Nick Stumbo and his wife, Michelle, describe how their marriage has been restored after he found freedom from a long-time addiction to pornography and the overwhelming guilt and shame that accompanied it. They offer encouragement and hope to troubled couples who are struggling with the impact of pornography and infidelity on their marriage. (Part 1 of 2)
Man #1: Just because I look at certain websites, doesn’t mean I don’t love my wife. I mean, just a little bit here and there helps me relax.
Man #2: What’s the big deal? I’m not hurting anyone, am I? I mean, it is legal, isn’t it? And at least I’m not an addict like other guys I know.
Woman #3: I know men are more visual, and maybe they can’t help themselves. But it makes me feel sick and dirty inside.
Man #3: No matter how hard I try, I - I can’t look away. And every time I promise I won’t look again.
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John Fuller: If those comments reflect for you any part of your experience with pornography, we urge you to keep listening to this episode of Focus on the Family. We have a powerful story to share with you about the miraculous transformation and healing that only Jesus Christ can bring about. And obviously, this will be a sensitive topic, not appropriate for younger listeners. With that, welcome to our broadcast. I’m John Fuller, and your host is Focus president and author Jim Daly.
Jim Daly: Pornography is one of the hardest topics we address on this broadcast, John. And I know people will want to write us or send an email to let us know how inappropriate it is. But it’s not. That’s one of the problems. You know, God has given us this incredible gift of sexuality meant for the context of marriage.
In the world and within the church, we’ve so mishandled it that it has created chaos in families. It has broken families apart. And I think that is the core reason I want to come back to it from time to time - to teach our kids, particularly, and to equip parents to teach kids how to - how to think of sexuality in a great way - as God’s wedding gift to us. And I’m determined to do it. So I know that some of you might be offended by this. Please open your heart up to the discussion, what God has intended for good. Don’t shut down. That is exactly, I think, in part why the church is in the mess that it’s in, because we’re not open about this discussion. And we want to keep it behind closed doors. It’s okay. Man, the Bible is full of sexual stories that went awry. So let’s do it the God way and do it in a healthy way. And that’s the purpose for the program today.
John: And if this is a struggle for you, let us just tell you right now we have caring Christian counselors that can walk through how to bring this issue into the light and how to find some steps on a recovery journey. Um, our number is 800, the letter A, and the word FAMILY - 800-232-6459.
Jim: You know, John, as I think about it, the last Super Bowl that I’m watching with my teen boys, I mean, I’m reaching for the remote. This culture is saturated with sexuality. And when you’re raising boys, particularly - I am sure raising girls, which is your privilege, not mine unfortunately...
John: Still a challenge, yeah.
Jim: ...You just - you can’t really shield everything. And you need to teach your children, particularly your teenagers, how to manage a world that is overly sexualized and dealing with issues of pornography and the other magnet attractions that go right to our core nature as sinners. And that’s why I’m so excited about today’s program in the way that we can help equip you to deal with these things in your own life, as well as in the life of your children.
John: Mmhmm. And Nick and Michelle Stumbo are our guests today in the studio. Nick is the executive director of Pure Desire ministries, which is a parachurch organization helping provide hope and freedom and healing for those who are dealing with sexual brokenness.
Nick and Michelle lead group sessions for men and women who are pursuing sexual health and purity. And they often share their own story of working through these issues in their marriage, as they’re about to do here on this broadcast. Nick has written a book that captures a lot of the story. It’s called. And we have that at focusonthefamily.com/broadcast.
Jim: Nick and Michelle, welcome to Focus.
Nick Stumbo: Yeah, thanks so much for having us.
Michelle Stumbo: Thank you.
Jim: I know this is a very difficult subject. But you are so open about it. I think a lot of people are going to be helped and hopefully healed from some of the um, you know, the things that they’re dealing with...
Nick: Yeah, we hope so.
Jim: ...So thank you for that transparency.
Jim: Nick, I’m going to start with you and go through a few questions. And then we’re - Michelle, I’m gonna get you in there pretty quickly. But you grew up in a godly Christian home. I mean, you were gonna be the, kind of, the terror of all of us Christian parents who think we did the formula correctly. But describe that. Your dad and grandfather were pastors. You became a pastor yourself. And then that addiction took over of pornography for, like, 17 years. Where did it start for you? What was the shame factor? Just give us a picture.
