Can This Marriage Be Saved?
When I was a young boy, Ladies Home Journal carried a monthly feature, "Can This Marriage Be Saved?" (The fact that I was looking in this magazine might just say something about my early gender confusion). As I recall, the articles described some horrendous marital situation, and then went on to tell how it was worked out -- or not.
We find ourselves asking this question quite regularly in Regeneration. Because many of the same-sex attracted men who come to us, and almost all of the men with heterosexual addictions are married, dealing with marriages and trying to help wives is an important part of our ministry. As ministers we will always try to save marriages, but often we need to help wives whose husbands are involved in ongoing sexual sin to honestly assess their situations and rationally decide the course to be taken.
The bottom line, of course, is that each woman should do what God is calling her to do in her given situation. However, for the wife who is torn between wanting to escape from a terribly painful situation, and at the same time desperately wanting to preserve her marriage, this is far easier said than done.
God will speak to us in the context of the situation that we are experiencing. To rationally understand that situation can help us hear God more clearly. The purpose of this article is to help wives, particularly those in great emotional turmoil, to see their situation more clearly and to thereby to chart their course with God's help. If the article were to help some husbands gain insight into what their wives are going through and what their needs are, this would be a definite plus.
This article certainly addresses the wife of the sex addict, but it also speaks to the wife of any man who is engaging in repetitive sexual sin. I believe that sexual addiction is real. Sexual temptation releases chemicals in the brain, and in some people this appears to affect self-control in a way that is similar to that first drink for the alcoholic. But addiction is never a justification for sin, and only God is wise enough to judge whether a person is truly powerless or just self-indulgent. For purposes of this article, the distinction is not important. However, for ease of expression, I will refer to "the addict."
Most often an article like this would be written by a woman, a wife. We thought it might be helpful to have this article written by a man who clearly was a sex addict, but one who has had more than 25 years to gain some objectivity on the subject. Besides, much of the understanding reflected here comes from my wife, Willa, and her years of working with wives.
Here are 12 questions that the wife might ask herself as she prayerfully ponders her situation:
1. Does he want to change? This is a harder question than it first might appear because most addicts both hate and love their addiction. In the 10 years I was acting out homosexually while married, I hated what I was doing, but at the same time I didn't see how I could live without it. The important positive signs here would be, (1) he acknowledges what he is doing, (2) he believes it is wrong, and (3) he is making some efforts to stop it.
2. Does he love you? Wives are prone to say, "If he truly loved me, he wouldn't do these things." That's usually not true. His use of pornography, his anonymous homosexual encounters, his habitual use of prostitutes probably has nothing to do with you. These things are simply manifestations of his sickness. Look for signs of his love in other ways. Look for it in kindness, tenderness, thoughtfulness, and in his fulfilling his other obligations as your husband.
3. Is he having sex with other people, or is his addiction limited to pornography, masturbation and such? Jesus did say that to look on a woman with lust is the equivalent of adultery, so the sin of the pornography user may be as deep as that of the man acting out with another person. However, he may not be as far gone on the slide into deceit and decadence if he has not yet started to act out on his fantasies. If he is acting out with others, for your own protection from disease, you should stop having sex with him. Of course, this can place further pressures on the marriage.
4. Is his acting out with others solely sexual and not relational? Most of my sexual encounters were anonymous, but I was with one man a number of times and started to develop emotional feelings for him. Although I wasn't a Christian at the time and understood very little of what I was going through, somehow through God's incredible grace I knew that this would be a far deeper and deadly betrayal of Willa, and I broke off the relationship. If a husband is giving his heart, as well as his body, to another person, the situation is far worse.
5. Is he doing things to try and change? Is he seeing a counselor or attending a support group? Does he read books on sexual addiction? Maybe he hasn't made much progress, but his continuing to make visible efforts to change may show where his heart is.
6. Is he being honest with you? This is a critical point. Unfortunately, most men who are into habitual sexual sin are not honest with their wives. Fear and shame block honesty. If there is a power struggle in the marriage, he might fear that she will use knowledge of his failures as a club over his head. But regardless, a wife has the right to demand that her husband be honest. She has nothing to go on if he is not. This does not mean that she has to be his accountability partner or that she needs to know all of the gory details of his sins, but she does need to know generally where he is in his struggles. The marriage cannot be rebuilt unless he is honest.
7. Where is he spiritually? If he has turned from God and from the church because of guilt and shame, there is not much hope for the marriage. He has cut himself off from the means of grace, and real change is unlikely until there is a spiritual renewal.
8. Does he fulfill his other obligations as a husband and a father? If he does, then much of his life is together and his values are right, and this brings hope. Furthermore, you will be better able to live with this problem while it is being worked out. If his broader life is out of control or he is so narcissistic that he can't see your needs or the children's, much more needs to happen than his gaining control over his sexuality. In fact, most people need to get the fundamentals of life together -- holding a job, acting responsibly, overcoming other addictions -- before they are ready to deal with their sexual struggles.
9. Is the sexual relationship in your marriage satisfactory? Many sexually-addicted men have trouble with true intimacy. Pornography and masturbation can desensitize a man to a true, loving sexual relationship.
10. Are there problems in you that need to be dealt with? Nothing you do can be a justification for your husband's sexual sin, but marriages are seldom in trouble because of just one person's problem. However, we find that with the husband's sexual problem looming so large, many wives feel that if his sex problem were straightened out, everything would be just fine. It is seldom so. One reason why it may not be is that women who unknowingly marry homosexual or sexually-addicted men are often drawn to them because of some weakness or brokenness in themselves. A woman who has a fear of strong male sexuality may be drawn to the "gentleness" of a homosexual man. A woman who has difficulty in relating to someone unless she is taking care of him, the codependent, is drawn to a troubled man such as the sex addict.
11. What are the other problems in the marriage? This is similar to #10 above. Almost certainly his sexual problem is not the only problem in the marriage. What are the others? Do you need help in resolving them? Is he willing to go to a counselor? As other walls are broken down, as forgiveness and grace work in the marriage, as he comes to truly love you, healing may start to take place in him.
12. All things considered, is separation or divorce a better option than staying together and living with the problem? It is not wrong to bring practical considerations into your decisions. Will divorce throw you into poverty? What will it do to the children? Because you might have Biblical grounds for divorce or separation, does not mean that you have to divorce or separate -- or that God wants you to. Perhaps you do need to stay with nothing but your trust in God to work things out for you.
The purpose of these questions is not to give you a means of grading your marriage -- seven positives you stay, six and you are out of there -- but to enable you to clarify some of the thoughts and fears that race through your mind when you consider your situation. It might help to write out the answers, so that you can lay some of these issues to rest. Then, with this, and with the counsel of your pastor and other godly people in your life, pray with all your heart. My wife suggests going away for a weekend by yourself to pray in peace and solitude. There, you may able to hear God say whether or not the marriage can be saved. The answer may not be one you expected.
Now, a word for husbands. Sometimes, after a sexual fall, a wife demands that her husband promise he will never do that again. Perhaps you have promised that to yourself so many times, and failed, that you know you can't promise it to her. But look over these questions and you will see some things you can do. You can try to love her with all your heart. You can be honest with her. You can fulfill all of your other responsibilities as a husband and father. You can hang in there with your support group, your accountability partner or your counselor. You can be seeking God with all your heart. Simply doing these things may fall far short of your wife's ultimate desires for your marriage, but they can give her hope, and that may be all you have to give her right now.
Copyright © 2001 Regeneration, Inc. Posted on the web by permission.