When a women discovers she is married to a sex addict, all trust is lost. She feels she doesn’t even know the man who shares her bed. Her entire marriage may feel like a lie. If her husband is getting help for his addiction, and if she decides to stay in the marriage, her mind is plagued with questions. As if she just discovered werewolves and the tooth fairy are real, she begins to question everything she believed to be true. A couple of the most common questions I hear are, “How can I trust him?” and “How do I know if he has really changed?”
Trust takes a long time to be rebuilt after it’s been broken. And after such a deep betrayal, trust will never look the same as it once did.
In the early months after discovering my husband’s sexual addiction, I clung to the words of Debbie Laaser in her book Shattered Vows, “Can you trust the intent of his heart?” I understood that long before I could say, “I trust my husband,” I might be able to say, “I trust the intent of his heart.” I felt significant relief when I got to a place where I knew I trusted my husband’s heart. When I knew in my heart that Jeff passionately wanted recovery, healing, and sexual purity, I could feel hope–even though I didn’t know if he would succeed or if I’d ever stop hurting.
I was once told, by a male sex addiction therapist in recovery himself, if I spent five minutes inside a man’s head I’d be screaming to get out. We can’t know every thought our husband has and we probably don’t really want to know. I couldn’t read Jeff’s mind and I had no crystal ball. So I watched his actions. Here are twelve ways to tell if your husband is really in recovery.
1. He is attending sex addiction 12-step meetings without you having to remind him. For those who live in areas without support groups for sex addicts, online options are available. Our recommendation is at least twice a week unless he is also involved in another recovery group, such as a therapist-led group, men’s church group, or Celebrate Recovery. At least one weekly meeting should be face-to-face if it is an option in your area.
2. He has a sponsor and accountability partners. Some men see meetings as a way to check a box to say they are doing what they are supposed to, or to appease you. An addict who is doing real recovery will actively seek out a sponsor and accountability partners who he will communicate with regularly. In our experience, finding a sponsor usually shouldn’t take longer than one or two months. He should be communicating with his sponsor and accountability partners throughout the week.
3. He is “working the program.” This means he is actively working the steps with his sponsor. He should be willing to share with you, in general terms, what step he is on and how it is going. Twelve-steppers like to say, “Come early and stay late.” The opposite of addiction isn’t sobriety. It is connection. An important part of recovery is learning to connect with others in healthy ways.
4. He is working with a sex addiction counselor, finances permitting. Recovery can be done without counseling, but it will be much more difficult. If the money is truly not there, an extra weekly group or meeting can be a substitute. But if he is using money as an excuse not to go to counseling, but plays golf every weekend, he’s not taking recovery seriously.
5. He is gradually becoming more patient and empathetic with you. You should also be seeing increasing patience with the kids and others.
6. He is making you a priority over others, such as his parents, colleagues, or peers. This means defending you and choosing you first whenever it’s realistic.
7. He is taking steps to help you feel safe. Examples of this are giving you free access to his phone, all passwords, social media, and bank accounts, as well as keeping his phone location services turned on.
8. He is gradually becoming more open, honest, and vulnerable with you and in all areas of his life. He is no longer purposely manipulating or gaslighting. Living a life of authenticity can take time for someone who doesn’t even know what this looks like.
9. He is learning how to set boundaries. This includes boundaries for himself such as not going out to lunch or being alone with other women. Additionally, boundaries with his parents and family of origin should be set so that they do not play a larger role in his recovery and your marriage than you both are comfortable with. Also, he should be learning to gently set boundaries with you about his need for sleep, breaks, time-outs, and downtime so he can be in the best possible place to succeed in recovery.
10. He is willing to read the article “What Every Wife of a Sex Addict Has the Right to Know” with an open mind.
11. He is willing to do a therapeutic disclosure with polygraph. Secrets fuel shame and shame fuels addiction. Working with qualified sex addiction counselors who will guide you both in this clinical process helps remove the secrets from your marriage. This allows for the development of trust, intimacy, and forgiveness over time.
12. Finally, he encourages you, without pressuring, to find support, regardless of the cost or inconvenience to him. He is willing to watch the kids and care for the home in order for you to attend counseling, support groups, and do other good self-care activities. An example of good self-care is this upcoming retreat for wives of sex addicts, led by counselors who are both partners of sex addicts themselves and who are extensively trained in treating partners of sex addicts.
A popular expression in the 12-step community is “progress not perfection.” Your husband will still make mistakes as he tries to make the biggest changes he’s ever made in his life. Many of these things do not come naturally to addicts and he will need a learning curve. He will become defensive at times and get frustrated. But you can expect faithfulness (no more porn or inappropriate interactions with others), serious motivation for recovery, and to be treated with respect. If you aren’t seeing this, it is okay for you to set a boundary that you need to see this happening in order to stay in the relationship. Be ready to follow through with an in or out of house separation if he refuses.
Visit www.comfortchristiancounseling.com for information about an intensive couple’s program that includes a therapeutic disclosure with polygraph, that will help your husband understand how to succeed in recovery and how to support you as you heal from the trauma of his addiction.