I discovered my husband was a sex addict one month shy of our ninth anniversary. I had planned to surprise him with a cruise to celebrate and had been making payments toward it for a year. Within days I cancelled the cruise and thank goodness I was able to get my money back. Instead, the money went toward treatment for our recovery from his addiction. A month later, after so many tears, so much pain, and lots of counseling (including a three-dayintensive), my husband suggested we drive to Branson, Mo for a free trip he had been offered. I saw no reason to commemorate the day that began a life of lies, deceit, and deception. But I agreed, thinking getting away for a few days might be good for me, and for us.
Those days were filled with nothing but more tears and grief. Even though I had never been to Branson, everywhere we went I was triggered by things that sent me into a tailspin of depression. Pretty women were an obvious trigger. The fact that we were on vacation, and we always loved travelling together, was a painful reminder that things would never be the same. Moments that should have been happy were probably the most painful of all. Because there was no joy. The joy had been sucked out of me. I was a beautiful, glowing candle, with light that glimmered and danced. My fire had been suddenly smothered. All that was left was darkness.
A few weeks after we got home from our sad little trip, we sat in bed late at night, talking and crying together. As we talked we came to a conclusion about who we were on that day we united as one in a beautiful ceremony, in front of family and friends. I was a naïve nineteen-year-old girl who saw signs she ignored, and thought she was marrying her knight in shining armor. He was twenty-six, equally naïve in that he believed this would be the day he would stop living a life of sexual sin and finally find happiness. No more reason to seek out relief from porn and other women, because he had one very special woman to make him happy forever. We both cried and grieved for those people who were so young and so very wrong.
In the middle of our conversation, I stood up and walked to an area just outside our bedroom where there is an alcove in the wall. Inside that nook, on a shelf, I had a lovely display of our wedding memorabilia. A couple pictures of the smiling happy couple, our cake topper, the knife that we used to cut our cake, a napkin, matchbook, and bookmark, all engraved with our names and the date and the scripture in 1 Corinthians 13, about love. I started taking it all down and walking back and forth to the closet, storing it away. As I systematically removed each item, I allowed the tears to flow. I wept out loud as I allowed each emotion to be felt fully. That night was very healing for me. I grieved some losses and the symbolic gesture of removing the wedding stuff was cathartic.
As time went on, one of my struggles was trying to figure out who my husband was. I saw our entire marriage as a lie. So what did that mean? I SO needed to figure out what that meant. What was real and what wasn’t? What parts of my husband were who he really was and what parts were a façade? Was any of it real? These were questions I was determined to find the answers to. For months I just wondered and asked questions, but doubted everything I heard, everything I thought, EVERYTHING. I went back and forth on whether I could ever heal, even if he didn’t ever cheat again. Had he just gone too far for there to be healing? One day I would tell him to get an apartment and the next I would tell him he better stay so that he could spend every moment of the rest of his life trying to make this up to me.
But eventually Space Mountain became the Magic Carpets of Aladdin (you’ve gotta be a Disney fan to get this one). See, for the first few months to a year after my husband’s revelation to me, my life was like a roller coaster in the dark. I was up and down and all over the place and never knew where I would be or what I would be feeling from one minute to the next. Gradually, the highs and lows became less extreme. Eventually, I found some stability. I was still on a ride, but it was much less wild and I had some control over the ups and downs. Miraculously, I was getting better. I didn’t doubt myself anymore, or question so much. My mind was clearer, so I could start to focus on figuring things out.
As I began to work on getting to know my husband all over again, or for the first time, I started with simple things. What do I know to be true? He is a football fan. He loves the Food Network. When I look at our past, what was real and what wasn’t? For this, I had to reflect on what I had learned over the last year. The full clinical disclosure, with polygraph, helped a lot here. When had his acting out happened? Well, I learned that he had never acted out while we were on vacation. This made sense, since his acting out, like many others, was in large part about escaping reality. He didn’t act out while I was pregnant. So what did that tell me? I could still fondly reminisce about our honeymoon and family vacations. I could still relish in the memories of the pregnancy we shared together. I could still remember the day our daughter was born as an experience we went through together and a joy we both felt. It may sound silly, and not very therapeutic, but these things were important to me.
I basically picked apart our entire marriage so that I could reframe each memory so that it was consistent with reality. My fears about what he did while on business trips were validated. His 33rd birthday celebration, where I gave him a new wedding ring (since his original was cheap and all scratched up) was tainted since I learned he has recently acted out and acted out again days later. Unfortunately, many memories of the past were indeed tarnished. But I already knew that. I needed to know which ones weren’t.
