How Do We Trust God, When Everything We Believed Was Fake?
Lisa Taylor is here with us today. Lisa is a pastoral sexual addiction specialist and a post-grad counseling student living in New Zealand. She has spent the last several years counseling and supporting women whose lives, like our own, have been impacted by husbands with sex addiction, sex offending, or sexual integrity issues. Her books on this topic include Beyond Betrayal, Beyond Betrayal Couple’s Guide and There’s What On My Phone? – a fictional story for youth who struggle.
She also runs an online community blog for partners at beyondbetrayal.community. Welcome, Lisa.
Lisa: Thank you, Anne.
Women Who Are Betrayed Have Every Right To Question God
Anne: Lisa, you did a survey a couple of years ago on the topic of spiritual crisis in the lives of partners of sex addicts. Can you tell us about that?
Lisa: A couple of years ago when I was still working on Beyond Betrayal, it struck me that this was an important topic to get some information about to include in the book and at the same time Marsha Means who runs The Circle of Joy was interested in starting groups for people who are struggling with this aspect of the journey. We got together and asked what we all wanted to know and put together some questions, then we sent it out to Marsha’s mailing list and we had over 100 women get back to us and share their stories with us.
Anne: I bet you had a lot of pain that came back to you.
Lisa: Absolutely, a lot of incredible stories.
Anne: What was your particular interest in the topic?
Lisa: I guess the reason why I really felt like I wanted to include something about this in the book was because I had experienced this; I had a background since I was a little kid. Those who know me a little bit more know I am in my second marriage right now to a man who is recovering from his porn addiction.
My first marriage didn’t make it. And particularly as that first marriage was falling apart, I was very active in my local church. I hid a lot of abuse and went through a deep spiritual crisis that would last for years. I really questioned if God could still love me because I was being rejected by the church for making a stand and walking away from this poisonous relationship with a man who was not willing to get help for his sex addiction. He wasn’t even willing to stop lying. I really felt this was some of the lowest points in my life. I think having my faith pulled out from underneath me was part of why this was such a low, low time for me. I really felt that had there been support, had there been people talking about this, perhaps I wouldn’t have hit such a low point, perhaps it would have been an easier journey.
Anne: When you say you hid abuse, do you mean that you were abused by the church?
Lisa: Yes, unfortunately. Mine is one of many, many stories; they are all slightly different but a similar thread runs through all of them: somehow, it’s not the man’s fault, it’s the woman’s. If she decides to set a strong boundary that she is leaving if he does not get help….I got threatening letters form a pastor throughout the 4-5 years I was single, living as a solo mom in a different city with a full-time job. Eventually this resulted in a death threat. It was interesting because my mother, who also had to leave my father due to his infidelity, went through almost exactly the same thing. She got threatening phone calls and ultimately a death threat as well. I was really blessed that I had learned from her how to stand up to some spiritual abuse. She ended up bringing in the authorities over that. I basically had to stand up to this particular pastor who had been sending me these emails and said the same thing. I told him that if I continued to hear from him, I would bring in the authorities and share his letters with them because what he was doing was actually criminal.
Anne: My experience with my particular church leader was that he was in so far over his head he did not understand what was going on. Instead of referring out to adult protective services, he took it upon himself to play the “he said, she said…how do I decide who’s telling the truth?” When that happens, because sex addiction and lying are not a communication issue–they are an addiction issue, an abuse issue–it sets the woman up for more abuse by her church or church leaders.
In your survey, what did it reveal about spiritual crisis in partners of sex addicts?
Lisa: What is revealed was that over the 100 women who answered, more than 63% felt they had gone through a significant spiritual crisis as part of their journey–usually pretty close around their time of discovery. The only thing surprising about this to those of us behind the survey was that the number was this low. It was interesting to watch the women answering the questions. Some of them started out saying they didn’t go through spiritual crisis but as they continued to answer the questions, by the end where there was an open comment field, they wrote that they had not thought they had gone through a spiritual crisis but that they could then see that perhaps they actually did. This makes me realize that sometimes the types of trauma a woman is facing–including numbness–can be so overwhelming that they may not even realize they are having a crisis of faith, that their larger spiritual framework has become shaky in this. That was quite interesting just on its own.
