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