Restoring trust is fundamental to healing as a couple. The dishonesty that is almost always involved when there’s a porn problem affects the very core of a couple’s relationship. It destroys the intimate partner’s ability to believe anything the recovering porn user says or does, includ­ing his promises of quitting. She’s afraid if she believes him, she may just be setting herself up for more hurt and disappointment. At the same time, the recovering porn user who is sincere in his desire and efforts to quit porn, may be overwhelmed by his partner’s loss of belief in and respect for him. He may also feel that her continuing anger and distrust are harming their ability to move forward together.

Since the breakdown in trust in a relationship was caused by the porn user’s choices and behavior, it is primarily up to him to restore the trust. As Roger told us, “I laid the foundation of distrust for so many years, I know it is up to me to be the one to build it back. I can’t expect Debbie to trust me again just because I want her to or think she should. I have to show her in big and little ways over a long period of time that I have become someone worthy of her trust.”

The difficult truth about trust is that while it can be wiped out in a matter of minutes, such as when an intimate partner discovers a file full of Internet porn, it generally takes months or sometimes even years before it can be fully reestablished. This means that the recovering porn user has to not only work on ways of rebuilding trust, but must do so with patience and perseverance. It is unrealistic to expect an intimate partner to automatically trust her partner again simply because he is being “good” by not using porn. He also needs to demonstrate his de­pendability and credibility in everything he does for as long as it takes.

Walk the talk. When it comes to rebuilding trust, actions speak louder and truer than words. Pastor Jim Thomas explains, “A woman who is healing from a betrayal of trust is thinking: You can say whatever you want, but you better ‘Show me the money’ here. I need to be able to see change through your behavior. Your words mean nothing to me.”

Actions that demonstrate trustworthiness can include: getting in­volved in a treatment program, taking steps to avoid porn triggers such as accidental exposure to porn or porn-like materials, practicing good self-care, creating a support system, and engaging in honest communi­cation about the recovery process. Although Nancy was extremely upset when she caught her husband, Logan, using Internet porn, it meant a lot to her that within three weeks of the discovery he started individual counseling, joined a men’s group for sex addicts, and agreed to couples counseling. “The fact that Logan immediately sought help and went to all the sessions and meetings showed me that he was serious about quit­ting porn. It reassured me to see how hard he was working to understand the issues underlying his porn problem and to address those issues. His words and actions were consistent. After about six months of his being involved in recovery, I realized I had begun to trust him again.”

Recovering porn users who follow through on agreements and re­covery activities, even during times when the relationship is strained or other obstacles surface, have a good chance of eventually re-inspiring their partner’s trust.

Tell the truth. Honesty and openness are essential in restoring trust, in large part because it was the porn user’s dishonesty and deception about using porn that broke the trust in the first place. Your partner needs to know that not only will you tell the truth when she asks you questions, but that you will also volunteer important information about your re­covery process. Being up front about porn-related issues and personal behavior is absolutely necessary in order for your intimate partner to believe you can be trusted.

A recovering porn user may be anxious about being completely honest and aboveboard with his partner, however. He may fear that any bad news about his behavior will cause his partner to get angry, emotion­ally withdraw, or push him away. While these concerns are understand­able, the likelihood of these reactions is even greater if the recovering porn user tells half-truths or doesn’t fully disclose what he is thinking, feeling, and doing in his recovery process. When a recovering porn user is honest and committed to healing, it is much more likely that his part­ner will be able to handle setbacks and continue to work together on mending the relationship.

To avoid disagreements and unwarranted accusations of dishonesty, it can be helpful, especially when assisted by a therapist or clergyperson, for a couple to reach a mutual understanding about the following impor­tant aspects of recovery:

• The steps the recovering porn user will take to quit porn;

• How long and how frequently the recovering porn user will attend any treatment programs;

• The specific sexual behaviors that will be avoided;

• What details will be disclosed to the partner regarding thoughts about and/or actual contact with porn;

• The actions that would constitute a relapse; and

• The amount of time following a relapse before it will be dis­closed to the partner.