So I had hobbies, vacations, and pregnancy. Now I needed to go deeper. What did I love about him the most? Well, his sense of humor was a BIG one. We loved to laugh together. As time went on, I noticed he still made me laugh. I loved that he liked to watch chick flicks with me. Once I came out of the depression that caused me to not want to watch any TV at all, I saw that he still enjoyed watching romantic movies like the Titanic. And one of his all-time favorite movies was still Jerry Maguire. That had been real.
My husband had always been so good with our daughter. This was a huge factor when it came to why I stayed in the beginning. But just like everything else, I doubted this. Was he just putting on a show so he could appear to be a great father? Coincidently, twice during this time, my husband butt dialed me while he was at home alone with our daughter. I listened, unbeknownst to them, and heard laughter and playing and happiness. Another brownie point.
One of the biggest factors I had to reconcile with was not about my husband’s acting out at all. It was about the person he presented himself to be. Gregarious. The life of the party. Confident. Now, I knew he was none of those things. Without this persona, he also had to learn who he was. He was having just as hard a time about it as I was. In social situations, he became awkward and withdrawn. He had stopped drinking at the same time he got into SA recovery, so I have no doubt this had something to do with it. Also, I think his shame contributed to his lack of social interaction. Now, I saw this meek and humble man, and I didn’t know what to do with him or what to think. He admitted to me that the confident guy he presented to me, the guy who never got his feelings hurt and was immune to depression, was a fraud.
His confidence and charm were some of the traits that drew me to him the most. He could persuade anyone to do anything. We constantly got free upgrades at hotels and on airplanes. We were seen by others as the couple who had it all together. So what was I supposed to do with this new person I did not know?
I had to get to know the new person. My new husband was insecure and sensitive. A trip to visit his alcoholic, schizophrenic mom in her nursing home, whom he had not seen in years, showed me part of this new man. The visit went great. We took her out to eat and shopping for some new clothes. But when we came back to our hotel that night, he broke down crying. He had all but disowned his mom when he was a teenager, due to her sickness. At the time he didn’t understand it was sickness. He just saw a mom who had never taken care of him, had never loved him and protected him like a mother should. Now he understood mental illness and he really understood addiction. Great guilt washed over him after seeing this frail woman whom he had shunned for so many years. While my heart ached for him, I was also relieved to see that my husband now trusted me enough to cry like a baby right in front of me and let me hold him. He had never done anything close to that before.
Over the last couple years I have watched my shame-filled husband become a strong, yet humble man. He has grown so much. He regrets his past, but doesn’t dwell on it. Every now and then he will let it get him down and get angry that he will always be a sex addict. But overall he has become someone I would not have recognized a few years ago. He will share his faith with anyone. His co-workers know not to tell him a dirty joke because he wants no part of that. If one of them calls the others over to look at an explicit video or picture they found on the computer, they don’t even ask him to come. The tease him a little, but I think they respect him too. He has even talked to a couple of them about the dangers of porn. This is not the man who was so concerned about how he appeared to others that he would have been the one making the dirty jokes.
So, while I have indeed lost my old husband and my old marriage, I have something so much better. I have a genuine man and a relationship based on truth. If it took all that pain to get to this; well, I wouldn’t change a thing.
If your husband is in recovery and actively working his program, and if you have decided to stay married, but you struggle each year due to the pain your wedding anniversary brings, what worked for me may not work for you. But you can also reframe your memories so that they are consistent with your new reality. This can help you not to feel like your whole marriage was a lie. This kind of reframing will look different for each person. Maybe you found out your husband was having an affair when you got married. Maybe he acted out on your honeymoon. You may need to find a different day to celebrate and scrap the old day altogether. Discuss with your husband when that day will be and how you can make it special.
Go on this journey and see what you find. You won’t find exactly what I did, but you can rewrite your own story, your own way. I encourage you to allow yourself to actively grieve your losses if you haven’t already. Otherwise all this will be impossible. But when you are ready, take a trip down memory lane from a new perspective. See if you can find some good, in the past and in the present.
We took that cruise for our tenth anniversary and had a blast. After only a little over a year, the grief hadn’t gone away completely. But we were celebrating the day we began our lives together. We weren’t celebrating the lies or the betrayal. Yes, that was part of our marriage and we will never forget. But the man I married was a good man, with a disease. When we exchanged those vows, we were both very much in love. Well, I actually don’t think either of us really even knew what love was back then. But that day began our very rocky journey together that taught us exactly what love is. I can commemorate that day without sadness because I know my husband is the real deal. It took a lot to get him here (including a lot of failed attempts that I was unaware of). On our wedding day we both believed in happily ever after. Together we learned there is no such thing. But there is love, forgiveness, and healing.That is something to celebrate.