What we were also hearing was that for some women, the spiritual crisis centered around their broader belief in God, a Higher Power, but for a lot it was around the church and others who share their faith. For some women, it was both. When we looked at the women who were really feeling distrustful of God or their Higher Power, they felt they were “being duped” by Him. They talked of feelings of injustice–they had been solid, faithful women in their faith community and why would something like this happen to them? They had been solid and faithful in their marriage, why would something like this happen to them; it wasn’t fair. There were also women who talked about feelings of rejection from God or judgment. Some talked about feeling abandoned by God. A lot of them were experiencing similar things in the church–rejection at church and in their faith community, abandonment, and sometimes outright persecution…similar to my story and that of many women.
Anne: It is so sad, especially because the women are in so much pain and they want to go to their faith to feel comforted and understood. They have been rejected by their spouse and then they feel like they are rejected by God or their faith community so it feels so alone and so isolated and “who will help me?” It feels terrible.
Did you notice if there was any particular type of partner?
Lisa: Yes. What came up in our results was that the more deeply a woman was involved in her faith community, particularly if she was like the spouse of the head of the community or was involved in some kind of ministering within the community, the more she felt it, particularly those wives of leadership; they really had their world rocked. We can only guess as to why this is. I have talked to a number of them about this and in examining their results to us, I would say that so much more of their world leans heavily on the acceptance of their faith community and a certain type of image. They had so much more to lose I guess from their husband’s story coming out. Most of them that I have dealt with over the years have to keep a high level of anonymity because of the fear of loss of their world if the issue should be discovered.
Another type of wife or partner who was likely to be hugely impacted were wives who had had a difficult past and had come to faith as adults. Often for these people their understanding of the world was that they had suffered a lot in their relationships in the past because they didn’t have faith and the faith community. They often think “Now I have this relationship and I’ve met a man who has this relationship so now we are going to have the ideal marriage.” When they find out that their ideal Christian husband or husband of their faith is actually struggling just as much as any guy they have dated previously or were married to, it really causes a crisis because they had a false understanding about what it would be like with someone who had faith. This is not to imply that they were naive or anything like that because churches teach that these kinds of problems don’t happen–it’s not implicitly stated but it is implied. So it’s really not a wonder how people that belong to a faith community don’t understand that this actually isn’t the case.
Another type of wife or partner who struggled a lot were those who had been spiritually abused or persecuted by the church–which we kind of already talked about–but the other was wives whose husbands had been very spiritually abusive to them over the course of the marriage. This is sadly all too common with sex addicts.
Anne: I had this sense that if I obeyed the commandments, if I was doing the best I could, if I was repenting and forgiving, if I was loving…then I would be blessed. Then I realized that all of my forgiving and loving and serving was actually enabling my husband’s abuse and that I was never taught to set boundaries and that basically my religion had let me down; I had said over and over that we don’t accept abuse and a person shouldn’t stand for it, but at the same time in the actual everyday practical living, it wasn’t brought up. I wasn’t taught how to set boundaries. I felt like God let me down, my community let me down because they didn’t prepare me for this situation. Then when I did bring it up and say this was the situation, they didn’t believe me and brought out love, forgiveness, and service instead of boundaries. It felt like they were all on the wrong side–that they were standing up and enabling an abuser.
Lisa: This is an oversimplification that we often see in churches where we want to apply a formula to a problem instead of actually looking at the specific ins and outs of this problem. Sometimes I summarize what you are talking about as “grace to him and nuts to you…we’ll apply the grace formula; you just need to forgive more and it will all be solved.” This is not true. We were talking earlier about your pastor being way in over his head. For those who like the “formula-like approach,” they are in over their heads very quickly. They do not understand that along with addiction comes a lot of lying, a lot of minimalized, rationalized, justified blame–it’s called addictive thinking; a lot of them aren’t aware of this. So they are going with a basic formula. A lot of the basic formula for faith communities is that we stand up for men and blame woman. Most of them would never think of it in this type of terms, but if you watch the pattern and the history of it and you have to side with one or the other, you side with the man. There may be others who disagree with me and I’m sure there are churches that this is the exception; I’ve seen some of the churches who are the exception to this and I’m thankful for them. But sadly a lot of them have a blame-women mentality. This is what I saw in my circumstances too. The boys all got together and wanted to believe what my first husband said. There were few people who asked me what my side of the story was. He was a pathological liar.
