A few years ago, I had an article featured in this publication entitled, Why I Happily Agreed to Marry an Addict. It chronicled the experience I had dating and eventually marrying someone who had openly admitted to me when we were still just friends that he struggled with pornography addiction. READ THAT ARTICLE HERE.
The response to that article was varied. A few people reached out to me in private, thanking me for addressing something that they so rarely see addressed anywhere else and one person even asked whether I would come give some kind of presentation to a group about it, which I politely declined. The public comments though, were largely much less encouraging. Many were from betrayed spouses and people clearly in pain. Some were long explanations of why it was doomed to fail and one simply said, “Good Luck.”
The comment I remember the most, I can’t find now. Because the article was published on several different sites and shared by them on various platforms, it must’ve fallen through the cracks. Or maybe it is buried in some social media archive. It said, “He’s going to relapse.”
I read that, having been married under a year and very steeped in newlywed bliss, and felt so irritated by it. Something about it struck me as a condescending attempt to point out my naivety, but it also bothered me that she felt the need to point out what I already knew—that I married someone who wasn’t going to be perfect for the rest of our lives. I ranted at her in my head that I knew that, I wasn’t dumb. I was probably going to make mistakes too, probably going to promise my husband and the Lord that I’d do better at micromanaging or reacting angrily over small things, and then I’d inevitably make those same mistakes again. We all struggle with chronic imperfection. We’re all going to relapse.
That said, I didn’t know what it would feel like when it actually happened.
For the first two years of our marriage, my husband enjoyed the kind of sobriety he hadn’t had his since his mission. I loved not having this issue on the forefront of my mind anymore. Loved enjoying the kind of connectedness that comes with beginning to build a life with someone, made sweeter by brushing aside one of the things that had the greatest potential to keep a distance between us.
Honestly, I can’t remember the circumstances surrounding the first relapse of our marriage. He has a job that has him out of town occasionally—it only happens when we’re apart—and true to the rules we kept when we were dating, he told me within 24 hours of the incident. I don’t remember the exact details of that particular sinking feeling, because every incident since then has had its own sinking feeling until they’ve been rolled into one, frustrating, helpless, hamster-wheel of a blur of sinking feelings.
His particular struggle may be, by some people’s measurements, fairly minor. He only struggles every couple of months or so and most of the time only sees what slips through the phone and computer filters. But the persistence of the temptation and the lack of control he feels in those moments leaves him feeling like the road to leaving this behind forever is not straightforward, nor does it seem to have an obvious endpoint.
It’s an ongoing journey, but it’s one I’m walking with him.
We’re coming up on our fifth anniversary. Nearly enough years to actually say I know something about the experience of being married and can’t immediately be dismissed as someone who will know better once I get out of the honeymoon stage. We’ve had more years of struggle with this issue than we had of freedom from it. But I still don’t regret the choice I made in uniting my life to the life of this man.
Here are some of the things I’ve learned; the painful, the raw, the hopeful, and the still-working-through-it conclusions I’ve come to:
He Wants to Get Away from This Even More Than I Want Him To
People who don’t understand the brain chemistry or the nature of addiction often think, “If you really wanted to be done with this enough, you’d just stop.” It’s a thought I’ve had myself a time or two. But one night, I had an experience that reminded me that it just isn’t that simple. I came home from something, I don’t remember what, and found the house was empty. I wasn’t sure where my husband could be, the car was still in the driveway.
Moments later, I got a text that said, “can you come pick me up?” He told me he’d begun to feel that darkness pulling at him. Began to feel his mind sliding down towards the part of the slope that he can’t clamor back up until he’s hit rock bottom. Not knowing what else to do, he’d grabbed a bike and fled as far and as fast as he could.
It was late at night and he didn’t have enough energy to go further or get home. He texted me the address of a park several miles away.
I drove out to find him. The park and its parking lot were vacant. When I found him, he quietly loaded his bike into the back of the car, avoiding my eye contact. When he finally looked up, I put my arms around him and he just burst into heaving sobs. This from a man I’ve rarely if ever seen even tear up in all of the years I have known him. He shook and continued to wet my shoulders with his tears for a long time. There was nowhere he could run that would be far enough or fast enough to get away from this, but he couldn’t help but try. Now he was spent, and still not free.
Sometimes when I think that I’m just sick of this, and is this going to be my life forever? I remember that he’s felt those same things, only deeper and for much longer than I have. It doesn’t mean my feelings are invalid, but it helps to remember that if I’m sick of this, he truly knows what that feels like.