Although many intimate partners say they want to be kept informed, it is often difficult for them to listen to setbacks and disappointments that occur during recovery. It helps when an intimate partner has a real­istic understanding of the challenges of quitting porn. “I asked Logan to let me know when he has been struggling a lot with thoughts of porn,” Nancy said. “In asking him to be vulnerable with me I have to accept the fact that it might hurt to hear what he has to share. I can’t use what he tells me as a hammer against him, to hurt him back, because that would just dissolve the type of healthy communication I want us to have. Wanting your partner to be honest with you is the best way to go in reestablishing trust, but it’s not always easy or pleasant.” Paula agrees: “As much as I don’t like it, I understand that some amount of relapse is a normal part of recovery. The most important thing for me is whether my husband is being honest, is taking steps to not repeat the slip-up, and is getting better as time goes on.”

How conscientiously you communicate as a couple during porn re­covery can affect the success of healing your relationship. Many recov­ering couples employ a twenty-four-hour rule, meaning the recovering porn user has twenty-four hours in which to tell his partner about a relapse. A short wait can provide some time for reflection and input from others, so that the recovering porn user can be better able to discuss his relapse calmly and productively with his partner.

Brad changed how he handled discussing his relapses with his wife when he realized that the way he had been approaching conversations with her was unproductive. “I used to get all emotional when I confessed to my wife that I’d relapsed,” he said. “It was like I ‘threw up’ on her, and used telling her as a way to lighten my burden. I felt better. I was being honest. But it absolutely destroyed Paula when I did it. All the drama made her feel just horrible. Now I talk about it with my counselor, my minister, and the men from my recovery group before I talk with her. It gives me a chance to examine what happened, be corrected, and ‘put in my place.’ They help me brainstorm ways to prevent relapse from hap­pening again. Then I sit down with Paula and we have an intellectual conversation. I explain what I did and learned from the relapse. She still feels hurt, but at least the experience of my sharing doesn’t devastate her. She hates it when I slip up, but says she’s building respect for how I’m able to get help for myself, keep her informed, and improve over time.”

Share the work. While rebuilding trust is up to the recovering porn user, the intimate partner needs to be involved in her own recovery process. Going to individual counseling and attending a twelve-step program, such as COSA or S-Anon, can be extremely helpful. As we discussed in chapter 5, many intimate partners respond to the discovery of a porn problem by trying to control and fix it themselves—monitoring behav­ior, violating privacy, and becoming a “porn cop.” This behavior, while understandable, can create serious obstacles to rebuilding trust.

Both members of a couple always need to feel respected as adults. When an intimate partner spends her time snooping and spying and being overly controlling in order to make sure the porn use never hap­pens again, mutual respect cannot thrive. An intimate partner needs to remember that she did not cause the porn problem, she can’t control it, and that it’s not up to her to cure it. Her focus must be on healing herself—communicating her feelings and needs, working together to set appropriate boundaries, taking care of herself, and resolving her anger— rather than trying to change the recovering porn user. “One of the first women I talked to after I discovered my husband Logan’s porn use was a pastor at my church,” Nancy explained. “She told me to stop playing porn detective, because it was self-destructive and wouldn’t restore trust in Logan. I was trying to control something that’s uncontrollable. She suggested I work on my own issues. It was hard for me to give up that role, and it actually took a lot of women telling me to quit trying to fix him. It helped to remind myself that Logan was working toward making a change for himself. It’s been freeing to me to let go and get out of the way of his recovery.”

If an intimate partner is seriously dissatisfied with the relationship, she needs to be prepared to take whatever actions are necessary, includ­ing separation, in order to honor her limits and to feel secure in her life. Debbie told us she only started to heal when she got out of what she called the “Mommy, Counselor, Cop, Confessional role” and made it clear that she would separate from her husband if he did not adhere to bottom-line conditions of recovery. “I told Roger: ‘I don’t want to take care of you in your recovery anymore. I am not going to be checking up on where you are, or whether or not you went to your meetings. I do expect you to be honest with me.’ I was able to step back, because I knew he had other people to whom he was accountable in his recovery. Also, I made it clear that if he didn’t live up to his commitment, I would divorce him.” While this type of healing strategy may sound harsh, it’s sometimes necessary in order to facilitate the restoration of trust and intimacy in the relationship.

With appropriate action, steadfast honesty, and a mutual commitment to recovery, a couple can restore trust and set in place the first building block for healing a relationship that has been torn apart by porn.