Sara Walker is working toward becoming a therapist to help women going through their own recovery process from their husbands’ addiction to pornography.
Please introduce yourself and your situation.
My husband and I had been married for three months when he told me he’d been looking at porn. We’ve now been married for almost twenty years. As our marriage progressed, he would tell me a little bit and hide the rest. It wasn’t until he hit rock bottom in 2016 that he fully confessed to me, to the bishop, everything that he had done, that he was able to make progress forward. I felt so alone, lost, hopeless when we were dealing with it early in our marriage. Back then, it was really difficult to find resources and most people didn’t talk about the problem. It’s talked about more now, but still not much. It was lonely, and hard. I don’t want other women to feel like they have to deal with this alone because they don’t. There are books, online groups.
People are starting to realize that porn is not healthy. For a long time it’s been pushed as a healthy way to deal with sexuality. It’s not healthy at all. Society is finally starting to realize that.
That’s why I talk about it – I don’t want people to feel alone. I also want addicts to feel like they can talk about it. When my husband is doing better in his recovery, is when he can talk about it and doesn’t feel alone himself. Finding a recovery group for him was really beneficial in that way.
There’s power in speaking out and not hiding. In the Bible, at the beginning when God and Christ are creating the earth, God said, “Let there be light.” There’s so much power in what we say and how we speak, it’s important to learn how to do that in a healthy way about this issue.
How did you learn to speak about it in a healthy way?
I joined a group called WORTH – Women Of Rebirth and Therapeutic Healing – part of a larger organization in Utah called Life Changing Services (LCS). It was here I was able to tell my story for the first time in a “safe” space with others who would understand. Finding a group that allows you to process aspects of betrayal in a healthy way is vital to recovery for women.
After I had been with them for about 18 months, I worked as their intake coordinator. There’s a screening process to make sure women are healthy enough to be in group therapy. I heard hundreds of stories of women dealing with all different aspects of the issue. Some women didn’t know their husband had a problem until the police came and took their computer and husband to jail for child porn. Other women would discover issues when they went to the doctor and found they had contracted various diseases. Stories like these are heartbreaking and not uncommon. Not every woman or marriage deals with these kinds of issues, many have discovered things accidentally. Please don’t think because your story is not as extreme as these that it’s not worth telling, or seeking recovery for.
I’m currently a senior at BYU-Idaho studying marriage and family science in the hopes of pursuing a doctorate in psychology. I want to understand addiction and betrayal trauma on a clinical level so I can continue to speak out and help others.
Are you intending to be a therapist eventually?
I’d like to do therapy, but also teach and do research. The field of study for addiction is still somewhat new. When Alcoholics Anonymous came out with the 12-step program, that was pivotal for addicts. Before that, addiction had been treated as a mental illness and in some cases mental illness can play a part. But there is a lot of research now about treating addiction more holistically. As those who struggle with addiction overcome shame and poor interpersonal relationships, they can find healing.
Clearly, there is still much to be learned considering recidivism rates can be as high as 90%, depending on the type of addiction. What researchers are looking at is how to prevent relapse. It really is a whole life change. A person with an addiction has to change their entire life. The 12 Steps are successful because they create awareness. They’re finding more ways to help people with that but there is so much more that can be learned and done to help recovery.
What would you say to someone in the situation of learning that their spouse is addicted to pornography?
Find someone trustworthy to talk with. Start researching online – find a group, find a therapist. Get the help you need. You are not crazy, you are not alone.
That doesn’t necessarily mean going to the bishop. As much as I’d like to send people to the bishop, a lot of bishops struggle with understanding the betrayal trauma a woman goes through. Bishops are generally not trained therapists and they can make mistakes and missteps in helping women deal with the betrayal. I actually did a podcast on this with Leading Saints (formerly Leading LDS). I want women to understand that in seeking help for betrayal trauma, it’s important to get professional assistance. When you seek out the bishop, go for a priesthood blessing or temporal help if you need to. But also go to a therapist or look online for communities that have the resources and the ability to help. SANON, SA Lifeline, Bloom for Women, and WORTH group all have online help.
A lot of women say they feel like they’re crazy – no one believes them. There is a term – gaslighting – that happens. It is when one person works to make the other person question their reality. Often, the addict feels guilt and a lot of shame, so he makes the wife feel like she’s crazy when she points things out to him. The wife might say something like, “We’re not as close as we were, you don’t talk to me, what’s going on.” The husband will shift things and point out how it’s not his fault etc. They don’t even do it intentionally, it’s a defense mechanism for them.