Nick: Yeah, my family is, I think, very typical of what we see in Christian homes. When we do events around the country with Pure Desire, we’ll routinely ask, you know, “How many of you grew up in a home that discussed sexual things or sexuality in an open and honest way?” And routinely, only 2 to 3 percent of the audience will raise their hands.
So the vast majority of us are growing up in very spiritual, godly homes that have disconnected from our sexuality and don’t know how to handle it. And so I learned at a very young age that anything sexual was secretive. And because of that, it felt shameful, that there was this sense the church taught me, um, sex is only for marriage, and anything outside of that is wrong. And I knew that message clearly. But when things started to enter into my life that were of a sexual nature, you know, being at friend’s house and being shown things or on a bus at, you know, sporting trips, that sort of thing, your immediate reaction is, “Well, this isn’t something safe to share with my parents. I need to figure it out alone.” And so I just entered into that struggle of never wanting to do it. You know, I didn’t ever live a double life - right? - of the secret stash that I was just trying to keep from people.
In my life every time - and I think this is common for Christian men - every time was gonna be the last time. Never again, I don’t need it. I don’t want it. And yet, there are systems being established in your brain and in your thinking, um, and how you’re dealing with life that just continue to take you back.
Jim: Yeah. You know, to paint the scope of this, there’s some data that you had in your book. Just give us some of the statistics that paint a picture for us about the depth and the width of this.
Nick: Yeah, we have been doing research through Pure Desire for a number of years. And we use something called the Sexual Addiction Screening Test to just kind of gauge a person’s level of struggle. And through years of this reporting, we found that 68 percent of men are struggling with sexually compulsive behavior.
Jim: Sixty-eight percent of men?
Nick: Yeah, and that number, I think, seems high to us because we - we dismiss or minimize a lot of these things. Just like I said earlier in my story, if a man is saying, “Oh, that was the last time, it’ll never happen again,” we don’t think of ourselves as having a struggle. But when a real black-and-white, yes-no question says have you ever, you know, struggled with something that felt shameful, and that’s a yes, that’s indicative of a problem.
And then we also find that 25 to 30 percent of Christian women have sexual dependency issues of their own of some kind. Now, that might be more of a love addiction, a relationship addiction. Or it could be struggles of their own with pornography because it’s not just a man’s issue. You know, it’s men and women. In fact, the fastest growing demographic of pornography consumption is college-age women.
Jim: That’s amazing.
Nick: And I think in our society that that’s actually a reaction to what’s happening among college-age men - that college-age women feel the need to find out, “Well, what’s going on? What do I need to be to attract a guy and to get him to like me?” And so they enter into it almost out of curiosity and then become hooked in their own ways.
Jim: That 68 percent is within the church? Is that correct?
Nick: Yes, yup.
Jim: I mean, again, that’s even more breathtaking, that it’s not a secular data point. And that means we have a problem within the community. As you counsel men and women dealing with this kind of sexual brokenness, how is that women’s addiction? I mean, you describe it as wanting to understand men. Is it that simple? Or are more and more women exploring that as a means for satisfaction, for self-gratification?
Nick: Yeah, well, at its root, any addictive behavior really is a coping mechanism in our lives, whether it’s food or drugs or alcohol or something sexual, like pornography, that the root issue is we’re looking for a way to medicate pain or to deal with intense emotions, like failure and rejection. So for men or women that can be what drives it to us. And I’m - I think for women, the curiosity of what are men looking at might be where it starts. Just like for a teenage boy, it’s probably not medicating their pain that starts them into pornography. It’s that they’ve got hormones, and there’s access to it. And so they see these images that capture their thoughts and imagination. And then it gets fused to a way of dealing with the unpleasant, negative emotions of life because in those moments of acting out with pornography, someone can feel all the things they’re not in the rest of their life. They feel wanted and desired and respected and like they’re perfect, that they’re everything they want it to be. And even though it can be followed by an avalanche of guilt and shame, it’s still that draw. So that - that can happen for women just as easily it can be for men.
