Restoring trust in a relationship damaged by infidelity and other selfish sexual behavior can seem overwhelmingly impossible at times. The chasm created between husband and wife by pornography and affairs often seems like a bottomless canyon that extends beyond the horizon. Separated by this expansive pit of pain and mistrust, we find ourselves surrounded by loneliness, self-loathing, indescribable heartache and despair.
Yet, as we grope around in the darkness for our bearings, trying not to slip over the edge into the deep abyss, the truth remains that we're not alone. Unlike many of the people in our lives, God hasn't given up on us. He still sees a beloved child in need of rescue. And unlike us, God has always been and will always be worthy of our trust. So when Jesus tells us in Matthew 6 that God will provide all that we truly need, we can believe it.
Too often, though, sex addicts are buried so deeply in the shame of their actions that they simply can't see this truth. Life coach Jason Martinkus describes it this way in his book, "Worthy of Her Trust:"
"In the shameful wake of their disclosure of a sexual failure (or, more commonly, being found out), many men can't muster the courage to look beyond the carnage of the present and glimpse the horizon of what could be a hopeful future. If these men could only see that trust building is possible. If only a man could see that someday his wife would risk her heart with him again. Someday it would be possible that she'd have more respect and adoration for him than ever before."
Instead of hitting the eject button on your marriage, I urge you to latch on to this hope and trust God to provide what you need to survive, day by day. Slowly, He will begin providing the tools needed to build the first few steps of a bridge that can lead to restoration with our spouse. But even if it doesn't, even if our spouse decides to never trust again, we can know that we're becoming a person worthy of trust. We can know that we're becoming a person we actually like. We can know that true freedom awaits on the other side of the canyon.
How do we build this bridge between an addict who is earnestly seeking recovery and a partner who is likely frozen in fear, boiling in anger and drowning in pain?
Validation, he said, is "noticing and affirming that a person's thoughts, feelings, needs or opinions are valid and that you care enough to keep listening even when you disagree and before you might provide your own thoughts or perspectives." On a practical level, validation looks like this:
"I can see how you'd feel afraid based on what you just said."
"That sounds overwhelming."
"That makes sense."
"I hear you. I'm glad you told me."
"I can understand how you would be feeling those things since that was your experience of what happened."
One key to practicing validation with your spouse is remembering why you're listening. Drs. Bill and Ginger Bercaw sum this up well in their book "The Couple's Guide to Intimacy."
"You are respectfully listening so that you may know your spouse better. You are mindful that you are not listening so that you can respond defensively. You recognize that your spouse's reality need not become your reality. You try to appreciate that your spouse is engaging in an act of intimacy by sharing his/her truth with you, even if it is very different from your perspective."
Validation sounds simple enough, but most people who struggle with unwanted sexual behavior have been wrapped in a fog of self-centeredness so thick that it annihilates their ability to recognize, much less validate, another person's feelings. They simply can't see the pain they're causing their partner.
Instead, addicts manipulate their spouse's emotions in order to meet their own needs. They make their spouse feel crazy by causing her/him to doubt their intuition that something about this relationship isn't right. They gaslight the betrayed partner into believing they are responsible for problems in the marriage instead of the addict's selfish sexual betrayal. Once the truth is revealed, these past manipulations make it very hard for a betrayed partner to trust themselves or the person who betrayed them. That's why it's so important for an addict to take ownership of how they've manipulated their loved ones and begin validating the betrayed partner's feelings.
Once in recovery, addicts have to learn the skill of creating emotional safety for their partner because everyone needs to feel safe before they can be vulnerable. This safety comes as the couple works to become mutually approachable, respects their differences and listens with the intent to understand instead of react.
Here are 10 basic behaviors that Avila, the author of "40 Forms of Intimacy," suggests an addict and partner can practice throughout their recovery journey to help make emotional safety the new normal in their relationship.
Sharing Appreciation: A simple "thank you" and a verbal affirmation of something positive you see in your partner goes a long, long way toward creating a safe environment for emotional intimacy. If you have trouble verbalizing gratitude, consider this model: "Thank you for _________. When you ________, I feel __________, and that helps me feel more hope, peace and closer to you."
Attunement: This is the ability to recognize, understand and engage with another person's emotions and needs. In what practical way can you attend to your partner's needs today?
Communication Skills: Learn how to listen without interrupting, reflect back what your partner just told you, validate how they feel and empathize with their pain. Mastering these four skills will revolutionize your relationship.
Honesty: No one feels safe with a liar. So stop lying! Be rigorously honest about the smallest details of everyday life and your spouse will notice. A quick warning about honesty: Being brutally honest with your spouse about the nitty-gritty details of your acting out will likely create additional triggers and do more harm than good. It's vitally important that your spouse knows the full extent of your acting out, because that's the only way they can possibly fully forgive you in the future, but that doesn't mean they need to know the exact locations where you acted out or detailed descriptions of the pornography you found arousing. Instead, practice being "tactfully transparent" with your partner.
Love: At this point in the game, it's probably best to find very practical ways to express your love. Have you washed the dishes lately? Or volunteered to clean the bathroom? Maybe you can deny yourself and let your partner choose the restaurant or the movie? Whatever it is, show that you care by making a personal sacrifice.
Respect: The partner of a sex addict has been deeply wounded by betrayal trauma. Show her/him respect by honoring the timing, pace and processing of her/his own recovery.
Safety: If your spouse is worried about you slamming down your hand, raising your voice, cussing, name calling, rolling your eyes or threatening violence, the game is over. Be approachable and safe rather than reactive, avoidant or critical.
Serving: How can you genuinely and not manipulatively help and meet the needs of your partner?
Sharing: Proactively share your thoughts and feelings as a way to invite your partner into sharing his/her process of recovery.
Values: Choosing each day to live in a way that is consistent with your value system brings stability and safety for your partner.
Not sure how to start building your bridge? I'd love to help coach you to the other side of the canyon. You can set up a free breakthrough session with me right now using the form below. Radical freedom awaits!