A great post on the forum here recently pointed out that convincing an addicted partner to clean up might require you to issue an ultimatum along the line of “it’s me or the porn,” but it is very important that you only say this if you mean it and are able to follow through. In my own marriage, I have told my husband at least four times that if he slips up one more time, I am leaving; just as many times, I have told him that if he lies to me one more time, I am leaving. Every time I discover that he has had a major relapse, I brandish that same ultimatum, and he freely admits that he no longer really believes me. I have lost credibility by making empty threats.
If your spouse has a sexual addiction (or any other addiction), you will have to establish limits of acceptable behavior. For those limits to matter, there will need to be consequences for violating those limits. Define for your partner which behavior you cannot live with, and explain to him or her how you will probably respond if this behavior occurs.
- Don’t bluff. Never warn your spouse of divorce or any other consequence of his or her actions unless you will definitely follow through. If you draw a line, your spouse crosses it, and you do not follow through with the consequence you promised, your partner will learn that you are a pushover, and there are no consequences for infidelity. This will make it easier mentally and emotionally for your spouse to engage in even more destructive and painful behaviors as the addiction escalates. Before you give an ultimatum, think through what you are actually willing to do; your response to your partner’s behavior will have consequences for both you.
- Do respond; don’t punish. The consequences attached to addictive behavior should be a direct result of their impact on you. For instance, if your partner’s porn viewing makes you uncomfortable being physically intimate with him or her, express that and explain why. Don’t withhold intimacy or affection as a punishment or to make a point.
- Don’t make threats. It is important to remember that no consequence, no matter how severe, can completely prevent a relapse into addictive behavior. If that were possible, fewer people would be fired for browsing pornography at work. You cannot help your partner beat this addiction- or protect yourself from its emotional pain- by browbeating or intimidating him or her into simply not being addicted. Attempts at controlling your spouse’s behavior with threats will push your spouse away and make it harder to regain real intimacy, trust, or affection in the relationship.
- Do draw realistic lines. The nature of addiction means that relapses are almost inevitable, especially at first, and recovery is a slow process. Setting limits that don’t take this into account, especially if you attach very severe consequences to them, can be discouraging to your partner and can back you into a corner. “If you look at one more porn video, ever, I’m leaving,” is not a reasonable ultimatum to give someone who is just beginning to work toward recovery. Instead, draw lines that encourage progress in steps, and set less extreme consequences. You might try something more like:
- “In order for me to be able to stay in this relationship, you will need to seek professional treatment for your addiction.”
- “I just can’t have a physically intimate relationship with you when you’re consistently viewing porn (or engaging in other addictive behaviors).”
Setting clear limits and discussing consequences for breaking those limits will help hold your partner accountable for his or her actions, which is an important part of the recovery process. Just as importantly, defining limits and consequences will help you protect yourself from some of the emotional pain that comes from a relationship with a sex addict, while giving you a better chance to preserve and repair the relationship.