No More Secrets!
Why Full Disclosure is Critical to Your Marriage Success.
Mark B. Kastleman, BCC, BCPC
Perhaps the greatest destroyer of marriage relationships is dishonesty and distrust. And nothing will feed this destruction more deeply than a deceptive husband who doesn't tell his wife about his porn addiction and other inappropriate sexual behaviors. While a spouse may not KNOW for certain exactly what's going on, in my experience she nearly always at least "feels" that something isn't right. So, while a man may have convinced himself that because his behaviors are hidden, he's not harming the marriage relationship, there is no doubt that his "secret addiction" is already silently eroding away the connection and trust he has with his wife.
As I address this issue, I KNOW from personal experience and working with couples for nearly 20 years that “disclosure” is an extremely difficult, painful, frightening experience to say the least. Disclosing embarrassing, shameful information about sexual behaviors to a spouse is one of the hardest things a man will ever do. Yet, as difficult and humiliating as that can be, in many ways it pales in comparison to the shock, pain, confusion, anger and betrayal trauma that come flooding over the woman receiving the disclosure!
But continuing to live in secrecy and putting off full disclosure does not make things better or make the addiction go away. Every day a man procrastinates being honest is another day he is not working on his recovery and overcoming porn addiction; another day he keeps carrying heavy burdens of fear and shame; and another day he continues creating disconnection, distrust and deeper, more intense betrayal trauma and pain for his wife.
Please know that disclosure is not something to take lightly. It can be very complex and open up as it were, a Pandora’s Box with an overwhelming wave of feelings, issues and decisions. Below are some guidelines that have proven to be very important for husbands and wives in this process.
First Things First
While it may be tempting to simply come together as a couple and “just get it over with,” this approach to disclosure rarely, if ever works out for the best. I highly recommend that before disclosing, the husband FIRST seeks the help and guidance of a religious leader, counselor or therapist, also known as your "Support Person." Disclosing on your own to your spouse can be extremely difficult and done in the wrong way, can trigger tremendous trauma. Approaching a religious leader, counselor or therapist first is vital. When preparing to do this, the following guidelines will help you:
Make certain when choosing this individual to select someone who shares your values. If you end up with a Support Person who believes pornography, masturbation and other sexual behaviors are “harmless” or “no big deal,” they will not be able to help you. Whenever possible, work with someone who has direct experience and expertise working with pornography, sexual addiction and disclosure.
It will probably be difficult to openly disclose your problem to a Support Person because of fear: “He won’t respect me any more,” or “My reputation will be ruined.” In my experience just the opposite is true. When you have the courage and humility to disclose your struggles and seek help, you will find almost without exception that the love and respect these individuals have for you actually increases.
If you're having difficulty gaining the courage to approach your Support Person, one easy way to break the ice is to give them this or another article on this site and say, “Would you please review this and then schedule a time when I can talk with you?”
It's difficult to predict how your spouse will react to your disclosure. Meeting with your Support Person first, gives you an opportunity to formulate a “plan” of approach. You can also discuss the potential reactions you might receive and how best to handle them. In addition, I highly discourage you from disclosing to your spouse alone. Instead, disclose with your Support Person present in a “neutral” private setting such as their office, where both you and your spouse can feel safe and receive the professional guidance you need.
It's VERY important that under the guidance of your Support Person, you begin your porn addiction recovery program before you disclose to your spouse. There are three primary reasons for this: 1) The disclosure process can be very stressful and plunge you back into escape and self-medication. Having recovery tools to deal with this is very important; 2) Disclosing your inappropriate behaviors to your spouse can create an enormous strain on the level of trust she has in you. If she can see that you are already sincerely engaged in and making progress in your recovery, this will go a long way to give her hope and begin rebuilding trust; 3) If you disclose without being actively engaged in recovery, it’s almost certain that you will fall back into your addiction. This will create further damage to your marriage relationship and make restoring trust very difficult.
Important Note: Do not use “I have to get my recovery going before I can tell my wife,” as an excuse to procrastinate your disclosure. Find a Support Person, get your recovery under way and then begin preparing to disclose to your spouse. Disclosure should take place within a reasonable time of beginning your recovery program.
What a Disclosure Looks Like
Please understand that everyone's situation is different and no disclosure process is identical. This is why it's very important to seek professional support. Here are some very general disclosure guidelines that will help you understand the process:
Create an Outline:
Under the guidance of an experienced religious leader, counselor or therapist, the disclosing spouse creates an outline. This includes separate categories for each sexual behavior with specific details under each one. For example, pornography viewing would be one category under which details are listed such as how long this behavior has been going on, how often it is repeated, how long it lasts, etc. While husband and wife together with professional guidance can decide how much detail is necessary or desired in the final disclosure, as much detail as possible in the initial outline is crucial to eliminating an addict's secrecy, isolation and shame. Other categories might include masturbation, strip clubs, massage parlors, extramarital affairs, etc. Under each category is a list details about how long, how much, etc.
The Lies I have Told:
You may also include a category entitled, “The lies I have told in order to hide my behaviors.” Be specific and do not minimize your description of the events, or this will only keep the roots of your secrecy and shame firmly in place. Special Note: As you make an outline of your past behaviors and lies, keep in mind that like two little devils, one on each shoulder, fear and shame will be shouting in your ear, “You can’t disclose that! They’ll never be able to respect or accept you if they know about that! The Internet porn viewing and strip clubs are one thing, but not that!” Don’t give in to this lie. Holding back and continuing to carry the burden of the “really bad secrets” will only fuel feelings of “I’m not quite good enough,” or “I’m almost forgiven except for this one thing,” or “They love me, but only because they don’t know about _____.”
