Every Monday I like to post a Reader Question and try to take a stab at answering it. With the Christmas holidays approaching and extended family being more on our minds, I thought this sad one would be an important one to answer. What do you do if you catch your dad watching porn (or another married relative)?
My reader writes:
I’m in my mid-twenties and still living at home while I finish up graduate school. I’m very blessed to have parents who are willing to support me financially while I pursue my career goals. But I have a HUGE problem: two years ago I walked in on my dad watching porn while my mom was at her weekly women’s bible study. In the two years since, I have walked in on or came close to walking in on him watching porn several times so I know this is a regular occurrence. I believe that God has allowed me to discover this about him. My dad has acted like nothing has changed between us, and I think that is because he has convinced himself that I did not actually see anything. There are times that he is colder towards me or dismissive and angry. He has verbally abused me on a few occasions and yelled at me for being a “petulant child” then the next minute swings back into his normal temperate state like nothing was even said. He has never treated me like this when my mom is around, and no one else in my family knows what he is like behind closed doors. Either my mom has no idea that he watches porn or has convinced herself that there is nothing that she can do about it. She has counseled me that porn use is an automatic no in a dating relationship (my dad was in the room when she said this-awkward few minutes for me).
I really need advice on what to do. I really do not want to see my dad in sinful bondage like this, but I am fearful because I am financially dependent on my parents allowing me to stay at home. I have debated and prayed and asked for advice on whether or not to confront my dad. I want him to get help, I want my parents to have a real, healthy marriage. But I have no idea how to go about that as an adult daughter still at home. There are lines that I am afraid to even toe for fear of retribution. I’ll be honest, I am very uncomfortable living in my own home and spend most of my time shut up in my room. I need advice on something, anything I can do to try and help make this situation bearable. Keeping my dad’s secret is exhausting, not just the porn use, but his verbal treatment of me at times.
This is a really hard situation, and I want to raise just a few issues which could help people make decisions about what to do in a case like this.
You Are Not Responsible for Keeping Someone’s Marriage Together
No one is responsible for anyone’s marriage other than our own. Yes, we need to support our friends’ marriages, but that doesn’t mean that if we rock the boat and the marriage falls apart we are somehow to blame.
If something falls apart because of truth, then that something wasn’t really together in the first place. Look, what you want is for your parents (or other relatives in other cases) to have a good marriage. A good marriage is one that honors God. And Jesus said that He was the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Jesus is the Truth, and Jesus is in the Truth. We should never flee from the truth.
And if you really are the thing holding a marriage together (like if you telling a secret would break up a marriage) then that marriage wasn’t really together in the first place. Our aim should be for truth and God. God works when things are brought to light, not when things are hidden and when people refuse to address issues and work on them. Hiding things is lying. Often family tries to suck us in to agree with a big “family lie”, but that isn’t your role and it isn’t right. The Truth is what is right, and don’t ever let someone else convince you otherwise.
Secrets Eat at a Family
Secrets get replicated. What happens in one generation often gets passed on to the next, even if it’s never explicitly talked about. A woman marries a man who cheats, and even though the kids never specifically know that he cheats, somehow they all pick similar people to marry. These patterns repeat.
I once knew something about a young man at our church that I knew the parents would want to know. I went through a bit of a crisis of conscience, wondering if it was really my place to get involved. Is it honestly my business? But it came back to this: If someone knew something like that about my child, I would want to be told. And so how could I not tell his parents? They had the chance to do something about it if they knew; by not sharing the secret I wasn’t actually helping him or helping my friends (his parents). I was just allowing him to engage in really damaging behaviour under the radar.
In this case, her father is engaged in really dangerous behaviour. That sinful porn addiction is also likely responsible for the verbal abuse and the cavalier attitude about other things. Porn affects all aspects of our lives. I believe it needs to be told, either to her mom or to a pastor or to somebody, but it is absolutely not fair that she be put in a position where she feels like she has to keep a secret. That’s too big a burden to put on someone.
If you’re the one dealing with this, though, one word of caution: you may tell your mom and she may choose to do nothing. That is her choice. But you have now given her a choice, and that’s important, in and of itself. Now you can let go of it.
We All Need a Support System
Find some mentors that you can tell these things to–not a whole lot of people, but some, who can pray for you before you disclose the secret and who can pray for you as you try to live in this environment. You can’t carry this all by yourself anymore.
We Need a Safe Place to Live
Here’s another thing that’s so important to realize: we all need a safe place to live. So many studies have been written about the effects of living in a toxic environment. If you are putting up with verbal abuse and lies because you need to save money, you still are likely paying too high a cost.
Toxic people hurt you. They give you a negative outlook on life. They wreck your self-esteem. They make you pessimistic and sad. That’s not a good combination.
Sometimes Life Involves Risk
Disclosing your dad’s porn use is risky; you may not be able to live at your parents’ house anymore. But often doing the right thing is also doing the risky thing. The reason so many of us live miserable lives is because we choose to live with the secrets rather than rocking the boat. And when we do that we limit what God can do.
God really can do amazing things, but He tends to do those things when we open ourselves up, make ourselves vulnerable, and stop trying to protect ourselves.
And that may mean not just disclosing a secret, but also moving out.
And it doesn’t have to be that expensive! A female grad student who stays in her room on wifi? Do you know how great a tenant that is? My mom rented out a room to a college student a few years ago really inexpensively. If you’re prepared to just take a room in someone’s home, you can often find an older woman or an older couple who just needs a little more income and who has a spare room. Sometimes someone in your church, if you let the need be known, may do it for free to help you get on your feet. It’s not like you necessarily have to rent a whole apartment.
The unknown is scary, but when we step there, God opens doors.
One More Thing: Porn is Not Inevitable
This woman’s mom said that porn is inevitable in a dating relationship. She’s right, it is inevitable–IF you date people who use porn and IF you tolerate it. Whatever you tolerate will continue.
Most teens will be exposed to porn (which is why it’s so important to protect the gadgets in your home! See here for a special 2-month free offer from Covenant Eyes). But while many teens will be tempted (including girls) not all will become habitual users. And if they are habitual porn users, that needs to be dealt with before an engagement or marriage–but it absolutely CAN be defeated.
People say porn is inevitable because it gives them an “out”–if their significant other uses porn, and they haven’t wanted to rock the boat for fear of losing that person, they likely justified it to themselves by saying, “everyone uses it”. But it’s not true.
If, in your circle of friends, everybody uses it and no one is struggling to stop, then you need a new circle of friends. Porn isn’t inevitable, porn can be defeated, and many, many people are fighting for pure marriages.
So those are my thoughts for this poor woman, but I know that there are many of you in the same position–people who caught their brother-in-law using porn, or their married brother, or an uncle, or whoever. Let me leave you with one last thought: what if your sister-in-law (or whoever the spouse is) has been struggling under this burden of her husband’s porn use? What if she has thought it was hopeless? What if she has convinced herself there is nothing she can do, and she feels so alone and so dirty? And then you come to her and say, “no, this is not acceptable. You’re right to be upset.” You actually free her from the trap that she’s built for herself. You’ve spoken truth into a web of lies, and it’s amazing how one word of truth can often turn a situation around. Maybe she’s hurting, and she needs the strength to do something about it. Maybe you’re the kick in the pants, the reality check, the support she needs.
Now, I’d love to know: have you ever been in a situation where you caught a relative using porn? Or did you have secrets in your family? What did you do? Let’s talk in the comments and encourage each other!