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Rebuilding Trust

By Mark Chamberlain, Ph.D.

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Sex Addiction Recovery Tips from Mark Chamberlain, Ph.D.

Rebuilding Trust

Rebuilding trust, particularly with one’s spouse, can be one of the greatest challenges in the process of recovering from a sexual addiction. There are many reasons for this. A spouse who has been deceived and wronged is understandably hesitant to open her or his heart again. Furthermore, the individual who has struggled with compulsive sexual behavior is tempted to approach their recovery in the same way they approached their addictive lifestyle:

  1. Desiring instant gratification (“Can I make things better right away?”)
  2. Thinking in all-or-nothing terms (“Any qualms about my behavior means you don’t trust me at all.”) and
  3. Having unrealistic expectations for his own performance (“After all that I’ve done to mess up, I have to be next to perfect now”).

As a result of this approach to rebuilding trust, the recovering addict may experiences an intense cycle of euphoric highs (“my wife and I are closer than ever” or “I’m doing better now than ever”) and devastating lows (“maybe there is no hope for our marriage” or “I’ll never overcome this problem”).

In an effort to help those individuals who are struggling with the process of rebuilding trust, I’ll attempt to describe a pattern I’ve seen in couples that were able to successfully restore their trust, gradually and over a period of time. I’ll illustrate by telling the story of Spencer and Lisa.

The discovery of Spencer’s affair with another woman crushed Lisa’s spirit and rocked her world. She cycled between periods of sadness and periods of intense anger and hatred. She was also upset by a sense of overwhelming confusion; all of her former assumptions about Spencer’s character and trustworthiness, about his intentions and motivations, were brought into question. The stability, not only of their marriage, but of their entire family life had been undermined.

Within a month of the affair being exposed, Spencer had gone through a disciplinary council and was disfellowshipped from the Church. Spencer felt profound sorrow and guilt as he witnessed Lisa’s pain and talked with ecclesiastical leaders about the seriousness of his sin. As he continued to work closely with his bishop in an effort to repent, he felt his sorrow giving way to hope and a determination to live a better life. Most of all, he wanted to prove to Lisa that although his affair had been a sick, deceptive, and rotten part of his life, he was not a sick, deceptive, and rotten person through and through. He wanted to show her that not all of the good she had seen in him had been a facade, and that he could choose to exercise his redeeming qualities and overcome his more destructive behavior patterns.

Lisa also wanted Spencer to help restore some semblance of the world that she thought was hers, and so she expressed to him some of the things he could do to reassure her. She asked him to call several times a day to inform her of his whereabouts, particularly during those times when he was alone and had time available, like during his lunch hour or immediately after running an errand in town. During long talks that went late into the night, Lisa asked Spencer to describe the affair in more detail. She questioned him about the times and places they would meet and all of the details about exactly what he had done with the other woman. These talks were very distressing to Spencer, but he was willing to continue them when Lisa said they were helpful and seemed to ease her anger and anxiety a bit, at least in the short run. One night she unexpectedly suggested that they go to Spencer’s office so that she could check his e-mail messages for communications to his former mistress. Lisa also asked Spencer over and over again about his feelings for her, and seemed to be relieved by his communications of love and commitment. Interrupting her feelings of increasing confidence, Lisa was plagued by the nagging suspicion that Spencer was saying and doing everything he was in an attempt to save their marriage merely for what he got out of it and not out of a sincere desire to repent and change. “He has every reason to say and do the right things now,” she reasoned, “but what if all of these changes are just on the surface?” Then, of course, the ugliest possibility of all would rear its ugly head again: “I thought I could trust him before, but look how well he hid things then! What makes me think things have changed at all? He could be carrying on with her even now, for all I know.”

