by Mike Genung
One of the questions we hear often from wives is, “How do I rebuild trust after my husband has been lying to and hurting me with his sexual sin for years?”
Following is an excerpt from Chapter 11 of my new book The Wife’s Heart; Healing from Your Husband’s Porn Addiction and Adultery that will answer this question, available at http://www.blazinggrace.org/store/:
The Eight Elements of Rebuilding Trust
I just found out my husband has been using porn. Over time, he’s became distant; he doesn’t even kiss me good night anymore. I’ve dreamed of having a beautiful marriage where my husband loves me like Jesus loves the church, but our relationship is far from that. I’ve complained about our lack of sex many times, but he hasn’t changed. This year has been horrible; I feel so lonely. I’m not eating right or sleeping well, and am struggling with anxiety. Having kids has changed my body; I’ll never be one of those women he lusts over. I trusted my husband to protect my heart. Did he ever care?
Trust is the cornerstone of marriage; relationships die without it.
The husband who is incapable of consistent honesty and accountability cannot give his wife a reason to trust him. Without the security that comes from a relationship built on trust, their marriage cannot be rebuilt.
On the other hand, a man who answers his wife’s questions truthfully, no matter how difficult they may be, is worthy of her trust. Honest men show their wives that their relationship means more to them than their pride, which is often the first hindrance to transparency. Fear and shame take second and third. Although a man of integrity is fatally flawed and makes mistakes, he is willing to own up to them. He doesn’t wear a mask or fake the Christian life.
After a wife has discovered her husband has been lying and deceiving her for years, even decades, what does the process of rebuilding trust look like? Can she trust him again?
Years ago, I went to a federal prison for training to minister to inmates. The instructor told us that some prisoners are out to manipulate those from the outside into doing something for them, such as smuggling or making contact with one of their friends for illicit purposes.
He told us that violent criminals aren’t the hardest to trust—the sex offenders are. When it comes to deceit, sex offenders are the professionals. Lie detector tests are often included in their rehabilitation programs to determine if they can be trusted.
As we discussed in chapter two, most men get hooked on porn or other forms of sexual sin as a teen, then spend years hiding, lying, and deceiving, well into their marriage. Dishonesty is woven into their character.
I don’t write this to discourage you, but to help you understand what you might be dealing with. The normal rules that govern a healthy relationship where both sides can be trusted don’t apply here.
Not all men are in this deep when it comes to dishonesty. Some are so desperate and broken they’ll do anything to heal their marriage. Honesty and accountability are easier for them because they’ve had enough pain, are sick of the double life, and don’t want to keep hurting their spouse.
Let’s swing the pendulum and examine both sides to understand the men who struggle with dishonesty. To the left are those who are paralyzed by fear and shame. Telling the truth to these men is terrifying because of the fear of rejection and how their spouse will respond. They’ve rarely crawled out of their shame-hole. Exposing the depths of their sin and brokenness may be difficult because their loved ones (usually Mom or Dad) never accepted them, faults and all. This makes honesty an intimidating mountain for them to face. Deep down, they want to stop lying and hiding, but fear and shame have such a tight grip on them that they’re in bondage. The good news is that these guys can recover and heal with acceptance, love, and facing their fears.
Then there are those on the opposite side of the pendulum. Their hearts are rock-hard. While honesty sounds nice, they won’t give up their pride. They’ll manipulate, blame, coerce, lie, and justify to get what they want. These men are the professional posers, the liars who my instructor in prison was referring to. They are found at every level of the church, including pastors. Sadly, these men need industrial-strength consequences to break them before they’ll face their sin.
The rebuilding of trust requires time, not a one-time event. As Hansel and Gretel left small pebbles on the path so they could find their way home, so you will dole out small nuggets of trust to your husband as he earns them. Don’t give him the whole loaf at once; he must earn it back by taking consistent actions over an extended period of time, just as he did when you were dating.
To gauge whether you can believe your husband and dole out a nugget of trust, consider the following eight elements. One won’t provide enough information for a solid judgment call—you’ll need all eight.
- The first element determines how far you can open the door of trust. Where is his heart? Which of the three men at the beginning of this chapter do you see him as? Broken with a soft heart, fearful and in bondage to lying yet willing to change, or with a heart of stone?
If he has a hard heart, you have no reason to trust him; he isn’t willing to change and/or doesn’t want to give up sexual sin. I wouldn’t open the door of trust more than a hairline crack for a guy like this.
If his character is laced with deception and fear, yet he’s willing to change, you can open the door of trust a bit, maybe six inches. This will give both of you hope and a starting place to work from. He’s not granted wide-open access to your heart; that comes later after he changes.
If he’s like the first man who’s willing to do whatever it takes to heal your marriage, with a broken and soft heart, you can open the door around a foot. This is telling him, “I’m willing to start by giving you several nuggets of my trust, which are precious to me. Let’s see what happens.” He gets a piece of your heart, and you’re letting light and grace in your relationship. He doesn’t have wide-open access yet, but could if he keeps changing.
