Accountability plays a critical role in healthy marriages. However, it’s not always clear what that role should be. What is accountability in marriage, and how is it supposed to work? Should husbands and wives be accountable to one another? What does effective accountability in marriage look like?
These are important questions to ask, especially when confronting marital challenges like pornography. Here are six important things to know about accountability in marriage!
1. What is accountability in marriage?
First, the word “accountability” is used in many different ways, so we need to stop and make sure we understand accountability in marriage.
Here’s the definition I like to use: Accountability is giving an account, according to a clear standard, in the context of a particular relationship.
Let’s break that down into three parts.
Giving an Account
The most basic part of “accountability” is “giving an account.” It means telling, or at least being willing to tell, what you did or didn’t do. In marriage, what kinds of things do you need to give an account for?
At Covenant Eyes, where our mission is to help people overcome porn, this last area is our focus. Accountability for computers and mobile devices is critical for marriages. Why is this? Because technology has become the most popular way to access porn, and porn wreaks havoc on countless marriages.
In a 2004 report to Congress, Dr. Jill Manning shared that in her research over 56% of divorce cases involved one party having an obsessive interest in pornographic websites. There has been some debate over how accurate this statistic is–but even if it were a factor in only 25% of divorces–with 782,038 divorces in 2018, that’s 195,509 marriages that ended at least in part because of porn.
Not only that, but recovery experts recognize that accountability is critical to the process of overcoming porn. Dr. Mark Laaser said, “To achieve true change, a person must be accountable to others to make that change.”1
Others in the world of porn recovery agree. Dr. Doug Weiss says that telling another person about your problem and having a friend to keep you on track are essential.
According to a Clear Standard
It’s important that husbands and wives discuss their expectations for accountability. If there are no agreed-upon standards, then accountability can quickly become meaningless. For Christian couples, the standard for the accountability relationship is the Bible. But whether Christian or not, it’s important that couples communicate their expectations about accountability standards.
Likewise, when another ally is brought in for accountability for a particular area, such as a struggle with porn, it’s important that the expected standards are clearly communicated. For example, if a wife is concerned about her husband looking at swimsuit models, it’s important they discuss this and communicate their respective expectations.
In the Context of a Relationship
Outside of our relationship with God, marriage is the most important relationship we can have with another person. The Bible says it’s actually a picture of the relationship between Jesus and the Church (Ephesians 5:32).
In 1 Corinthians 7, the Apostle Paul instructs couples that their bodies belong to one another. This indicates a high level of built-in accountability between marriage partners, particularly for things like sex and porn!
However, the accountability relationship between a husband and wife is often adversarial when it comes to porn. There’s a lot on the line here, so couples can benefit tremendously by seeking other accountability outside the marriage relationship.
2. Why can accountability in marriage be tense?
Why is accountability in marriage so often fraught with tension? It’s because there are at least two forms of accountability. We’ll call them “police officer” accountability and peer accountability.
“Police officer” accountability is the threat of consequences for actions. The IRS threatens to audit people who don’t file their taxes. A boss might threaten to fire an employee who doesn’t work hard enough. A spouse might threaten to leave if they catch you looking at porn again.
This can be effective in some cases. It can help the more cautious types among us to avoid problematic or risky behaviors. It may keep a spouse away from porn sites that could threaten the peace of their marriage.
However, the threat of consequences alone rarely helps someone who is already trapped in problematic behaviors. At Covenant Eyes, we’ve assisted many men and women who have already faced consequences in their marriages for looking at porn, and yet they haven’t been able to overcome this unwanted behavior. One man who had destroyed his marriage with porn later recounted, “For most people, this would have been enough of a wake-up call to consider getting help. I did consider it… but continued to look at pornography, digging in deeper.”
The threat of consequences alone isn’t enough—especially when technology seems to offer free and anonymous access to porn.
Rather than the accountability police, we need another form of accountability: allies. We need peers to come alongside us and help us in the fight. An ally keeps you accountable, not by adding more threats or consequences, but through friendship, encouragement, and honest truth-speaking.
