From early in their relationship, a couple shared a profound bond. When they were dating he “let her in” more than he had anyone else ever before. As she came to know the person he was inside, she saw his heart and it won her over. She sensed deeply that she’d always be safe with him. Her guard came down and she came to trust him implicitly, without reservation.
The discovery of his pornography habit is so piercing, so disorienting that it rocks the emotional foundation she has been building for years. Some of her worst doubts, bitterest anger, shakiest trust are directed inward: how could she have missed the signs of something so important? How could she have been that poor of a judge when it came to this degree of devotion and fidelity? What she felt between them was as real as anything had ever been in her life. Now it feels like she’s in a funhouse with the moving ground and distorted mirrors. Will she ever be able to trust him, or her own judgment and sensibilities, again?
Husband Equally Disoriented
Her husband finds himself equally disoriented. This is the most important person in his life, the woman he esteems most highly and would give his life to protect. To see her so devastated takes his breath away. To know that she’s hurting because of something he’s done feels unbearable.
His own distress makes it hard for him to draw close to her in the way she needs him to right now. It makes it hard to keep hearing about her pain. Reflexively, he pulls away to give her space, hoping that the raging storm will pass, praying that her feelings will calm, and that somehow, maybe, over time, things can be good between them again. Unfortunately, that’s exactly the opposite of what she needs.
Their relationship heals as he resists the reflex to give her space, and instead runs into the burning building of her distress. He helps her begin to heal by wanting to hear about the dark moments in the middle of the day when they’re apart and her mind starts to play tricks. Their relationship continues to heal when he remains with her when she’s angry instead of retreating. Likewise, when she needs her space, he waits in the next room instead of leaving the house for the afternoon.
Accept Fluctuating Emotions
He remembers that she’s still hurting even when she acts like everything’s okay. He honors her reactions to sexual content on TV, in a movie or on the news. He hangs in there through her suspicions and accusations. He comes to understand that she’s been traumatized and the world she thought she knew has disintegrated. He comes to accept that she will be haunted by images of what he’s done and what she imagines he might be capable of doing. She can’t help but keep sorting through scenarios and seeing him in those images. She’s trying to decide who he really is: the man she thought she knew or a very different one.
Ways to Heal
There are lots of ways he helps her heal. He asks if she wants a hug when she starts crying out of the blue. He keeps offering his support even though he knows that some days she will reject it. He accepts that some of the deepest wounds are reopened when they reenter the realm of sexual intimacy. He respects how hard it can be for her even if she wants to feel the closeness that sex can bring. He honors her need to call the shots and readjust her boundaries according to how she’s doing emotionally.
He has compassion for her inconsistency. One day she really is fine and feels like they’re putting it all behind them … the next day it is right there in her face again, as fresh and large as it was the day she learned about his pornography habit. He realizes that she’s not playing games, holding it over his head or nursing her resentment. This is a genuine struggle for her, perhaps the most challenging of her life, and she’s no more of an expert through this terrain than he is.
Something happens inside of her as she witnesses his patient persistence, and then keeps experiencing it over and over. As they look deep into each other’s eyes again and again, as he lets her see what’s going on in his soul. Through the process of working through this problem, it is reaffirmed to her in an undeniable way: the man he truly is inside is the very one with the heart she thought she knew. Whatever role that sexual struggle played in his life, it is not as important as she is. She sees him invest his all in healing their relationship, and that makes it clear to her.
Something important happens inside for him during this process as well. As he lets himself absorb her pain his empathy expands. As he realizes what he stands to lose his caring for her increases. Her sensibilities about the sanctity of sex heighten his own. It’s not that he’s externalizing his conscience, but internalizing how sexuality impacts her. He grows into the man he knows she needs him to be.
Your Healing Journey
How is the journey of healing going for you and your spouse? Husbands and wives: what are you learning along the way? What have been your low points and high points? Right now, are you stuck in a seemingly hopeless valley or looking out from a particularly inspiring peak? Tell us about it! We need to hear it, and you may benefit from sharing it. May your efforts to heal bring a strong bond and draw you closer than you ever have been before.
© 2013 Mark Chamberlain