Jim’s wife, Nancy, curious about his late-night computer work, had found a way to discover sites he’d erased from his browser. She walked into the bedroom as he got ready for work, her face grief-stricken and wet with tears, his laptop in hand. The screen showed incriminating websites embedded among the computer code.
“Is this the ‘work’ you’ve been doing every night?” she asked, more heartbroken than angry.
Jim felt the blood drain from his face and his hands turn cold. His personal resolve to stop viewing pornography had failed, time and again, and now his secret struggle had become a marital struggle. Shame motivated repentance and a desperate online search for resources that could help him realign his heart and habits. The search results showed many resources — secular and Christian — for people wanting to break free from sexual compulsions. But Jim wondered, Do they all say basically the same thing? Are some more effective than others? How do secular approaches differ from Christian approaches? Is a recovery group necessary?
He had no idea how to choose among the options, but it was time to get help.
Perhaps you’ve confronted similar questions. Finding the best resources for your situation can be difficult. For Christians, three approaches usually address sexual compulsion: psychotherapeutic, 12-step and Christian spirituality. These can also be used in combination.
The psychotherapeutic approach looks at the roots of compulsive behavior. It examines an individual’s history, formative experiences, traumatic events, coping mechanisms, self-soothing practices and more. This approach is focused on how the brain works, adapts to and is reshaped by our thoughts and behaviors. Psychology, neurobiology and understanding interactions within family systems are all involved. Some counseling approaches emphasize and harness neuroplasticity — the brain’s ability to be retrained through healthier responses to triggers that have led to acting out in sexual ways. The goal is to create new thoughts, coping behaviors and patterns of human interaction that reroute or override previously addictive rituals.
Psychotherapy helps people understand the reasons they do what they do even when it’s not what they want to do. These revelations open pathways to change. The approach involves a trained professional, who may engage a Christian perspective during therapy. Often a counselor encourages participation in a recovery group in conjunction with psychotherapy.
Recovery group models were pioneered by two recovering alcoholics, stockbroker Bill Wilson and physician Robert Holbrook Smith. Their approach evolved into Alcoholics Anonymous and has been adapted to address many types of addiction. Such programs require emotional transparency and commitment to a group whose practices are centered on recovery from an addictive lifestyle that one can’t manage alone. The influence of a “higher power,” which is not specified, is often included as critical to overcoming an addiction. Together, participants address shame, isolation, negative belief systems, spiritual brokenness, relational wounds, addictive triggers, personal behavioral patterns, forgiveness of self and others, responsibility for one’s own behavior and the necessity of fellowship with other people familiar with the addictive lifestyle.
Recovery is a personal journey — alongside people with similar struggles — through clearly identified steps. Each step has an educational component (to increase understanding) and tangible action components (during which participants apply steps to their own lives). These steps are progressive and often guided by a sponsor who serves as a mentor and accountability partner. Twelve-step programs affirm “sobriety” and culminate in a “graduation” that qualifies a member to serve as a sponsor to others. Sponsorship — supporting others in their recovery — is an integral part of healing.
The 12-step approach (the number of steps can vary by program) is usually run by lay counselors and occasionally by a trained professional. A group may be grounded in a Christian perspective.
Resources in this category concentrate on Christian spiritual disciplines and tools for inner transformation and maturity leading to freedom. This approach often sees sexual sin as idolatry that must be met with repentance. The addict is in spiritual bondage and needs Jesus’ freeing grace. The battle is “against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12).
The battle requires disciplined use of the armor of God (Ephesians 6). The addict’s hope lies in the mercy of God, yielding to His transforming work. A mature relationship with Christ is the pathway through which bondage to sexual compulsion is conquered. Christian spirituality resources may include information from the psychotherapeutic approach and they may utilize groups as a tool for spiritual development. If the resource incorporates a 12-step approach, it recognizes Jesus Christ as the “higher power” generically mentioned in secular programs.
Which resource category should you choose? As a pastor who serves as a state-licensed psychotherapist, I recommend taking advantage of all three approaches. The methods are different, but not in conflict. You can find truth, insight, tools and healing through any of them, but the benefits of all programs are not found in any single category.
Some authors responsibly incorporate psychotherapy, Christian spirituality and group recovery. Such authors typically advise readers not to rely on books alone, but to seek the support of individuals or groups who understand the struggle from an insider’s experience, professional training or both. Self-education rarely results in recovery from sexual compulsion.
Jim chose a resource that utilizes all three approaches. For him, the core was a Christian 12-step program. The group studied material that educated participants in the role of neurobiology in their addiction and recovery. Members used referrals to professional therapists for intensive exploration of their personal experiences. In this synergistic approach, Jim found the help he needed.
Of course, Jim was not healed after completion of the 12th step — not if healed means he was never again tempted by sexual images or opportunities. Rather, he came to know victory where he’d previously known only years of defeat. He personally experienced the power of Christ as sufficient even in this struggle. And he gained knowledge that helped him understand his compulsions. He also learned that authentic vulnerability with a group of trustworthy brothers is preferable to shame-induced isolation.
Through marriage counseling, Nancy and Jim learned to treat pornography — not each other — as their common enemy. Nancy sought the help of a counselor to understand and cope with Jim’s betrayal, which felt every bit like an affair to her. She gradually came to trust Jim’s repentance, resolve and commitment to his new “band of brothers” who were a protective unit surrounding Jim, Nancy and their marriage. Jim’s use of an internet filter and accountability software helped, too. Practicing new skills, delving into emotional intimacy and changing old patterns in their marriage were challenging, but vital and transformative.
Nancy found written material as well as a support group for women who’d walked the same road. In that group, she was able to grieve the loss of the marriage she thought she’d had. She learned that Jim’s use of pornography wasn’t about her not being attractive enough. Her fears and insecurities are still sometimes triggered, but she turns to the women in whom she’s found support, and to Jim, with whom she can bear her heart without fear that he will criticize her, allowing the two of them to shelter each other in mutual understanding. They can now talk with each other about their feelings, fears and hopes in protective, rather than defensive, ways.
Focus on the Family suggests specific resources — including referrals to counselors — to help you overcome temptation and addiction: Overcoming Sexual Brokenness.