Talking about addiction, pornography use and sexual histories with a potential spouse
It’s easy to build walls around our fears, temptations and pasts when first dating or getting to know someone. We want to be seen a certain way, attract certain people and fool others (or maybe even ourselves) into thinking life for us is just that — certain.
But in a serious relationship, there comes a point when putting our best self out there isn’t enough. To truly build a lasting relationship with someone else we have to ease our walls down, or else they might become stumbling blocks further down the road.
One of the walls couples face before marriage is opening up to a potential spouse about sensitive topics like addiction, pornography use and sexual histories.
Why should I Talk about this before marriage?
Addressing these intimate topics before marriage is vital for anyone looking for a potential spouse. Lee Essig-Thunell, a BYU graduate student in human development, said not only does being open with each other strengthen a relationship, but deceit of any kind can cripple trust and debilitate relationships in the future.
“What is the attempt to build an intimate relationship but the ability to address sensitive topics?” said BYU marriage and family therapist Michael Buxton. “And feeling safe, feeling understood and listened to around the areas that you feel most ashamed of? Everybody has a sexual history — whether it be one of abstinence or previous activity. The conversation becomes easier once both sides drop their idealism and realize what a normal human experience sexuality is. What is your family history concerning that issue, how was it brought up, what were you made to feel ashamed about or what do you feel excited about? (Talking about it) actually has the tendency to temper people’s desire. It’s really the avoidance that makes sexuality more difficult for people.”
Talking about sensitive topics before marriage also helps those who struggle to find a partner who is more ready and willing to offer help, Essig-Thunell said. “Being aware of which partners are more understanding and supportive, rather than shaming and fearful, will help individuals who do struggle find more healthy support systems,” he added.
Provo Utah YSA Third Stake President John Edwards said one of the biggest problems he has seen with pornography and other addictions is the secrecy surrounding it, noting “I always encourage people who are struggling (to) bring trusted friends, family members and people you really trust into your circle of influence. Let them help you.”
When should I bring it up?
Knowing when to open up about a sensitive topics is a personal decision and should be made on a case-by-case basis.
Essig-Thunell said it’s important to let these conversations happen naturally, and avoid trying to be a detective and “find out” if someone uses pornography, or what their sexual history has been. He said trying to find out what someone is hiding from you isn’t a stable way to support a relationship, especially since talking about sensitive topics can be scary and personal for both parties. “It becomes more relevant when you start steady dating, especially if the pornography use is very frequent or a severe problem, and should be discussed openly and honestly before having serious talks of marriage and definitely before getting engaged,” he said.
At the same time, Buxton said waiting for the “best time” to have a discussion about sexual history can build anxiety and create too much avoidance. Once you care about someone enough to support them is when you should talk about it, he added.
How should I talk about it?
Knowing the right questions to ask and how far to delve into addiction, pornography use and sexual histories can be difficult and is different for each situation. These conversations are a time to share emotions and past experiences with each other, not confess past sins.
“It’s vulnerable, it can be hard, you can feel some guilt and shame around it, but it shouldn’t be a confessional. That’s not what this is. It’s a sharing. You confess to your bishop; you share with a partner something that’s very personal to you. That brings intimacy between people. That builds strength in a relationship,” Buxton said.
BYU religion professor Mark Ogletree said knowing how often and when these experiences occurred are important questions to ask when discussing issues like pornography and past sexual histories. However, he said sharing specific details about past or current experiences is for the Lord and someone’s bishop, not a potential spouse.
Even though asking questions about current or past struggles is important, it’s more important to ask questions about how someone addressed, currently addresses, or is willing to address past, present or future problems.
“Many people can recognize their habits as problematic and can identify spiritual consequences, regardless of the frequency of use. However, not everyone who uses pornography is ready to make all the significant life changes that may be necessary to alter their habits,” Essig-Thunell said. He also cautioned against “toe-dipping disclosure,” or telling someone little by little about the severity of a problem. It’s better to be forthcoming with information in the beginning, creating a stable foundation of trust and honesty later on.
Educating yourself with reliable sources about pornography, addiction and recovery can be helpful in learning how to talk about these issues. Good resources about how to talk about issues like pornography are available through organizations like the Utah Coalition Against Pornography or Reach 10.
Having conversations about sensitive topics in the right setting and in the right way can help couples create understanding and support for each other.
