clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

How to be Human: how do my wife and I get over my porn addiction?

Aftab Uzzaman / Flickr

Leah Reich was one of the first internet advice columnists. Her column "Ask Leah" ran on IGN, where she gave advice to gamers for two and a half years. During the day, Leah is Slack’s user researcher, but her views here do not represent her employer. You can write to her at askleah@theverge.com.

Hi Leah,

My wife and I are 23 and 25. We married three years ago, after a four-year (long-distance) relationship. Things got off to a bad start when she found out about my porn addiction. I have certainly managed my issues, but her trust and respect for me are non-existent. I feel like I’m ready to move onto better things but she is still stuck with that grudge. I’ve asked her to get into marriage counseling with me, but she’s unwilling. We don’t have kids yet, and I know it’s now or never. Does this situation have a remedy?

Uncertain

Hey Uncertain,

This situation has a possible remedy, but let me put emphasis on "possible." This is a bumpy start for a young marriage, and you and your wife are a young couple. But it seems worth trying to fix, especially since you want to.

I’m glad to hear you’ve worked on your addiction. Watching porn is one thing — lots of us do it — but if it’s something you can qualify as an addiction, that’s a different story. For those wondering, if you’re watching porn (or doing anything — drinking, doing drugs, gambling, playing video games) to the point that it disrupts work, friendships, and/or any other part of your life, it’s time to get help.

So Uncertain, you say you’ve worked on your addiction. Or, in your words, you’ve "certainly managed" your issues. Let me be honest: I don’t know what that means exactly. I also don’t know whether you worked on this with your wife or just on your own. When everything came to light, did the two of you talk about what you were going to do about your addiction? Did you talk about what upset her so much and what would make her feel comfortable? Did you talk about what you felt capable of and what you didn’t? Did you get help or just deal with it alone? Did she get help from someone who could talk to her about how she felt?

I also don’t know whether you worked on this with your wife or just on your own

I’m asking this in part because I hear a some resentment in your letter. You "certainly" managed your issues, but she’s still "stuck" with a "grudge." Maybe she’s held onto her hurt longer than necessary, but you know what? Maybe she hasn’t. Maybe she feels like she’s so young, and why does she have to deal with this shit, and she’s angry. Maybe she feels like everything is tied up in this one big issue — trust, sexual intimacy, her physical and/or emotional self-confidence. Maybe part of the reason she’s resentful is how you’ve approached the situation.

Your wife stuck with you, but she’s not feeling okay. I admire that you’ve asked her to go to therapy, but she won’t for some reason. So the first thing to do here is for you to take a step back and try to use language that makes this less of an "I did the right thing and now she won’t just let it go" situation. Ask her to sit down and talk with you, and then approach this in a heartfelt but very, very kind and understanding manner. Write down a script if you have to, and read it out loud once or twice so you can tell if you’re being frustrated or resentful.

Your wife stuck with you, but she’s not feeling okay

Tell your wife that you know it’s been some years since this happened, but sometimes big violations of trust take a long time to heal, and you understand that. So you’d like the opportunity to repair her trust, and also to work through anything else that might have gotten roiled up when she found out about your porn addiction. You need her to help you understand what you can do to make this situation better. You want to be with her, but you also want her to feel happy and comfortable.

I wonder if she doesn’t want to go to a couple’s therapist because she feels like all you want is for her to get over it. Sometimes in that situation, one person thinks their partner and couple’s counselor are going to gang up, try and swing things in their partner’s direction. But the whole point of couple’s counseling, the explicit goal, is specifically not to side with one person or the other. You want to go in order to facilitate communication. You need to start communicating with her in a way that shows you want to hear her.

Addiction is a tough thing to deal with for the addict, but it’s also a tough thing for the addict’s family

She’s clearly not ready to let either you or this issue go, so maybe it’s a good time for her to go to a therapist by herself. If she talks to you about what she’s willing to do, you can say "Maybe before we go to a therapist together, it might help you to talk to someone without me, to talk about how you feel and get support. Then, if and when you feel more comfortable, maybe we can see someone else together."

And for the record, age is most likely not the main issue. Okay, sure, you’re young. You’ve been together since your wife was 16! High school and college sweethearts can definitely end up together for a long time, but sometimes being young can make approaching certain problems more intense. Then again, you’ve been together longer than a lot of couples I know. Not only that, I know lots of people 10 and 20 years older than you who’d be having a much harder time with a lot less. Age doesn’t always matter, but experience and perspective can help.

Experience and perspective can help

This is a huge thing to contend with for anyone at any stage of marriage. And you know, addiction is a tough thing to deal with for the addict, but it’s also a tough thing for the addict’s family — this is why there are programs like Al-Anon, for the families of alcoholics. You both need support, separately and together. The two of you shouldn’t be dealing with this alone, but that doesn’t mean couple’s therapy is the only step.

You have to be more empathetic with what you’ve put her through, and you need to give her the chance to feel heard and supported. I know, it seems like you’ve done that by working on your addiction and waiting all this damn time. But sometimes it takes more than a one-sided fix to heal a connection that has been so damaged. It’s time for you to worry less about how you’ve managed your issues and more about how you’re being supportive of the woman you love.

Lx.

Leah,

Last week, my boyfriend ended our 18-month relationship. We were in the midst of moving in together and we had an argument over moving bookshelves. Three days after the argument, he tells me that he thinks we are too incompatible and does not want to move in together. I was devastated! I did not see a break-up coming at all! In fact, the night before the argument, we had a wonderful dinner and he surprised me with a gift he had made just for me. I couldn't wait to display the gift on "our" shelves.

