Discovering your spouse’s porn addiction can be a painful, confusing, and challenging experience.
Helen’s email brought tears to my eyes. “I can’t breathe. How could he do this to me? I know I still have some baby weight, but I try to take care of myself. How can I live with him when I can’t stand the thought of him touching me ever again? How will I support myself and my kids? If I tell him he has to stop, what do I do if he leaves me?”
Helen’s confusion and pain represent so many women that I coach. While the stories are different, the underlying pain and confusion are similar. Many women feel like a failure, are embarrassed, ashamed, and feel unworthy of love, all from discovering their husband’s porn use.
Often, the porn user tries to quit looking at porn. For a while—could be days, weeks, or months—the user does well. Eventually, believing he or she has conquered the porn struggle, their guard comes down, and they trip again on a trigger. Pile on the guilt, shame, self-condemnation, and potential spousal disgust. Without getting professional help, the user repeats the cycle and deepens the damage.
Recovery from a porn struggle or addiction can happen for both the user and the spouse.
However, it’s important to recognize that both partners may experience a range of emotions during the recovery process, including guilt and shame. These intense emotions must be recognized and resolved to allow inner healing and, eventually, relational healing. Often women I coach experience their first deep breath when they understand that porn use doesn’t have to destroy their marriage. They have several choices to make, and so does their husband. What they choose and how they go about the healing process does impact the shame and guilt they feel.
In this blog post, let’s delve into the difference between shame and guilt, and explore how understanding and addressing these emotions can lead to healing within a relationship.
Defining Shame and Guilt
Shame and guilt are often used interchangeably, yet they represent distinct emotional experiences.
Guilt says, “Yes, I did it.” The person acknowledges a specific action or behavior as morally wrong, focusing on the behavior itself. Guilt prompts individuals to take responsibility for their actions and work towards making amends.
Shame says, “I am it.” Shame personalizes the issue. It is a deeper, more pervasive emotion than guilt stemming from a sense of some flaw in one’s core identity. Shame says you believe you are inherently defective or unworthy, which leads to a sense of profound humiliation and self-condemnation.
Recognizing Shame and Guilt
When Dave’s struggle with porn came out, he described the shame as something palpable and acknowledged that it stemmed from unresolved issues in his past. He saw pornography as a way to medicate himself, trying to fill a void. Shame created a profound feeling of unworthiness and defectiveness.
Dave experiences guilt related to the porn use because watching it opposed his belief system. He knew it was morally wrong but felt trapped in the endless shame cycle. It didn’t help that I poured more shame on him from my wounded heart.
Once we understood the difference between guilt and shame, we learned how to heal ourselves and our relationship.
1. Own your behavior
The first crucial step in overcoming guilt and shame is taking ownership of one’s actions. Dave acknowledged that he had to confront his role in the addiction and accept responsibility for the pain it caused. By acknowledging his behavior, he paved the way for growth and healing.
I had to accept my role in my healing process and Dave’s. Yes, the porn struggle was his, but my anger and disgust resulted in additional shame. Blaming Dave repeatedly didn’t allow me to recover. Only when I faced the hidden fears and lies, did I recognize the shame and guilt I carried.
2. Seek support
Recognizing that he couldn’t conquer his addiction alone, Dave opened up to trusted individuals who could provide guidance, understanding, and accountability. This act of vulnerability allowed others to come alongside him and offer the support necessary for his recovery journey.
While I went along with getting professional help, I believed it was only to support Dave. But that’s not totally true. I also needed help to separate the shame and guilt to move into recovery.
3. Redefine your identity
Overcoming shame requires challenging the internal narrative that one is inherently flawed. Dave’s decision to not allow his addiction to define him was a pivotal moment. Embracing the understanding that his struggle with pornography did not determine his worth and value as a person enabled him to break free from shame’s suffocating grip.
My healing process involved separating my identity from Dave’s struggle. I also had to deal with the internal narrative about my worth. Funny how that happened. I needed to relearn the meaning of significance and value apart from the current crisis.
4. Embrace Transparency
Authenticity and transparency play vital roles in healing from guilt and shame. By openly discussing his addiction, Dave created a safe space for me to express my emotions. Those were tough discussions.
Dave found strength in admitting when he felt the lure of porn. Most of the time, he had these discussions with the men who agreed to walk alongside him in this healing process. I felt grateful for these men because it meant I didn’t have to expend as much energy helping him while dealing with my intense response to every struggle.
Being transparent created a safe space for me to “get it all out” with our counselor and coaches. Romans 8:1 says, “There is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus.” Contrary to the lie I believed, bringing all the struggle into the open set Dave and me free. I recognized and released the shame over time, and so did Dave.
We also used communication techniques and active listening practices to build our level of honesty with each other. Working toward this level of openness fostered trust and facilitated our recovery journey as individuals and as a couple.
Recovery from a spouse’s porn addiction can be a difficult path to navigate, but understanding the difference between guilt and shame is an essential aspect of healing.
Guilt and shame are strong emotions. When you learn to distinguish between the two, you can acknowledge and address your actions without allowing shame to define your identity. Through taking ownership, seeking support, redefining identity, and embracing transparency, you can foster an atmosphere of growth, forgiveness, and rebuilding within your relationship.
If you feel overwhelmed with shame over discovering your husband’s struggle with porn, please reach out. You are not the only one, so please don’t get caught in that lie. I promise to listen to your heart and help you navigate through the shame, guilt, and other strong emotions. Let’s talk.