Anne: And even if they did ask you what your side of the story is, they tend to look at it as, “His side and her side and the truth is somewhere in between” rather than seeing it as the riddle of the knights and the knaves where the knights always tell the truth and the knaves always lie. So how can you determine who is a knight and who is a knave? This is the riddle of an addict and his wife. They are seeing it as the truth is somewhere in the middle when really there is someone telling the truth and there is a pathological liar. You need to believe the woman in this situation. She is telling you the truth and he is trying to manipulate and manage his image.
I tell people this and they tell me it’s too simple. Actually, it can be this simple, depending on the situation.
Lisa: It can. Sometimes it’s not but the reality is it can be really difficult for a woman to talk about these things. We are often not exaggerating. We are often holding some of our evidence back. Some of the stuff that is going on in our bedrooms and what we are seeing we’re not really keen to go talk to our pastor about it. I have this from other women too. Sometimes the evidence we are gathering is abuse in the bedroom or it’s neglect in the bedroom at a high order…funky stuff we have difficulty explaining which is clueing us into the fact that this guy is not who he says he is…there is something wrong. I’m sure there is someone who may be putting out there a perception that’s being jaded by anger, especially after she has had a gospel of abuse though. There is a lot more truth in what she is saying. She doesn’t have the impetus to lie and hide that he does.
Anne: I agree with you that if anything, she is holding it back. The interesting thing is that we constantly get accused of exaggerating…then we try to prove we aren’t and we look more and more crazy…it’s a downward spiral.
Lisa: It’s part of the factor that’s making this so difficult for women in a faith community situation. Her trauma symptoms are making her look really crazy whereas the husband has worked really, really hard to maintain a smooth image. We should be saying, “Wow, the level of emotion she is exhibiting proves the veracity of her statements. We should actually give credence to what she is saying…and his ‘too smooth’ should be getting picked up on people’s radar as ‘hang on, this alone should be a que that he is not being genuine or authentic with us.'” But people don’t catch this…they see it as opposite.
Anne: Rather than seeing it as genuine distress they see it as “she’s just crazy.”
Lisa: I think where sex addiction has gone to in even the last decade–where pornography has gone in the last decade–is so horrific that if people have not sat and considered the ways people can go off the rails sexually, it can really seem like, “Surely it’s not that bad. Surely he’s really not doing that. Surely it’s not as awful as you’re saying.” But it is. There are researchers and experts who will tell you it is that bad. It’s horrific.
Anne: Yes. Just as a podcaster I know because I hear these stories every day from women all over the world, as I’m sure you do too.
Lisa: In terms of talking about woman being spiritually abused or persecuted by their church, and I’m sure between the two of us we could list dozens of stories, even just this morning I received an email form a woman thanking me for talking about the spiritual abuse issue on my website; she told me a little about her story which included when her husband’s infidelity was found out by the church, they began policing her sex life, telling her she needed to make herself more available and started actually asking questions on a regular basis about her availability. She said she began having sex with her husband because of pressure from the church. She began to hate sex. The good thing in their story was that both she and her husband began to see this as completely poisonous and that it was bringing up other problems in their marriage; they left the fake unity. The sad reality is that sometimes there is no answer to leaving the abuse outside of leaving a particular faith community. Some people leave all faith communities for a time due to this. I think this is understandable and I never criticize people of doing what they think they need to do to protect themselves.
Anne: You mentioned the survey also looked at spiritual growth. What did it show about this?
Lisa: The happy side of the story is that so many of these women–79%–said that through this journey of discovering their husband’s sex addiction or porn addiction, walking through the crisis, that they came to a stronger place in their faith as part of their journey. For a small percentage, this was instant. They “flopped” into God’s arms for comfort. One woman said this had always been her safe place and so she went there immediately. But for more women, it was part of coming through the spiritual crisis that led them to a strengthened faith. Others talked about having a qualitatively better relationship with God–they had always had some sort of relationship and now it was much stronger (I would say this was my experience as well, particularly in my second marriage; I had always had a relationship but now I feel like I get him in a deeper level, a much more “life giving” relationship, having gone through seven years of walking through this.)
Anne: I would be interested to know how women are reconnecting with God.
Lisa: For me it was my prayer time, my mediation time. I have heard from other women that it has been joining a support group and seeing other women’s faith and how it has strengthened them; and really loving them in a non-pressuring way, bringing them back to maybe a faith they had in childhood and they begin to reconnect with their faith and with God. Discipline as well–doing the 12 Steps; this can be an awesome way to learn to think again and re-engage your Higher Power, reconnect with God. There are different ways this happens, but the results are often the same where they are more at peace and feel stronger and feel more loved and supported.
