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Influencer QA

Influencing an Unfaithful Spouse

Dear Joseph,

I recently married a person who told me he is a recovering sex addict. I believe he is really trying to change his ways and is a good man. However, over the past couple of months, he has started to lie again, sent inappropriate text messages to women, and may have had an inappropriate encounter at a recent business conference. He has definitely crossed the line.

When I tried to talk to him about this, he started to exhibit the typical behaviors of lashing out at me, saying I do not trust him, that I was throwing his weaknesses in his face, etc.

I want our marriage to work based on my religious beliefs. How do I stop these behaviors? How do I get him to be honest again and show him that I care about him and his well-being? Should we see a therapist? Please help.

Signed,
Married to a Sex Addict

Dear Married,

I’m sorry that this “honeymoon” period of your marriage is so hard. I admire your desire to be faithful to your beliefs. Many people give up when the first disappointments of marriage hit. It is clear your feelings about the commitment you made run very deep. I respect that. And I ask your permission to challenge your thinking—and perhaps even one of your beliefs.

1. Make a decision. Now.
You believe that marriage is sacred. So do I. My question is: What do you believe God would want you to do if staying in a marriage was bad for both you and the other person? Does God place the sanctity of marriage above all other considerations? You are at a place you will never be again. You are early enough in the relationship that you don’t yet suffer from what is called “hedonic adaptation.” Human beings are capable of adapting to remarkably painful and unhealthy situations. Over time they begin to feel “normal.” They no longer seem repulsive or intolerable. In fact, even abusive situations can begin to feel comfortably familiar. The first time someone goes to jail, for example, it’s terrifying. The second time the terror disappears—it is simply unpleasant. By the fifth time, it’s just life. So pause now before you’ve become accustomed to living with someone who is manipulative, dishonest, and unfaithful and then ask, “Is this the future I want for myself?” Decide now what your bottom line is—before his behavior seems familiar.

2. Don’t mistake influence for control. Your question scares me. You asked, “How do I stop these behaviors?” Please read this next sentence ten times out loud: I can never stop his behaviors. There is nothing you can do to change him. Nothing. There are, however, things you can do to get in the way of him changing. For example, you could stay in a relationship with him in spite of his habits. You can try to control him—through guilt, shame, punishment, etc.—which will offer him a convenient scapegoat for his own choices. You could become the “bad guy” he needs to rationalize his acting out in future years. Don’t mistake influence for control. The only healthy way forward is for you—right now—to accept two immutable facts:

a. He may never change.
b. You can never change him.

Then decide what you want to do with those two facts.

3. Controlling yourself is the only way to influence him.
There is one thing you can do to help him change—take care of yourself. People imprisoned in addiction become slaves to impulses. They lose self-respect because they become incapable of maintaining boundaries. Don’t catch his disease. Start now to set boundaries for yourself that will keep you healthy and safe. Boundaries are rules you make for yourself—not the other person. For example, you might set the following boundary: “If you commit adultery, I will leave you.” Or, “If you use porn, I will move out for at least thirty days and reconsider my willingness to stay married to you.”

Now, let me explain the difference between setting boundaries and punishing. When you set a boundary you are deciding how YOU will behave in order to take care of YOU. Your goal is not to manipulate or punish the other person. You are simply saying, “I deserve to be respected. I deserve a relationship of trust.” And when that boundary is violated, you are enacting a rule to take yourself out of a situation where you are being harmed. Punishment, on the other hand, is about trying to control others. Yelling, screaming, and silent treatments are punishments not boundaries. Remember, you cannot control his behavior. All you can do is control your own.

When you stop trying to control others, you gain influence. With addicts, the best thing you can offer is a healthy example of a well-bounded life. Show him what it looks like when you keep your commitments to yourself—and perhaps you will invite him to a higher level of living. One that blesses both him and you.

I again express my sympathy that you are in such a heart-rending situation at such a tender part of your relationship. I hope you will not turn pain into protracted misery by choosing to be part of it.