The door represents protection for your heart; how vulnerable you will be. Trust is not just about honesty; as trust grows you feel more secure, and as you feel more secure, you can be vulnerable with your husband and give him more of you. In each of the three cases you’re protecting your heart. The level of protection is determined by how much the door is closed. You open the door more as they earn your trust by how well they’re doing with these eight elements.
- Gauge if your husband is taking the five action steps that were described in chapter six on a consistent basis. You must give your husband’s actions far more weight than his words; talk doesn’t move the scale. If he isn’t taking the action steps, close the door. If he says, “I can do this on my own”; “I don’t need help”; or “I will get help tomorrow,” but doesn’t follow through, it’s all smoke and mirrors and he’s playing you.
If he’s going to a group and or/meeting with an accountability partner at least once a week and taking the other action steps, and has been doing it every week without stopping for at least several months, you have a reason to consider opening the door a little more.
Note that I said you can consider opening the door; you’re never obligated to grant him a nugget of trust. You don’t owe him; he’s in your debt. That doesn’t mean you should lord it over him and set the bar unreasonably high (stay away from revenge mode), but that you should use discretion and wisdom for every nugget of trust you dole out, apart from external pressure from him. Every piece of trust should come freely from your heart, not under pressure or false guilt.
- Ask your husband for a complete account of his sexual history. It all needs to come out—the sooner, the better. You don’t want him taking the Hansel and Gretel approach with you where he throws you a few truth crumbs over weeks or months. The “tell it all as we go” approach scrapes your wounds and sets the rebuilding process back.
Ask him the hard questions: When did he start acting out sexually, and how (porn, prostitutes, promiscuity, affairs, stripper bars)? How often has he acted out since then, with whom, and/or how? When was the last time he binged?
Examine his response. Is he answering every one of your questions without blowing up or getting defensive? For example, if you ask your husband, “When was the last time you masturbated to porn?” and he deflects or gets angry, that doesn’t signal he’s changed enough for you to open the door. It’s also possible he may not have acted out but is still foundering in fear or Me mode. Don’t assume he’s viewed porn—wait until you know the truth.
If he answers your questions with humility, you have a reason to consider trusting him.
- How is he treating you? Is he the same self-absorbed jerk he was before, or is he making genuine attempts to change? Is he kinder, more patient, and does he listen to you? Don’t expect him to get it all together over night; he has a long process ahead of unwinding selfishness and learning to love. If his parents were lousy role models when it came to caring for each other, he probably absorbed some of their faulty habits. You’re looking for progress, not perfection.
Is he dating you? Is your sex life on the mend? Is he sharing his heart with you so that your relationship is about more than talking about recovery and family issues? Are you getting to know him?
- Is he engaged at home? Does he help out, and is he spending time with your kids? If he was a workaholic, is he reducing his work hours so he can adjust his life to his God-given priorities, with you and your family at the top of the list?
- Is he having fun with you and your kids? Is he laughing more? For many sex addicts, porn was their only fun. Laughter and cutting loose are positive signals that he’s discovering life again.
- How’s he doing with overcoming sexual sin? If he’s still binging every week but is honest with you and still going to groups, you can keep the door where it is, or close it a little. If he’s slipping and no longer taking the action steps, close the door. If he’s gaining traction and is beginning to walk in freedom, you have a reason to consider opening it.
- Are you catching him in lies? If he lied to you recently but felt remorse and came to you and confessed, you might consider keeping the door where it is. But if you’re catching him in lies, and especially if it’s a pattern, the door stays closed until he changes. If he’s been rigorously honest, you have reason to consider extending a nugget of trust to him.
“Since sex addicts are so good at lying, how do I know if he’s telling me the truth?” you might ask.
Perhaps your husband was able to deceive you before because you trusted him completely. But now that you know the truth and your husband knows you know, it’s going to be harder for him to look you in the eye and deceive you. He may be able to keep some things from you, but it won’t last long and the truth will come out much sooner than before.
Women have a sixth sense when it comes to their husbands—they see right through them. If I’m in a bad place, Michelle knows after just one look at me. If she asks, “Is something wrong?” but I don’t feel like talking about it and reply “Nothing,” she’ll give me the look that says, “Uh-huh, sure.” Whether I want to talk or not, I know that she knows.
Learn to trust your gut. If something doesn’t feel right, wait, watch, and ask again. If your husband is having a bad day, he’ll eventually break out of it. If the pattern continues for days, it’s a sign that something may be off and you need to press on.
Note that the eight elements are based on his actions and what they’re showing you about your husband’s character. If he’s growing, his words will be reflected by consistent actions and the fruit of a changed heart, which translate into how he treats you.
You will know them by their fruits. Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor figs from thistles, are they? So every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. So then, you will know them by their fruits.
If fear is crawling up your spine, wait and pray before making a judgment call. You may need to step back and examine whether you’re discerning that something isn’t right in your husband, or if you’re being driven by fear or paranoia. Fear drives with the sense of urgency that something must be done now. Wisdom prayerfully takes all of the facts into consideration before acting.
Which brings us back to God. Keep praying for wisdom and discernment as to whether you should release a nugget of trust to your husband. God will grant your request if you wait for the answer, just as He promised (James 1:5).