I’m Allowed to Feel Hurt or Angry or Sad or Numb
While intimately familiar with the helplessness of addiction though, he doesn’t know exactly what I’m feeling as a partner. He doesn’t know the extra degree of helplessness that comes when you’re not even the one with the addiction, but you still have to deal with the consequences.
I’ve often been torn between trying to respond lovingly so that I am not a source of shame and so that he continues to feel safe always being honest with me, and allowing myself to feel angry or sad or frustrated or fed up or whatever I’m really feeling so that I don’t end up with a mountain of buried emotions that is liable to turn out to be a volcano at some hazardous, future date. If I am crying myself to sleep next to him in bed, do I let him hear it?
He’s told me repeatedly that I should feel what I feel and not to be protective of him. For a while, I wondered if it was somehow my job to punish him with my reaction. Like if I didn’t seem angry enough, maybe he’d think it was no big deal to do it again. I’ve since learned that when you are experiencing all of the anguish of a damned soul, and you know it—when you can feel that what you have done is widening the chasm between you and the Lord and all that he has for you—you don’t have to be reminded that it was wrong by some demonstration of someone else’s emotion.
I know not every member of the Church that struggles with pornography feels that way about it, but my husband’s personal godly sorrow about this struggle is even deeper than mine. He needs no reminder that it’s a heartbreaking situation and we need a permanent and positive solution.
So, my getting to have emotionally honest responses are for me and for the health of our relationship. I don’t have to use my disappointment as a weapon or a nagging reminder, but I’m allowed to feel and sort through what I need to feel.
Transparency Continues to Be the Crucial Ingredient
My husband’s honesty from the very beginning is the only thing that makes our relationship still so healthy and successful despite this considerable thorn in its side. As I mentioned in the original article, he called and told me about his struggle before we ever entered into a dating relationship and insisted on coming completely clean about the full extent of his past issues before we seriously approached the possibility of marriage.
He is always completely honest with me about what has happened and when. And to those sceptics who just immediately thought, “how do you know he’s not lying?” I would say, because if he was going to lie at all, he would make his situation look better than it does. And besides, this man is somebody who can’t even abide dishonesty in movies. When someone lies about their family, profession, wealth, relationship, status, or name in a movie—even if it’s just for the sake of comedic conflict—he can’t handle it. He will literally yell at the screen, “just tell the truth!” It has basically ruined romantic comedies for me.
But that commitment to transparency is what everything else depends on. If you are someone struggling with pornography and you haven’t told your partner because you believe you’re protecting them from pain, believe me, the pain of deception will make whatever you have to tell ten thousand times more painful.
I Have a Powerful Position in Lending Him Light
Too often, women think they have the power to save a man from himself. Or they are severely mistreated by someone and believe they’ll be the one to change him. I want to make it clear that none of what I have to say on this is meant to imply that. I don’t have a savior complex about this person or this relationship. But marriage, especially in the context of an eternal journey you are taking together, means at times you will have lend each other a little of your light. A borrowed, warm, directional glow to point each other towards hope—and towards the Savior, who is the source of all true hope.
He’s been a light for me so many times when I needed it. Whether it’s bringing home a favorite treat when he knows I need a lift, or walking all around the neighborhood with me while I was in labor because walking was the only thing that felt better, or telling me how much he believes in and supports the things I’m trying to pursue professionally. He lends me his light all of the time.
But sometimes, he’s out of light to lend and needs to borrow some of mine. He’s often told me that when he feels hopeless about ever making progress in his recovery, just holding me helps him to believe that he’s going to be ok and that triumph is not only possible, but probable. Sometimes he just needs me to tell him all the goodness I see in him; needs me to clean off his proverbial glasses so he can see his own potential the way the Lord and I do.
Sometime he needs just a boost, other times I feel like Gandalf single handedly standing between him and his enormous, fiery demons yelling “you shall not pass.” Either way, I’ve come to learn that I am in a position of power in his fight and I have to be loving and deliberate (and brave) with how I use it.
This is Still His Journey and I Can’t Force Him to Get There Any Faster
That said, this isn’t my addiction to beat. I wish I had the power to intercede and control the outcomes, but I don’t. I wish I could be the key and just reach into my back pocket and pull out the silver bullet solution, but I can’t. It is an ongoing battle of trial and error and two steps forward and one step back. He is doing what he knows how to do and seeking help and accountability wherever he can and sometimes I am a source of that help, and sometimes he needs a professional, and sometimes he needs time. All the time, he needs the Savior and we’re still learning all that it takes to access the powers of heaven in his behalf to help in a problem that is rarely solved overnight.