In an attempt to find a greater sense of peace, Lisa did some checking up on Spencer in secret. She regularly called for updates from his coworker who had been instrumental in bringing the affair to light in the first place. She learned from a computer-savvy friend how to check their home computer’s hard drive for hidden e-mail and Internet files. She even had a tiny video camera installed so that she could monitor what went on in the house during times when Spencer knew he would have time there alone. As I worked with this couple, it seemed to me that they were throwing themselves heart and soul into a battle they could never win. Here’s why:

Spencer was trying his best to live beyond reproach, and trying even harder to prove to Lisa that he had turned his life around. His intense efforts were motivated, in part, by his desire to measure up and even exceed expectations, to be everything to everybody and come off as the “good guy” in every situation. (Ironically, this was the very same life pattern that had drawn him into the relationship with the other woman. He started out wanting to help her and she had showered him with praise and affection for what a great guy he was.) However, his efforts to prove to Lisa that he was not drawn at all by old temptations rang hollow. She knew that he had struggled with pornography before the affair, and the radical turn-around Spencer was claiming seemed too dramatic and too good to be true.

As I talked with Spencer about Lisa’s continuing distrust, I tried to help him see it as something besides a failing grade applied to his performance. “She knows that you have been dependent before. Dependent on pornography as an escape when you feel bad. Dependent on the reassurance and the ego-boosts you received from this other woman. What rings hollow now is your dogged insistence that “I’m no longer dependent, I’m no longer dependent, I’m no longer dependent!” One of the problems is that Lisa can see very clearly that you’re still dependent: upon her, upon her forgiveness and upon the restoration of her trust. It drives you crazy when that is not forthcoming right away, and she can see that. Even if she doesn’t realize it consciously, deep down she’s poignantly aware that the way you do anything is the way you do everything: If you’re desperately seeking her approval, if you can’t delay gratification when it comes to patching things up with her, then she is right to doubt that you will have enough patience and inner strength to successfully face powerful sexual temptations.”

A wife in Lisa’s situation will always find herself doubting her husband’s assertion that he is no longer dependent, even if she wants with all of her heart to believe it. She recognizes that her spouse is still human, and at some level understands that we humans are creatures with very strong dependencies. We may, as Spencer did, deny our vulnerability and try to come across as strong and self-reliant; nonetheless, we are ultimately dependent upon God for our every breath and for our support from one moment to the next (Mosiah 2:21).

In a way, Spencer’s laser-like focus on his wife’s approval was an idolatry just as his affair was. He would “do anything” to prove himself to her, and any cause that receives that kind of investment from us is bound to end up going bankrupt. Any cause, that is, besides life with God; we can invest fully and confidently in giving our all to Him. In my opinion, this is the crux of the matter. Rather than proving to his wife or to himself that he is no longer dependent, a person in Spencer’s situation is better off working to deepen this one true and healthy dependency. God provides the only sure foundation for our faith. Other potential objects of our trust such as the arm of flesh (our willpower and our own abilities) or the fear of man (other people’s praise and approval) leave us wanting because they are idolatries that lack the power to provide even a sense of lasting reassurance, let alone “save us” in any important way.

As Spencer turned more and more to God with the entire range of his needs, Lisa’s confidence in him gradually grew. When they faced a dilemma in raising their kids, he began to suggest that they pray about it. When he needed peace and relief at the end of the day, he began immersing himself in spiritual music. When a coworker accused him unjustly, he went to the Lord first instead of to the boss and began working right away to surrender his anger. Watching him, Lisa must have sensed, again, that the way he did anything was the way he did everything, because she started to develop a trust in Spencer’s ability to handle sexual temptation. Now, however, instead of the focal point, sexual temptation had become simply one aspect of an entire life that was dependent on God. Spencer was no longer insisting, “I’m a rock.” Instead, he acknowledged his vulnerability and neediness–but was also constantly reminded himself to place his trust in “The Rock.”

