Steve came into our counseling office because he had a secret world of pornography, masturbation and there was probably more that he wasn’t admitting to. He got caught for the third time by his wife. He came to the first counseling session with one major question on his mind. No, it wasn’t, “How do I stop this behavior for the rest of my life?” He didn’t ask, “How do I stop hurting the people I love?” His question was, “Should I tell my wife the truth and what should I tell her in the future if something else happens?”
I want to answer this question, but before I do, let me introduce myself. I am Douglas Weiss, Ph.D. I am the President of the American Association for Sex Addiction Therapy, author or more than 20 books on sexual addiction recovery, a regular national media guest on this subject and have counseled sex addicts and their wives for more than 20 years. So, I come at this question with more than two decades of experience.
Surprisingly, over the years I have heard counselors advising clients not to tell their wives anything they haven’t already discussed and that they are to work their own recovery and are not to be accountable to their wife.
Steve’s question needs to be looked at from a couple of perspectives. Firstly, who gets to decide and why? Does the husband who is viewing pornography or who has cheated on his wife decide on who to tell? We know all addictions rob addicts of emotional, spiritual and moral maturity. So why does the one who has the least maturity and the longest record of bad choices get to make this choice?
Does the therapist get to decide? Is the therapist risking anything here other than a client coming back for the next session?
The wife, however, could be risking her life (AIDS or other STDs) if he is lying about cheating in the past, present or future. She is taking the emotional, sexual and financial risks now and in the future. Often she is also writing the check to keep their marriage together and in most cases is more mature than the addict at the time.
In my opinion, it is the wife’s prerogative to decide how much general information about the past or present she should to know. That is why in my office, during a 3 Day Intensive, the addict has the opportunity to take a polygraph to clarify the past and to measure future recovery. During the first year, most sex addicts are rarely mature enough to stop lying without ongoing polygraphs.
Note, earlier I said general information and that would include how much, what, how many times and when was the last time. Details to the wife about specific behaviors can be really dangerous and the consequences of knowing every detail should be considered with a professional. My experience is that most women know the truth through their intuition, they just don’t have the facts.
One thing I have learned for sure is, what a man protects, he loves. If he’s protecting the secrets or the addiction then who is protecting the innocent wife? The men I have seen successfully recover are the ones that kill the secrets and the addiction and protect their wife.
Another issue I have with secrets is when men have had a secret sexual life with themselves or others and now also want a secret recovery with their group, therapist or accountability person.
Yes, he should be accountable to another man for his thoughts and actions in sexual recovery. However, I believe it’s the wife’s choice to decide as far as knowledge of his recovery or relapse behaviors. If she doesn’t want to know about any future porn, masturbation or cheating then he can honor this. However, most women do want to know about behaviors like porn, masturbation, flirting, grooming, visiting sex establishments or sex acts with other people. If she wants to know, I believe he owes that level of honesty to the woman who is trying to stick around while he is recovering.
Reporting in for every inappropriate thought is accountability more for the guys to hear. All that can be overwhelming for a wife and rarely have I seen where telling every thought to the wife works for either person in the relationship.
Telling the truth is the cornerstone of all twelve step recovery. A man who lives with secrets makes his recovery harder for himself, his wife and his marriage. Based on my professional experience, a man who has a system for continuing to keep secrets is much more likely to relapse.
So for me, it’s a both/and, not an either/or, proposition. He can be accountable to his group, therapist or accountability person, however he can also be honest with his wife. It’s good for his wife to know if his accountability to his group includes consequences that he has designed for himself in case he relapses.
I recommend that couples, facing pornography or sexual addiction recovery, schedule a weekly or every other week recovery meeting between themselves. This keeps them both in the loop on what each is learning and doing in their personal recovery. This also prevents them from being bombarded by questions every day about the past or recovery progress.
When sex addiction impacts a couple, they do best when both are being honest, working recovery and working recovery disciplines within the marriage as well. In my experience, those that took the path of secrecy at their first go at recovery usually regret it.
The men who are brutally honest about their past and present do better in the long run. They go forward with no more shame and actually build respect from their wife and for their future recovery.