I dream of the day that I can make a big, beautiful cake for an occasion only we know to celebrate—10 years porn free. Only hopefully by then, it would be so far in the past that we stopped counting. Hopefully by then, the memories of the struggle will be distant and dusty; only called upon to have specialized empathy and be helpful to others further back on the path. Hopefully by then, instead of calling this new life we have “porn free”, we’ll just be able to call it “happiness, uninterrupted”.
But that day can only come as fast as it will come. You can’t have a 10 year clean streak tomorrow, it will take 10 years. The days will only pass after 24 hours each, the years don’t count up without 365 days of effort. And even though I crave the time in our lives when this is no longer even a blip on the radar, I’m unwilling to skip the 10 years of dear memories and growth and learning I will get on the way there.
In fact, sometimes when I’m wishing this could just get magicked out of our lives, I get the distinct impression that I haven’t been refined in the way this particular struggle is meant to refine me yet. I know deep down that this will take nothing less than the best and most spiritually mature and advanced versions of the two of us to beat, and I’m not sure I’m doing all that I can to be that version of myself yet.
It’s like someone that attends a performance by a renowned concert pianist and says to themselves, “I wish I could play like that”. Yet wishing did not make it so for that performer; hard work, long hours, and persistent playing through bad notes and difficult rhythms made it so they could “play like that”.
As I said, this isn’t my personal addiction to overcome, but my husband is in my stewardship and I am in his and so it is something I am entitled to heavenly guidance about. Only I think I only vaguely keep an ear out for the voice of the Lord. I don’t think I have yet put in the hard work, long hours, and persistent praying through bad days and difficult relapses that it will take to be able to “hear like that”.
A Grace Too Powerful to Name
Many people across America spent some evening of their July 4 weekend watching the stage production of Hamilton that was released on Disney+. I hadn’t heard much of the music beforehand and didn’t know quite what to anticipate. I thought it would be mostly clever raps that wink at you with the crafty way they weave historic language into modern tempos and structures. I didn’t expect the second half to be a redemption story that left me continuously in tears.
My favorite song was one that involved Eliza and Alexander Hamilton sorting through their grief and their marital conflicts and ultimately, she reaches out and takes his hand calling upon “a grace too powerful to name” and offering her forgiveness. The ensemble quietly sings, “Can you imagine?” in the background.
That number in the musical is stunning. And that “grace too powerful to name” actually has a name. It’s the atonement—that acknowledgement that we are all debtors that owe more than we can ever pay and forgiving each other along the mortal road that is so hard on everyone that takes it, is the least we can do.
That’s a departure from the expectations of the society we live in. Our culture doesn’t welcome complicated people. Social media is quick to condemn and slow to forget. TV hosts lose jobs over something they tweeted 11 years ago. People want to be able to reduce things down to their meme length quip and then dismiss them. We’re not very culturally encouraging of redemption, but as Christians, redemption is the bedrock of our purpose in this life. We have to believe in it and we have acknowledge that we don’t get to choose what problem is too hard for Christ to solve.
From this article, it might seem that the road to addiction recovery has been the main preoccupation of the last five years of my marriage. It hasn’t. When I reflect on what our marriage has felt like and meant to me, this struggle—frustrating though it may be—is not at the forefront.
I found a partner to face the storms of life with and though this particular storm comes back and has to be faced again and again and we’re very ready to be done with it, we also get to face lots of sunshine and warm shorelines and refreshing breezes together. It’s the golden, wonderful non-storm things that define my experience. When I look across the kitchen and see him concocting something delicious for us for dinner, I think, “he takes such good care of me”. When I hear the exuberant, thrilled way our toddler calls out to him when he comes in from work, I think, “I’m so glad I made a little person that loves my husband as much as I do.”
Though it might be the storms that are responsible for how tightly we are holding on to each other, I don’t see our life as a stormy one or this man as someone who leaves me constantly in the rain. He’s got something he’s struggling with. I have things I struggle with. That’s life. That’s marriage. I am in no way trying to downplay the seriousness of pornography or its potential to devastate the lives of those it affects. For some people, addiction involves a parting of the ways, I’m not saying it never should.
But five years of marriage has taught me about that “grace too powerful to name” and I stand by the choice I made that put me on the path to learn these lessons. I stand by the person I married and I know we are both getting better with time.