Hanging on to these little pet secrets will prevent you from letting go of your shame and fear, and will continue to fuel your addiction cycle. Remember, Jesus Christ paid the price for all of your mistakes. Don’t reject His grace because you believe you must continue to bear the darkest mistakes yourself. Surrender all of it to Him, holding nothing back.
Review your outline with your Support Person and allow them to ask you questions that may be similar to the questions that your spouse will ask you. Don’t get defensive at the questions or the reactions you get. Be completely open and honest in your responses and don’t minimize or hold back secrets. With your Support Person, discuss what should be shared with your spouse. There is no need to share all of the “gory details” with your spouse. In fact, I believe this can be counterproductive, creating powerfully negative mental pictures that a spouse may not be able to move past. However, this does NOT give you an excuse to withhold information or keep secrets, but simply means you can be completely open and honest while exercising discretion and sensitivity. Ask for the Lord’s help and His spirit will guide you in your disclosure to your spouse.
Write Your Disclosure:
Write down what you want to say and how you want to say it. This can be in the form of a letter to your spouse. Your comments should not blame others nor make excuses (your porn addiction is NOT your wife's fault). The letter should be a condensed description of your behaviors that is open and honest, but without specific details. For example, if your disclosure includes masturbation and pornography viewing, you would not describe how you self-stimulate nor what the actors in the pornography are doing. Your written disclosure is simply to inform your spouse about your inappropriate behaviors. Before settling on a final version, share and discuss the format and content of the letter with your Support Person.
Prepare Your Spouse:
To prepare your spouse, you should have her meet with your Support Person, or her own Support Person, before you disclose to her. They can assure her that there is a support system in place for her and decide about the time and place for disclosure. And VERY IMPORTANT—your spouse needs professional guidance and support to prepare her for the tidal wave of negative emotions she will feel during the disclosure, including the significant impact of "Betrayal Trauma." Your spouse should NOT hear your disclosure without compassionate, professional assistance in helping her prepare. And, there must be professional support in place to help her AFTER the disclosure on her own individual path of understanding and healing.
You should have a plan in place to manage your own emotional health after the disclosure. Your spouse will have a strong response to the disclosure, which will impact you. You may feel depressed, self-pity, guilt, shame or hopelessness. Keep in mind that these are the very emotions that have driven you to escape and self-medicate in the past. Have a plan of action already formulated with your Support Person to prevent a relapse.
Present Your Disclosure:
Prepare yourself for your spouse’s response which may be very negative. Do not get angry or defensive. It's perfectly understandable that your spouse would feel shocked, betrayed, angry, etc. Avoid crying, offering explanations, or asking for forgiveness as methods to “soften the blow,” “distract from the seriousness of your actions,” or in any way manipulate the situation. Too many men have engaged in "gaslighting" and other similar behaviors. Put these things behind you. Just be completely “real,” open, and honest. The purpose of your disclosure is to simply tell the truth and get the facts out on the table. Reading your disclosure while having some eye-contact can help you stay on track and say exactly what you intended to say.
Part of your disclosure should include inviting questions. Don’t be defensive and respond as honestly and clearly as you can. If you aren’t sure how to answer the question, request some time to consider how you will respond. Going over your disclosure with your Support Person beforehand should prepare you for many of the questions.
Accept the Consequences:
Your spouse may choose to impose immediate consequences, such as requesting time alone to consider what has happened, requiring that you not stay at home for a few days or longer. Respect her request and do not try to change her mind or manipulate the situation. This will only engender resentment. Remember, you have had considerably more time to prepare for all of this than she has. Give her a chance to process all of it. In the past you have tried to avoid the consequences of your behaviors. Now is your chance to face them head-on and deal with them in a productive, healthy and mature way.
Although your spouse may experience relief, she also will most likely experience a wide range of emotions. These could include: anger, betrayal, rejection, confusion, depression, disappointment, fear, guilt, feeling responsible, despair, disgust, denial, abandonment, uncertainty, doubt, distrust, humiliation, and many others. Can you understand why your spouse would feel this way? Whether you realize it or not, your porn addiction, along with any other inappropriate sexual behaviors, has taken a toll on your marriage and family life. There are many different ways you may have been manifesting the side-effects of your addiction.
For example: constant and/or extreme mood swings depending on whether you are in the control phase or release phase; time spent away from your marriage and family relationships; you’re there physically, but absent mentally; lack of true sexual and physical intimacy and romance in your marriage; family members feeling like they don’t know you any more; and the list goes on.
It is important to realize that you cannot control or change the way your spouse reacts to your disclosure. If she decides to end the relationship or impose a period of separation, you need to allow her the time and space she needs to consider her feelings. What you can control is your own recovery, and as you make real and steady progress, you can begin to restore trust, intimacy, honesty and over time develop a wonderful marriage relationship.
Give Your Spouse HOPE!
Disclosing to your spouse is a critical beginning, but you must not stop there. Your addiction has created problems in your marriage and family relationships. Your disclosure will most likely add fuel to the fire. If disclosing is all you do, what hope does your spouse have? After you have given your spouse the time and space to really ponder what you have disclosed, you need to immediately begin moving forward as a united partnership in your recovery.
As a couple, work with your Support Person and put together a plan to heal your marriage relationship complete with goals, a timeline, action steps and accountability. Most importantly, your plan must include a clear description of the ideal marriage and family life you are both striving for. This is your “why,” your motivation for beginning and sticking with your recovery journey. This clear and vivid vision, accompanied by a logical step-by-step plan to make it a reality, will give you and your spouse purpose and hope. This is critical in helping you and your spouse move past the negative emotions created by your past mistakes.