Sincerely,
Joseph

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Joseph Grenny

Joseph Grenny is a New York Times bestselling author, keynote speaker, and leading social scientist for business performance. For thirty years, Joseph has delivered engaging keynotes at major conferences including the HSM World Business Forum at Radio City Music Hall. Joseph’s work has been translated into twenty-eight languages, is available in thirty-six countries, and has generated results for three hundred of the Fortune 500. read more

23 thoughts on “Influencing an Unfaithful Spouse”

  1. Dear Married to a Sex Addict, it’s scary to write this personal story, but your wholeness and happiness are worth the risk. I married my exhusband 3 years after I BELIEVED that he had given up drinking. He had not. He and his family lied to me. Two years in he had an affair, got his woman pregnant, and gave me an STD. The doctor lost my phone number and it became Public Inflammatory Disease and clogged my fallopian tubes at age 24. I can no longer have children. My ex’s stupid, selfish, irresponsibility maimed me for life. Because of my religious beliefs I forgave him and stayed married. He had another affair and I divorced him. He spent all of his time and energy on work anyway, so I didn’t have much to give up. I wouldn’t have been as twisted relationship wise if I had left him sooner. After we divorced if was hard for me to tell the good guys from the bad ones, and I put up with so much poor conduct (from church elders) that I was pretty jaded by the time I figured out how to meet the good laymen. “Fortunately” I had no children so I could financially afford to divorce him. I would advise you to get out now while you are healthy enough to pick a good guy, and have no children tying you to your “husband” emotionally and economically. I would also recommend that you go for counseling to learn how to distinguish the good people from the bad ones. Here are a few things to look for: will he hold the puke bucket for your after chemo, or be chasing skirts? Is he kind to YOU? Wise, but not necessarily highly educated. Faithful to YOU? Shares your faith, especially as displayed in kindness, wisdom and faithfulness toward you. Does he pay his bills? Cares for his mother, any children or pets? If not, get your own pet to love on until a spiritually, emotionally, intellectually, physically, economically, organizationally, and romantically whole man comes along. P.S. God’s love, wisdom, and courage to you. I met lots of great friends at the dog park. Puppy says hello.

      1. Thank you. Religious people sometimes work really really hard to make relationships work. If your other half isn’t working just as hard, leave, especially if they could hurt you or even worse your kids. God told us to be good stewards of what we are blessed with. That includes or lives, and leaving a path to the light behind us.

  2. Mr. Grenny, I agree with your sage advice, everything you suggested is absolutely critical. However, I feel there is one more thing that could be done, she could pray like she has never prayed before and put her faith and trust in God. Additionally I would like to suggest she see the movie “War Room”, actually, I think everyone should see it. It has some incredible life lessons for every adult, especially those in a marriage or relationship.

    Thank you for your wonderful knowledge and advice!

  3. Bravo Joe! I have often wondered why women think they can change a man?
    “The only healthy way forward is for you—right now—to accept two immutable facts:
    a. He may never change.
    b. You can never change him.
    Then decide what you want to do with those two facts.”

    Perfect!

    There are plenty of nice guys who respect their spouse. Respect and trust are a 2-way street.

  4. Awesome writing. People might want to read “Men Who Hate Women, and the Women Who Love Them”. Good men take good care of themselves. They eat well, exercise well, practice stress management. They have clear boundaries. They do not drink, smoke, do drugs, or lie and steal. They respect themselves, women, children, and dogs. Never trust a man who does not love children or dogs. Good men respect women. They do not, do not have multiple sexual partners. Having multiple sexual partners is a negative health behavior and demonstrates not only disrespect for women(I am only talking about heterosexual here, I am not too familiar with other sexual orientations), but for themselves. People who have multiple sexual partners have low self-esteem and are not happy, or content. There are biological/biochemical things going with that person, partly, caused, and partly the result of their behaviors. So always ask yourself, is this a safe person? And if it is a potential spouse or lover, ask yourself, will the person make a good parent? I used to tell men, don’t stand to close, or you will be paying child support. With that a few of them, jumped back. That’s one way to weed the grain from the chaff. Have a great day.

  5. Thank you Joseph for taking on this difficult topic in such a helpful way. I think we often mistake control for influence. The more we try to control, the less influence we have and the more harm we do. The only way we can truly influence others is controlling who we are as you have stated. The book Bonds that Make us Free talks about this concept (as does Crucial Conversations). It teaches that when we change ourselves we give others a different person to react to. I have seen this work first hand. I would also add that if we turn to God He will helps us do what is best for us. As implied in this article, He does want what’s best for us and will help us get there.