One implication of ally accountability is that the person being held accountable actually wants it. They’re not just trying to avoid getting caught—they are genuinely pursuing life change. It also means they’re taking responsibility for their own life, accepting the consequences of their actions, and taking a proactive step.
3. Should you be your spouse’s accountability partner?
We’ve already seen how accountability is an important aspect of marriage that touches many areas: time, goals, money, relationships, and technology. Certainly, accountability for looking at porn is a critical part of this.
A healthy marriage requires open and honest communication and mutual trust about things like porn. So, the big question for many people is this: should you be your spouse’s accountability partner?
Counselor Beth Denison offers “6 Things to Consider Before Becoming Your Spouse’s Ally.” In her list she includes these questions:
- What’s your motivation? If you’re just looking to police their behavior, it may cause more harm than good.
- Where are you at in your own healing journey? If you’re dealing with betrayal trauma or your own struggles with porn or other problematic behaviors, you may not be ready to take on this role.
- Do you have a good support system? As a spouse, you’re going to need help and encouragement for yourself as you try to be an ally!
For more details and the final three things on Beth’s list, check out her post at the link above!
The bottom line is, to be an effective accountability partner, you need to be an ally. If you’re still experiencing grief and pain because of your spouse’s behavior, being an ally may be too difficult or hurtful for you.
Make an honest assessment of your situation, and don’t be afraid to seek outside help if you need it!
4. What does an effective marriage accountability plan look like?
An effective marriage accountability plan takes into consideration the specific dynamics of your marriage. The goal should be better communication with deeper honesty and trust. If the goal is to catch your husband or wife doing something they shouldn’t, it’s going to cause more harm than good!
Get safeguards for the pertinent areas of accountability. For example, if you’re being held accountable for how you use your technology, install Covenant Eyes on your computers and smartphones and have the reports sent to your ally.
Perhaps the most important aspect of the accountability plan is the person (or people!) chosen as an ally. Here are some guidelines for choosing allies, based on our ebook Porn and Your Husband. (They apply equally to men and women).
- Do you both trust this person?
- Does this person share your religious/personal values?
- Is this person in a similar life stage?
- Will this person encourage your spouse to change and grow?
- Will your spouse actually listen to this person?
- Will this person ask the tough questions (e.g. “How often have you struggled with lust this week?” “What led you to look at porn?”)?
- Would this person be willing to let you know about major issues if necessary?
5. What are some good accountability questions?
Accountability is going to look different depending on your marriage and what the accountability is for. However, these accountability questions are valuable whether or not you are your spouse’s ally.
Would you consider a therapeutic full disclosure?
This can be especially helpful if you’re trying to reverse long-standard behaviors or patterns of dishonesty.
Ask your spouse to go to a professional counselor for a guided therapeutic disclosure. If there have been past patterns of dishonesty or secrecy, particularly regarding porn, this can be extremely beneficial.
Who (else) is keeping you accountable?
Ask your spouse to seek out counseling, a support group, or an accountability group. There are groups for all kinds of things, ranging from substance addictions to financial or health accountability. You may wish to seek out a similar support group for yourself.
Can you tell me about your progress?
Ask your spouse to tell you about the steps they are taking to recover or make progress toward their goals. Some questions you might ask:
- What is the format of the group you are attending?
- What do people talk about?
- Are you building any good friendships in the process?
- What do you and your therapist/counselor talk about?
- What are your triggers?
- How do you manage them?
Are you avoiding triggers and temptations?
Ask your spouse to avoid triggers and patterns that may open the door to temptation. For instance, avoiding overnight traveling and getting in the habit of going to bed at the same time can both remove a lot of temptation!
6. Can you celebrate their victories?
Lastly, it’s important to celebrate your spouse’s progress. Too often, accountability is only viewed from a negative perspective: Did you mess up? This is understandable when a spouse has been deeply wounded by a husband or wife’s porn use.
However, only focusing on the negative quickly becomes discouraging. If one slip-up outweighs six months of progress, it can undermine a person’s motivation very quickly. For examples of celebrating progress, check out our Victory Week Stories.
Mark Laaser, The 7 Principles of Highly Accountable Men (Kansas City, MO: Beacon Hill Press, 2011), 7.