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What about the 3 A’s? Addiction, Adultery, and Abuse

I recently wrote When My Marriage Seemed Hopeless, What Made Me Stay? In that post, I mentioned that the three A’s — Addiction, Adultery, and Abuse — are particularly difficult problems for marriages to overcome.

But let me clear: Just because something’s difficult, that doesn’t mean it can’t be done.

So what if you are dealing with one of these three A’s? How can you kick that issue to the curb and find healing and hope instead?

Broken heart

Addiction. Addiction is a jealous mistress in your marriage. Whether alcohol, drugs, pornography, or something else, addiction actively tries to take your husband’s attention and resists you reclaiming it. Those who’ve dealt with addiction can attest to the strength of that pull. Addiction can even rewire your brain’s perceptions and emotional responses, and withdrawal is anything but pleasant. All that said, many have gone from addict to victor.

So what can you do if your spouse has an addiction?

Stop enabling. When loved ones stage an intervention, when families put a relative in rehab, when friends and family members stop covering up for the addict’s failures, when people around no longer enable the addiction, the addict must face the full consequences of their own actions. In some cases, that added pressure helps an addict clarify what’s happening — to see that his/her actions not only make life difficult, but a healthy marriage and family impossible.

Set boundaries. Set the standards of what you will and won’t put up with, then follow your plan calmly and firmly. How do you choose boundaries and make them stick? My advice is to grab the excellent book Boundaries by John Townsend and Henry Cloud or Boundaries in Marriage for wisdom.

Get on the same team. Remember who the true enemy is. Most of the time, an addict hates what’s happening but feels powerless to change. A struggling husband is not the enemy; sin, the addiction, and Satan are the enemies. Commit yourself to standing with your spouse. Let him know you’re a teammate, not an adversary, in this fight.

Get help. Most addicts want the madness to stop, although a few addicts don’t seem to care how much havoc they wreak. If he denies the addiction, and your marriage is suffering horribly, reach out to others. Get the support system you need as a foundation from which you can launch efforts to get your husband’s attention and tackle the problem together. Tell your pastor, see a counselor, contact a local Al-Anon chapter, read up on addiction, etc.

The addiction may take time to deal with, but get on the right road. Even if progress is slow, progress is what you’re looking for. Starting with him owning up to the problem. As always, pray for your attitude and your actions throughout.

Adultery.  The imaginary thought of some other woman’s lips on my husband nearly makes me apoplectic. So when I hear of couples who’ve endured true adultery, my heart cracks like an earthquake fault. How can you heal a rift like that?

But marriages do survive and thrive after adultery. Interestingly enough, a lot of the advice listed with addiction — stop enabling, set boundaries, get on the same team, get help — applies here. Ultimately, you have to do two things:

  1. Get rid of the affair partner. Goodbye, au revoir, adiós, ba-bye. And never come back.
  2. Rebuild your marriage, so this relationship is where you both want to commit your efforts.

The first one is something the offending spouse has to decide. However, you can apply appropriate pressure. Don’t enable him seeing the affair partner — by allowing excuses about how they work together or those texts don’t mean what you think they do or it isn’t really her fault or whatever to dissuade your hard stance. If he really wants to end it, he needs to end it. Period. Support your husband in getting another phone number, securing a different job, or even moving if you must, but cut off connections.

And now do the hard work with your marriage. Get into counseling and figure out where your own marriage is lacking. No, you are not to blame for his adulterous actions; however, making your marriage stronger can stoke his desire to stay involved with you and not go elsewhere to meet any emotional or physical needs.

While working on your marriage, remember to enjoy it as well — to recall why you married in the first place, to return to date nights and getting to know each other better, to pray together for your future. When it’s time, rebuild the trust in the bedroom.  Reinvent your marriage and commit it to the Lord. You might be surprised to look back years later and see how far you’ve come since that horrible moment when adultery attacked your marriage. True healing, holiness, and happiness are possible.

Abuse. Let’s first talk about what constitutes abuse, because I hear this word bandied about in reference to everything from minor name-calling to a thorough beating. Not everything that’s hurtful or even intentionally hurtful is abuse.

Abuse is a pattern of behaviors with the intent to cause injury and/or gain power or control over the other person in the relationship. The abuse can be emotional, physical, or sexual.

So what if your spouse has this pattern of behaviors? If he’s truly abusive?

