showing the absolute exhaustion and absurdity of trying to stay married to an unrepentant adulterer. The whole premise of this article is flawed. What kind of a marriage is it when you have to plan ahead for time for your husband inevitable adultery? There is something very wrong with this picture.

      Call the men to true repentance and stop treating them like naughty children who have no real consequences and have to be monitored. What kind of husband is that?

      I think readers also need to be made aware of Betrayal Trauma Recovery’s links to Mormonism. The founder, Anne, although clearly trying to help women in trauma is a Mormon as are most of the women associated with her Facebook group and the Betrayal Trauma site. Unless I missed it I did not once see Jesus mentioned at all in this article, or scripture. Be careful who you take your advice from.

      Reply
      • Raymond on

        I agree that there is little future for any woman with an unrepentant adulterer. But what about a repentant one?

        You asked for a Scripture. I would offer, “The good that I want to do I do not do. The evil I don’t want to do is the very thing I do.” Paul is talking about sin in general but this is the essence of porn addiction.

        Is giving up porn the result of a single decision most addicts would make it. But the clue is in the name. To be addicted means you have lost control. Getting that control back is possible it is but a long and difficult path even for those who genuinely grieve over their sin and are truly repentant.

        Relapsing is a reality. This article recognises the truth of that.

      • Sage on

        Agreed.

        I dont like the feeling of standing on the edge of the chasm of grief and wondering when I’ll get pushed off. So, I prepared to push the marriage off. I am ashamed I stayed married, but finances and pets, and it seems ok now. It’s like living in a natural disater prone area. You get used to the background fear. I say, if you can just leave leave leave and keep leaving.

      • Kay Bruner on

        Oh Sage. My heart goes out to you. Living in a disaster zone with no assurance of safety is so traumatic long term. No need for shame. Everyone understands the reality of life! But your own well being is critically important as well. I wonder if you’ve come across the resources at Bloom for Women? They’re trauma informed, online, and a really great support. Peace to you, Kay

    8. Cher on

      Wil: YOU make me sick!!!!! My husband’s porn addiction about killed me and my family!!!! I can’t believe you have the nerve to talk down to wives who have been ABUSED sexually, spiritually, psychologically and emotionally by their husbands sex-filled, adulterous flings with their porn mistresses (who were young enough to be their daughters and/or grandaughters). I hope your wife divorced your ass and I hope she took you straight to the bank too!!!! Now….YOU go and be blameless!!!!! Unfortunately, by the sound of things, you’ll be heading straight back to what you love more than your wife (hopefully your ex-wife) and kids….your porn women!!!!

      Reply

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