  6. Dear Married to a Sex Addict –

    It sounds to me as if your now husband was honest with you about who he was. I find it bothersome that you are now wanting to ‘change’ him when he told you who he was to begin with.

    You cannot change someone else. You can only change yourself. I would suggest if you love him and want to make your marriage work, you start by accepting the man he is. You married a recovering, not recovered, sex addict. He has struggles and flaws. Be there for him, and keep an open and honest dialogue. Try to trust him – when you show distrust, it generally pushes individuals like him further, lowers his self esteem and then he WILL stray. He’ll justify it by saying that you don’t trust him anyways so why does it matter?

    I would suggest therapy. But separate therapy. Only you can control your behaviours, so it’s important you learn how to address your husband and the challanges you are sure to continue facing in a manner that will not drive the two of you further apart, but instead will bring you closer together.

    It’s his choice on therapy for himself, but hopefully if he’s not already doing so, it’s something he would agree to especially if he’s struggling. If he sees you trying, then it will hopefully influence him as well.

    This is coming from someone who’s been there (although not married), gotten through the rough patches and is extremely happy. It takes time, but if you love each other, can accept each other and communicate effectively, you can do this.

  7. Thanks for your excellent advice on this tough topic. Any addiction is hard to overcome and sex addiction seems to be especially difficult. A friend’s 35 year marriage ended last week when her “recovering sex addict” husband relapsed. It’s devastating for everyone.

    Since your husband has recently relapsed, it seems like you’re headed for a world of pain if you stick with him.

  8. Joseph, Your answer is tremendously insightful. I am a counsellor and unfortunately meet spouses decades down the track. Your advice is wise, we can only choose our own behaviour and we do teach people how to treat us. I wish this woman and any other person going through the heartache of trying to live with someone with an addiction, the gift of courage. A lifetime is too long to waste with someone who doesn’t enrich our lives.

  9. This hit a tender spot. Five years ago, I divorced a sex addict after 33 years of marriage and both of us doing the wrong things many times over. Healing is possible. I left a huge burden behind and took on happiness. I don’t feel pain or anger any more, but I do feel sorrow when I think of my spouse. He lost so much.

  10. Married to a sex addict, you are not alone. You are codependent. You believe your husband will go back to being nice to you. I married a woman who told me I was the best thing that had ever happened to her, had suffered child abuse, and at the end, hated me. In my case, I stayed married for 10 years before she finally had an emotional affair.

    She would go to therapy, things would improve, then she would find a flaw with the therapist, and stop. It would go downhill from there, until I told her we would divorce and she would go again. On the fifth therapist, she decided to stop going, got into new age, had the aforementioned affair and we finally divorced.

    I highly recommend reading the book “married and alone”. You will find your problems are not just your own. You can not change the other person. God does not want you to suffer in order to redeem anyone. You will just be angry and bitter.

  11. Dear Joseph,

    Thank you.

    This is the best advice I have ever heard on addiction behavior.

    I wish I would have read this 20 years ago. That is how long it took me to come to the same realization you so eloquently communicate in your advice.

    I sincerely hope the lady who wrote this asking for your advice really hears it and takes it to heart. I hope she doesn’t spend 20 years of her life suffering and self blaming.

    I understand her fear and shame – however she is more important than what anyone “thinks” of or about her.

    Thank you again for your incredible words.

  12. Dear Joseph,
    FANTASTIC ADVICE! I very much enjoyed reading your honest and ‘on target’ response to this woman’s heartfelt plea. As I certainly feel empathy for her, I also agree with her opportunity to practice her own boundaries and self advocacy. Your response was absolutely right on!!

  13. Dear Joseph,
    Wow!! Spot on! This is truly a difficult one and your comments are very well done!! Once known then the responsibility lies with the decision maker and can not be placed on others…sooooo 😉 I really hate to see woman, and men, “spend” their precious time and resources being made “less than” from a relationship instead of “more than.” I pray that patterns of enabling are broken so that those who hold the light may be upheld, and therefore, hold it up for others…

  14. This is one of the best responses I have read on this blog in quite some time. Well done and thank you for taking on this thorny question.

