In this article, licensed social worker Brannon Patrick discusses the kinds of behaviors addicts should be aiming for to rebuild trust in a relationship damaged by sex / pornography addiction, and the kinds of behaviors a spouse can look for as indicators that healing and effort are taking place.
The Trust Bucket
~by Brannon Patrick, LCSW
“Why won’t she trust me now!?” “What does it take!?” “What else can I do?” These are common words spoken by an addict who has lost the trust of their spouse due to a sex/pornography addiction. What the addict fails to realize is how deeply wounded their spouse is by the trauma that the addictive behaviors have caused. Some addicts believe going to a few therapy sessions, reading a book or two, and saying sorry I won’t do it anymore, is sufficient enough to restore the lost trust in the relationship. Trust cannot be restored until the partner’s wounds heal; it takes time for wounds to heal. And it takes work to regain lost trust.
Compare trust to a bucket in the desert slowly collecting water from a leaky faucet. Drip, drip, drip. The desert is dry so it is difficult to accumulate, and the water that is collected is precious. With each drip the level of water rises slightly, but it takes time for the bucket to fill. Even when the bucket gets a substantial amount of water it just takes one kick, slosh, or pour, and a lot, if not all of what had been accumulated over time will be lost. The same goes with trust. Little by little it is earned over time.
Although it is easily lost and difficult to earn it is possible to regain lost trust and sustain that trust in a healthy relationship. There is work that needs to be done to accumulate and preserve that trust. Addicts often ask: What does it take? What else can I do? Here are some answers:
First things first, you need a solid bucket. Honesty, Accountability, and Humility are the foundation of trust in a relationship. Without these attributes an addict will not do what is needed to collect and contain drops of trust from their spouse. Humility is the base, the foundation. It manifests itself as openness, and a willingness to do rigorous recovery work.
Drops In The Bucket
Reliable and Consistent Actions
Being consistent and reliable helps a spouse feel safe. A safe environment is conducive to healing. Safety occurs when expectations are met and commitments are kept.
Following through on commitments and being consistent with behaviors shows that an addict is managing their life as opposed to the addiction managing them. Addicts struggle to cope with negative emotions in a healthy way. When an addict acts out in rage, anger, depression, or frustration it sends a message to a spouse that their addiction is alive and well. Volatility causes uncertainty which leads to fear. Fear is the opposite of trust. Yelling, violence, apathy, laziness, forgetfulness, and uncontrolled anger are all sloshes and pours from the trust bucket.
When a spouse can depend on an addict to follow through with their commitments and control their thoughts, emotions, and behaviors the spouse will start to feel more comfortable in the relationship.
Fearless truth-telling even when facing consequences.
Admitting mistakes can sometimes pour a little water out of the bucket then add back even more. For example if an addict relapsed and came to their spouse with humility and real honesty and told them about it, chances are they would be hurt by the addicts relapse and there would be some consequences in the relationship. However, it would build trust with the spouse because the addict was able to be honest despite the consequences. They were willing to endure the pain of the consequences to maintain honesty. Dishonesty kills trust more than acting out sexually.
Accountability is a form of honesty that often times has a consequence attached. The more accountable someone is for their actions the less likely they are to engage in bad behavior.
Denial is what is used to avoid accountability.
• Denial: A defense mechanism used to avoid the painful truth. Denial comes in many forms including justifying, distracting, rationalizing, minimizing, manipulating, hopelessness, complying, comparing, compartmentalizing, and others.
Diverting attention away from the topic at hand is a common form of denial. This can be done by changing the subject, creating an emotional distraction (getting really angry or sad), and blaming others i.e. “You never trust me so why does it matter if I tell you the truth anyway?”. “Why do we have to focus on all of my problems, what about you, what about our relationship problems?”
Defensiveness (denial) dries up the faucet and prevents water from dripping
If a spouse knows that their partner is willing to be accountable and not defensive for their actions, then fear will subside and the need for control will diminish. A spouse won’t be looking over their shoulder and wondering what is really going on. Drip by drip peace and trust will start to take over.
Keeping Commitments to Recovery Steps
It is not a spouse’s job to embrace recovery for the addict. The motivation must come from within. Committing to do whatever it takes for their own recovery shows internal motivation. It also shows that they are humble enough to realize that they cannot fix this on their own. Working with a Higher Power and a sponsor shows humility and willingness. No one will maintain solid recovery by being compelled. Embracing recovery is key. Going through the motions just creates frustration for the spouse and the addict. It’s like having a small leak in the bottom of the bucket. The drops of trust will never accumulate. It looks like something good is happening however, the water is still draining. This is very frustrating for addict and partner because time, money, and resources are being spent with limited positive outcomes.
Recovery is possible if you work it. It does not happen by just showing up. The 12 steps are steps because they are a progression toward accountability, healing, and forgiveness.
Acting as a full adult contributing family member.
Doing dishes, mowing the lawn, or folding laundry says “Hey honey I’m here with you, I’m a part of this.” Fulfilling responsibilities sends a message of commitment to a spouse. It says “I care about you, I care about us.” It also shows that the addict is being responsible with their actions. Life is in order, and they are focused on being a partner and parent. Each dishwasher loaded, paycheck earned, family activity planned, or floor swept springs another drop.
Patience, empathy, and understanding of spouse’s anger and hurt.
The partner of an addict has been wounded. Touching the wound hurts. Telling them to “get over it” discounts their pain. They need some time and space to process emotions and heal. Patience, empathy, and understanding provide room for their anger, frustration, grief, sadness, and finally healing. It also shows that the addict is willing to accept the consequences of their actions and be accountable. Turning the table and trying to position themself as a victim of “paranoia”, “mistrust”, “fear” or “craziness”, only makes it more difficult for the relationship to heal. The addict needs to back off and give some space. It is true that their partner may get stuck in these emotions, they may need to learn how to trust again. However, it is not the addict’s job to tell them to “get over it” or to tell them how “crazy “ they are. It’s the partner’s job to find their own recovery.
Relationships that are void of trust are unable to flourish. Connection and attachment is severed because the partner must protect themself from hurt and pain. The way to rebuild trust is laid out and available to any addict who is humble enough to accept what needs to be done.
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If you or someone you know is struggling with or affected by sex or pornography addiction and would like to contact Brannon, he can be reached at [email protected], or at (801) 903-7329. He and otherLDS therapists are working together to reach out to those affected by sex and pornography addiction at www.ldshopeandrecovery.com
Other LDS Therapists who have experience with dealing with sex / pornography addiction follow:
You can also find more resources and information for help and support with sex / pornography addiction.