You know, women tend not to be as visual. And so it’s still a little less likely. But women have just as many intense negative emotions that they’re trying to deal with as men do. And that sexual outlet can become a reliable place to feel something that really fills up those holes or that sense of emptiness.
Jim: Right. You know, that applies across the culture. The least common denominator seems to be what human beings are aiming for, rather than something beautiful, something grand. And it’s so unfortunate because that is God’s plan.
Jim: Michelle, I want to get you in here. I know...
...You’ve sitting patiently there listening to this. But um, you guys met. Um, you have this background, Nick, that you’ve been struggling, probably for a few years, with this. What age did you meet and start dating?
Michelle: We met in college.
Nick: Yeah, I was a sophomore. She was a freshman.
Jim: Okay, so you’d been battling this for a while, though - right? - as a teenage boy, et cetera. So you met and dated for how long before you got married?
Nick: Almost a full three years, right?
Michelle: Three years, yep, mmhmm.
Nick: She probably knows the dates better than I do.
Jim: So did that come up during that time? Did you have an idea, Michelle, that...
Jim: ...There was a problem, or not really?
Michelle: Well, not till there was a speaker that came through the college and talked about, you know, “Before you get married, you should, like, air your dirty laundry,” so to speak.
Jim: Be open with each other.
Michelle: Yeah, about your past. And then if they, you know, can accept it and move with you, then you’re meant to be together. And if not...
Jim: So how did that evening’s conversation go? I mean, that’s pretty bold.
Michelle: ...Yeah, we had heard that a chapel service. And so then Nick invited me out on a coffee date. And I thought we were going for coffee.
Jim: And what happened?
Michelle: And we never got out of the car.
Jim: Is that right? I mean, it just - the conversation got going.
Michelle: Yeah, he just, like, “I need to tell you something.”
Jim: So you took that literally. And, Nick, you begin to share about your struggle?
Nick: Yeah, well, and it really represented what my Christian upbringing had taught me was the path to freedom, that confess your sins one to another and you will be healed. And so I had taken that approach with my high school youth pastor and summer camp counselor and college dorm floor assistant. And so to be honest with my wife just felt like, “Well, maybe this is one more piece of confession that will kind of open that door, let the light in and I’ll be free.” So that was really my motive, was not - not to hurt her, just unload on her. But like, “Man, if I can be open and honest with her, even before we’re married, I think I can be free of it.” So since I’d already had that pattern of confession in my life, it was like, “Well, she needs to know.” And I tried to, in, you know, just kind of a general overview, explain what I’d battled with and, um, where it was coming from and wanted her to - to know.
Jim: I think that’s admirable. But it puts you off balance, Michelle, I’m sure. I mean, you think you’re going out for coffee with your boyfriend that maybe someday - maybe this is the...
Michelle: Well, actually, we were engaged at the time...
Jim: Okay, you’re engaged. I mean, that’s even more so.
Michelle: ...Yeah, so we had dated three years and got engaged.
Jim: So, I mean, how did that hit you? I mean, it had to be destabilizing?
Michelle: Very, yeah. I was - um, I think when I tell women, I’m like, I felt like I was getting punched, like where all the air is kind of, like, knocked out of you when you can’t really breathe.
Nick: I think you said, “I feel like I can’t breathe.”
Michelle: I can’t breathe, yeah. You just don’t know what to do with that information because I was so shocked ‘cause he led us in Bible study, he led us in prayer. He was, you know, the godly man I had saved myself for. And I was just really shocked, like, that he could struggle with this, but...
Jim: But obviously, it’s interesting to me you didn’t say goodbye.
Michelle: No because I was like, well, I had been told in church also all men struggle with this. And so it was probably because he wasn’t married, you know? So all men probably struggle before they’re married. We’re gonna get married. And then...
Jim: Then that appetite will be satisfied.
Michelle: ...It’ll fix the problem.
Nick: Everything will be great.
Michelle: It’ll go away, yeah. I’ll be enough and it’ll go away, yeah. That’s what I was telling myself.