Anne: Any thoughts on how or why women come to a place of spiritual growth as a result of betrayal?
Lisa: My faith is a Christian faith. The Bible talks about this idea that trials in general are going to grow us, to mature us. I think there is a little bit that abuse in the church causes us to rethink our faith. One of the survey respondents said they began to question everything they thought they had known about God. I think we really do. We start to look at it and wonder what in their beliefs is really core and important and feels fundamentally true; what is just baggage? For example, “We don’t have boundaries.” Or fundamental things about the nature of God and we begin to think more carefully about.
The nature of God itself is an enormous issue and people don’t often realize they are carrying contradictory pictures of God around with them; he is complex and mysterious. I don’t think we have to wheedle him down to something that fits in our pocket and say, “This is my pocket God.” But at the same time, He wants to show us his goodness to women at the time of their suffering. He talks about this in the Bible. His thoughts and His heart are so towards the suffering, the marginalized, the widows and the orphans–he wants justice for the widows and the orphans. I think we have a generation of porn widows and sex addiction orphans out there that God is so for and He wants to see them treated well; he wants justice for them; he wants to see them lifted up. I would like to see the church understand God’s heart in this and sometimes they are not.
The third other thing I see in this survey as a result is woman like myself who idolize marriage. This is something I probably learned in childhood. This fell by the wayside as part of this journey. Sadly, it took me two times before I was able to get this one to fall by the wayside. But in my second marriage to a porn addict I realize that marriage was never going to fulfill all of my great longings for love and relationship. This is something I could only find in God. For me, this was a big part of my spiritual growth. I’ve heard this from a number of other women as well.
Anne: Speaking of justice for the widows. I did a podcast episode about Luke 18 and the parable of the unjust judge and how the widow is asking him to avenge her and he says to go away…and in the end he realizes he knows a way to have her go away—“I’ll put it back on God” and tells her that God will avenge her in His right time. Then the judge doesn’t actually do anything. This parable explains perfectly that what the porn widows want is justice. They want their husbands to be held accountable by God and by the church for the abuse and infidelity.
I did my own informal survey and found that when this happens, the wife feels more supported. If there is accountability and the church holds the husband accountable for the abuse and infidelity, the wife feels supported and that yes, her faith does put their money where their mouth is; they preach these things and then take action to make sure that people are protected. So in stories where the church leader hears about the abuse and calls the authorities, the women feel better than when the church leader hears about the abuse and does not call the authorities, for example.
Lisa: The church could be helping with this spiritual crisis. They could be helping catapult women into the spiritual growth and circumvent the whole spiritual crisis situation if they were willing to get God’s heart faster and to do these things. I’m so glad you did that survey and are talking about this. I was thinking about writing this up myself because I see it as a theme among women; again and again I hear women feeling guilty for wanting justice…like they are doing wrong. I tell them this is coming from a healthy place in them. This is coming from God’s heart because he wants justice for you too.
Anne: In my faith tradition, one of our early leaders who is in a really bad spot asks, “God, where are you?” Many people who read about this think, “He was so patient. He was waiting for God”…and then there is a verse where he actually asks for justice from God. He asks God to avenge his adversaries. It’s interesting that this part is glossed over a lot. Here is someone who is an amazing leader in our church, whom everyone adores and reveres as a strong spiritual person ,and there he is asking for justice. What’s wrong with us asking for justice?
Lisa: A very similar story we often quote, I think it’s Isaiah 63, is where the Messiah is there is bind up the broken heart and release the captive. We all stop there and forget that Christ is going to declare the day of vengeance on our enemies. We forget that part of healing is actually for there to be some justice against those who have wronged the broken-hearted, the prisoner; God hasn’t forgotten that. He puts it right in there but we gloss over it because it can be uncomfortable.
Anne: It will be interesting to see how this all plays out. I know some women who have seen that sort of justice take place in their husband or ex-husband. I have not personally observed this. Maybe someday; maybe in the next life.
As you’ve written your amazing book Beyond Betrayal and you’ve talked with women all over the world, what would you say to a woman who says she is in a spiritual crisis on account of her husband’s sex addiction?
