234567890-Note: This post has been sitting ready in my draft folder for 3 weeks. Although Steve has repeatedly given me the go ahead, I have procrastinated. From the outset we have been open about addiction, but it’s harder to do that when the days are messy and ugly. This post takes an honest look at exactly how messy things can get. If we are authentic about the good days, then we owe it to our readers to do the same with the bad. If you haven’t already read my 5 part series about addiction you may want to. For those who know us (or are related to us), we are fine; still fighting and clawing our way along the too steep path, and still thankful to be on the journey together. ~Holly
It has been here for weeks. Its roots probably go back to February. How can something that can’t be named cause so much angst?
Restlessness, suspicion, and indignation!
I have had a general nose-out-of-joint feeling shadowing my every step. I have nursed it, fed it, and allowed it to grow; resulting in my choosing to play the victim and I’ve felt justified in doing so.
But I have been wronged! I thought we were past this madness. We have lived in recovery for over 10 years and it’s not my problem.
From the beginning, we have been embarrass-your-family open about Steve’s struggle with addiction. We are like poster children for how to do it right. We don’t profess perfection, but we have stayed together. We have fought, clawed and scrapped our way through to preserve our marriage. Bearing the scars of addiction and co-addiction, our family has survived and even at times thrived.
Steve and I regularly speak about our journey and how we each played a part. Our marriage is healthy and we are closer than we ever have been. So we are over it, right? Please God, tell me we are over it! I thought so, but I was wrong.
February hit us and threatened to leave me down for the count. An innocent question at the beginning of a 12 hour journey was met with an answer I didn’t expect. I sat shocked, speechless, praying I wouldn’t cry on the plane. Truth is I cried most of the trip home – a gut-wrenching, sobbing, mourning cry.
I felt so betrayed. But why? I’ve been on this journey long enough to know that Steve’s actions aren’t about me. I didn’t cause them or ask for them. But they rocked me to my core.
This was not supposed to happen again. We are supposed to be past this. And why does it have to cause a palpable ache? It’s not my problem.
Or is it?
At the core… no, it’s not my problem. But I am not an island of me. Better or worse, good or bad, what Steve or I do drastically affects the other. If I’m in this for the long haul then I will have deal with it.
But I want to whine and cry, and feel sorry for myself! It’s been 10 years. TEN YEARS! When do I get to hurt him? Why do I keep doing the right thing? When do I get to misbehave? When will it be over?
However, I finally come to terms with the fact that it won’t, and it’s simply naive to think it will be. Steve can live in sober recovery from now until the day he dies and that won’t change the fact that I am married to an addict. I didn’t think I expected him never to slip but my reaction revealed the truth – I thought we were finished actively dealing with addiction.
It also revealed that I still have my own work to do. Bad attitudes, unrealistic expectations, & bitterness – these are a good place for me to start. And then there’s forgiveness. I can cling to my right to be angry or I can choose to forgive.
Forgive because Steve does the same thing for me every day.
But what I do isn’t betraying trust. What I do doesn’t flirt with unfaithfulness.
And then I realize as I write this that I want to categorize wrong. I want to say that his wrong is worse than mine. That’s the acceptable social trend; women marginalizing men’s suffering rendering themselves superior victim status. I want to pretend that the way he hurts me is more painful than how I hurt him.
But it is, isn’t it? Forgive or be bitter? If I forgive again, am I enabling? I battle this line of thinking everyday!
I forgive because I value a relationship more than being right; and because I am so very aware of my own imperfections, imperfections that are just as damaging even if I don’t want to admit it. I will take my advice and choose to forgive once again and remember that we will never be over it. Never!
The mind is an amazingly complex thing. I can remember with vivid clarity some silly injustice from kindergarten, but have no clue where my keys are on a daily basis. Given my ability to remember such unimportant things, is it really possible to forgive and forget?
And what if the faithfulness and honesty of a partner is involved? I think the answer is no… and yes.
When we hear the term forgive and forget I suspect we think it means to literally forgive and never think about, remember, obsess over or plot revenge about said incident ever again. Ever! Or at least that was the understanding I used to have. Why on earth did I ever put that much pressure on myself? It is literally impossible to not remember; especially when it involves hurts inflicted by our spouse. Telling yourself not to remember is like trying not to stick your tongue in the hole where a tooth used to be. The harder you try not to, the more you do it.