A few months later, as we were discussing their progress, I asked Lisa about what had made the biggest difference in the rebuilding of her trust. She recalled a conversation they had had one night as they were getting into bed and identified it as a key turning point. To the best of my memory, here’s how she described it:

“I told Spencer that I was troubled by an experience I had had that morning. As I was walking down an aisle at Wal-Mart, I had this dark, ugly feeling come over me. I told him that it had worried me. I wondered whether it might be a spiritual impression, an indication that he was somewhere being tempted at that very moment. It wasn’t unusual for me to bring up things like that. Earlier, he would have responded by reassuring me about how well his day had gone, saying something like, ‘I know this may be hard to believe, but I can honestly say that I had no problem at all with temptation today.’ Of course, I would have responded with, ‘I don’t know if I can trust you.’ Then we would have been off to the races, with him working harder and harder to reassure me even as I became more agitated and upset. Finally, he probably would have asked me what time I had been in the store so that he could give me the name and number of the coworker or client he was with at that moment so that I could call and verify that he was where he was supposed to be. It had gotten pretty crazy.

“But on that day, instead of all that, Spencer just sighed and said, ‘Honey, that could very well have been an impression because I was tempted several times today. But what I felt most today was not temptation, but gratitude. I’ve been trying to get into the habit of turning to God each time I struggle so that I can receive strength from Him. Sometimes I turn to Him early, and sometimes it takes me a while to stop myself and shift gears. The amazing thing to me is how patient He has been. Here I am, still struggling along, and yet look at how much he has blessed me.'”

Lisa had watched Spencer turn to another woman in an attempt to meet his dependency needs, and then watched him turn his focus back to her, his wife, with a vengeance. However, now she was seeing something entirely different. She was watching Him turn to God in his times of need. Implicitly she understood that God alone was the one source that could ultimately meet Spencer’s every need, and so witnessing that shift was the beginning of the restoration of her trust and confidence.

Mark Chamberlain, Ph.D. is Salt Lake City-based clinical psychologist specializing in the treatment of sexual addiction. He can be reached at 801-564-7566. His offices are located at 1258 West South Jordan Parkway, Suite 202, South Jordan, UT and in Davis County at 1785 East 1450 South #233 Clearfield, UT. Mark is author of Wanting More: The Challenge of Enjoyment in the Age of Addiction and coauthor of Willpower Is Not Enough: Why We Don’t Succeed at Change. He specializes in the treatment of addictions and compulsive behavior. Contact Dr. Chamberlain to try out his eWorkbook, “Turning from Other Dependencies to God.”

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17 Responses to “Rebuilding Trust”

  1. kahuna said:

    Even after staying out of trouble for a long time, my wife still thinks she needs to check up on me sometimes.

    This article makes it seem like I’m responsible for letting her do that.

  2. Tim B said:

    Interesting. I didn’t see that. You are not responsible for her choices, and it’s not up to you to “let her” or not let her do much of anything.

    To me, the article is describing a way of trying to build trust that doesn’t work — convincing your spouse that you are beyond the problem entirely — and a way that does work — demonstrating to your spouse your growing reliance on God to help you with your struggles.

    As contradictory as it may seem, there is more strength to be found in acknowledging our weakness than there is in maximizing our strength. When we try to convince others of our strength, we might succeed in deluding ourselves that we are strong, and that’s a significant step toward our next slip or relapse. When we acknowledge our struggles, we are more honest and more humble, and more ready to accept God’s strength to get through those struggles.

  3. kahuna said:

    It just bothered me that he only said that checking up wasn’t the best thing to do instead of saying wives shouldn’t do it. It seemed to me that he was saying check up if you must but it won’t do a lot of good.

  4. Tim B said:

    I’m not seeing why that’s bothersome. He didn’t say what you wanted him to say, but that doesn’t make either of you wrong. I don’t know how much good it would do for anybody to tell spouses not to check up on their spouses. Do you think it would make a difference if you were to point to someone who did that you could say “Look! He says you shouldn’t check up on me”?

  5. kahuna said:

    I do think it would help. She always listens to other people more than she listens to me.