Some people are abusive because they feel wounded or a loss of control in their lives or saw poor patterns of coping in their families of origin — and can change when you deal with the core issues. Others, sadly, have abuse ingrained in their character, which is far harder to fix. I’m not saying it cannot be fixed, because my God is way bigger than that. What I am saying is those down-deep abusers are difficult to reach and hard to convince that change is necessary. They’ll likely blame their abusive behavior on others (e.g., “If only she would __, I wouldn’t hit her.” — lie).

I’m by no means an expert here, yet I believe emphatically: Without counteracting pressure, abusers don’t stop.

That pressure may need to come in the form of your absence (for your safety as well, if the abuse is physical or sexual); intervention from family, friends, church leaders, or even law enforcement; and defending yourself appropriately (what that looks like depends on your situation). Bill Maier of Focus on the Family, an organization dedicated to stronger marriages, says, “Men who have abused their wives in the past are likely to abuse again.” Therefore, you must take steps to stop the abuse; if and when the abuse stops, then you can work on healing the marriage.

Seek quality resources. I am not an addiction or abuse counselor, a marriage and family therapist, a psychologist, a medical doctor, or a Ph.D. in Recovering from the Three A’s. I’ve watched others walk through these journeys, spoken to them about the hardships and the healing, and studied resources dealing with these issues.

If your marriage is facing addiction, adultery, or abuse, don’t just follow the advice in this post; seek out the best resources you can find. Take a step in the right direction, get help, and pray for a revival in your marriage.

“Let the redeemed of the Lord tell their story—
those he redeemed from the hand of the foe.”

Psalm 107:2
(and the whole chapter is worth reading)

14 thoughts on “What about the 3 A’s? Addiction, Adultery, and Abuse”

  1. Excellent article. Abuse, or something perhaps approaching it, can be found in almost any marriage. Constant put downs or insults or nagging by either the husband or the wife, may not be serious abuse, but it is abusive to a degree. Over time, even patterns of behavior that are not viewed as being true abuse can be destructive to the marriage bond. Similarly, not making one’s spouse a priority can cause harm over time. (My wife for the first few years of our marriage found it difficult to put me ahead of her family.) We all have rough edges to our personalities and are in need of, shall we say, continuing improvement.

    1. Sorry Larry, but I disagree that “Abuse, or something perhaps approaching it, can be found in almost any marriage.”
      I say this with certainty because I’ve been there.

      Lived in an abusive first marriage for 20 years and so did my two boys.
      Have been remarried for almost 3 years now.
      And there is no comparison, because there is no abuse whatsoever in my second marriage. Nothing that even comes close to it. My husband is not perfect, but nothing he does even approaches abuse.

      You are correct however that some behaviors which continue over time may be destructive. True.

      And yes, we all have our rough edges, I deal with mine on a daily basis and work to improve myself — but there is a difference between rough edges and edges sharp as a sword which wound very deeply.

      A couple good resources on abuse and/or destructive relationships:

      I too believe that nothing is too big for God.
      When we seek Him and allow Him to lead us He provides a way through any situation.
      Sometimes we are redeemed through the blessing of a healed marriage and sometimes we find redemption in the ashes.

  2. I’ve not dealt with adultery or abuse, but my husband, as I’ve mentioned here before is a recovering (praise God) alcoholic. Dealing with the “pre-recovery” stage of an addiction is no fun, let me tell you, but falling in love with my recovering husband has been an incredibly fulfilling and wonderful journey.
    Two resources that I found really helpful have been “Willpower’s Not Enough” by Arnold Washton and “How Alanon Works” which is published by Alanon, but available on Amazon. “Willpower…” is a great book which educates on the science of addiction. It is really helpful to understand what exactly is going on with an addict as well as what you can expect as they find recovery. The Alanon book is a great tool in understanding how to set boundaries with an addict as well as understand how to apply the 12 steps to yourself. Thirdly, I highly recommend visiting some open AA groups or a churches Celebrate Recovery group. I personally have really enjoyed and been educated through going to my husbands AA meetings with him on occasion. I have learned about the disease of alcoholism and understand the brain of the alcoholic through hearing the stories of other alcoholics. I have really learned more through AA than I did Alanon. You are welcome to attend any open AA group, but are not invited to share.
    I’m not quite sure of the effectiveness of a staged intervention, or forced rehab. It is my understanding that the alcoholic must come to his own realization that he needs help, and intervening can short circuit his/her journey to that realization and not result in long-term recovery. I’d advise get some feedback from recovering alcoholics before taking that route.

  3. Thanks for the reading recommendations about boundaries. I struggle with loving my spouse unconditionally and being connected during sex when I’m waiting for the next episode to occur. Tough stuff.

