When you catch your husband using porn, what kind of therapy is most likely to help?

I know so many people wind up at this blog because of trauma in their marriages, especially a husband’s porn use (and it’s usually the husband, although many women struggle with porn, too.) But as I’ve been talking about on the blog this year, sometimes the counseling we receive isn’t the most helpful. Recently, in the comments section after our kerfuffle about whether or not a wife could be blamed for her husband’s affair, Lori Pyatt and her husband Jay left some great comments. In talking about the book How God Used the Other Woman (which said that healing from your husband’s affair required seeing your own role in it), Lori commented with this:


 

I haven’t read the book, so it could be that the title is just a way to grab attention to sell more books, but if the message of the book is that the spouse of the cheater is at fault, hmmm…

To me, this could be extended to the line of thinking that says, “If your adult child sins in a way that really harms others, it’s your fault as parents.”

To which I always think, “But if God is that kid’s parent too, does this mean God’s at fault?”

Of course not. But right along with the spouse who got cheated on, He is the cheater’s spouse too.

If the message of the book is solidly that the one cheated on is to blame in most cases, that’s called the Codependent Model.

And the Codependent Model flies in the face of the Betrayal Trauma Model. (Which in my experience is light-years quicker than the “codependent” approach in healing the spouse/couple after betrayal… we’re talking months compared to decades!)

If that’s the approach the book uses, I’m concerned it would do what’s called, “Treatment Induced Trauma” to those who trust Focus on the Family [who published the book].

It also begs the question: Could it serve as a green-light to those who are, like my husband was, ‘an affair waiting to happen’?

Personally, early after my husband confessed to his near-affairs, I felt tremendous GUILT.

But instead of allowing that to keep me frozen this time around, I brought that mindset to God… several times.

What I heard in response:
‘Everyone has to account for their own sin.’

I thought that was so interesting, so I invited Lori to join us today to explain why some therapy frameworks are better than others:


 

A woman’s husband had a secret porn addiction, so she gets rid of his smartphone to help him in his sobriety.

Another woman checks her husband’s email after she found out he cheated on her.

A third woman changes the bank account password because her husband was sneaking around with prostitutes again.

These situations share some things in common.
They all involve husbands violating the marriage covenant. They all involve some form of lying.
And they all can be healed. But from what I’ve seen, the usual approach to healing isn’t always that effective.

Before we start: A word about betrayal

If you’ve been betrayed, I first want to say I really wish that hadn’t happened to you. It can be completely devastating, and my heart goes out to you as I write this. Betrayal can cause understandable triggers, so if at any time you feel judged by this article, please read the ***Disclaimer*** at the bottom.

For now just know I write from the standpoint where the man has betrayed the woman because that’s what happened to the ladies I help… and because it’s what happened in my own marriage.

Personally: How I experienced the betrayal of a husband’s porn use

My husband, Jay, told me he was fighting his porn addiction and his desire for other women… then he lied to me every night for four years. He was so good at lying, I started congratulating him on his sobriety.

After he confessed, my days became a blur of confusion, anger, and gut-wrenching pain. My marriage was a smoldering heap of ruins—smoking ashes where I thought it once stood. If he’d told me he wanted to continue pursuing porn and other women, I’d have had to make a decision. But he never said that.

And while he seemed sincere about wanting to repair the damage, he’d also blame-shift and explode, so knowing what to do was unclear.

One thing is clear: I used one approach for fifteen years, but what healed me was another.

Two Approaches to Dealing with Betrayal in Marriage

I know of two frameworks to help women after betrayal: the Codependent Approach and the Betrayal Trauma Approach.

The Codependent approach is used in 12-Step groups and many counseling offices, and in certain contexts it works. It can help relationships with co-workers, parents, in-laws, siblings, and friends by:

  • Allowing us to set boundaries and adopt new roles in relationships.
  • Showing us we can do something about painful situations.

But if it’s misapplied it can keep betrayed women spinning their wheels… sometimes for decades.

