For Religious Leaders

guidelines for working with addicts and their partners

Pornography and sex addiction is a pervasive problem that affects so many individuals, couples, and families in our communities.

Religious leaders are often called upon to provide counsel, support, and even church discipline for individuals caught up in addiction. Many years of working with religious leaders has provided insight into the types of needs and questions you may have as you are working with those within your responsibility who are struggling with sexual acting out behaviors.

Following are some basic guidelines that religious leaders have found to be helpful in working with sex addicts and their spouses.

Involve the spouse at every level

Often religious leaders choose to have individual meetings with the addict, keeping their spouses out of the loop. Unfortunately, this actually reinforces the idea that there are things that are OK to keep from her. It invites the addict to “curate” what he shares and does not share with her, which usually means that he avoids real honesty and accountability. Please invite her into all of your meetings with him. Do not cut her out of important conversations.

Trust her instincts. She intuitively knows how he’s doing in his recovery. Her feedback about how he is doing in keeping her safe from his addiction is, by far, the very best indicator of the quality of his recovery. He is likely to report that his recovery is solid, even when she is in deep despair and trauma because, in reality, he is doing very little to keep her safe from the addiction. Use her feedback to help the addict know what he needs to be doing differently. This is as much about her recovery as it is about his.

Expand the concept of accountability

Often, religious leaders are unsure about how to encourage good accountability and recovery. The most common approach is to meet every few weeks with the addict and ask questions like, “Have you had any slips since I last saw you?” or “How are you feeling about your change?”

These are not bad questions, but this is as far as most religious leaders go. These types of questions usually focus only on sobriety, but ignore the more important concept of recovery.

You will want to remember that sobriety and recovery are not the same thing. Sobriety is simply the absence of acting out behaviors. Real recovery is a transforming life process. It’s about being open, honest, accountable, emotionally self-aware, able to follow through with commitments, and willing to accept feedback from others about necessary changes.

Help the recovering addict focus on an expanded concept of accountability that focuses on more than the absence of acting out behaviors. Here are some good questions to get a better picture of his recovery:

1. What are your daily recovery routines? How is your consistency with these routines?

2. (to the wife) What are some areas that you need to see improvement to help you feel safer with him?

3. How do you know that this attempt at change is different than all of your past attempts? What are you doing differently that lets you know things are different?

4. What are you doing to help rebuild trust with your wife? What more do you need to do?

Know when to “refer out”
Everyone should know their limitations. Most religious leaders and untrained in mental health issues or addiction. Your involvement on religious and spiritual issues is invaluable for him as he is learning to slow down and pay attention to his own emotional and spiritual experience in recovery. However, there are many parts of the recovery process that simply are not intuitive or obvious. In fact, many of the first things that come to mind to do or say are actually very unhelpful in addiction recovery. For example, in other areas of life, saying, “Let’s just move on and put this in the past and stop thinking so much about it” may be decent advice. In addiction recovery, it is incredibly unhelpful. Avoiding dealing with the issues and thinking it’s in the past is part of the reason the addict is still caught up in the addiction. As you begin to work with the addict (and spouse), know when to bring in the support of a trained professional who deeply understands the addiction recovery process. Allow yourself to focus on the areas of help and support that you can do, and allow the counselor to do what he or she does best. If you have further questions, you are welcome to call and talk to one of our expert clinicians at…


Invite an expanding dialogue

When someone is first sharing details about their sexual addiction with you, in nearly every case, he will be “testing the water” to see how the conversation will go and to see how you will respond. Men who talk about their past conversations with religious leaders will often say things like, “I never really told him the whole story. I brushed over it and said it was something that was in the past because I was trying to avoid consequences.”

The way you respond in the first conversation will, in large part, determine the nature of all future conversations. Here is some language that you may use to encourage this first conversation to be the beginning of many:

“Thank you for sharing these concerns with me. This must have taken a lot of courage to do. I imagine you feel quite a bit of shame about your behaviors and you may even be worried about how I will respond. I’m just glad you’re here. Opening up and being accountable is one of the first steps in the change process.”

“Today you’ve shared some challenging things with me. I imagine that you probably have more to share with me. You may even leave my office today and remember things that you wish you had told me. That’s OK. Let’s meet again soon. Give yourself a chance to carefully remember things that you may have tried hard to forget. In order for you to heal from your shame, you will want to disclose anything to me that keeps you from really healing. When we meet again, feel free to share with me anything else that has come into your mind since our last meeting. I’m here to listen.”

“I’m so glad you shared with me today. I care about you and want to help in whatever ways I can. One thing I can do for you is provide a safe place to talk about things you may never have shared with another person. Let’s meet regularly for a period of time as you prepare to open up and be completely honest. I commit to you that I will walk with you through this process. The best way you can help me help you is to be totally honest with me. I want you to be able to heal. It would be sad to me if your healing is blocked by secrets that need to be shared. I hope you will trust me enough to open up.”

Understand trauma

One of the biggest mistakes religious leaders make in working with couples affected by a husband’s pornography addiction is to minimize or ignore the wife’s recovery. Her recovery is as important as his, although it is different in many ways.

Sometimes her responses to him and her reactions to things he does or says may be confusing to you. Please consider her reactions to be a response to a relational trauma. She has come to discover that the man she married is not who she thought he was. She has been exposed to sometimes years of extensive lies and secret keeping that makes her wonder what she can believe or trust anymore. Sometimes this can even extend outside her marriage. She may struggle to trust anyone or anything. This is a normal response to a traumatic experience of betrayal of trust.

Meet with her as often as you can. Ask her to be honest about how she is doing. Expect her to struggle for many months after the initial disclosure or discovery of the addiction. Her experience is the best indicator of his recovery, so you will want to pay close attention to how she is doing to have a better idea of how he is doing.

Working with trauma is difficult and is done best with training. However, there are some things you can do to be helpful:

1. Open up “space” for her to tell her story. Avoid giving too much advice. Accept her experience and avoid minimizing or ignoring feelings that matter to her. When she opens up, invite her to share more.

2. Validate her experience. The most important thing you can do for her is to be as understanding as possible about how she is responding to her own feelings and to her trauma responses. Normalize what she feels and how she responds.

3. Encourage her to reach out and share with others who are emotionally safe and stable. So many wives of addicts isolate themselves from others in their time of need. They may feel others will not understand what they are going through. They may also feel obligated to “protect” their husband’s secrets and preserve his reputation. Please help her to feel safe to share with others.