He Says He’s In Recovery, But Is It True?
What Does Recovery Mode Mean?
Forest Benedict is a licensed marriage and family therapist and a certified sexual treatment provider. As the clinical director of an outpatient sexual treatment program in Central Valley California and the program manager of the Sexual Treatment Provider Program at MidAmerican Nazarene University.
If Your Husband Tells You He's "In Recovery" What Does That Mean?
Forest: What really brought me to do this work, like many people who get into this field, was that I was raised in a pretty difficult upbringing with an alcoholic father and had some difficult traumas. Even though I was raised to be religious, I found pornography at a young age and became addicted. I led a double life throughout my teen years. It wasn't until I was about 24 years old that I decided I really needed to take my recovery seriously.
Thankfully it was before I was married. I got into treatment. I took full responsibility for my recovery and felt led to do this work.
What Is Recovery?
Anne: Forest, in your experience, why is it essential for partners to look for visible changes in their addict husband's life instead of trusting the verbal promises of changes that addicts often profess? My ex would often say things like, "I have a plan..." but I never saw a plan.
Forest: I think it's essential because so many wives of addicts have been lied to for so many years. There has been so much secrecy that once the addiction is discovered, the addict usually really believes they are going to change and they want to change. But I tell people, even in intake, that words mean nothing at this point. This has already been proven based on the past. An unhealthy and unsafe situation has been created because of words and so ACTION IS EVERYTHING--action that is not a performance, along with an attitude change.
What Does Recovery Mean?
The biggest attitude change is humility. They exhibit a willingness to humble themselves and submit to the process, and acknowledge the trauma they have caused. They get out of the victim mentality where they act like they can't do anything. There are different attitude changes such as learning to be patient with their wife. I talk about how the addict gets this burden off themselves and they feel this huge relief but then the wife carries it from then on. So they need to be patient with their wife as she adjusts to the truth that she has been a victim of lies and abuse for years. This is another attitude change that a partner could see happening. Unless there are visible signs, there is no foundation to know that a change is happening. Words don't make a foundation. Only actions create a foundation for real recovery.
Anne: Yes. If you say, "You need an attitude change..." and they say, "My attitude is changed!!" ...that’s a red flag. Because you would feel it if he'd changed and you wouldn't think he needed one.
Forest: Exactly. The defensiveness and pride, the need to be right and not willing to listen are signs he's not in recovery.
Anne: In my ex's case, I asked him to send me a list of some of the things he thought were my character defects when I was working on Step 4. But I asked him to write my therapist to ensure my safety.
When my therapist received it, she wouldn't give it to me or let me read it because she said it was too abusive, and she didn't want to enable him harming me even more. I asked her to give me an overview. She said he made a few disingenuous statements about his abuse that did not amount to true remorse or accountability, and then spent 5 pages listing perceived faults in me. This clearly showed that he was not taking responsibility, and that his perception of me wasn't based in reality.
Signs He's NOT In Recovery From Porn Addiction
Forest: The prideful attitude, the defensiveness. A lot of addicts initially think that if they are sober they are recovering. But they're not putting any effort into learning how to take care of themselves and manage stress or manage their emotions. Addicts need to actually learn, apply, and practice tools. They need structure. Everyone I work with is assigned things they need to do on a daily basis to connect with themselves, their higher power, and their wife.
Recovery is actually learning to care for themselves in a healthy way. Wives will notice if/when they began to do this. If they can see that the addict in their life is trying to change the way they relate to themselves and to others, this humble attitude makes a difference.
Husbands won't be perfect at it, but it is definitely not an excuse to relapse or to go back into passivity that led most of them into the situation to begin with. It's hard work, especially when an addict comes from emotionally neglectful or abusive family of origin. If they are willing to work hard and persist despite set backs, become totally honest, accountable, and humble, then it's obvious they are investing in a lifestyle change and making themselves safer to be with.
Helping Women Know If They're Husband Is In Recovery Is Our Goal
Anne: At Betrayal Trauma Recovery, our number one goal is to help women establish safety from lying, infidelity, porn use, gaslighting, emotional abuse, and some of the narcissistic behaviors that tend to come out in an active addict or someone who is "white knuckling" but may not be in recovery. Some of the signs I saw in my own situation were related to setting a "no contact" boundary after my husband's arrest for domestic violence. I waited for him to show some signs of recovery, and instead saw things like him shutting down my bank account, him berating me about the clothes or diapers he wanted me to pack for the kids when he would have them. His obvious refusal to take full accountability for the children while he his care was just one sign he wasn't in recovery.
There were so many things he could have taken responsibility for to show that he was applying the principles of recovery. Those ACTIONS are the things that are important. Part of what was so difficult during that time was that I was hearing from others that he was saying he wanted his marriage to work, but that he couldn't do anything because I wouldn't talk to him. He told everyone about his miraculous recovery that was non-existent in terms of real recovery behaviors. He would play the victim. It was frustrating and traumatizing to hear the statements he would say to third parties. My gut reaction was that I needed to write him letters or that someone needed to tell him what to do because he obviously wasn't getting it. His solution was to file for divorce.
Know The Signs Of Addict Brain - When They're Not In Recovery
Knowing what the signs of emotional abuse is key. We have a book section on our website and I highly recommend that women read all of the books so they can have an understanding of what emotional abuse can look like. Even if they don't suspect that porn is happening anymore or that infidelity is continuing, emotionally abusive behaviors are a red flag that something is wrong.
From the wife's perspective and from Betrayal Trauma Recovery's perspective, the reasons for the abusive behavior don't matter. Wives find themselves wondering if his abusive behaviors are caused by a personality disorder or the addiction or is he just selfish? Is it because he had a brain injury, is it his shame, is it his abusive upbringing?
