The first time I heard someone talk seriously about pornography was at a college chapel service. In front of the entire student body, a friend confessed his addiction and shared that Jesus had "set him free." I was engaged at the time and thought how glad I was that my future husband didn't struggle with porn.
Nick, my fiance, came from a Christian family. He always led the two of us in prayer and devotions. We were preparing for a life of ministry together. He never pressured me physically. In fact, he waited months to even hold my hand or kiss me.
Not long after that chapel service, we went on a coffee date. Before we even got out of the car, Nick said, "I need to tell you something."
And for the second time in my life, I heard someone share his struggle with pornography. I was shocked. I felt trapped in the car with a person I didn't know anymore. I wrestled with thoughts of calling off the wedding, then reasoned the issue would disappear once we married and started having sex. I asked him why he couldn't promise me he would never do it again.
"I would like to be pure," he said, "but I haven't been able to stop yet, so I don't know if I can make that promise."
I wrote in my journal that night, "I hope one day he can."
The pattern of relapse
We were married, had a great honeymoon and began our life together. Sex was fun, and we enjoyed each other. I actually felt as if I had the stronger sex drive. It seemed odd, but I figured I just had more hormones.
I hoped Nick's secret life was in the past. Then somewhere in our first year of marriage, he disclosed a relapse into pornography. I thought, What? Things are good, we're happy and I'm pretty. What is so wrong that he needs pornography when he has me? I became hypervigilant and tried to protect him from the world. Any time we were out, I worried he would notice a pretty girl and think she was more beautiful than me.
Nick relapsed once or twice a year, and then every few months. He would confess, I would crumble, he moved on, we would be OK again, and then he'd relapse. The pattern continued for a decade, even as Nick became lead pastor at our church. Everything else in our marriage seemed fine — we led a growing church, were communicating well, had great friends and even a good sex life. But every so often, I heard the same words, "I've got to tell you something."
Nick always downplayed his use of pornography. We created boundaries, but they would change as soon as Nick felt safe again, and there weren't any real consequences to curb his behavior. I was sad and hurt, but he would convince me that his addiction didn't really affect me, that I didn't really understand.
The worst part was that I felt alone. I couldn't tell anyone at church that their pastor struggled with pornography. I didn't think I could tell our parents, and I couldn't talk to my friends who also attended our church.
My husband was addicted to pornography, and I didn't know how to deal with it. I started thinking about leaving him. Then I talked myself into staying. It's just pornography. He didn't have an affair. All guys have this struggle.
Growing more and more unhappy, I wondered if I had married the wrong guy. I found myself withholding sex more often and agreeing to sex more selfishly. I considered whether doing something to "get even" would show Nick how much pain he was causing me. I settled on a plan to stay married until the kids were grown, then disappear.
A turning point
I hit the breaking point after our 10-year anniversary. While away on a trip, Nick called and told me he had relapsed again. I thought, I can't do this any longer. I didn't feel love for him anymore.
Shortly after that phone call, Pure Desire Ministries came to our denomination's district pastors' conference and introduced a treatment program. I wanted to sign up right away, but Nick believed he had his addiction under control. Still, for the first time in our marriage, I was hopeful because a safe place existed for a pastor and his wife to find help without being shamed, condemned or simply fired on the spot.
Nick needed some convincing, but after I shared my heart, we signed up. We began counseling with a wonderful couple who understood addiction, the Bible and what being in ministry is like. We attended support groups — Nick met with other men and I met with wives who had been betrayed. I could finally share my story, and though the women in the group each experienced different situations, they understood my feelings. Some of their marriages had ended, some husbands were still relapsing and others were switching other addictions, but together we processed our stories.
Not only did the curriculum help me work through issues in my marriage, but I also began processing my own struggles. I learned about my husband's brain, that his addiction had nothing to do with what I did or how I looked. We developed a safety plan with clear expectations and requirements for any future relapses. We established new boundaries for both of us, boundaries that actually worked. This freed me from working as his accountability partner — always watching out, asking, and checking his phone, journal and computer. I started feeling more secure in our marriage.
At times I felt the healing process was slower for me than for my husband. I could see how Nick was making progress and getting better, but I didn't see that in myself. Slowly my heart began to change. I was eventually able to trust again because of Nick's changed behavior and my own investment in the counseling process.
As I mentor women today, I know how hard the journey can be if the husband doesn't want to work toward real change. But I also know how good it can be on the other end, so I encourage women to stick to the recovery plan and trust the well-guided therapeutic process. You can still receive help and support. You can learn how your spouse's brain works, understand patterns of codependency and relational trauma, establish healthy patterns of behavior for yourself and grow in prayer. As you become wise and healthy, he might, too. Even women whose marriages have ended have joined my group and found help, healing and the support to move forward.
If your husband is ready for real change and willing to work on his addiction issues, find a counselor who is specifically trained to deal with sexual addiction. Join a support group and connect with people who can walk beside you. Your marriage is worth it.
Because Nick shared his struggle with me while we were engaged, I didn't have complete trust going into marriage. Yet now I trust him more than ever. If a relapse occurs, we have tools and support systems in place to help us get back on track. We are no longer caught in an unhealthy cycle. We are learning and growing.
Where I once felt isolated and alone, I now share how God redeemed my marriage to encourage others. If you feel alone, don't hesitate to reach out. I have been where you are, and there is hope on the other side.Michelle Stumbo is married to Nick Stumbo, the executive director of Pure Desire Ministries.
A variety of issues can fuel habitual pornography use. Understanding the deeper needs of individuals affected by this common problem is important. Reach out to well-trained helpers, and if you are a married couple do so together. Change is possible! We can guide you as you seek a referral and take your first steps toward recovery. You can contact us Monday through Friday from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. (Mountain time) at: 855-771-HELP (4357) or