Please, stand in your truth and seek help from trained, outside resources.
What IS a woman feeling in all of this?
She’s feeling a lot of things – overwhelmed, anxious, a lot of weight on her, in over her head and doesn’t know how to deal with things. She can often go into what we call survival mode. Loneliness is powerful too. When there is addiction present, the person with the addiction checks out of a lot of regular life. The spouse has to step into two roles and it can feel really heavy and lonely.
A lot of women go through what is called betrayal trauma – they can experience a lot of symptoms that are similar with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). If a woman is seeking professional help, she can be diagnosed with PTSD. You run the gamut with a husband who is still a good person and trying to be nice, but dealing with addiction, to a husband who is abusive and eventually gets taken to jail. Depending on where your spouse is at, and where you are, there can be all the feelings.
When you’re trying to get into recovery, the number one thing you need to do is make your connection with God. That can be really difficult because you can feel betrayed by God. I have felt and heard other women say things like, “I felt like I was supposed to marry him, why would God want me to marry him if He knew this would happen?” I had to struggle through these feelings and come to renegotiate my relationship with God. I can say that although this has been THE most difficult thing I have gone through, now that I am on “the other side,” I can also say it has been one of the BEST things that happened to me. I have come to understand God and the Atonement on a much deeper and more personal level than before.
How did you personally deal with that feeling of being alone and disconnected from God as well as your husband?
We had to go through a disciplinary council and my husband was disfellowshipped for a year. When I went to church, a few times I had to get up and leave. It felt like the things others were saying were so cliché and trite. I would go out to my car and just cry. I felt so alone, frustrated and angry. I really had to clear away the clichés and trite sayings and come to an understanding of gospel principles.
Here is where I landed, and how I currently view things. I am okay with saying that my faith is evolving and growing, and in a few years maybe I will understand this differently. But for what it’s worth, this is my current lens. We know God is omniscient, He knows everything. Because He is omniscient, people want to say that God knew that this was going to happen to me and that God knew my husband would be a porn addict. I don’t want to say it’s not true, but this is how I’ve come to terms with it. Life is like a mountain. God sits at the top and has a clear view down the mountain. Our life goal is to get to the top of the mountain where God is. Our agency allows us to choose the path up the mountain. Depending on the path we choose, we will have certain obstacles to overcome. Other people climbing the mountain can make choices that knock rocks down, a snowstorm may blow in, fog can enclose our path, etc. Some things happen because other people choose poorly and it affects us. But some things happen simply as part of living on this Earth. God sees it all and is willing to help us maneuver through the obstacles. We just have to reach out to Him and be willing to change course or push through the obstacle. I hesitate to say that God knew my husband was going to make some really poor choices that would be so hurtful. I do think God saw the path my husband was on and knew what some of my obstacles might be because of it.
What principles and doctrines of the gospel were most important to you in this recovery process?
The first task is to come to understand that God loves you, is aware of you, that He wants to help you.
The second thing that is really important for women to understand is that because our spouse has their agency, we can’t pray them into being better. I know almost every one of you has tried.
I used to try to talk to my husband about recovery. I would make suggestions and I often lied to others to cover for his poor behavior. I finally realized there was literally nothing I could do to help him. That was a really painful realization. Heavenly Father helped me realize that I could not control him because it would be taking away his agency. And he didn’t need another Savior. He already had one. When I realized all the implications of that, I just sobbed for a good, long time. Then I had to trust that God would take care of me and my kids, regardless of what my husband chose to do.
That put me on a path of personal recovery and discovery – I needed to order my life the way God wanted it ordered. If my husband chose to get into recovery and come along with us, he was welcome. If he didn’t, that wasn’t my problem to try to solve anymore. I learned to focus on what I had control over in my life. If you haven’t read Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey, I highly recommend it.
What was your next step after coming to those realizations?
I felt like I needed to go back to school. I didn’t know, I still don’t know what my husband will do. He may go back and have a relapse. He may choose something that’s detrimental to our marriage. We’ve talked about boundaries and what will happen if he chooses certain things. I’m really focused on what God wants me to do in this life – preparing myself to take care of myself and my children if it comes to that. I hate to call it self-reliance but that’s really what it is.