He said that in the last few months there were little things I did that started to annoy him. For example, we were planning a trip abroad. I did not want to book tickets at that moment because I knew that we had a full calendar that month. I wanted to double-check our calendars to make sure that the trip was not going to conflict with other obligations that we had already scheduled. He saw those actions as me being picky and difficult. When I asked him why he never said anything to me about these annoyances, he simply said, "I thought they would go away."

Two of the issues where he found us to be incompatible had to do with the remote possibility of me having to relocate to care for my widowed mother if she required long-term care and his desire to relocate to the West Coast, which he failed to mention to me until recently. Both events have a lot of X-factors that would alter each situation and not to mention that they are both very far into the distant future.

He has put me in a really bad position as I now have one week to make new living arrangements. I am an emotional wreck. I cannot understand how a person can be in love with someone for 18 months and then all of a sudden become incompatible. We were on the road of starting our future together. We are both in our 40s. Just last month, he asked me who he needed to ask for my hand in marriage...when we got to that step.

My boyfriend has been divorced for a number of years and does not have anyone to confide in. He is also a very stubborn man. Things have to be "his way" because that is the "best way." I really believe that he internalized all the annoyances. Rather than discussing them with me, he let them fester out of control inside his head.

I am hurt. I am devastated. I wonder if he really did love me after all. I also wonder if he hurts just as much as me. I hate that he has left me virtually homeless. I have cried every day since the break-up. My appetite is non-existent and I hate to wake up in the mornings because I know I have to face my reality without him.

I know he was a horrible communicator and that this is all on him. But when does the healing begin? When can I feel alive again?

Hurt & Devastated

Hey H&D,

Oh, honey. I am sorry as hell. I don’t know if you read the letter before yours, but that point about "age doesn’t always matter"? Boy, does that ring true here. Your ex-boyfriend, a man in his 40s, appears to be 1/100th as emotionally mature as a man nearly half his age. You’d hope a few decades might give a person room to grow, but boy is that not often the case.

I’m glad you said the last bit, about this all being on him. Because I’m gonna be honest with you, like a tough-love girlfriend: your ex-boyfriend is a jerk. He’s a jerk who bailed on you in a shitty way, at a shitty time, and he’s a jerk who seems to have a problem with real adult things, like moving in together and caring for an elderly parent. Or yes, like communicating.

He’s a jerk who bailed on you in a shitty way

Okay sure, sometimes people fall out of love and they don’t know how to deal with it, don’t know how to ring up the conductor and say "Excuse me, this train that’s chugging along, can you please stop it so I can get out here in the middle of nowhere?" That’s hard. It’s super hard, in fact. And sure, we’ve all had small things in a relationship that bugged us and that we thought would fade. Turns out, the smallest things can be the ones that blossom into big fat relationship-devouring venus flytraps.

But enough with the metaphors, H&D, this is a man in his 40s. He’s been divorced. Him being a crummy communicator or not having anyone to confide in is a huge shame! Lots of people, and for sure lots of men, do not know how to talk about stuff. Like, almost anything, but definitely stuff in the feelings and emotions zone. But him internalizing his annoyances and letting them fester, or whatever he did, is not your problem. It’s also conjecture on your part. You’re trying to solve an unsolvable problem because it seems like a rational reason for his behavior will make this feel okay.

You’re trying to solve an unsolvable problem

Right now, imagine me putting my arm around your shoulder and giving you a squeeze. I promise you, there is no reason for any of this that’s going to make it okay. There’s no solution that, once you plug it into the equation of ME + HIM / WHAT THE FUCK HAPPENED = A BROKEN HEART will make that result feel better. And I promise you this because I too have sat there going "But I don’t understand. What happened? How did these things ruin what we had? Why didn’t he talk to me? Why didn’t he work on this?" The answer to all that was always "who knows" and also "because he didn't really want to or was incapable."

And you know what, H&D? You don’t want a man who doesn’t want to or is incapable. You definitely don’t want a man who leaves you in the lurch, forcing you to find a new place to live at the last minute, not when you’re contending with other challenges like helping your mom. I want you to know all this because I’m heading into the big part of the hug: you are a woman in your 40s, and you are heartbroken, and how do you get over this godforsaken pain, and where do you go from here.

You don’t want a man who doesn’t want to or is incapable

Well, first of all, like any heartbreak, you wait it out. You sit there, miserable and scared, and you wait heartbreak out. I know it doesn’t feel like it, but you are stronger than heartbreak, and you are definitely stronger than the heartbreak over a jerk. But unfortunately, waiting it out takes longer than a week. You got dumped last week, my friend. This is gonna feel bad for a while.

But here’s a promise I can make you: it will feel better. Maybe not next month, maybe not in two or even three months. But it will. You won’t feel totally alive then, but you’ll feel better, and that will be something. You have to give it time, and you have to try not to focus on him or what he did or how badly he hurt you.

It will feel better

H&D, I want you to know how much I get it. Oh girl, do I. But here’s something I learned the hard way: heartbreak, as bad as it is, and as much as it feels like it will never go away? Sometimes it’s the path to your best life. Sometimes losing the thing you thought you wanted opens the door to the thing you didn’t realize will truly make you happy.

Get through the next few weeks. Surround yourself with people who love you, who can hug you and help you find a new place to live and talk through everything while you cry or hit a punching bag. Let yourself feel bad now, because you will break through to the other side, and you don’t want to carry that pain and sadness and anger around. That better feeling is out there on the horizon, and if you keep your eyes on that goal, you might find that your best life is waiting for you too.

Lx.