  4. Can there be intimacy with an addict? Am I pursuing something that cannot be achieved?

    1. Gosh, that’s a tough question. My experience was that yes, we had a sense of intimacy in our marriage while my husband was in his disease, and actually our marriage was quite good, but there were of course many unhealthy aspects which are more apparent now as I look back at that time. Like you, my goal was to love him unconditionally and connect regularly sexually and non-sexually. It was tough. Really tough. But you just take it one day at a time and let God show you how you can love him in the moment. I had to fight against the urge to control, demand, and manage his drinking. It was a huge time of learning for me to surrender control and leave my husband in God’s hands. I think in doing that (admittedly not so well at times) I was free to just love him where he was and enjoy our time together. I think it also allowed my husband to feel safe with me and know that I was his ally, not his enemy.. and he could share honestly with me what was going on in his heart and head. We were truly grieving his disease together. That is intimacy. Obviously you can’t really enjoy time with someone who is inebriated or strung out. My situation was that my husband was very high functioning, so it wasn’t like he was completely absent. That may not be the case with you. I would just encourage you to seek God, take one day at a time, continue to love him unconditionally, take care of yourself, find support and not let yourself become overwhelmed with thoughts of what tomorrow might bring. ((hugs))

      1. Thanks for the encouragement. I think I am on the right track. My visceral response to an “episode” is to flee which is contrary of course to moving toward deeper intimacy. I managed to express this last week in a non-anxious way; perhaps that is a bit of progress.

  5. Please don’t say that abuse can be worked through if the abusive spouse changes their behavior. What you failed to acknowledge is that when confronted, abusers often go through a “honeymoon period” where their behavior improves for a while, and then they go right back to their old behavior. It fluctuates constantly, and the so called “good behavior” is used as a manipulating chip by the abusers. And a victim who has been manipulated before is more EXTREMELY susceptible to be manipulated again.
    You acknowledged that abuse is harmful, and that you should remove yourself from an abusive situation. You also acknowledged that abusers won’t stop if there is no counteracting pressure. My problem isn’t with that, it’s that even after you acknowledge all of this, you still insist that it “can be done”. It is NEVER EVER EVER a safe idea to return to a marriage with a past abuser.
    And I also take issue with “I’m not saying it /cannot/ be fixed, because my God is bigger than that.” Well I don’t know who your god is, but I know who my God is, and He’s pretty pissed that you’d use His Name to encourage people that abusers can enter successful relationships with those that they’ve walked all over in the past. My God and I have a close relationship, we’re in tune with each other. And I know He mourns over the very thought of returning to a past abuser by that heart wrenching sickness I feel rise up inside me when I read those words. I mean, you can jump off a 100 story building and God can save you, but it doesn’t seem like a smart idea, does it? “I’m not saying that he /cannot/ save you from a 100 story fall, because my God is bigger than that.” You can jump off a 100 story building, survive, and live a fulfilling life, right? But chances are, God’s not going to honor your well-meaning suicide attempt. He’s going to mourn that you thought suicide (an in the case of a past abuser, entering into an emotional suicide) was a good idea in the first place.
    You are misleading those who are coming here in their brokenness. I can’t tell you how disturbed I am that this is actually considered advice.
    J, you’ve posted such helpful, wonderful, sound advice in the past. You’re a wonderful person, but that was ignorant, disturbing advice. You are in a special position, you have a solid following and you’re in change of teaching people about God, His view’s on intimacy, and putting it into solid, practical advice. People listen to you, J. People take your advice wholeheartedly, which is why I am so harsh. This is a dangerous line to walk. It is NEVER under any circumstances safe, healthy or God-honoring to enter a relationship with someone who has abused you in the past. If you would like more information on why I feel this way feel free to ask in a comment or email.

    1. I did NOT say to stay in an abusive relationship. Absolutely not. And that’s not anywhere in my post. I am saying that there are people who have stopped abusing, totally changed their ways, and THEN the marriage could be rebuilt. I don’t think my advice is disturbing or ignorant in that way, and I’m not misusing God’s name by suggesting that He can heal situations that appear completely broken — because HE says that in His Word. However, I don’t know someone’s particulars, which is why I strongly suggested going way beyond my post and getting help elsewhere, from someone who can speak into the individual relationship.

      I even say that abusers are very likely to keep on abusing. Which is why it isn’t safe or good to remain in that situation. Something has to change for progress to be made…or the abuse will very likely continue.