Maurice Harker, the director of LCS, has an analogy of the pioneer women in the early days of the Church. Imagine you’re one of the women being driven from Nauvoo and your husband is a bum. If he’s not doing his part, if he thinks bringing you a log for the fire is sufficient, you don’t let him get in the wagon. Your goal is to get to Zion. If he chooses to participate in the trek fully and completely as a partner, going to Zion will be a lot easier. If he doesn’t, you have to be prepared to go it alone. That’s really difficult, especially in our culture. I know a lot of women (members in general) struggle with that idea. If you read Seven Habits, you will find the principles of independence and interdependence. That is vital to understanding this aspect.
I’m sure that’s different for every couple – both the path into addiction, and the path to recovery.
A lot of these guys are really good guys who struggle with addiction – the psychologist in me can see my husband’s situation. He has a lot of issues of his own that he has to deal with. When people start turning to addiction, they shut off connection and empathy. The problem with marrying someone who is struggling with addiction is, they’re kind of stuck at the emotional level of whenever the addiction started, say about the age of 15. They have to start growing connection and empathy on their own to catch up as they find recovery.
My husband has been working on his own recovery and I talk to him about things that I’m learning. When he’s not in addict-brain, he understands where I’m coming from. He’s had longer periods of sobriety, so he doesn’t hold it against me. But I’ve had to learn to not be his therapist or his coach. For a long time I took on a rescuer role, but I can’t do that anymore and he has to learn to rescue himself. He has a lot of maturing to do, and he’s learning that because he is a good person who struggles with an addiction. He can get mad about boundaries but he understands why they’re there. The hardest part of boundaries for me is feeling justified in keeping them. I like to try to talk myself out of it because…
Understanding and implementing healthy boundaries is another really important aspect of recovery.
Can you explain a little more about boundaries and not being a rescuer? That seems like a pretty common thing to do as someone tries to help their spouse overcome a challenge.
Karpman’s Drama Triangle is a cycle of social interaction that’s been around since the 1960s. The three points are rescuer, victim, and persecutor. My understanding is that in the cycle, the addict acts as a victim of the addiction. The wife sees him as a persecutor – he’s doing these things to me, to our family. Women will then go into a rescuer mentality to rescue their families. When they try, the addict sees the rescuer as a persecutor. “Why are you so mean to me?” You’ll never win when you stay in the cycle anywhere. It doesn’t matter.
You have to step up into the empowerment triangle. The empowerment triangle is coach, challenger, and creator. I don’t know that I love that every aspect of the empowerment triangle, but I love the creator part. When I set healthy boundaries, I am creating safety for my family and for myself if you choose addiction. I’m creating a boundary to reinforce that you can’t behave this way and avoid consequences. The addict has to bump up against those boundaries to start wanting to change. A rescuer clears away boundaries and becomes an enabler.
It’s easy to get stuck in the drama triangle. You’re a persecutor, or you’re a victim of their behavior. Or we want them to rescue us by changing. That won’t happen, because they’re not capable of it yet, and being rescued generally is – well, that’s the Savior’s job. Jesus Christ saves us. When we look to someone else to rescue us, generally speaking, that’s not healthy.
That’s an interesting way to bring this back around to relying on God in our challenges.
In the Book of Mormon, it says that God is a co-creator and wants to create with us, not for us. In Ether 2:23, the Lord asks the Brother of Jared, “What would you have me do?” He did the same thing with Nephi building the boat. God shows him the plans, but Nephi has to go find the ore, build the bellows, and melt the ore to make the tools to even start the ship. God is a co-creator. If we want to co-create with Him, we can’t stay a victim. Not that God doesn’t send people to assist and help us – He does do that – but not in a rescuer mentality.
A lot of women don’t feel very empowered, and they really need to feel like they have power to do something with their lives. That’s why it’s important to talk about pornography addiction and recovery as the spouse of someone with that challenge. Not in a way that slanders your husband, or to have people see you as a victim. You need to seek help for yourself. Sheri Dew said that God wants a powerful people. Even though we’ve been handed a crappy situation, we can still be powerful in that situation.
Sara Walker’s interview with Leading Saints
Interview with Rhyll on The Mormon Women Project
Bloom for Women
The Betrayed, The Addict, The Expert
Life Changing Services
At A Glance
Location: Amity, Oregon
Marital History: Married
Occupation: Mom, student, teacher
Convert to the Church?: Life-long member, converted throughout my life
Schools Attended: Chemeketa Community College, Ricks College, George Wythe College. BYU-Idaho
Languages Spoken at Home: English
Favorite Hymn: Depends- currently Redeemer of Israel
Interview Produced By: Trina Caudle