Lisa: I would say it is so normal. Often she will feel like she is the only person who is shaking my fist at God. Not a chance. This is so normal. The majority of women are going to go through some sort of crisis like this. Please do not be ashamed of it. If you feel like you need to go outside and shake your fist at God and throw something at the sky and scream at him, do it! Do not be concerned about committing some sort of unforgivable sin or heresy because God is big enough. I think if a woman is keeping the lines of communication going, this is amazing. Keep it going even if it feels like there is nothing to say to God or no nice way to say it. Do it anyway because he is a good Father and a good parent can take this stuff. He knows how you are feeling. He loves you and He wants you to just pour out the poison to him. This is what you would be doing.
Anne: This reminds me of the 7th step which is prayer: I’m ready God for you to have all of me, the good and the bad. I’m willing now to let you see me in this vulnerable state rather than the “what I want or what my dreams or my hopes are;” I’m willing for you to see me as a broken person in despair.
Lisa: Maybe this is another part of the spiritual growth “is that we hit new levels of vulnerability with God and we find that we are still accepted, still loved….” I really did sense God’s love for me in the midst of my angriest days and the days I was shunned.
Anne: I went through about a 9-12 month drought where I could not feel God at all. It was frustrating because I was praying and reading my scriptures and I just felt trauma and sadness and horror; it felt like the jaws of hell were gaping after me. I spent a lot of time at church crying in the bathroom stall. I continued to pray and I continued to study my scriptures and eventually the fog lifted and now I feel his love every day. I worry because I know how awful it feels to be in that place where you pray and you can’t feel anything. So many women have told me this where they have said they have tried the prayers and scriptures and they don’t get answers so they give up. This makes sense to me. If I were that person I would probably give up to. And then I realize that I was that person for 9 months. I think I had so many spiritual experiences from before that time to draw upon during the drought that I just knew it would eventually work, even though I couldn’t feel it then.
Lisa: Sometimes it doesn’t feel like a place of comfort.
Anne: So I had my group and very good friends and family. I had support and I was able to express how I was feeling and they were amazing. Instead of saying that I should forgive and I would feel better, they said what I was feeling made sense. When a person gets the platitudes of “forgive and you’ll feel better” the trauma is so intense that forgiveness isn’t even on the table at that point.
Lisa: Absolutely not. Surviving is on the table. And God gives that. In my personal interactions with God I felt no pressure to forgive; I just felt to survive it with him. In time forgiveness came up as something that made sense and I was ready for it. It was months down the road.
Anne: Actually, I did feel God. I just didn’t feel comforted. I felt Him and he gave me an answer consistently for 9 months–wait. I didn’t like that answer and I felt uncomfortable about it so I was mad and not comforted. I think this is a better way to describe it. So I was communicating with God and He was communicating with me and He was telling me to wait, be still. But I thought that wasn’t a solution! I think this is why I didn’t feel comforted. This was in between when my husband was arrested and he moved out of our home and he did nothing to get back into the home and 9 months later when he filed for divorce. During those 9 months of literally waiting, holding a no-contact boundary, waiting for him to do something to indicate that he was in recovery or maybe he understood what was happening, God said, “Wait.” It was the most uncomfortable, difficult, long, harrowing, awful 9 months where I could not feel comforted even though I would try and try. My sponsor finally said that what I really needed was a soft blanket and pillow and to climb into my closet and cry and see if that would help me to feel comfort. We got to the point where we were wondering if a teddy bear would help me! Now I’m feeling fantastic and I am so grateful to God for giving me the answer to wait and for helping me to know what no contact meant. He is the one that set the no contact boundary; the night my husband got arrested I had no idea this was going to happen…so I can see God’s hand in my life but only in hindsight. I couldn’t see it when I was in it during the moment.
Lisa: And in the moment what we sometimes need is a community that lifts us up; a community who says they will weep when someone is weeping. I’m not going to preach to you like Job’s friends. I’m going to sit here quietly with you and share your pain. This is one of my main messages to the church these days. You don’t understand if you’ve not been there. And that’s ok as long as you’re willing to keep your advice to yourself for now and sit and share the pain and pray for her and hold her up and ask how you can help. This is going to help them get out of their spiritual crisis. It’s one of the best things you can do. It’s such a hard journey.
Anne: Lisa, thank you so much for being here today. It is such an honor. I have had so many women say that Beyond Betrayal was the book that really helped them.
Lisa: Thank you. It is an honor to be invited to speak with you and to get to know you better. I’m so excited about what BTR is doing. I’m talking about it to everyone. You and your team, keep up the awesome work!
Anne: Thank you. This podcast is brought to you by your donations. Betrayal Trauma Recovery is a non-profit. Please donate today. Until next time, stay safe out there!