A Ministry Wife’s Guide to Dealing with Pornography in Her Marriage
I had a feeling early on in my marriage that something wasn’t quite right. So what does an idealistic, somewhat naive newlywed who just moved across the country with her Bible school graduate husband to join the staff of a church do with something like that? Nothing. She does absolutely nothing.
Some women explode, some run, some hide, and some, like me, go through the motions and pretend everything is just fine. Denial is a gift of sorts. It buys us time until we gain the courage or motivation to deal with the stuff of life. In my case, denial bought me thirteen years.
Denial is a gift of sorts.
Typing that number makes me want to defend myself. I don’t think I was fully conscious of my life-by-denial strategy in the beginning. But the week we brought our second son home from the hospital, I walked in on my husband as he was viewing pornography. The thing that wasn’t quite right was right in front of my eyes. I felt the steamy enticement of lust followed by the suffocating oppression of shame as if there were a tangible presence in the room. With our three-year-old in his big boy bed, our newborn swaddled in the crib, and my mother on the pull-out sofa in the living room, I made a conscious decision to close my eyes to the reality of my life. I lived that way for another four years.
What finally tipped the scale was anger. I morphed into a woman I never meant to become. I started swearing. I blew up at my husband over little things like socks left beside the bed. I was impatient with our boys and subsisted with a low-level irritation that could accelerate into a full-scale temper tantrum faster than the Magic School Bus.
When I reflect on the journey, I know that being a ministry wife contributed to how I chose to respond. I was afraid. I believed that, had his struggle come to light with our church at the time, my husband would have been fired. I hold nothing against our leadership on that church staff, but I don’t think they would have known what to do with our mess. I felt so alone.
Statistics tell us that 50% of pastors regularly look at pornography. Which means around half of ministry wives are living with a lack of sexual integrity. It breaks my heart. And that’s one reason why I’m here, telling my story. I can’t go back and relive years of my life, but I can offer hope. I can encourage other women not to waste any more time in reaching out for help.
If you are not in the half of ministry wives living with a lack of sexual integrity, you know someone who is. So, whether you need a friend to shine light in your darkness or whether you will be the friend shining light, I have a few thoughts to guide you.
1. Know that it’s not about you. We blame ourselves, don’t we? If I was just prettier or curvier or more adventurous, my husband wouldn’t have this problem. Please know, I am not absolving wives of all relational responsibility, but when it comes to a decision to look outside the marriage to satiate one’s sexual appetite, that is the responsibility of one. We are never responsible for the choices other people make. When your spouse is acting out sexually, it’s hard to believe it’s not about you. It’s hard to not take it personally. It feels so deeply personal. But chances are your spouse was engaging in these behaviors long before you were a part of his world.
It’s not about you, but it does affect you.
2. Understand the mechanism of shame. For many women, the fact that their husband has kept a secret is more painful than the betrayal itself. I know my husband didn’t come into our marriage with devious plans of how he was going to deceive me. He simply followed the path shame led him down. I understand because, when I discovered his secret, shame made it my secret. I fell in step right behind him.
3. Own the reality. I am really good at thinking about “whatever is pure” and “whatever is lovely.” In fact, that’s all I want to think about. One day the Holy Spirit challenged me not to use Philippians 4:8 as an excuse for denial. I got out my Bible, read the passage again, and realized the very first phrase is “whatever is true.” Ouch. Here’s what I learned – it isn’t until after we own the truth of our lives that we are able to move beyond the pain. Denial is like holding your breath in an attempt to suspend reality. It may buy some time, but you can’t do it for long, and it will keep you from moving forward.
It isn’t until after we own the truth of our lives that we are able to move beyond the pain.
4. Go to God. I was a little offended with God. I married my husband, believing it was God’s plan; feeling like God brought us together. When his addiction to pornography came to light, it felt like God was okay with my wounded, crushed, half dead, gloomy, numb soul. Surely, He could have delivered my husband before we got married. He could have helped my husband find freedom without me needing to know, but He didn’t. It seemed like I was meant to be part of the process. That offended me.
And yet, where could I go if I didn’t go to God? I knew He was my only source of life. I took my broken heart to Him and God poured out His love on me. I took my questions to the Bible and God answered with truth and promises that carried me when I wasn’t sure I could take another stop. I came to know God in a whole new way. He wasn’t just my ticket out of hell; He was the Savior I needed now more than ever before.
5. Resource yourself. Reach out for expert help and support. You may think you need marriage counseling, but you really can’t help the marriage until after you deal with the betrayal. If you think that your spouse is dealing with sexual compulsion or sexual addiction, I suggest looking for a Certified Sex Addiction Therapist (CSAT) near you or one that offers remote sessions or groups online. After I found out about my husband’s pornography use, I went on a mission to learn all I could. The more I learned, the less alone I felt. Each blog and each book I read brought me closer to believing there was a way through. Here are some of my lifelines:
Harboring Hope, an online recovery course at AffairRecovery.com
Living with Your Husband’s Secret Wars by Marsha Means
When Godly People Do Ungodly Things by Beth Moore
How to Act Right When Your Spouse Acts Wrong by Leslie Vernick
Of course, I’d also add my own book to this list, Keep Walking, 40 Days to Hope and Freedom After Betrayal. It contains the thoughts and scriptures that shone the light in my darkness.
6. Call a few close friends. Find a safe place to scream and shout and cry and pray. Call a few safe people you can be completely honest with. You need other women who won’t judge you or try to fix you, who will just let you be how you are in the moment. I had three friends who walked with me through our recovery. They helped me process my pain. They cried with me and handed me tissues. Somehow, they even made me laugh and that helped me believe my life wasn’t over. They taught me to breathe again. (Two of those women were fellow staff members at the church we had recently joined. Just know that even though you may be afraid to tell your staff, they could be your greatest advocates. Pray and ask God to lead you.) If you can’t think of anyone who would be safe to talk to, look for an online group for betrayed spouses and build a network of support.
7. Ask God what you should do. One day my therapist encouraged me to ask God what I should do about my marriage. I had never asked God that question. I assumed I already knew the answer. I was a Christian. A professional Christian. I made a covenant and it was my obligation to live out the worst of “for better or worse.” But just to appease her, I asked the question. God took me back to Genesis and the ancient Hebrew word for helpmeet. Ezer is the word God used for Eve. It’s a word used only a handful of times in the Old Testament and, in every other instance, ezer refers to God when you need Him to come through for you. I heard the Father ask me, “Will you come through for My son?”
...if God was asking me to come through for my husband, God was going to come through for me.
In that moment two things shifted. I saw my husband, not just as the man who crushed my heart, but as God’s beloved son. And I believed, if God was asking me to come through for my husband, God was going to come through for me. I didn’t feel stuck anymore. I have to mention that I know God releases women from marriages and I agree with author and pastor Gary Thomas who said, "If the cost of saving a marriage is destroying a woman, the cost is too high. God loves people more than he loves institutions.”
8. Plan for a long journey. I believe with all my heart there is freedom from sexual addiction and sexual integrity can be restored. We can begin again. That is the heart of the gospel. Reprogramming a brain that has been wired for porn and healing a heart that has been traumatized by betrayal takes time. For those two people to coexist in the same space and attempt to recover together is going to be exhausting.
If you are anything like us, both parties will feel like throwing in the towel at some point. Give it a couple of years. Watch for tiny buds and blossoms of the fruit of change. Life transformation is often slow and tedious. If you are not watching for change, you can miss the signs. The more patient you can be with slow progress, the better. It takes two people willing to do the work of recovery in order for a relationship to be restored. There are no guarantees. But whether or not your relationship is restored, God will restore your soul. The tools you pick up on the journey will benefit your life in a myriad of ways.
Isaiah 43:2 has become my life mantra. “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned.” You may feel like you are drowning. It may seem like your whole world is going up in flames. God is with you. He is more than enough for you. Keep walking. There is a way through.
Freedom After Betrayal is Entry Three of our June blog series, Share Your Story. Do you have a story to share? One of God's faithfulness through a difficult time? Or one of victory over a personal battle you've fought? We are looking for stories to share for our fall blog series. Contact us with your information and include a single paragraph overview. Let's connect!
Lynn Marie Cherry and her husband, David, have been married for 26 years and have two boys. They have served in some ministry capacity since the beginning of their life together. Much of their ministry philosophy has been shaped by their journey through sexual addiction and betrayal. "We know there is hope and a way through." Lynn is an engaging speaker and the author of Keep Walking: 40 Days to Hope and Freedom After Betrayal, an award-winning devotional that is helping women find a way through the pain of sexual betrayal. In her free time, she enjoys reading and sitting out on the back patio to watch the sunset. "My greatest passion as a writer and speaker is helping people get unstuck." You can find more about Lynn's ministry at lynnmariecherry.com.