Another important step in a couple’s healing is to resolve angry feel­ings and create conditions for forgiveness. Many intimate partners feel extremely angry in the wake of a serious porn problem. Their anger not only reflects the degree of emotional pain and outrage they feel, it can be used as a hammer to punish the recovering porn user for having violated trust.

The manner in which an intimate partner’s anger surfaces and is expressed differs for every couple. Debbie told us she stayed angry for well over a year after her husband, Roger, began serious recovery work. “I was just furious with him,” she said. “At first I just needed time to be hurt and angry about what he had done. Finding out that he had lied to me and had used porn for years was like a death. I suffered the death of every dream and hope I ever had in our marriage. I hated and blamed him for this loss. I was also angry and blamed him for how much suffer­ing I went through with the breakdown of our sex life and him losing his job. At first I just held in my anger. But after a while of living separately under the same roof I decided not to mask it anymore. I wasn’t con­sciously being vindictive or wounding, but I think I used it to punish him. I started saying whatever I felt inside. It got ugly. Some days he would come in and I would say: ‘Don’t come near me. Today I cannot stand the sight of you.’ And I’d leave the room.”

While Debbie was aware of her anger and of her tendency to use it to punish Roger, for many partners, their anger only surfaces during emotionally charged interactions with their partner. Although she didn’t feel angry all the time, Karen found that every time she and her husband, Johnny, fought, she felt seething resentment. “If we were having just a normal disagreement about something, and he thought I was being unfair, it was really easy for this ungraceful part of me to just rise up and say: ‘After everything I’ve gone through and put up with, you have the gall to think I’m being unfair?’ It wasn’t a real productive reaction on my part and I didn’t want to feel that way for the rest of our lives.”

Some partners unconsciously push their anger down for a long period of time and when it finally surfaces, it can be difficult to handle. “For months I was emotionally numb,” Emma said. “When my anger finally surfaced, it just erupted. It didn’t matter that my husband, Drew, was in recovery. I started feeling the pain of all the years he’d been absent, all the lies I’d believed, how tired I was raising the kids by myself, and how alone I had felt in the relationship. For a long time, I just came at him with the force of my anger, condemning and blaming him, because that’s the only way I knew how to express myself.”

While understandable and legitimate, an intimate partner’s anger— especially if it is expressed in hurtful ways or it lasts for a long time— can stymie progress in rebuilding the relationship. Unresolved anger can get in the way of an intimate partner’s acknowledging and sup­porting the positive changes the recovering porn user has made. It is an obstacle to reestablishing trust and mutual understanding in the relationship. And it can keep both people feeling unloved and alienated from each other.

Working together to resolve anger. Both the intimate partner and the recovering porn user need to work together on resolving anger and moving toward forgiveness. An intimate partner can begin to resolve her feelings of anger by recognizing and admitting that she is angry, learning techniques for expressing her feelings in more productive ways, letting go of her preoccupation with the betrayal, creating opportunities for her partner to make amends, and supporting her partner in his overall re­covery.

When Debbie realized her anger was preventing the rebuilding of intimacy in her marriage, she asked her husband to help. “I asked him to tell me when I seemed angry or unapproachable and encouraged him to suggest we sit down and talk about what I was feeling and deal with it in the moment. I wanted us to be friends again.” And when Karen and her husband, Johnny, are having a normal disagreement, she now makes a special effort to leave his past porn use out of the discussion and “not hold it over his head.”

When anger is prolonged it often disguises emotions such as disil­lusionment and sorrow that result when we suffer a major loss. The key to letting go of anger is learning how to get in touch with our more vul­nerable feelings. Emma took this route in overcoming her anger. “I had to figure out what was underneath my anger, to dissect it and get to the other feelings that were there. I realized it was a cover for sadness, disap­pointment, and fear. In couples therapy I found ways to open up and tell Drew more directly and honestly how hurt I was. I hated revealing these other feelings at first, because I felt so vulnerable. Letting go of my anger meant letting down my guard, and showing him my weak side. The anger felt strong, and these other emotions didn’t feel strong to me.”

The new skills Emma developed to express herself had an immediate positive effect on her marriage. “When Emma used to get angry with me I’d withdraw, because it triggered all my shame and fear and that only made things worse,” Drew said. “But once she started sharing how afraid and alone she was, it was easier for me to understand how she felt and be there for her. This was a huge change for us and felt so much better than any way we had treated each other before.”

In addition to being rigorously honest and fully committed to the recovery process, recovering porn users can help their partners work through anger by understanding and acknowledging their own emotional pain and expressing genuine regret for hurting their partner. In order to be effective, this type of empathic response needs to be expressed not just once, but as often as it takes for an intimate partner to feel emotion­ally healed.

The recovering porn user can also use letter writing as a tool to communicate his feelings. In the letter, he can respond to specific con­cerns his partner has expressed—for example, putting the family’s wel­fare at risk, directing sexual energy elsewhere, or lying throughout their relationship. Jon, a forty-five-year-old recovering porn addict, wrote the following letter to his wife, Kay, to let her know how genuinely sorry he was.

My Dearest Wife,

I am so sorry for betraying you with my porn use and my dis­honesty. I realize that I lied to you for many years, not only about my sexual activities and use of porn, but also about my finances, alcohol use, and legal problems.

I doubt I will ever truly be able to understand the depth of the pain I have caused you. I know you love me and wanted so much for me to be the loving, honest, and faithful man you deserved. I know I shattered your belief that you matter to me, and I created enormous problems for you in trusting yourself and trusting your own judg­ment of reality. I wish I could erase the damage I caused to your self-esteem and confidence.

I recognize the shame you have felt because of my behavior, because you didn’t end the relationship with me, and the shame you felt telling select friends what was going on with us only to have me repeatedly get caught in more lies about porn and masturbation and adult bookstores. I saw you withdrawing from supportive friends and becoming more and more isolated as my behavior continued.

I am sure there are things I am missing. I just wanted to put in writing my understanding of how I have hurt you. Since writing this letter I have nearly always kept it either on me or very close and it has been a constant reminder of the pain I have caused you. I hope and pray every day to stay sexually sober and honest with you. I believe we are ultimately very good for each other and that God does want us to be together. I want with all my heart to be the loving, honest, and faithful man you deserve. I will never be able to express my gratitude enough to you for sticking by me.

Your Loving Husband

For his wife, Jon’s letter served as a turning point in being able to let go of her anger and forgive her husband. In addition to its heartfelt sin­cerity, the reason Jon’s letter helped Kay so much is because it told her what she needed to hear—that she matters more to him than porn, that he takes responsibility for his actions, and that he is committed to not hurting her again. Reading this enabled Kay to start opening her heart to Jon again.

As with trust, forgiveness cannot be demanded, expected, manufac­tured, or forced. It has to emerge naturally over time as a result of new understandings and healing activities. If you are an intimate partner, you forgive by overcoming your negative feelings and judgments toward the recovering porn user, not by releasing him from responsibility for the harmful things he did in the past, but by accepting his humanness, his­tory, limitations, and imperfections. It can also be helpful to acknowledge the steps he has and is taking to rectify the hurt and damage he has caused. If you are a recovering porn user you become worthy of for­giveness by being consistently honest, taking responsibility for the harm you have caused, doing your recovery work, demonstrating empathy for your partner’s pain, and expressing your genuine regret. When you do whatever is necessary to move toward forgiveness, you’ll find that not only does your relationship start to heal, but you personally start to heal as well.