Jim: Okay, yeah, I mean, that’s completely natural. And it also shows your commitment to Nick. I mean, that’s an interesting perspective. But how did you work through - I mean, you obviously said, “I do,” and these things were continuing or were you now hiding them, Nick? What was taking place?
Nick: Yeah, you know, looking back at that night, one of the things that she said - she just asked, “Well, why can’t you promise me you won’t do those things anymore?” And I remember saying to her, you know, this beautiful young woman that I wanted to give my life to, I said, “I feel like I’ve made promises like that to myself and others, and I end up breaking them sooner or later, so I want to promise you that and I’ll do my very best, but I don’t think I can.” And what scares me looking back as a 21-year-old, I was using the language of addiction. Recognizing there’s a problem in my life, I don’t want it, you don’t want it, but I’m acknowledging I’m not sure I can stop it. And it didn’t even occur to me at the time that that should be a red flag, like, “Hello, this is a significant issue.” And so we do. We enter into marriage. And for a time, you know, that experience, um, kind of puts at bay other struggles. But somewhere within the first six months, there was a relapse into viewing pornography when I was away at work. And, um, just that guilt and shame of, “How could I be doing this? I have a wonderful wife. Our life of sexual intimacy is great. And yet, I’m still reaching out to this.”
And so it really showed that there was much more going on than just sex or having some physical need met, that it was connected to other things. But at that time, I was completely blind to it. And so somewhere around that time, you know, had another one of those honest conversations. Like, here we go, I need to confess again because, like I said, I felt if I just would confess enough, sooner or later it would go away. It would be exposed enough that it would be better. And that wasn’t really the experience.
John: Our guests today on Focus on the Family are Nick and Michelle Stumbo. And this is obviously a very serious conversation about a topic that affects so many families. And here at Focus on the Family, we want you to know we have help for you if this is a struggle. Our number is 800, the letter A, and the word FAMILY. Online, we’re at focusonthefamily.com/broadcast.
Jim: Nick and Michelle, let me - let me pick up on what you said right before the break there, this idea that confession - it’s healthy, it’s good, it’s important. It’s actually quite bold because most people struggle with that step. But confession - it ends up not being enough. And we - I’m sure some people listening are - especially women - are going, “Wow, Michelle, I mean, he’s coming to you, he’s over and over confessing to you that he’s struggling with this, why didn’t you just leave?” But speak to that confession and how it worked over time in a good way, but how it wasn’t an immediate fix.
Nick: Yeah, you know, the hidden driver of addiction and sexual sin is always shame, shame that makes us believe we’ll be rejected, um, others will leave us. And it’s that shame I think that does keep a lot of people from confessing because they’re listening to that voice that says, “It’s better to keep it quiet.”
Um, but like I said in my story, I’d learned that confession - when I would confess, people would pray for me, they would show love. And for a time, there would be improvement. I would just feel this sense of unburdening and - and walking in new freedom but without making any real changes to how I was doing life or using my alone time. You know, those behaviors were bound to come back.
Jim: What was the need? I mean, from your perspective and your experience, what was driving that compulsion? You alluded to stronger undercurrent forces because your intimacy with Michelle was strong and good and healthy, but something else was going on. What is that something else? For all men and women, what is it in that sexual experience that is driving us to really be disobedient?
Nick: Yeah, well, I want to be careful to say that it’s not just one thing. You’ve got multiple streams that are running together creating, um, a river of that behavior, if you will. So there is definitely the draw of the images that were designed by God to find beauty in. There’s the chemical response happening in your brain that does create, not only the pleasure at the end, but just the excitement along the way is being reproduced.
Jim: That’s dopamine and other chemical reactions in our brain. It’s a reward system.
Nick: And the more we repeat it, the stronger it becomes and the more easily triggered it is. So it could start for a guy - like, often for me in those scenarios, it would be being at work, feeling a sense of maybe procrastination, that there’s some hard work to do, I’m not sure how to do it. And with that can come fear of failure or that fear of not being good enough, that I need to perform well to be loved and accepted. And so we don’t always know what to do with those feelings. And a guy might just describe it, as I probably would in those days - say, “Oh, I was just bored, and then I saw something and, you know, one thing led to another.”