The Basics of the Codependency Model

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary says codependency is “a dependence on the needs of another or control by another.” Twelve-Step groups initially defined it this way:

“If you need the addict to stay addicted so you feel you’re doing something important, it means you’re codependent.”

In 1992, researcher Beth La Poire said it’s nurturing the addict after he’s exhibited hurtful behavior… that the addict’s behavior is ultimately pleasant to the codependent, often because it gives the codependent an identity, either or being needed or of being a martyr.

Where the Codependency Model Can Do more Harm than Good

The codependency framework taught us an important lesson:
You cannot control the behavior of another person.
You can only control yourself.

But some people have taken this lesson too far, and misapplied it, misinterpreting a betrayed woman’s actions, taking natural reactions and calling them wrong.

The codependency lens can all too easily label any attempt to change the offender’s actions as signifying that you are emotionally needy and emotionally enmeshed with the offender.

This can look like, “You’re trying to fix him! You’re trying to control him! You’re too enmeshed!” Or even, “you need to let go and let God!”

We saw a bit of this debate in Sheila’s articles about who is to blame when a spouse has an affair. Some were saying that to insist that a spouse repent first before working on the relationship was trying to control him, or, in essence, being codependent. I believe that’s an all-too-common misapplication of the term.

Melody Beattie explains in her latest book, The New Codependency, that when the phrase was first used it was a relief. It helped spouses of addicts know they weren’t going crazy; they were just codependent. But over time the term became stigmatized… and today it often carries more shame than the spouse’s addiction.

It’s one thing for a woman to enable an addict to feel a sense of purpose. But wanting to control the amount of pain that comes into her life—especially when she hopes to keep the relationship—is something else entirely.

That sort of thing always seemed normal to me, not “sick.” It’s more akin to setting healthy boundaries.

Turns out the experts agree.

In The New Codependency, Beattie gives an example of a young man who lived with his mom and had a tendency to drive drunk. His mom asked him to stop, but he continued. She asked for the keys. He refused. So she sent his license plates to a friend.

Some might call that codependent behavior, because she’s trying to control him.

The author didn’t. I don’t either. I see it as a mother who wants to do what she can to keep her son alive—a woman who wants to live without regrets.

It’s the same thing with a woman who wants to keep her relationship alive after betrayal. Her actions might seem codependent, since they’re trying to change behavior.

But what if setting boundaries is actually the right thing to do? And what if telling her she’s wrong to want to do so can actually exacerbate the trauma she’s feeling?

A Better Approach: Acknowledging the Trauma of Betrayal

The Trauma approach for betrayal is a newer method used by some therapists, coaches and mentors. I adhere to it because it’s clear, concise and effective, and tends to allow faster and deeper healing, even after betrayal. It’s worked wonders in the couples we work with, so let’s start with the fundamentals.

Betrayal Trauma Approach: The Basics

We have three responses built into our nervous systems that are designed to trigger automatically when threatened: communication, fight, or flight. When people feel threatened or unsafe, whether emotionally or physically, for a long-enough period of time, they can become traumatized. They’re in that heightened state of fight or flight for so long that it takes a toll.

Can betrayal feel that unsafe? Yes.
Therapists in my training reported that 70-98% of their betrayed patients have clinical signs of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder stemming from the betrayal.

Can a man’s porn use do this? Yes.
A number of therapists said their clients whose husbands are porn addicts are just as devastated as the women whose husbands have had affairs.

How does this betrayal approach work?
First it addresses the betrayal, helping her stabilize, mourn, and set boundaries. Only then does it works on the relationship. According to trauma researchers, hindering normal responses to betrayal is what can turn a threatening situation into a traumatic one. If a woman is heard, if she can fight or flee the situation, then she becomes stronger. And if her efforts are supported by others, her sense of community strengthens as well. But shutting those responses down can increase her panic, simply because she no longer has a say in what’s happening to her. Addressing the betrayal as betrayal helps prevent any more trauma and deal with what is at hand.

Does it work? Yes.
The quick turn around happens because it focuses on the issues at hand:

  • Her pain is real
  • She may have been traumatized,
  • Any trauma has to be addressed if she is going to heal
  • And until it’s addressed the relationship will have difficulty healing deeply.