      1. My point was that a change in the abuser’s behavior does not guarentee that the victim is safe. Even if the past abuser does “change”, there is a big risk they will hurt their spouse again. And the victim isn’t likely to leave.
        You’ve made it clear that one shouldn’t re-enter an abusive relationship. But what I was trying to communicate in my last post (albeit unsuccessfully) is that it isn’t safe or healthy for a person to enter a relationship with a PAST abuser, even if that person has ” totally changed” in the present. This is because abusers often change their behavior for a little while, and then slowly go back to their old ways. The behavior change can be used as manipulation chip, so there is no real way for a victim to know if an abuser has truly “changed”.
        What you have to understand is, many victims do genuinely love their abusive spouses and want things to work out. So let’s say that the abuser goes to rehab, shows some changes, starts treating the victim right. The victim will get really hopeful that things will turn around for the better, and that they’ll finally start clean slate. The victim stays with the changed abuser and puts the past behind them. But if the abuser is only manipulating the victim (which is more often than not) the good behavior will only last as long as it’s needed. And I know, you’ve said yourself that you do NOT under any circumstances support an abusive relationship, but you have to get inside the victim’s mind for a second. People who were severely manipulated in the past are highly susceptible to be manipulated in the future. Which means, even though you’re only supporting relationships where the abusive spouse has “totally changed and stopped abusing.”, change in the abuser’s behavior does not guarantee that the abuse is truly over. A victim is likely to believe that their relationship is the special case because they want to believe it. Which means even if you don’t SUPPORT an abuse relationship, this post could potentially validate a victim’s false hope of getting back together with their past abuser. Its the implications of this post could lead a victim into an unsafe relationship. Which is why I’m so adamant about not even encouraging a victim to start a relationship with a past abuser who has shown “change”.
        You don’t claim to know everything, and I respect that, but at least give a starting point for people to work with. I have many quality resources that I would be more than happy to share with you(Christian and otherwise)-that could be very helpful if you are interested. They’re all links and book PDFs, all written by professionals.
        And I wasn’t mad that you used God’s name to verify that God can redeem absolute brokenness. God can change destructive, impossible situations. But that doesn’t mean we should risk putting ourselves those destructive situations in the first place.

        1. I think we’re more on the same page than it seemed at first. Because I would not go with a victim’s belief that an abuser has changed for a short while as any kind of okay for returning to the relationship. I believe strongly that an abuse victim needs wise, godly people in her life to help her determine if and when it’s safe, because yes, their perspective is skewed. Unfortunately, statistics do indeed show that abusers are extremely likely to abuse again. There is a small percentage who can change, but I’d want a lot of proof as well.

          Frankly, I think that’s biblical. After Joseph’s brothers put him at horrible physical risk and then sold him into slavery, he didn’t just welcome them with open arms years later. He forgave them, but he took his sweet time making sure they’d changed and watched how they treated his younger brother Benjamin. For reconciliation to happen, he needed proof that things would be different.

  6. I think we are, too. I know that you’re saying abuse can only be worked through in very, very, VERY rare cases (correct me if I’m wrong) Although, since there are so many variables and “what ifs” I couldn’t encourage a person (man or woman) to go back to a relationship with a past abuser under any circumstance, even if they have done a complete 180 (like in those very, very, VERY rare circumstances).
    (((((Side note: I feel like Joseph’s situation is a little bit different, his brothers threw him in a ditch as a one-time thing, while most abuse victims go through continual systematic abuse. But I get your point )))))
    I don’t think it’s wise to try, or tell people that just anyone can change with Gods help. Safety trumps marriage. Like, I wouldn’t encourage a girl to try and repair a relationship with her reformed rapist father. I’d say pray and move on.
    I actually read an essay about a prosecutor who worked cases with abusers who did say that certain people /can/ change, and there is a small chance that a relationship could work out, with special rehabilitation and counseling. And that came from an experienced prosecutor, and that bit still made me really uncomfortable. I didn’t want it to seem like I was calling out just you, there are others who share your opinion. And I do feel there was a misunderstanding on my part, I was afraid you were saying once an abuser shows change that it was ok to go back (which is not what you were saying AT ALL)
    Thank you for taking the time to clarify your perspective with me.
    On a side note, there are several websites I wanted to link to, but not all of them are Christian. Is that ok?

    1. Yes, you can link to other stuff. But usually, links linger in my moderation box longer, because I check them out personally before publishing on my site. Which sometimes takes a while. Thanks!

      1. (Oh, and I reserve the right to edit out anything that goes to a site I deemed inappropriate to send my readers to. But thankfully, that doesn’t happen often.)

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