  6. Tim B said:

    I’ve never met her or you, but neither have I met anyone who was persuaded by a “See! This guy says I’m right and you should do what I say.” argument, no matter who the guy is. I don’t think you can change her mind in that manner, and I don’t think it’s a good idea to throw out a good article because the author doesn’t say exactly what you want him to tell her.

    Her problems are hers, even though they impact you, just as your problems are yours, even though they impact her. There’s more fertile ground to be found by exploring these posts to see how you can use them with yourself to get better, rather than mining them to find how you can use them to persuade her. Changing your life is your job. Changing her life is hers. This article indicates that, with time, as you continue your recovery and find lasting sobriety, trust can be rebuilt. There are no promises that you will — nobody can tell you that honestly — but, whether you do or not, your life is better with lasting sobriety no matter what she chooses.

  7. kahuna said:

    I don’t throw out the article, but I think it wimped out.

    Lasting sobriety? I’ve had lasting sobriety. When do I put my foot down and say that I’ve behaved myself long enough to not have to account for my movements?

  8. Tim B said:

    When you’re ready for your marriage to be over.

    You don’t demand things an expect your marriage to continue. You don’t have a right to demand much of anything, and demanding trust is a complete waste of time. Trust is something you build, and it builds very slowly. Getting testy and belligerent about it won’t build any, and it won’t do your sobriety any good either.

    You don’t have to tolerate the way you’ve been treated, but you don’t have the option of demanding that anybody else change their behavior. It’s a “take it or leave it” proposition. Take the way you’re being treated, or leave the marriage, but you don’t get to try to badger your wife into doing what you want. She has the same proposition. It’s how Free Agency works.

    I would propose you try more humility instead. Humility is the name of the game. When you humble yourself and accept the consequences of your bad choices, without demanding strokes for your good choices, you’re more likely to get what you want.

    If you want to talk about this in more detail, the Support Forums would be a good place. Issues between addicts and their spouses are hardly new.

  9. Rex Goode said:

    Tim, I understand your point and mostly agree. I don’t think it is necessarily so black and white. There are more options than to take it or leave it. There are things known as boundaries and before anyone leaves a marriage or just accepts one the way it is, they ought to be tried.

    In my post on A Matter of Courtesy, I said that I think that telling a wife where you’re going is an important thing. I think that if a couple is honest about doing that, then checking up is unnecessary.

    I don’t know what the form of checking up is in question here, but spouses of addicts can do some pretty unhealthy things in a quest to soothe their feelings and find a wayto trust. I’m thinking of doing a post about my experience doing a Q&A panel at a conference on this topic.

    I’m fortunate that my wife doesn’t check up on me, but then I’ve never been unfaithful to her and I have a long, long sobriety. She did have a brief bout with mistrust when she first found out about my issues.

    I let her know that I don’t ask permission to go places, join groups, or do anything else I think I need to do to be manage my recovery. I tell her where I’m going, but I don’t ask. That was my boundary. I’m a husband, not a little boy and I won’t be treated like a little boy. When I established that boundary, she didn’t like it at first, but she got into it and now I get respect because I expect it (and give it).

    So, to kahuna I would say: If there is something your wife is doing that is unhealthy or unwelcome, you have every right to have boundaries about that. She has every right to ignore them, but if she does, you have to let her know how it affects you and your relationship with her.

  10. Tim B said:

    There is certainly room for nuances in the spectrum of taking and leaving, but there aren’t any other options. Either you accept it or you don’t. We can discuss the relative merits of those positions, which will differ from case to case. And I wasn’t saying that the options were to accept the marriage as it is or leave it — it was to accept the wife the way she is, or leave the marriage. People are not situations. You can have a conversation to see what she’s willing to do and what she’s not willing to do, and your point about boundaries is good in that aspect. Jointly, they can choose to change the situation. But he can’t change her, and she can’t change him, and they both need to be clear about that if anything else is going to work.