I have often heard the insecurity in a woman’s voice as she says, “If I’ve truly forgiven, why can’t I forget?” They doubt they have actually forgiven because they aren’t able to forget. I remember that feeling of guilt! I remember feeling that if I was a better Christian I wouldn’t keep thinking about something that I thought I had forgiven. That feeling is exactly what caused me to rethink the way I saw forgiveness altogether.
Life experience has taught me that forgiveness is a choice. It’s something I choose even when I don’t feel like it. And it’s a choice that has to be made over and over. It is a process – not an event. It’s much like the decision to lose weight. When someone decides to lose weight, they aren’t successful by making a one-time decision. It takes lots of decisions everyday to be successful; eat this – don’t eat that – go to the gym. And like forgiving, decisions regarding lasting weight loss are made over and over, day after day.
Over time, as I have continually chosen to forgive all the hurts that came from Steve’s addiction, I have been set free. I have been freed from the guilt of remembering. I have been freed from resentment and bitterness. And oddly enough, I have even been freed from seeing the hurts in a purely negative light. The more time that passes, and the stronger our relationship becomes, I find myself seeing those very hurts as a blessing in disguise. Remembering allows me to see how far we have come.
If you have chosen to forgive, whether the offense was big or little, don’t doubt the sincerity of it. Yes, you will remember from time to time. When you do, give yourself permission to feel whatever you feel in that moment; name it and move on. Then make the choice to forgive all over again and forget, at least until you remember it again.
Some questions can be taken at face value. When my kids ask me what’s for dinner there typically isn’t anything behind the question other than a hungry stomach. Other questions aren’t as simple. They stem from something deeper – there’s a question behind the question. What’s being spoken is only the tip of the iceberg. What’s beneath the surface is the real issue.
The day I sat eating with Morgan, I wondered what was behind her question. “Is he thinking of someone else while kissing me?” were the words coming out of her mouth. “Does he desire only me?” was what was in her heart. On the surface, she knows he desires her, but does he desire every other woman he sees too? This fear lurks behind the veil of her question.
When we enter into a committed relationship there are some basic expectations that come with the territory — one of the most primal being that we will be the sole object of our partner’s desire. It is innate. We long to be desired. And we don’t expect to share that position with anyone else. I, like Morgan, never expected to be one of many women who floated through my husband’s mind. In reality, over the course of Steve’s active addiction, I was one of thousands. I wanted to be the only one.
Walking the road of recovery with Steve, I have learned that wanting to be the only one is fine. Actually being the only one is unrealistic. Before you have a heart attack, let me explain. Yes, in marriage it is fair to expect faithfulness – emotionally, physically and mentally. However, expecting that Steve will never have some image flip through his head is unfair. So the real issue becomes the intent.
In an active addiction, there is a complete lack of emotional intimacy between partners. An addict will attempt to fill this void by pursing false intimacy with someone else — real and/or fantasy. The intent is to use images or people for one’s own pleasure. It is selfish in nature and it is wrong. But if I’m honest, I have to admit that while I have never struggled with a sexual addiction, sometimes there are uninvited thoughts and images that appear in my own head. How can I hold my partner to a standard that I, myself, can’t keep?
So, maybe measuring the health of your relationship with the ruler of ‘being the sole object of his desire’ isn’t the most accurate way of finding relational security. It would be more accurate to use the gauge of intimacy. As real emotional intimacy develops between two people, the need for false intimacy will decrease. A working definition of intimacy is the willingness to be known for who I really am and the willingness to know someone for who they truly are. And true emotional intimacy can only take place in a safe environment.
I have found that when I am concerned with who else might be in my husband’s thoughts, the best thing I can do is provide a safe environment for him. This doesn’t mean I condone his entertaining thoughts of others, simply that I can inspire his focus to return to me much better than I can require it.
So if you value your relationship and want to heal it, it is better to focus on what you can do to cheer him on and turn his heart (and thoughts) back toward you, rather than berate him with a bunch of questions that can’t really be answered in a futile attempt to calm your own insecurities. Because in reality, there will never be a way to know who is in your spouses head as they are kissing you. But build emotional intimacy and it won’t matter. You’ll know his heart and body belong to you, even if another unwelcome woman invades his private thoughts on occasion.
Some people think I’m nosy. I like to call it being curious. If I’m honest, I’d have to admit to both. I like to know! Whether it’s how something works, why a culture has the beliefs it does, or why someone would move from Malibu, CA to Allen, TX, I want to know! And, I love to ask questions. There are times when my inquisitive nature comes in handy. I make friends easily and I can talk to most anyone. But as Steve disclosed his history of sex addiction to me, curiosity threatened to ruin us.
