It’s important for men to understand how their pornography use can affect their wives. What might seem like innocent “adult entertainment” can actually cause untold damage to wives. Discovering their husband’s use of pornography can be the most emotionally painful thing a woman ever experiences.
For many wives, this intense pain is actually the result of a deep emotional traumatic wound. We call this Betrayal Trauma. Trauma is typically defined as an occurrence wherein an individual experiences a risk to their own life or physical safety or that of other people and feels terror, fear, or helplessness. The occurrence might additionally cause confusion, dissociation, and a loss of a feeling of security. Traumatic occurrences test a person’s observation of the world as a secure, just, and predictable place. Men must understand how traumatic their pornography use can be for their wives.
When a wife discovers that her husband uses pornography, the safe and secure life she once knew disintegrates, and her world is turned upside down. The man she thought she knew thoroughly is now a complete stranger. The marital vows she though he had upheld since their wedding day were actually broken on many occasions. The sacred gift of sexuality she thought they only shared with each other has been desecrated.
One of the scariest experiences of dealing with betrayal trauma is the strong emotions that wives can cycle through. One moment they may feel a deep sadness and the next moment an incredible rage. They may have uncontrollable bouts of crying. At times they might even feel love and compassion for their husbands. While it may feel maddening to be cycling through such emotions, this is part of the trauma wives experience.
For many wives, these emotions can severely affect their ability to function in daily life. Symptoms such as depression, anxiety, and insomnia can be debilitating. In addition to the many emotions they cycle through, wives affected by betrayal trauma can also experience negative physical symptoms. These include insomnia, headaches, loss of appetite, overeating, dizziness, muscle aches, chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, high blood pressure, and weight loss or gain.
Dealing with a sexually addicted husband can have a tremendous impact on the beliefs a wife may hold about herself, her husband, and her marriage. This can intensify her betrayal trauma pain. She might believe that she was somehow responsible for her husband’s pornography use. She might come to believe she wasn’t pretty enough or that she is no longer sexually desirable. These beliefs intensified her feelings of rejection. This deeply damages her self-worth. She can begin to believe there is nothing about her that is attractive or worthy of being loved. Some wives will question whether their husbands ever really loved them. They begin to believe their marriage was a sham. They began to wonder if in the Church’s eyes they ever had a valid marriage.
While all these beliefs may seem irrational, wives who have been affected by pornography addiction often hold them. They may understand this intellectually and fight against these negative beliefs, but emotionally, because of their woundedness, they have a difficult time not believing them. This contributes to the depression and hopelessness many of these wives feel.
In addition to negative beliefs, many traumatized wives will struggle with intrusive questions about their husbands, their marriages and themselves. Common questions include:
- How could he betray me like this?
- How could I not have noticed this?
- How often did he view pornography?
- How much time did he spend viewing pornography?
- What kind of pornography did he view?
- Were any of his behaviors illegal? (i.e. child porn)
- Did he think the women in pornography were more beautiful than me?
- When we were having sex did he fantasize about the women in porn?
In addition to asking themselves recurring questions, many wives may also ask their husbands these questions repeatedly. A wife may find herself doing this over and over again. Even though her husband claims he is telling her the truth, she will have a difficult time believing him. This is because his betrayal damaged her ability to trust him and anything he says. They find themselves in the same vicious cycle of asking the same questions over and over again and receiving the same unacceptable answers over and over again.
What husbands need to realize is this cycle of questioning is a wife’s way of coping with her trauma. There is the belief that if they can fully understand what happened they can gain some control over the situation and feel safe again. It will also help them let go of any self-blame they may feel for their husband’s behaviors. Furthermore, it will help prevent them from being hurt so deeply again.
Another way wives try to regain a sense of safety and control is to become private detectives for past and present infidelity. They will scour phone bills, credit card and bank statements, and computer histories. They will look for hotel, restaurant, and strip club receipts. They do this to identify any past infidelities and to help them understand how this could have gone on without their knowledge. They want to know to what lengths their husbands went to deceive them. They may also want to know how much money was spent on this sexual activity.
For future activity, they will continue analyzing bills, receipts and statements. They will install monitoring software on all devices that have access to the Internet. They will demand to know their husband’s whereabouts at all times. They will want to know where every penny their husbands spend goes. They might even track their husband’s movements through cell phone GPS systems. This is also a way of protecting themselves from future hurt and betrayal.
Unfortunately, instead of alleviating her fears and helping her feel safe, most wive’s detective work only intensified the pain. While a wife may need to know this information, the way it is discovered only adds to her betrayal trauma.
In addition to the interrogations and detective work, betrayed wives may also seek to control every aspect of their husband’s lives. They determine where their husband goes, who he spends time with, how he spends money, when and how he uses the Internet, how much time he spends at work, what trips he goes on, etc. Again, this is all done in an attempt to feel safe. The thought is if she can control every area of his life (and as a result her life) she won’t get hurt again.
Most of the wives I’ve worked with readily admit all of their reactions to the trauma (cycling emotions, beliefs, questions, interrogations, detective work, hyper-control, etc.) are irrational and do little to help them feel better. At most it’s a Band-Aid on a large gaping wound. Many will admit these behaviors make them feel crazy, but they can’t help but do them. What little protection they offer outweighs the feeling of total vulnerability they would feel should they give them up. One of the reasons they seek professional help is to find a better way to cope with the trauma. They want to feel safe and secure again.
If your wife is experiencing this trauma, the best way to help her is to encourage her to seek professional help. A therapist who is trained to treat trauma can help her recover and experience peace in her life. Counseling can also help to heal and restore your marriage. If you are struggling with pornography use, I encourage you to seek help from a therapist who is certified in the diagnosis and treatment of sexual addiction. For more information, reading Restoring Trust: A Couple’s Guide to Getting Past Porn(2018, Our Sunday Visitor Publishing).
Kleponis, Peter C (2018). Restoring trust: A couple’s guide to getting past porn. Huntington, IN: