In the course of counseling, I’ve discovered that most wives, regardless of their education, socioeconomic status, or level of maturity, respond to their husbands’ betrayals with predictable patterns of coping. I can identify with these women because of my own feeble attempts to cope.
I’ve been in similar places, and I know how much pain you’re going through. I’m also keenly aware that you have to figure out ways to manage. If you collapse under the pressure of this aftershock, your marriage, family, and future will suffer even more damage. That might not seem fair, but it’s true. You and your response are key to moving forward in the best way possible.
You may already have discovered that all coping mechanisms are not created equal. Some are healthy and effective, such as counseling, talking with trusted friends, and seeking spiritual support. Others work poorly, producing only temporary results or causing further complications. Unfortunately, too many wives, including myself in the past, opt for ineffective ways of coping.
Distorted thinking can make you feel better for a short time and easily fool you into believing that you’re coping well. But ultimately it fails to produce real peace. At first, distorted thoughts enable you to distance yourself from unpleasant feelings, ideas, or behaviors, but sooner or later, your pain and distress will resurface.
That may sound like bad news, but it isn’t. Exposing distorted thinking makes room for healthy thinking and effective actions.
Let’s examine five kinds of distorted thinking so many women struggle with.
Aiden had given Olivia so many implausible explanations for his suspicious behavior that she could recite them in her sleep.
“Women don’t understand men’s sexual needs,” he said. “I’m a normal guy, okay? I’m fed up with you and your stupid imagination! I’m not doing anything wrong, and you know it!”
Olivia couldn’t compete with Aiden’s debate tactics. Over time she learned to accept his weak justifications and eventually believed the lies herself. Her girlfriends tried to shake her into reality, but denying the truth was easier for Olivia than facing her fears.
“They don’t know Aiden the way I do,” Olivia explained when we met in my office. “The pornography on his computer was from a computer virus that planted tempting links in his web browser. He’s a strong Christian man!”
Olivia’s seventeen-year-old daughter expressed exasperation as she described her dad’s undeniable online porn habit.
“I don’t understand Mom,” she said. “Even when the naked people and disgusting videos were right there on Dad’s monitor, Mom made up excuses for him. When I gave her more proof, she said, ‘No husband is perfect. We are Christians; we need to forgive.’ Dad will never change, and I’m pretty sure he’s also having an affair. I wish she would wake up and do something about this!”
Sound incredible? It isn’t. The ability to see the best in people and circumstances is an admirable trait, but only if those perspectives are firmly grounded in truth and reality.
As we discussed in the previous chapter, a woman may cling to a childish, idealistic dream of a perfect marriage and ignore glaring evidence of problems. She may view her role as an adoring, supportive wife who excuses her husband’s imperfections and forgives his indiscretions.
If you see yourself in Olivia, you may also realize that your denial is driven by innate fears and a desire to avoid unpleasant experiences. This kind of distorted thinking is rife with danger. Over time it will result in more denials of the truth, and you’ll become increasingly out of touch with reality. This can lead to full-blown anxiety and even clinical phobias.
Compliantly accepting your husband’s deception and lies may keep your illusion of the happy family alive, but it isn’t healthy and will cause more problems the longer you deny the truth of your situation.
Step Into Right Thinking
The solution is simple but not easy. Choose to be honest, first with yourself and then with your husband. You will likely need to include other members of your family in the conversation as well. It would also be helpful for you to talk with a counselor or spiritual adviser about the best way to navigate any necessary family disclosures.
At this point, disclosing the truth about your situation to your family might be too frightening to pursue. But it’s vital to face the truth, be honest with yourself, and let your husband know that you no longer believe his denials.
Stop denying that he’s behaving in a damaging and hurtful way. As you come out of denial into reality, you’ll find that coping with the truth is much better than believing lies.
Abigail wasn’t in denial. She had stopped lying to herself years ago, but unfortunately she fell into a different trap—the trap of rationalization.
She knew the truth about her husband’s affair, and she was sick of his fabrications and ridiculous justifications. But she made a conscious decision to keep the peace at any price until the children graduated from school and left home. In spite of her husband’s adulterous behavior, which had given her a sexually transmitted disease, she told herself that her passive response was virtuous. “It’s for the sake of the children,” she’d say. “It’s the only way to keep the family intact.”