I wanted to know everything. I needed to know everything. Yes, everything! While his addiction had not physically involved another person, mentally it involved many and I wanted to know the details about every single one. Who are these women that had occupied my husband’s thoughts? Do I go to church with them? Are they prettier and skinner than me? Are they my friends? These kinds of questions took up all the space in my head leaving room for nothing else.
When any addiction is being addressed in marriage, disclosure is vital. Sharing every gory detail is not! In simple terms, disclosure is stating facts, sharing secrets, coming clean and telling the basic history of the addiction. Because addictions are often seeded in secrecy and dishonesty, it is important to get everything out in the open and work from there. Honest disclosure is how you start rebuilding trust. At first, I confused disclosure with knowing every detail. Initially, Steve’s reluctance to share the details with me hurt. I saw it as a way for him to continue being dishonest. We had to sort out how to deal with this difference of opinion before we could start repairing our relationship.
I had to decide which was more important, knowing everything or just knowing enough. Knowing enough meant I knew the important things; that Steve had been honest with me and was committed to becoming authentic in our relationship. Knowing enough didn’t threaten to do more damage to our marriage but knowing everything might have. There is a place for telling every detail, but it’s not with your spouse. The best place for that kind of sharing is with an accountability partner, with someone who is healthy and safe. If Steve had given in and shared the sordid details with me it might have hindered the healing of our relationship.
For the first time in my life I realized that maybe I don’t need to know everything. Coming to that realization wasn’t an easy one, especially for someone as obsessed with knowing as I used to be. So when someone asks me if they need to know everything, my answer is no. Nine years later, I am thankful that Steve didn’t give in and share the details with me. Now I don’t have to battle images that were never meant to be in my mind. Being out of the loop allows both of us the freedom to have a clear mind when we interact. Now we are free to live in the present, and free from the ghosts of the past.
In the last few weeks I have written a series for Shannon Ethridges blog. In the next few days I will be posting them here. Enjoy!
“When will I stop wondering if he is kissing me and thinking of someone else?” As we speak over Thai food, Morgan’s questions unleash a flood of memories. Pain, distrust and betrayal, I feel their sting as a near decade of recovery evaporates in an instant. Nine years ago I struggled with the same question when finding out that my husband is a sex addict. I wondered if our fragile marriage would survive. How could I ever trust him again?
“When I get home, we need to talk. You might want to make an appointment with Jane.” As Steve spoke these words, my heart sank. The delicate threads that hold the broken pieces together unravel with every passing second. This was serious! Was this the other shoe dropping? I expected the worst without being able to name what that might be.
We sat down, hearts in our throats, and I steeled myself for what I knew to be coming. “I need to be honest and confess that I have had an addiction for most of my life. It was there in my earliest memories.” I tasted bile. What was I hearing? I needed someone to tell my heart to be quiet, to turn down the thudding in my ears. I felt like I was suffocating, drowning in the confusing mix of emotions threatening to swallow me; hurt, anger, fear, confusion, and relief. Yes, relief. The fact that our marriage had survived up to this point was astonishing considering the demons we had already faced. And while we had come a long way, I still carried a nagging feeling that a piece of the puzzle was missing. Somehow, in the middle of the numbing confusion, I knew this was it! Looking back, I think that knowing was the driftwood allowing me to survive the waves of negative emotion. Don’t misunderstand. It wasn’t easy. Picking up the pieces again took a lot of work, grace and understanding.
Thankfully, we made it through the aftermath with our marriage not only intact, but immeasurably richer. While we aren’t perfect, I honestly think we have one of the healthiest marriages around. And after so many years of secrecy, we choose to be very open about our story. For us, it is therapeutic. This openness, along with Steve’s frequent speaking engagements, gives me many opportunities to hear questions just like Morgan’s. While the questions I hear are varied, there are three which surface repeatedly. Is he thinking of someone else while kissing me? Have I really forgiven though I can’t forget? And, do I need to know everything?
I wish the answers could be tied into neat little bows, tidy and crisp. In reality, they can’t. In the coming weeks I will share my feelings, tempered by 9 years of renewed trust that Steve and I have built. Recognizing every situation is different, my intent in sharing is to give you hope. Because it all starts with the smallest bit of hope, doesn’t it?