    If he is going to be absolute that he never being checked up on, then he needs to be clear on the price of being absolute. Similarly, if she is going to be absolute about checking up on him whenever she wants, she needs to be clear on the price of being absolute. If they’re both willing to be reasonable and respectful and work on this, then lots of better options open up.

  11. Rex Goode said:

    I agree with this, to a point. While it is true that you can’t choose how someone will change, you can trigger someone else to change by changing. If you do something different, the other person must react. If the modus operandi in the home is a tug of war about whereabouts, if one starts to behave differently, as in setting boundaries, the other will have to react to those boundaries. Even ignoring something is a reaction.

    What you can’t do is predetermine what the other person’s reaction will be. It then becomes a challenge to be moral in your choices and allow the wife her free agency to react how she will.

    I think I’ve been fairly clear that I think a husband owes a wife the information about where he’ll be in my post about that. It works both ways.

    Taking an example from the tip by Dr. C, if my wife said that she wanted the password to my email so she can read it for anything inappropriate, I would say, “No way.” I wouldn’t ask Dr. C’s permission to put my foot down, and in that, I totally agree with you. Our friend, kahuna, has to do that for himself.
    By the way, my computer sits on my desk turned on most of the time in my home office and if my wife wants to know what’s in it, she just need but look.

    But, let’s assume for this discussion that my wife did ask to look at my email, and I have a history of allowing it, but this time I refused because I’m getting a backbone. Refusing isn’t me trying to change her, but it is trying to change me and because I’m changing, she will have to decide what to do about it.

  12. Tim B said:

    I disagree that you agree to a point. I think you agree completely, and we’re just dabbling around with nuances of emphasis. Going further would be a lot like a salvation by grace vs works discussion, and I find those really boring more often than not.

    I don’t know a simple way to deal with the situation kahuna is in. There are too many variables that I don’t know about, so I’ve brought up some of the useful principles that might be useful in approaching the situation.

    And right now I’m really tired, so I’m going to stop.

  13. Rex Goode said:

    Aha! You’ve fallen right into my trap: “Wear them out!” 🙂

    When it comes to marriage, I find that it is all about boundaries. I think I have my wife’s trust as much because she sees me as a man who sticks up for myself as much as one who looks to the Lord for strength. In that, it probably is much like a grace vs. works discussion, but with me it is both grace and works.

    It is also about acting or being acted upon. Acting out was me giving in to external forces. Sobriety is about having the personal character to make the right choices, recognizing it is impossible on my own power.

    When it comes to checking up on a spouse, I’ve heard a lot of sick stuff. One wife insisted her husband leave the bathroom door unlocked whenever he went inside so she could spot check to make sure he wasn’t masturbating. That kind of stuff doesn’t set well with me.

  14. kahuna said:

    Tim, your not the first person to tell me I should give humility a try. I might try the support forums. I read over some of the stuff in the Marital Issues forum. LOoks like a dude like me could get chewed out pretty good there.

    So, Rex, it looks like your saying that it’s not the article that wimped out. It’s me. Fair enough. I’ll have to think about that.

  15. Tim B said:

    Rex — I like the idea of boundaries in marriage. I’ve only had experience with marriage done badly on the first-hand. I understand boundaries, but haven’t had the chance to try them in that setting. There’s definitely a balance to be had between what we want and what our spouses want. A couple years, I’m going to be looking into that.

    Kahuna — Marital Issues is not going to be a good place to find out how to get your wife to back off. Daily Journal would be a good place to come in and talk about your stuff, and get some support in your quest for more humility. Do that for a while, and see if things calm down a bit with your wife.

  16. Latter-Day Sexual Recovery » Our Fears Did Cease said:

    […] is a difficult task, but not impossible. For a professional and spiritual perspective on this, see Rebuilding Trust, by Mark Chamberlain, Ph.D. on this […]

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