“Have the courage to have the hard discussions,” Ogletree said. “Have them in a place where you’re sitting down knee to knee, toe to toe, your hands touching and face to face, and you can talk in calm, quiet, dignified ways about stuff that matters the most to you.”
However, there is no best way to go about it and some couples might find it’s easier to talk about it through writing. Author Laura Brotherson, a licensed marriage and family therapist and certified sex therapist, said having such conversations over email or text decreases embarrassment, defensiveness and gives the person time to process exactly what to say. “It can provide opportunity to save face and be more honest, which is the primary hope in such conversations,” she said.
Some questions they might ask in a written format are:
1. Since pornography is seemingly everywhere, a lot of people struggle with resisting it. When was the last time you looked at porn?
2. How often in the last year have you looked at pornography?
3. When was the first time you saw pornography and what was the context?
4. What would you recommend if your sibling was planning to marry someone with a pornography problem? What would you want to know? What would make you feel safe about them going through with it?
What are potential warning signs to end the relationship or delay getting married?
Though each situation is different and deciding whether to end a relationship is an extremely personal decision, there are general warning signs that indicate it might be better to reconsider marriage after talking about addiction, pornography use and sexual histories.
Buxton, Essig-Thunell and Ogletree said some warning signs to look for are if a person is too controlling, doesn’t want to be honest or talk about how significant a problem is and has constant relapses but doesn’t believe they need help. Another warning sign is if a partner is too anxious about supporting the other in their struggles, or shames them about their past or addictions.
Manipulative and self-centered behaviors are also warning signs, Brotherson said, adding that even when a person isn’t “acting out” on their addiction, unless a person is in active recovery, those behaviors are often “left-over addictions.”
“As a marriage counselor, sex therapist and a mother, safely marrying someone with a past or present sex or pornography issue would require that they are actively attending 12-step meetings, actively working the 12-steps, and seeing a counselor specializing in addiction,” Brotherson said.
Ogletree said couples should also make sure the kind of person they’re marrying is actually compatible with them. He said couples should be in agreement and harmony on the essentials such as how they live and understand the gospel of Jesus Christ, their future careers and family, and maybe even politics and education. Struggling with pornography or having a complicated sexual history isn’t a deal breaker in relationships because most couples can overcome issues together.
“If on all the universal things you’re in agreement and harmony … then all the other things don’t really matter as much,” Ogletree said. “No one is perfect. Having the perspective that the Atonement is real will help couples accept and understand each other’s flaws and imperfections. We’re all messed up to some degree. Everyone of us is broken. What you’re looking for is someone with a willing heart who’s humble and meek and willing to recognize the mistakes they’ve made, but willing to move on, put it behind them and move forward.”
How can I have hope and offer support?
Offering support goes hand-in-hand with having open dialogue about sensitive topics in a relationship.
Essig-Thunell said the first step in offering support is avoiding strong reactions to disclosure because negative reactions are often what keep people from getting help. Creating a safe environment and comfortable attitude about conversations around pornography or sexual history is also important, he said.
Listening, encouraging, avoiding being judgmental, and recognizing all of us struggle with issues are some ways partners can help each other, Edwards said. At the same time, couples also need to hold each other accountable for commitments they make, he said.
Phil and Renee Murphy are missionaries currently serving as addiction recovery specialists at the BYU addiction recovery mission. They said they see support as a three-legged stool.
“Work with your bishop, work with a counselor, do the 12-step (recovery program), and in every case, involve the Lord. It’s really difficult if not impossible to overcome this without Christ and without his Atonement,” Phil said.
Recovery often means a changing of heart and mind, and turning to the Savior with complete humility, Edwards said. The best way their partner can support them is by celebrating moments when they feel their heart is turning to Christ.
Making sure to take care of and fortify yourself through the Atonement of Jesus Christ while supporting someone else is also an important component for those who are helping someone through addiction recovery, Renee said.
Overall, Phil and Renee say they want couples to be hopeful and trust in the Atonement. “(People) can and do give up this addiction and become strong. Sometimes the temptations come back and it has to be on your radar, but through the Atonement of Christ it doesn’t matter how scarlet your sins are, they can be washed clean,” Phil said.
Bringing down our walls brick by brick is difficult, but not impossible — especially if we’re not doing it alone.
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