November 7, 2012
The soft glow of an oil lamp just turned into a raging fire in your home! It's been knocked over by the person you trusted most. The fire is roaring and the flames are terrifying. Thoughts come "the house is burning down!", "I'm going to die", or "my family is going to get hurt". In an attempt to control the fire you try to cover it with a blanket and pour water on it. With each attempt to kill the fire it flares back up and spreads worse. Your fear continues to grow, you are in an unsafe place. Your house is burning down!.
When a spouse finds out about their companion's pornography addiction, it causes fear and pain. Like an uncontrollable fire the addiction has the potential for, and is causing much destruction. Often times in an attempt to cope with the situation a partner can without knowing it create more fear and pain for herself. This is called the Fear Cycle. Fear leads to obsession, obsession leads to control, and control leads to more fear and pain.
For example: A wife who recently found out about her husband's habit of looking at pornography online will often times start obsessing about the reasons why. "Maybe I'm not good enough", "I'm not attractive", or "this is somehow my fault". In an attempt to control the problem she might lose 20lbs, start wearing clothes that she normally wouldn't, keep the house a bit cleaner, or have sex more often. All of this behavior is an attempt to stop their partners acting out with pornography. Despite her best efforts her spouse's addiction to pornography persists and pain and fear resound.
Another example would be a wife who becomes angry. She might start obsessing over where he is, what he is doing, and who he is contacting. In an effort to control (cope) with those obsessive thoughts she starts checking his email account every day, following him in the car, and calling the phone company regularly to see who he called. The more she uncovers, or doesn't find the more enraged she becomes.
Extinguishing the fire (addiction) is largely out of her control. What is in her control as a partner of an addict is coping with her fear. Here are some essential keys to breaking free from the fear cycle.
1.Healthy Support. Call the fire department! Don't keep all of these emotions to yourself. Find healthy support. Surround yourself with healthy women who have dealt with similar problems. A good support system will help you tremendously in staying true to yourself despite the addicts best attempts to manipulate. An outsider's perspective that is not fraught with emotion will help in getting clarity. Get involved with S-Anon, talk to your ecclesiastical leader, talk to friends, contact a skilled therapist who specializes in addiction, and get involved in a therapy group.
2.Boundaries. Healthy boundaries are essential for safety. These boundaries block the heat and prevent burning. Boundaries need to come from a place driven by safety not fear and anger. For example: If a woman tells her husband to leave the house to get back at him for his acting out then she is fueling the fear (anger and obsession). If she asks him to leave because she feels unsafe in the relationship and she needs to protect herself then she is killing the fear.
Some examples of healthy boundaries for a spouse to set could include; No using the internet without someone else in the room. Required attendance at 12-step and therapy groups. Daily contact with a sponsor. And of course complete honesty. If a boundary is broken then naturally there must be a consequence.
Like a fire the addiction wants to consume whatever it pleases. When a source of fuel is shut off by you holding boundaries it will probably enrage him, shut him down, increase manipulative and childlike behaviors. Regardless of his reaction to the boundary, hold firm! Your safety is the most important thing. Setting solid boundaries removes you as possible fuel for the fire, and gives the addiction less chance for survival. More importantly as you hold to these boundaries you feel safer and the fear diminishes.
3. The Truth. Educate yourself and understand your enabling behaviors. Stay true to your truth. Get as healthy as you can spiritually, physically, and emotionally. The healthier you are the better you can recognize the truth. An addict will do his best to manipulate and twist reality. If he can get you to go along with his distorted thinking then his addiction will continue to burn you. For example an addict might claim; "If we have sex every day then I wouldn't have to act out". The truth is he doesn't have to act out regardless. Get clear about what your truth is and hold firm to that.
4. Surrender. It's very difficult to relinquish control when there is so much at stake. As you try to control things that are out of your hands it just leaves you holding frustration and fear. It's like a dog chasing his tail. The fire is not yours to control or stop. You can only control you. You can't tell the fire where to go next but you can decide where you're going next. Acknowledging and understanding what you can and cannot control is the first step to surrender. As you get closer to God you can learn how to give those things that you cannot control to Him. God rarely will just take away your fear and pain. You must be willing to give it to him. Once surrendered it cannot hurt you any longer.
The flames have engulfed your house, and life as you know it will never be the same. These changes can consume you or make you stronger. These skills are the first steps in finding peace in an unsafe environment. You do not protect yourself by controlling his behaviors; you protect yourself by taking care of you. As you hold firm boundaries, get support, surrender, and stay true to yourself you will find peace. This peace is a fireproof suit. The fire may rage on around you, it may die, but ultimately it cannot burn you any longer.
Brannon Patrick, LCSW