When I first wrote Sacred Influence in 2004, pornography got a few paragraphs. When I rewrote Sacred Influence to become Loving Him Well (just released), a wife dealing with her husband’s pornography became an entire chapter. In fact, it is now the longest chapter in the book. The rise of high-speed Internet access has transformed the way men access and engage with pornography. It hasn’t just changed its accessibility, however. It’s heightened the neurological and relational damage.
Since the entire chapter is almost eight thousand words long, I can’t include all of it or even half of it as a blog post. But I would like to discuss one of the main issues—how a wife initially responds to her husband’s use—and will refer you to the book Loving Him Well if you think this might be an issue in your marriage.
While the overwhelming majority of men have some history with pornography, and while it’s safe to say most men still feel tempted or even nervous about it, it’s also a legitimate and realistic desire for a wife to be married to a man who doesn’t look at pornography. That’s not asking too much. We shouldn’t accept something just because it’s common.
The experts I talked to when researching for this book had a few disagreements about the best way to handle this. Some counselors suggest the wife just step back and say, “You created this problem, you go do the work and fix it. I’m not your mom and I’m not going to get involved.” Others suggested that the wife can play a key role in repentance and restoration. Part of this depends both on the makeup of the wife and the state of the marriage relationship. I’m not sure there’s a right or wrong answer here.
Most all of the experts agreed, however, that the wife’s initial response to her husband’s use is crucial and that’s what I want to focus on with this post. A too-soft response could lead to re-occurrence, or the husband not taking the struggle seriously enough. A too-harsh response could lead the husband to shame and to start hiding, eventually making the problem worse (this isn’t to blame the wife for making the problem worse; it’s just explaining what sometimes happens).
Why Should You Care?
Pornography can literally rewire a man’s brain, making it difficult, if not impossible, for him to be completely sexually satisfied (or sometimes even aroused) by his wife. Pornography works on the neurological trigger of offering something new. If a man sees a familiar video or picture, he’ll usually click right over it. It’s “used up.” It’s the “something new” that titillates him.
You can quickly see how this is the antithesis of marriage, where a person finds full satisfaction in their spouse over the course of a lifetime. The same God-ordained sexual desire that can knit a man’s soul to his wife can get diverted to create a lust for women in general rather than desire for his wife in particular.
A man who is sexually faithful to his wife is training his mind (with the release of oxytocin) whenever they are sexually intimate to find his wife more attractive than all other women. We cultivate sexual appetite every bit as much as we cultivate a taste for certain foods. A man who is mentally promiscuous is literally training his mind to find other women more attractive than his wife.
So no, this isn’t something for a wife to just accept or get over.
Let’s be clear at the outset: your husband’s porn use is not about you, though it may feel that way. It was never about you. Most men who struggle with porn become users long before they meet their wives. Your husband’s continued use of porn after marriage is not your fault. It is not a reflection on your beauty or body. It is not about whether you have gained weight or about how well you perform in the bedroom. It is not about your desirability. It is, first and foremost, about your husband’s addiction or bad habits. You cannot and should not own this, and it is not on you to deliver your husband from it.
In fact, if your husband is not motivated by God and self, there is nothing you can do to deliver him. I offer plenty of advice in Loving Him Well for wives married to men who are motivated to change, but if your husband is not motivated to change, you may need to respond as if he is having an affair, not just an addiction. When porn use replaces sexual intimacy with a wife, it is an affair.
Robert started looking at porn when as a young teen he discovered magazines at his uncle’s house. That led to high-speed-internet porn and a lifelong struggle. When Sandy found out her husband had gone back to porn, she was firm and told him, “It’s me or the porn. You can’t have both.”
Sandy may not have realized it at the time, but she initiated a textbook-perfect conversation with her husband.
Sandy had made it clear to Robert before they got married that porn use wouldn’t be tolerated. Robert said he wanted to give it up, but after the wedding, Sandy had her suspicions. When Robert left his computer signed on to his Amazon account, she checked his past history and saw the videos.
“I told you I wouldn’t tolerate this,” she said, “and I’m not going to.”
After dealing with the relational issue, Sandy stressed the spiritual angle. This wasn’t just about their marriage; it was about Robert’s relationship with God. She showed empathy and understanding about his past and the unfortunate way he was introduced to porn. It’s not a fair fight for a twelve-year-old boy to be told, “Click on this button and you can see what a naked woman looks like.” The curiosity is so high that few boys resist and for some of them, the rush is so intense that it unleashes a lifelong battle they never asked for. A little empathy here can go a long way. This isn’t an easy temptation to deal with, and many boys never went looking for it in the first place.
On the other hand, Sandy went past mere empathy to make it clear again, in case there was any doubt, “You will lose me if you continue doing this.”