In my story, and I think in so many people’s stories, they never just go to the computer rushing to look for pornography. But it becomes this step by step back to where you’d never intended to go. And so I - I really see now that in that area of procrastination and the fear of failure or of hard work that I couldn’t do well, it would open me up to something else that was just a convenient escape to start to disassociate from those unwanted feelings. And then the brain finds enjoyment and pleasure in that escape. And then the escape just becomes a slippery slope into the places you promised you’d never go again.
Jim: Yeah, and once again, that Barna Research, 68 percent of Christian men, people going to church, and 25 to 30 percent of women, Christian women, are experiencing this addiction or at least exposure to pornography.
Let’s go to the biblical component of this. And we’re gonna come back next time and talk much more. But, um, help us understand the Biblical warning signs about sexual sin. And, you know, we all agree that all sin separates us from God. That’s the core problem. But how is sexual sin perhaps even more harmful than other sin?
Nick: You know, sexual sin by its nature is always escalating. Um, it’s really the James 1 passages of, you know, what - what is it that entices you and drags you ways? And it - you know, the lust inside of you that give birth to temptation, and that temptation, uh, gives birth to sin. And that sin, when it’s fully conceived, gives birth to death. And I think that’s what we see happening in our sexuality - is the desires we feel are quite normal. They’re - and it’s healthy in a sense - God-given, but then they’re being twisted by sin and by the enemy for un-health. And that’s now temptation. And we cross the lines, because we’re tempted, into sin. And it doesn’t just stay there. It’s not something that just leaves you alone and allows you to stay where you’re at. Partly because of what we were saying earlier about brain chemicals - those brain chemicals experience a toleration where the same experience won’t produce the same kind of excitement or the chemical hit. And so you’re always craving more. And we see that biblically. That’s what James 1 is saying why it leads us to death because it just continues to grow until it takes us places we never thought we’d go.
Jim: Boy, that’s...
Nick: ...And I like - the way I like to talk about is to say no one ever plans for death. You know, they never set out saying, “I’m gonna have an addiction to pornography that will one day destroy everything I hold dear.” But the problem is we don’t plan not to. We don’t...
Nick: ...Plan effectively how to deal with the temptation and the sin to make sure we head towards life rather than allowing it to escalate towards death.
Jim: Michelle, let me, uh, turn to you as well. I mean, this is going on in your marriage. I’m trying to run these two tracks here - what is...
Jim: ...Practically happening and the - kind of the clinical, uh, approach that you’re mentioning, Nick, and then the real emotional side of it - your marriage. How was, uh, Nick’s addiction impacting your marriage after you said, “I do,” and you went in kind of fully knowing that Nick was struggling - year one, year two? What was going on for you as Nick’s wife?
Michelle: I think going into it, you know, he did share his struggle. But I think it was a little, um, sugar-coated so to speak, like palatable.
Jim: Well, even what...
Nick: Cleaned up...
Jim: ...You said a moment ago...
Michelle: Like, cleaned up a little bit.
Jim: ...Didn’t prove true. I mean, you guys - you thought it’d be all over once you could satisfy, but it didn’t happen.
Michelle: Right. Um...
Jim: And what - I mean, what - how did you, as the wife, did you go, “Oh, no, I’m in trouble now”?
Jim: Or what were those feelings?
Michelle: Yeah, so anger and, um, loneliness because I didn’t have anyone to share them with.
Jim: Because of the embarrassment of it or because you didn’t have that close a friend that you could trust?
Michelle: In college, I - I mean, he was working for the college. I didn’t want him to lose his job. And then when he’s the pastor of the church you’re leading, you can’t really tell the congregation. I didn’t really feel comfortable to tell parents.
Nick: Yeah, it’s a real double bind for wives because it’s my secret. And I can choose to share my secret when I feel comfortable. But she can’t share my secret without my permission. So she’s carrying around my secrets for me. And I - I think that’s a double bind...
Michelle: So it’s a real...
Nick: ...Many, many wives...
Nick: ...Are in.
Michelle: ...A lonely place.