WHY is is emotionally abusive doesn't matter, and spending any time trying to figure out the root cause is a waste of time. Plus, you get abused in the process. The more she tries to focus on the behaviors, the more she is sucked into the vortex of abuse rather than taking a step out and recognizing that he is the one responsible for figuring himself out. In the meantime while he's learning how to relate to her in a healthy way, she needs to stand at a safe distance and set boundaries until he is a safe person to connect with.
Women Often Struggle With Boundaries When He's Not In Recovery
Forest: I found that when we start to work on boundaries with wives, they have a really hard time creating boundaries and enforcing them. As I help them work through what was stopping them from doing this, I felt like a lot of them had difficulty seeing their own worth, getting to the point of seeing that they deserve to be treated well and to be in a relationship with someone who is healthy. I really felt it was related to this, self-esteem or their own worth. Jennifer Lamprey did an event for women called The Quickening and she asked me to write a piece from a male perspective. She thought it would be powerful to have a man speak to women.
It was interesting to sit down and write this piece in an hour. This came to me and I feel like it was one of the most validating pieces I have ever written, from my perspective as an addict in recovery. I wrote about what my wife is worth, that she is worth my best recovery efforts. I went into detail about what that looks like, that it's not about how much sex I get or what mood she is in, that I need to be working hard at my own growth and healing. I feel like it really communicated well to the partners that they deserve to be in this type of relationship so they can set boundaries that do protect that worth and do communicate to the addict that they do deserve to be treated with respect and to be cherished. This is how this came about.
Anne: As you read this next part, I want you to think about how you feel about it, and please scroll down and comment! We love it when you interact with us!
You Deserve Your Husband's Real Recovery Efforts And So Much More
Forest: It says: My wife is a woman of infinite worth. Because of this, she deserves my best efforts. She deserves a husband who only has eyes for her. She deserves a husband in active recovery, not passively going with the flow. She deserves a husband who reminds her that she is not to blame for his past or present choices. She deserves a husband who actively opposes visual and mental lust in all forms, viewing it as the enemy of true intimacy.
It goes on like this...about being trustworthy, about not blaming her...It sets up this ideal but I don't think it's too unrealistic. It's about recognizing that I do want to be treated that way, I do deserve to be the only woman. For the addicts, my intention is to call them up to a higher level of intentionality and commitment with their recovery. I find that often when this is read, it triggers shame but I hope this will be turned into the healthy guilt that leads to a realization that the addict can live up to this and that they do not want to continue living the opposite.
I love writing to inspire people. I feel like setting the standard and saying, “Let's strive for this” is very helpful. I don't want to sit in this mediocre place because it doesn't help anyone achieve recovery.
Watch For Actions to Show True Recovery From Porn Addiction, Not Words
Anne: One of the things that happened to me because of my ex's extreme case is that he went to therapy for years, I made him read things like this, I took him to conferences, etc..., and he really learned how to talk the language of recovery without actually doing the recovery work. I think the purpose of this episode of watching for those actions is critical...how is he actually treating you? Does he listen? Is he patient? If you ask a question, does he answer it without getting defensive? Is he willing to listen to your opinion? Is he willing to be, in John Gottmans' words, influenced? Is he willing to be influenced by his wife or is he wondering why she is "bothering" him? When will the behaviors speak for themselves, is one thing wives always need to be looking for.
Forest: I totally agree with that. I love the idea of the wife catching him doing the right thing. It's not like he is doing the right thing in front of her intentionally to perform or pretend but that she would be surprised when she walks out and he's working on his recovery materials or when he says he can't do something tonight because he's really tired and might be triggered tomorrow by not getting enough sleep...catching glimpses of how he is changing his view. I know this is so difficult because of the lack of safety in the past when it's all been a performance and when it looked like all the right actions. I am always emphasizing that addicts need to be seeing people who specialize in this and have certification because they may be putting on a performance for the therapist and the therapist needs to know if this is happening.
People Can Absolutely Change - Recovery Can Be Real
Anne: I connect with women all over the world about their experiences with their addict husband. I absolutely know that people can change. If they make the decision to change, they involve God in the process, and they are genuinely humble, accountable, honest and willing to submit to God's will, anything can happen. Even right now, I, myself am in the process of changing and asking God to help me with certain character defects I have and things I am dealing with in my everyday life that I really want to improve. I'm not completely healed or changed yet but I have faith that as I continue to do these things, I can change. I believe this about everyone.
That being said, just because people can change does not mean they will. Sitting back and observing if they really are genuine and what they are doing to show that is what betrayal trauma recovery is all about. How do we establish safe boundaries while we observe from a distance to see if the change is real, deep and lasting...and is it sincere rather than just another way to keep me in the abuse cycle?
Forest: I think this is a really good way to look at this. I use a lot of language about wives keeping themselves safe and is the addict acting in such a way that makes it safe for them. I definitely wouldn't recommend even trusting. It's unsafe to trust unless there is real evidence of change.
Come What May, Wives Need To Stand At A Safe Distance Until Recovery Is Real
Anne: Our focus at betrayal trauma recovery is to know how to be safe. Whatever he decides to do, we will stay safe until we see these particular characteristics that we need to be safe.
I appreciate those working with addicts who have the expertise who can help them because, as a wife who has been injured by that, we are not able to do it.
Forest: Yes, this can definitely get unhealthy when you feel like you are responsible for making sure they are doing all the right things or making sure you need to catch them if they do the wrong things. It's so important for the addict to have their own accountability and therapist--whatever they need. Your organization is doing a great work in helping wives to work on their own healing and maintain a safe distance when they're not safe. It's great to see.