In this article I will use the terms wife or she for the betrayed spouse because that is the focus of my work. However, the information applies regardless of whether the betrayer was the husband or wife.
Several years ago I had a client come see me about her second husband’s sex addiction. Her first husband, she explained, had died suddenly of a heart attack at age 45 while out jogging. The shock and grief at that time had felt unbearable. Years passed and she remarried. Now, she told me, as she was coming to grips with her husband’s addiction, she was experiencing pain beyond that of the first loss.
I often compare sexual betrayal in marriage to death. Many betrayed partners have told me it would have hurt less to learn their spouse had died than to discover his double life full of sexual secrets. I remember having this same sentiment after the discovery of my husband’s sexual addiction. In fact, in the days following discovery, it felt like my husband had died. I did not know this man in my house. The man I loved was long gone. At least that’s how I felt at the time. Unlike most widows, however, I had to come to grips with the fact that my husband hadn’t been robbed of life in a freak car accident or sudden heart attack. Rather, he’d chosen his demise over and over and over again. Over and over he’d chosen another woman above me.
The Better Question: How can I help her heal?
Ask any counselor how long it takes for a person to heal from a death. Without exception, they’ll tell you it is different for everyone. But press a little harder and you may get more information. A death that is a shock is harder to get through than when the loved one had been sick a long time. The first year is the hardest. You will never get over the death of a loved one, but you can get through it.
Many sex addicts want to know when their wife will get over the discovery of their addiction. To them I say, you are asking the wrong question. Many even want a guarantee that their spouse will stay if they get into recovery. No such guarantee exists. Instead you should be asking, how can I help her heal?
I’ll borrow from William Harvey’s concept of a “Love Bank,” except here let’s call it a healing bank. How can you help your betrayed partner heal more quickly by making deposits in her healing bank?
First, let me promise you two things. 1) This is possible. And 2) this will take far longer than you’d like.
Stop acting out.
If you aren’t ready to stop watching porn, having affairs, sleeping with prostitutes, or whatever your sexual drug of choice is, you’re reading the wrong article. Every time you act out again you withdraw from the healing bank and the healing time-table doesn’t only start over, it gets longer.
When your partner sees you doing the hard work of recovery they will begin to feel cautiously hopeful. The more effort you put in, the more you will show that this is important to you. This isn’t about marking off a check-list. Went to a meeting. Check. Saw my counselor. Check. Met with my sponsor. Check. Your heart will show through in all this.
If your spouse has to ask if you went to your meeting or remind you to schedule a session with your counselor, you’re not making any deposits in the healing bank. Don’t check boxes. Work the program.
Just last week I had an addict tell me during their first couple’s session, “I know I am the one who caused my wife’s pain, but her dad died when she was young and she had a rough childhood and I feel that is part of why she is so emotional.” Sound like a run-on sentence? That’s because it is. It should have stopped at, “I am the one who caused my wife’s pain.” That statement adds to the healing bank. Add the next part and you’ll go in the red real fast.
Your wife will be devastated by your sexual betrayal no matter what her childhood was like. It can seem to alleviate some of your guilt by explaining away her pain through her own “stuff.” That’s one reason this is such a popular tactic. Would you bring up a person’s past trauma or adverse childhood experiences if they wanted to talk to you about their intense sorrow over the death of their spouse? Of course not. It wouldn’t even cross your mind. So don’t bring it up here.
Shut up and listen.
When your spouse starts to express her feelings about your betrayal–her anger, heartache, fears–it can feel like an attack on you. Maybe it is. Maybe it’s just a need to get out all the muck she’s carrying around inside of her. Either way, it feels overwhelming for you.
You probably want to quickly “fix” her pain and stop the helpless feeling you are experiencing. This can cause you to feel tempted to tell her why she shouldn’t feel what she is feeling. While it may not be your intention, by jumping in to remind her of the good times, tell her she shouldn’t feel threatened by those you betrayed her with, point out all the good things you are doing, or tell her she’s overreacting, you are trying to shut down her feelings. I promise you this won’t work. This will only intensify her feelings, whether she tries to stuff them down (only works temporarily) or rages even more.
The only way she can heal is to be allowed a safe space to vent her agonizing emotions. And the only way the marriage will heal is for you to provide that safe space by listening and simply being present with her. In the long run, choosing this course of action will make your life much easier.
Practice rigorous honesty.
Wives, without exception, say it is the secrets and lies that hurt the most. It can seem so much easier to say what you think your wife wants to hear in the moment. But good addiction recovery involves living a life of authenticity. “We are only as sick as our secrets.” Every lie, no matter how big or small, is a secret. In the long run, the truth comes out and your healing bank is completely depleted. Telling the truth about the tough stuff (“Were you looking at her?” “Was she pretty?” “Did you click on that link”), while hurtful, is especially important and one of the best ways to earn trust.
Another way to practice rigorous honesty is to voluntarily give your wife full access to your phone, devices, location services, accounts, etc. Humble yourself and avoid even the appearance of evil by showing her you have nothing to hide. Agreeing to do a full disclosure with a polygraph will make a huge deposit into your wife’s healing bank.
Take care of you.
I don’t envy sex addicts who are trying to save their marriage. You’re wading through shame, LFT (low frustration tolerance), and your own demons, while simultaneously trying to support your wife though hers. I don’t envy you having to live with the knowledge that you caused her pain. Still, you must learn how to sit with your wife in that pain while not allowing her moods to dictate yours. You can still hold on to hope, even if she can’t feel it yet. In fact it’s crucial that you do so, while not pressuring her to feel hope, or any other emotion, before she is ready.
This is really beyond any one person. Please don’t try and do this alone. That said, your wife can’t be your support right now. Rather, use the guys in your group to vent to. Use your sponsor to talk through what you are experiencing. They aren’t the ones to go to for marriage advice, but they can be there for you as sounding boards and to share what they have learned about how to handle the stress of recovery. Use your counselor as well. And remember, it’s okay to ask for breaks when your wife is venting. Make sure she knows you’ll come back to her shortly… and follow through with that. Taking breaks to pray, practice deep breathing exercises, call someone, or taking a short walk will increase your capacity to be present with your wife.
Keep persevering. Healing is possible.
Today, I am beyond grateful that I am not a widow. As promised, what the enemy intended for evil, God used for good. My husband wasn’t perfect, but once his sexual addiction was revealed to me, he did follow the steps I outlined above. Some of it was from receiving some excellent guidance from others God led him to. And some of it he figured out on his own.
As I did, your wife will question your motivation for every deposit you make in her healing bank. You will feel frustrated and overwhelmed and you’ll have moments when you wonder if it’s even worth it. Instead of trying to convince her that she is wrong to be doubting you, show her through consistency of actions you’re worth trusting. This requires lots of time and patience. But even if your wife is too afraid to believe it, she will in time notice what you are doing. And if you can remain consistent with the above, while showing her what I call the big three (patience, empathy, and humility), you will begin to see evidence of your increasing balance in her healing bank.
For more information on helping your wife heal, I recommend the book Worthy of Her Trust by Jason Martinkus.