  15. Thank you Joseph for such heartfelt advice. I pray she listens and learns. I would like to point out to her that regardless of his actually “having an affair” he is already being unfaithful by sending flirty texts. This is a violation of the marriage relationship. May you find God’s peace and joy,

  16. Dear Married to a Sex Addict. I too married a sex addict, but did not know that for 21 years when he finally came cleaned and confessed that he had cheated on me all 21 years we were married. It was then that I learned that the only time he was faithful was during our engagement (1.5 years).

    He was abusive from the start, continually put me down, and even threaten my life if I attempted to leave. It was really, really bad. I completely lost myself. It took years of therapy for me to find myself again once the relationship had ended.

    My advice, get out now. You deserve so much better. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you can change him. IT DOESN’T WORK! This disease is very insidious and sucks you in like you can’t believe, AND you don’t that is happening until you get out. GET OUT NOW. Frankly run as fast as you can away from this relationship. Trust me. What I wouldn’t give to have that 21 years back. The good news is that I recovered and am so much stronger now than I ever was. Had I had the strength back then when I met him, I would have never stood for any of his antics, and could have avoided a life of misery for 21 years.

    Seriously, get out and don’t look back.

  17. Excellent response! This is the best answer I have ever read dealing with this issue, sex addiction. It’s very straightforward and concise, but is very thorough. I know “Married to a sex addict” wants someone to guide her in her choice and she’s at a very vulnerable time in her life. Probably none of her friends or even members of her religion will be able to offer her much help. They may even blame her somehow or try to minimize her husband’s addiction. Only people who have been married to someone with this problem will get it. My favorite part of the response: “There is nothing you can do to change him. Nothing. There are, however, things you can do to get in the way of him changing.” We cannot change anyone. But – and this was very hard for me to understand – there are things we can do to get in the way of our mate’s progress. There is so much hurt and anger when you find out you are married to a sex addict. It is extremely difficult to be in this situation and behave with a level head and calm demeanor. Basically, you do want to yell, scream, name-call, threaten, and control. You go through all of the stages of grief and anger is definitely one of them. This woman is very early in her marriage. Many of us have lived for decades with this situation and never knew it. Maybe we had suspicions and tried to confront our mate, who then would tell us there’s nothing wrong, we’re imagining it. Living a life that is a lie can make you feel crazy. I would advise “Married to a sex addict” to see a therapist that deals specifically with this issue of sex addiction. And I think she should separate from her husband. She needs the space and so does he. Recovery will happen if he wants it to happen. He needs to be a complete, healthy individual. That is not her job as a wife to make him whole.

  18. Dear Married,

    I suppose by your “religious beliefs” you are speaking of Judeo-Christian beliefs. Recall that Jesus cited sexual immorality as grounds for divorce. As difficult as such a choice might be, Grizzly Bear Mom made it, and others have well. Joseph noted that you could become like your husband–see Proverbs 13:20 for support.

    I am a strong believer is the sanctity of marriage–one woman for 31 years, and faithful. We’ve had good times, and we’ve had challenges that helped us grow. Not everybody wants to grow.

    There are reasonable, religious grounds for taking the step. God made you to live life and live it abundantly. I am not advising anything other than evaluating what is right for you, because what we do reflects who we are. That holds true for both you and your husband. As Joseph notes, you can’t change him–he has to choose to change his behavior. He has a choice … so do you.

    Sincerely,
    Jose

  19. Thank you for sharing your timely wisdom. I believe your advice applies to any on-going, inapropos behavior by one person to another, as well as relationships which are more continuously & excessively out-of-balance than in balance due to on-going selfish “misbehavior” & hurtful choices of one person, with the other person with a heart of grace accommodating those misbehaviors/choices.
    Making the break (implementing healthier boundaries, with a heart/healthy motive of tough love) is difficult when there’s TIA (time-invested affection), with many relationship ties, & when the “misbehaved” is a master at “damage control”.
    “…which will offer him a convenient scapegoat for his own choices. You could become the “bad guy” he needs to rationalize his acting out in future years”. May I add that he may also play the “bad guy” card by his exaggerated remarks of being expected to be “perfect” & other red-herring remarks.
    Prayers to all who are in such a situation…& please, pray for me.

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