“My husband is the sex addict; why should I feel shame?” For most healthy outsiders, the logical answer is, “You shouldn’t.” But for most spouses of sex addicts, the feeling of shame clings to us like a body suit. Shame can result from an overwhelming assault on our self-worth. It strikes at the core of our being, leaving the imprinted message, “There is something wrong with me.” Brene Brown said, “Shame is the most powerful, master emotion. It’s the fear that we’re not good enough.”
One of the primary principles for spousal recovery is the truth that we did not cause our spouse’s addiction, we can’t control it, nor can we cure it. I remember reading that for the first time and feeling a tremendous sense of relief. But if this is true, why do we still feel such crippling shame, and how do we overcome it?
We feel shame because of self-blame.
Self-blame causes the spouse of a sex addict to feel shame. Despite reading and hearing that it is not personal and has nothing to do with us, the mind has a difficult time overruling the excruciatingly painful emotions of the heart.
Nothing feels more personal than the intimate betrayal of infidelity. And few things make less sense than the insanity of sexual addiction. In our search for a logical explanation for our spouse’s acting out, believing we caused it often seems more reasonable.
We feel shame because of control.
Another reason that we feel such shame revolves around the subject of control. The need for a sense of control is common to the human condition.
The idea that we did not cause our spouse’s acting out is a two-edged sword. The shame results from us feeling like we caused the rejection. If we believe we are the cause of the rejection, then we have the power to cause them to accept us. But to release that concept takes the control out of our hands, leaving us feeling helpless and vulnerable. Subconsciously, we choose shame over vulnerability.
We feel shame because we believe the lies.
Anaïs Nin said, “Shame is the lie someone told you about yourself.” We often feel shame when we believe the false message that comes from our spouse–either verbally or as a result of their actions–that we aren’t enough. We feel that if we were pretty or sexy enough, smart enough, or worthy of love, they wouldn’t have acted out. This becomes a continuous loop in our minds, fueling the shame. Often this simply taps in to and amplifies some underlying insecurity that we already possess.
We feel shame because of isolation.
The secrecy that this particular addiction thrives upon also leads to shame. When we uncover our spouse’s private world, we rarely feel comfortable sharing that discovery with others. The tendency is to withdraw, fearing judgement and feeling that no one could possibly believe or understand what we are going through. This leaves us suffering in isolation and reinforces the idea that we aren’t worthy of connection and relationship.
So how do we overcome shame’s powerful grip? Here are four ways I’ve found.
Surrender control to God.
Recognize that any control you think you have over your spouse’s addiction is merely an illusion. Instead of impacting him, it has shackled you to shame. And it hinders you from progressing in your own recovery.
Surrender that need for control to God. Trust him to work in the life of your spouse. Also trust him to provide for you and protect you in the areas where you feel weak and vulnerable. Becoming aware of what you can and cannot control is powerful. Make the Serenity Prayer a part of your everyday life.
Believe what God says about you.
Shame is fueled when you believe the lie that you are not worthy, based on another’s opinion of you. The Bible says you are created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27).
Write Psalm 139:14 on an index card: “I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.” Put it in a place where you will see it several times a day.
Nothing you can do will make God love you more and nothing you can do will make him love you less. Rest in the knowledge that the unconditional love that the perfect God of the universe has for you is infinitely more valuable than the opinion of any imperfect man.
Watch your self-talk.
We have no control over any negative things our addicted spouses may say about us in their attempts to excuse their poor choices, but we do have control over what we speak over ourselves.
Replace shame-inducing talk such as, “I’m such an idiot. How could I have been so blind?” with “Addicts are skillful liars, able to fool even the smartest people.” Instead of saying, “If I hadn’t gained weight, maybe my husband wouldn’t have looked to other women,” try “I am beautiful inside and out and I’m worthy of love and respect.”
Saying negative things about ourselves is usually a bad habit developed through the years. It will take time to retrain yourself and may feel awkward at first. Start each day looking in the mirror and speaking something positive about yourself. You will begin to see the shame fall away and will come to agree with God that you are pretty wonderful!
Connect with others.
One of the most difficult things I ever did after learning of my husband’s sex addiction was to walk into a support group for betrayed spouses. It also turned out to be one of the greatest blessings in my life. To hear others share similar stories soon made me feel less alone.
Brene Brown said, “Empathy’s the antidote to shame. The two most powerful words when we’re in a struggle: me too.” You are worthy of connection with others and you will find it to be an antidote to shame.
If you are the spouse of a sexually addicted person, don’t hang your head in shame. Psalm 3:3 says, “But you, Lord, are a shield around me, my glory, the One who lifts my head high.” Turn your face to God and allow him to lift your head. If you are struggling to find hope in the midst of your pain, we are here to help. There’s still hope.
Beth Denison, CLC, PRC, along with her husband, Mark, founded There’s Still Hope, a national sexual addiction recovery ministry. Beth works with ladies one-on-one and in groups as a trained life coach and an A.A.S.A.T. Certified Partner Recovery Coach. She brings the experience of being married to a sex addict for 35 years. She has been a faithful pastor’s wife, popular speaker, and women’s ministry leader. For help in your own healing journey, visit There’s Still Hope.