Are actions of self-preservation after betrayal sick or healthy?

According to many doctors and researchers, instead of being “sick,” a betrayed wife’s reactions to her husband’s betrayal by setting boundaries can show she previously formed a healthy bond with her spouse. She’s trying to limit the trauma so she can get back to that. She’s not trying to control him.

Daniel Siegel, a doctor who’s spent years researching how we attach to one another, mentioned this in a training:

Expecting loyalty—and expecting to be heard after injury—indicates a secure, healthy attachment.

Because our attachments are directly affected by betrayal, some things that seem codependent just aren’t; they’re healthy expectations.

The betrayal trauma lens sees attempts to limit on offender’s behavior or respond to an offender’s behaviour as natural attempts to overcome the traumatic incident and return to a secure, healthy attachment.

Does Focusing on Trauma Make Everyone Feel Like a “Victim”?

While that is a possibility, what I’ve seen is this: When women realize something serious is happening to them, they become much more motivated to make real and lasting change.

The Different Messages between the Two Therapy Lenses

When the Codependent message is applied in a judgmental way (as indicated by C below), its messages can differ wildly from the Trauma approach (T):

The woman who sends her husband’s phone to a friend might be called controlling (C), or her actions can be called understandable (T).

The woman who checked the emails of her adulterous husband may be told to figure out what she did to cause the affair (C), or she can be told, “When you’re with someone who has a history of lying to you, checking behavior is normal for a time.” (T).

The woman who changed the bank passwords because her husband visited prostitutes again might be told, “You’re trying to fix him–all you can do is move on!” (C), or she can be treated gently until she is ready to move on (T).

How to Support Someone Dealing with Betrayal

What I’ve seen is this:
Helping her understand the impact the betrayal had on her, being careful with her healing, and letting her have a say in her situation supports her well. And it can help her create the relationship she wants with the man… even if she doesn’t want to stay.

If you were trying to stop the pain of betrayal, and someone gave you unsolicited advice by calling you codependent, wouldn’t their trying to ‘fix’ you mean they were being codependent… by their very own definition of the term?

If this is the case, nothing says you have to listen to them.
If someone in the helping community told you something similar, it’s still okay to realize your actions are probably normal.

If you’re not sure about your actions, here are some guidelines:

If you’re doing things just to be controlling, that may be codependent behavior.
If you’re doing things to help him stay addicted, that may be codependent behavior. 

But…
If you’re doing things to help him reach his goals, that’s normal.
If you’re doing things to keep him from hurting himself—or you—that’s normal.

And…

If you’re tired of how certain behaviors have dominated your life, it’s time to seek help.

If you want to continue your own healing journey, download the free guide 7 Tools Women Rarely Find or contact me. (If your husband needs help with sobriety or rebuilding trust, let me know.)

If you just want to know more about this issue, check out our YouTube Channel “The Couple Cure” (Season 2 is dedicated to the issue of betrayal recovery.)

 And overall please remember this:

As long your actions don’t turn into long-term obsessions, they might just be proof of health.

***Disclaimer***
I am all about validating betrayed women’s pain, so if you had to leave the relationship, please know I don’t judge you. That’s between you and God.   I also believe that those in the helping community do the best they can with what they have at the time.
So I don’t judge them either.

Lori Pyatt has been married for 24 years to her husband Jay. She’s a Certified Mentor for partners and couples, and Founder of PornPainHealed.com. -She and her husband write and create podcasts & videos to help people recover after betrayal.

Lori’s specialty is helping wives get further faster in their healing and calling husbands higher without shutting them down.

Jay (PornIsKillingMe.com) has been 80% successful in helping his mentoring clients find sobriety.

Together they’ve been able to save 90% of the relationships in their 2-to-2 Mentoring Program for couples.

Approaches to Betrayal Trauma Marriage Counseling

What do you think? Have you ever been told that trying to set boundaries is unhealthy? Or that trying to prevent another crisis is unhealthy? Do you recognize your experience in one of these models? Let’s talk in the comments!

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