to the wife who wrote me in distress, whose email came back undeliverable

This morning I received the kind of letter I often receive, from a wife whose pastor husband lost his job for sexual indiscretion.  Several recovery attempts have been made, seemingly successful each time, with failures following. 

This wife tells me a story that wives often do: she has accessed therapy for herself, set up couples' counseling, attempted to be emotionally responsble for herself and vulnerable with him, and the pattern repeats. She wonders what she is doing wrong, and what she can do to make this marriage work again.

I wrote this reply, hit send, and the email bounced back undeliverable. Since there are no identifying details in either the story or the reply, I'm publishing this here in hopes that she finds it. And because I think it can be helpful to all the other women who are experiencing this common story.

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Lake Michigan (photo: Andy Bruner)

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Lake Michigan (photo: Andy Bruner)

I am so, so sorry for the pain you've been going through for so long.

Honestly, it sounds to me like you have done everything possible to make this work. I don't think the problem is in how you've responded or what you've done.

I think you've made a really important observation when you say: "Whenever we get relationally closer I feel like he becomes dissatisfied with me again."

Many, many men do not have the emotional skill set that they need to manage their own emotions, much less to be able to respond to their wives well in seasons of distress. 

In fact, I think this is exactly what the entire sexual addiction cycle is based upon: the man's inability to cope in healthy ways with his own emotions, his own pain, distress, anxiety, insecurity, etc.

Men have been taught to deny, repress, and ignore these emotions from their earliest moments on earth. We even speak to boy babies differently than girl babies. We tell them that "big boys don't cry." And then they are taught "boys will be boys"--that it's inevitable they will act out.  I talked about this at length on a FB Live session with Covenant Eyes  a few weeks ago, and it's up on YouTube now.

I suspect that you are observing reality when you sense his dissatisfaction at times of emotional vulnerability. I suspect that he does not feel comfortable with his own emotional vulnerability, and so when you are attempting to do the RIGHT THING for the relationship--being emotionally vulnerable--he does not know how to cope with this and so begins pushing you away.

This is actually what he does with his own emotions, I think: he pushes them away into dysfunctional sexual behaviors. He's simply doing to your emotions what he does with his own.

I think he may be successful at behavioral interventions (accountability etc) for a while, but unless he learns to cope with his own emotions, he will probably never be emotionally trustworthy for himself or for you, and he will continue to act out when he becomes emotionally overwhelmed.

According to the research of John Gottman, emotional trust is built on the capacity to turn toward your partner, rather than turning away or against. I've written about that here.  And here's a You Tube clip of Dr. Gottman talking about how to build emotional trust. I think you are experiencing that your husband turns away or against rather than toward.  And I think he has to learn to turn toward himself before he will be able to turn toward you.

I doubt that this is a problem that will be adequately addressed in marriage counseling, to be honest. I think he needs a really good, qualified Certified Sex Addiction Therapist (CSAT) to help him mine into the deep sources of his addiction, before he would be ready to work on the relationship in a significant way.

You are not overreacting, at all. You are experiencing the reality that he is not emotionally capable with himself or with you, which means that he returns to dysfunctional coping skills. Unless he works on his own emotional intelligence, you'll be stuck with this same pattern, I think.

I don't mean that to sound hopeless or harsh, but to affirm that you're not crazy. And also to say that there is a real road to recovery, but it's not through the behavioral trust that we commonly think about.

It's this emotional trust-building that he really needs to learn, first for himself so that he can then extend it to you.

Maybe he would watch that Facebook Live with you? And then he might start to understand where the problem lies and where the healing has to be begin: with his own emotions.

Meanwhile, I would say, stay strong in your boundaries. You don't yet know if he is going to do the work that's required. Here's an article entitled "A High View of Marriage Includes Divorce" that you might find helpful to share with him as well. 

Trust yourself.


You are strong and courageous.

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