She didn’t shame Robert. She demonstrated compassion. But she wasn’t so soft that he thought he could have both her and porn. That’s not easy to do, but that’s usually the best response.
My good friend Dr. Steve Wilke told me that one of the most important things a wife can do in situations like Sandy’s is to be strong and ensure “healthy boundaries” but he adds that at a certain stage couples need to be “open and accountable for qualified counsel.” In other words, some couples can’t “fix” this on their own.”
Steve says, “She needs to be like Deborah, Rahab, or Ruth— the kind of woman who will look at her man and say, ‘No mas!’ Too often, spouses don’t appreciate the severity of the situation they find themselves in, and they end up perpetuating the problem instead of resolving it.” He adds, “These circumstances are serious and should be treated as you would any serious illness, with the same time and energy put into finding the best clinical care possible. If you want your marriage to survive, you have to commit to actively engaging in a treatment plan.”
Steve’s son, Dr. Ryan Wilke, a physician certified by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology, explains the current understanding of the biological and psychological components of addiction, including pornography. “Addiction is more than just bad behavior and poor judgment. The brain registers all pleasurable experiences in the same way— whether it’s from enjoyable music, a walk with your spouse, or behavior necessary for survival, like eating and sexual activity (which can be healthy or pathological), as well as from intoxicating chemicals. The result of repeated exposure to intoxicating substances or behaviors is a conditioned response driven by the memories in your brain from repeated exposure.
“Eventually, this newly acquired brain pathway overrides our logical and rational mind. In essence, through habituation, addicts become slaves to a master they themselves created. This is a major reason addicts seemingly can’t just stop their behavior.”
Both of the Wilkes believe this is best represented in Romans 1. They explain, “When choices are made that are contrary to God’s original plan for our lives, as biological science demonstrates, what was a choice is now less so. God is a gentleman, and he allows us free will to make our own choices. But if we persist in making poor ones, eventually he steps back and makes way for the consequences of our free will. At that point, we’re no longer entirely free; we’ve become slaves.”
The reality of ignoring God’s consistent warnings is that our rebellious choices eventually shape our minds into rebellious brains. This is why a wife can’t afford to be weak or passive in the face of such a challenge. Dr. Steve Wilke explains, “She’s going to have to balance her fear of what has taken place in her life with her need to be strong in her marriage and for her children.”
The reason you want to get control of this addiction as soon as possible is that the longer it goes on, the more it will affect your husband’s brain. The good news is that following abstinence, the brain appears to begin to heal— but neuroscientists don’t yet know how much it heals. It may never go back to the pre- addiction phase. But it certainly can get better.
Recovery specialists are fond of saying that “recovery involves relapse” meaning that expecting immediate “perfect” and unbroken obedience isn’t likely. Dr. Steve Wilke agrees but adds, “Guys with stronger wives tend to have more positive outcomes.” In other words, if a man thinks you’ll go easy on him, he may try to find out how much you’re willing to tolerate to manipulate you. Dr. Wilke says, “When a wife says to her husband, ‘If you touch anybody or look at that stuff again, then I’m gone— and I’m going to tell everybody who asks me exactly why I left you,’ well, guys who get that speech have a better chance at a positive outcome.”
A sex addict helped me understand his need to learn to distinguish between urges, habits, and addictions. These are three different things. When the word addiction is used too loosely, it can make men feel they have a pass, as if they are not able to control themselves. Many husbands have strong urges; these can be overcome with resolve. Others may have bad habits—these usually require self-imposed accountability and serious effort. When we slip into the addiction language as if the man has no power over his behavior (which is the definition of an addiction), he may be more likely to just accept it and excuse giving in to urges or bad habits.
This requires professional care and diagnosis. Since porn often starts in pre- or early adolescence, some husbands will need to seek professional, board- certified help at the highest level. Second Baptist has a board- certified counselor I refer guys to who suffer from a long- standing addiction. Most of us pastors aren’t trained to understand the brain science behind breaking what has become a neurological addiction.
I know that I may have simply raised more questions than answers, but that’s the limitation of a blog. I do believe that the extended chapter in Loving Him Well offers some of the best summary steps wives can take, so without wanting to sound like a shameless huckster, I’ll refer you to that.
Regarding the comments on this post (and the inevitable emails): I’m not trained to treat a man/couple struggling with an addiction. Please don’t ask me to help you fix this situation in your marriage. It’s above my pay grade. I can interview experts and neurologists and counsellors, and I can search the Scriptures to offer general advice, as I do here and in the book. But I can’t in a blog comment or email reply “treat” a marriage that is mired in this problem. That would be malpractice. We won’t post such comments and I won’t be able to reply to such emails.