Are you caught in a rationalization trap like Abigail? If so, in your heart of hearts you probably know that your thinking is driven primarily by your emotions. You feel distraught, frozen with fear, and completely at a loss as to how to cope with an out-of-control husband. But rather than admit this to yourself, you rationalize. You come up with a more acceptable and respectable explanation for your lack of initiative.
Step Into Right Thinking
There’s only one way to get out of this rut. You need to be gut-wrenchingly honest about your emotions and motivations. Learn to replace passivity with a productive, godly strategy for confronting your wayward spouse. If you don’t know what to do, don’t let embarrassment or pride keep you from asking for help. Remember, this is not your fault. No one is responsible for another person’s unfaithful actions. It’s actually healthy and respectful to draw a caring but firm line in the sand that calls your husband into the process of change.
3. All-or-Nothing Thinking
Wendy’s story illustrates another common form of distorted thinking: all-or-nothing thinking.
When Wendy discovered her husband’s affair, she was devastated. She immediately jumped to the conclusion that divorce was her only option and considered contacting an attorney to discuss the situation.
“If I don’t divorce Brad, I’ll be living with this betrayal the rest of my life. He’s forever ruined what we had together,” she told me one day in tears. “I can’t stand the pain. I see no other way to survive. What else can I do?’ I think I’m falling out of love with him anyway.”
Fortunately there’s another alternative for Wendy. She isn’t as stuck as she thinks. In our romanticized culture, it’s easy to think we must either have the “all” of a blissful, faithful marriage or the “nothing” of divorce.
Living in the throes of aftershock can produce paralyzing fear and block creative, flexible, and realistic thinking. Wendy’s mind needed to be transformed and renewed as Romans 12:2 states.
This transformation and renewal takes time and good counsel. Proverbs 15:22 reminds us that “without counsel plans fail, but with many advisers they succeed.”
Step Into Right Thinking
If you feel like Wendy and are contemplating an all-or-nothing plan to survive the aftermath of your own aftershock, wait! You have more choices right now than you can readily imagine. The alternatives may be unfamiliar or require learning a new skill, but they’re often the best solution. Seek the counsel of a spiritual mentor, a close Christian friend, or a professional therapist who can help you explore a workable plan you might not have considered yet.
You may feel that your all-or-nothing option is the only one you can live with, but keep reading this book, working through the activities at the end of each chapter, and seeking wise counsel. You might end up changing your mind!
4. Automatic Negative Thoughts (ANT)
Psychiatrist Daniel Amen uses the acronym ANTs (automatic negative thoughts) to describe the pessimistic, cynical, and hopeless thoughts that can plague a troubled person. It’s easy to fall into automatic negative thinking, especially when you feel trapped and unable to come up with any practical solutions to your problems. Here are a few classic examples of ANTs1 or ANT-like thinking:
Extreme-ing: thinking in unrestrained ways (“He’s exactly like his adulterous father. He will never change.”)
Labeling: attaching a negative label to yourself or others (“I’m an idiot for staying in the marriage with a know-it-all husband.”)
“Always/never” thinking: using words like always, never, no one, everyone, every time, and everything when you think about or describe your situation (“Our marriage has always been broken.” or “Nothing’s ever been happy for us and no one can help.”)
Fortune-telling: predicting the worst possible outcome in a situation (“If I tell him how I feel, he’ll divorce me, and then my children and I will be homeless,” or “We’ll never be able to have good or meaningful sex again.”)
Step Into Right Thinking
The first step in dealing with ANTs and ANT-like thinking is to recognize them for what they are. In your journal, write out the events and circumstances associated with your automatic negative thoughts. Take an objective look at your feelings. Then when you’ve identified the ANT, kill it; in other words, counter the irrational thought with a more accurate and reasonably flexible assessment of reality. You’ll be surprised what a difference this simple process can make.
Sandy was devastated when she got a call from the police station: her pastor-husband, Kelsey, had been arrested for indecent exposure.