Jim: Well, and in that way - this is a terrible place to end day one. And we are gonna come back next time and pick this discussion up. But I think as I was reading the book and, you know, getting ready for the program, the thing that caught my attention the most and the thing that I struggled with is that, um, you’re - you are pastoring...
Jim: ...And you’re going through this battle.
Jim: And I know that you confessed it to the elders, but you didn’t step out of leadership. And that was - I guess, to me, that was a big question I had - is...
Jim: ...Why didn’t you? Why didn’t you say, “Okay, I’ve got to - I’ve got to get healthy,” but you continued to pastor for 10 years?
Michelle: I think part of it is we didn’t realize it was an addiction. It was always just this little thing, you know, that happened. Like, it wasn’t this - he didn’t have an affair. He wasn’t, you know, doing it every day. It was, like, once every three months or once every six months, or - he would - he would even go a whole year and not have, like, what we consider a relapse. So it’s like, well, maybe you’re getting better. Like...
Michelle: So I think it - we didn’t really know how big - I feel - I didn’t really - I mean, I knew it was hurting me, and it was wrecking the marriage. Like, I was starting to not like this man and considering, you know, “Well, if this keeps happening, what do I do? Do I leave him? You know, is that biblical?”
Jim: I mean, those are the struggles we wanna pick up next time...
Jim: ...Because those are...
Jim: ...The right questions, and I want to hear how you fought through the answers to those things. Because I’m sure there’s men and women right now thinking, “What do I do? I mean, my husband or my wife is in that situation.”
Nick: There’s hope.
Jim: There is hope.
Nick: We’re living it.
Michelle: There’s hope.
Jim: We’re gonna come back next time and talk about that.
Nick: Part two of the story, right?
Jim: And, uh, you know, again, given the enormity of this issue, that’s why we wanted to cover it today and tomorrow because this is something that’s going on in a lot of people’s lives. We’ve got a pastoral anonymous call line here at Focus. About a third of those phone calls will be from pastors who are struggling, either with pornography, or they’re in an inappropriate relationship...
Jim: ...With somebody.
Nick: And that’s just it - they don’t know where to go.
Jim: Right. And so then...
Nick: It’s a double bind for them.
Jim: ...I applaud you both for having that open dialogue. And at least he wasn’t hiding it from you, Michelle. That is something that is good. Um, but now we got to struggle through the time period where you really battled together for your marriage...
Jim: ...For your ministry. And, uh, if you’re willing, let’s come back next time and pick it up there. Can we do that?
Nick: Sounds great.
Jim: All right.
John: Well, we’re looking forward to the second part of this conversation with Nick and Michelle Stumbo and hearing more about the hope they found in God’s healing and the restoration of their relationship.
Now, maybe that hasn’t been part of your experience yet. You feel trapped by pornography or another hidden sin. Or maybe someone you love is struggling and you just don’t know how to help them. Please, contact us here at Focus on the Family. We have caring, Christian counselors that can have an initial phone consultation with you, listen to your story, pray with you, suggest some resources, and even direct you to someone in your local area to have further discussions with. Our number is 800, the letter A, and the word FAMILY.
Jim: And you need to know, your call in confidential. Focus on the Family is a safe place to get help just like Nick and Michelle experienced in their own marriage. If you’re listening to us right now and you have a heart for hurting families, partner with us and let’s help these families together. Focus on the Family is listener-supported, which means we depend upon your financial giving to share these amazing stories and provide resources like our counseling team, our websites, and all the other tools that we bring to bear on these issues. You can be part of bringing hope to people who are wondering if their marriage is beyond rescue and for those who feel trapped in their sin like Nick was. Contact us today with your gift, and let me say thank you in advance for your donation.
John: And for your gift of any amount, we’ll send a complimentary copy of Nick’s book,. And you might wanna get a copy of that for your church or small group as well. Donate at focusonthefamily.com/broadcast or call 800, the letter A, and the word FAMILY. And be sure when you get in touch to request Nick Stumbo’s great book, .
Well tomorrow, you’ll hear how the Stumbos finally experienced God’s healing from the trap of pornography.
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