In the article, “Is Pornography Scriptural Grounds for Divorce?,” I drew the conclusion that viewing pornography, by itself, does not constitute biblical grounds for divorce. Strictly speaking, it is neither the kind of sexual immorality (porneia) referenced by Jesus in His teaching on divorce (Matthew 5:31–32; 19:3–12), nor is it abandonment in the sense Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 7:15. However, the issue is far from settled. Declaring that divorce is not morally permissible in this circumstance is not to suggest that women have no recourse but to sit in their suffering. In fact, quite the opposite is true! Each wife wields immense influence in the life of her husband and bears a moral obligation to stand against his unrepentant sin, especially when that sin defiles the marriage bed.
In Redemptive Divorce, I describe an effective plan for confronting sinful behavior that is destructive to marriage. And if there is any transgression that qualifies, it is certainly addiction to pornography.
The Tough-Love Confrontation
The Lord is relentlessly loving yet utterly uncompromising when it comes to behavior that undermines our relationship. Similarly, we must be willing to stand firmly against sin. However, as many women have discovered, expressing anger or sorrow is not enough. No amount of arguing or tears will turn a sinner from his sin. It is a sad fact that when the Holy Spirit cracks the shell of a hardening heart, His tool of choice is usually the consequence of sin. Therefore, our response can be no different. For a tough-love confrontation to be truly effective, it must include no less than five essential steps. Moreover, each step must be thought out well in advance and then expressed with calm resolve at a single confrontation.
In this article, we will examine the first three steps. In “Part 2,” we will describe steps 4 and 5. As we examine the inner workings of a tough-love conversation, bear in mind that our goal is two-fold. First, we want to encourage someone we love to escape the deadly trap of sin. Vengeance is not ours to give, so punishment is not our purpose. Second, we want to reconcile the broken relationship and eventually restore trust. While we cannot compel another person to join us in repairing the breech, we can invite him or her. And that begins by making repentance more attractive than continued sin.
If your husband has already acknowledged his sin and demonstrates genuine repentance, I highly recommend Reclaiming Stolen Intimacy: When Your Marriage Is Invaded by Pornography by Renee and Clay Crosse (Serendipity House Books, 2008).
So, what should you do if your husband is having an affair with pornography? Plan these steps in advance, present them in a single conversation, and then follow through with what you have communicated.
Step 1: Name the sin.
Call your husband’s behavior what it is: sin. But don’t be surprised when this is met with resistance. Sinners always deny wrongdoing. And when that fails, they minimize the gravity of their behavior. And when that fails, they attempt to shift blame. Batterers claim to be provoked. Substance abusers blame others for their dependency. Adulterers point to the neglect of their spouses as the reason for cheating. Similarly, men who view pornography are no less creative with their excuses and blame-shifting. It goes all the way back to the Garden, where Adam pointed the finger at his wife and she, in turn, charged the serpent.
Your husband will likely try to blame your shortcomings as the reason for his sin. Let’s acknowledge that no mere mortal can ever claim to be completely above reproach; nevertheless, the failures of one person—regardless of how serious or how chronic—can ever justify the sin of another. No one is compelled to pursue evil. The responsibility for wrongdoing belongs exclusively to the person choosing destructive behavior. While you must be willing to address your own contribution to shortcomings in your marriage, it must never be a precondition to your husband’s setting aside pornography. There will be time enough for addressing past wrongs after he has removed this mind-warping influence from his life.
Denial, minimizing, and blame-shifting do not deserve a response. Instead, keep the focus on the real issue at hand: viewing pornography is a sin and there is never an excuse for sin.
Step 2: Clarify the consequences of unrepentant sin.
Describe the effect your husband’s sin continues to have on you personally. Describe how his viewing pornography affects your respect for him, your desire to be sexually intimate with him, and your desire to be his partner in life. Then—and this is where the courage of many women begins to falter—set boundaries based on these responses. For example:
David, I love you, but I have no desire to give my body to a man who willfully defiles his mind. In fact, I’m not comfortable sleeping in the same bed with you. Therefore, you should sleep in the guest room as long as you keep viewing porn. And if you refuse, then I will move in there.”
Michael, I want to support your career, but I have lost respect for you. To appear with you in public as a show of my support would be dishonest. Therefore, you will have to attend company functions without me. I won’t be going.”
While this might feel unkind or even manipulative, it is neither—as long as the boundaries you set reflect your authentic feelings. This is crucial. Our loving response to sin must come from a place of strength, which begins with a clear understanding of who we are and what behavior we find acceptable. As Henry Cloud and John Townsend explain,
Our model is God. He does not really ‘set limits’ on people to ‘make them’ behave. God sets standards, but he lets people be who they are and then separates himself from them when they misbehave, saying in effect, ‘You can be that way if you choose, but you cannot come into my house.’ Heaven is a place for the repentant, and all are welcome.
God limits his exposure to evil, unrepentant people, as should we. Scripture is full of admonitions to separate ourselves from people who act is destructive ways (Matt. 18:15–17; 1 Cor. 5:9–13). We are not being unloving. Separating ourselves protects love, because we are taking a stand against things that destroy love.”
Setting boundaries is nothing more than refusing to engage in any behavior that betrays your conscience or forces you to behave one way on the outside while thinking or feeling the opposite within. This is not about getting even; it’s a matter of integrity. Furthermore, the goal of tough love is to allow your husband to suffer the consequences of his sin instead of leaving them entirely with you.
Step 3: Call for repentance.
Encourage your husband to repent of his sin—for his good as much as anyone’s. However, beware the temptation to beg if he fails to repent immediately. Your dignity will be far more compelling. Begging says, Please turn from your sin; I can’t live without you! Dignity, on the other hand, declares, When you have rejected your sin, I will be there to love and support you. This is crucial when communicating with a partner whose perception of right and wrong, good and bad, has been turned upside down by sin.
The Crucial Next Steps
Regrettably, most “tough-love” confrontations are unevenly weighted to one side or the other. A truly effective response to sin demands equal portions of love and “tough.” The first three steps are the tough portion of the conversation. What follows is love—responsible, reasonable, godly, respect-building love. Steps 4 and 5 turn what could become cruel condemnation into loving redemption. I discuss these in Part 2.