“I was crying so hard,” she said, “that I knew I couldn’t drive down there by myself. So my best friend, a member of our church, picked me up and gave me a ride. That was extremely kind of her, of course, but on the way to the station, she began offering well-meaning but dismissive and unhelpful comments: ‘Kelsey’s arrest may be a blessing in disguise. God’s at work despite the enemy’s schemes to destroy you both. Through your crisis, the whole church will have an opportunity to grow stronger.’”
This type of distorted thinking is called overspiritualization. It’s hard to describe without seeming to criticize perspectives that, in their proper context, are perfectly legitimate and thoroughly Christian. It’s true that there’s an unseen spiritual dimension to every situation that confronts us in life, and God is always willing to work redemptively in each one. But problems arise when we turn this truth into an excuse for copping out or refusing to confront the facts. We have to see and face the full reality and context of a difficult situation and the devastating pain we or others are experiencing.
A client I’ll call Alexis is a clear example of this style of coping. She came into my office, sat down, and proceeded to tell me about the multiple times over the years she had discovered her husband Dylan (also an elected official), sexting women on his iPhone. One of those women called Alexis and announced that she was pregnant and that Dylan was the father. Then she threatened to contact the local newspaper if she didn’t get the money she wanted. The extortion was appalling, but Alexis had a way of distancing herself from her fears. As soon as she finished relating the details to me, she immediately said, “But it’s okay, because God makes things turn out well for people who love Him.”
Step Into Right Thinking
As a Christian therapist, I agreed in the broadest sense with her belief in the redemptive character of God, but I also needed to help her understand that she was taking Romans 8:28 out of context. The verse says, “We know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”
While it’s true that God will eventually resolve all of our heartaches and suffering, that doesn’t mean He expects us to deny our human experience by putting on a happy face and simply accepting evil. On the contrary, He wants us to express our thoughts and feelings honestly as we depend on Him for guidance in the midst of our trials.
What’s more, there are occasions when He calls us to partner with Him actively in confronting sin and injustice. There are times when it’s important to stand up for yourself and fight back.
Alexis was tempted to jump immediately to a spiritual truth without walking through the healthy, though painful, process of facing her husband’s betrayal and potential public fall from grace, not to mention the work needed to restore her terribly broken marriage. Her coping mechanism of overspiritualizing wouldn’t allow her to cope well with the aftermath of her husband’s sexual infidelity.
All five types of distorted thinking have one thing in common: they are ineffective for solving your marital problems.
If they work at all, their effects are only temporary. They can also be demeaning to you and your mate. And in the end, you’re still left without a solution. Like many things in life, the longer something remains broken, the more difficult it is to fix, and secondary problems are created.
This leads to the inevitable question: If distorted thinking doesn’t work as a long-term strategy for coping with your husband’s pornography use and sexual infidelity, what does?
As Romans 12:2 says, “Be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Test, or discern, what God’s will is for you and your marriage. The process of thinking and discerning takes time, and you need help. That help is with you right now! The powerful love of God will work in your mind and heart as you continue to walk with Him.
When you know you are eternally loved, you can experience hardship without beating yourself up. You can experience pain and still believe that healing is not only possible but is actually happening. You can experience challenges while sensing God’s strength flowing through you. All of this is true for your husband, too! And if he happens to be reading these words, I want to say to him, I pray that the profound and unconditional love of the Father will rest upon you—His child, His son. And I pray that God’s relentless love will touch your heart and affect your choices for recovery as well. You, too, can be who God created you to be in every area of your life—but you can’t do it alone!
Taken from Aftershock: Overcoming His Secret Life with Pornography: A Plan for Recovery by Joann Condie with Geremy Keeton. Copyright © 2020. Used by permission of Focus on the Family. All rights reserved. Represented by Tyndale House Publishers, a Division of Tyndale House Ministries.
About the Authors
Joann Condie’s career as a licensed and nationally certified professional counselor, registered nurse, and counselor at Focus on the Family has spanned several decades. Her counseling specializes in the sexually broken and wounded.
Geremy Keeton is the senior director of the counseling services department of Focus on the Family and a licensed marriage and family therapist. He has extensive experience in counseling men and couples on topics of healthy sexuality, infidelity, and pornography addiction.
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