Conner loved me.
Yet Conner sexually acted out with other women too.
He had affairs, regularly used porn, and even engaged with prostitutes. His struggle wasn’t a one-time event. It was a lifestyle of secret keeping. When I say lifestyle, I mean it was a day-in- and-day-out problem of sexual infidelities over a long period of time. I felt gutted and trapped. Over the years I sensed Conner didn’t really want to do it. And if you asked him why he continued to sexually act out he might tell you that he hated it – yet didn’t know how to stop.
Most days if you asked me how I saw it I’d say, “It felt like he wanted to have his cake and eat it too.”
How could I be the cake? And why was he so compelled to cheat by sneaking sex from other women? Even more painful, being unfaithful right under my nose? Occasionally I’d find a crumb or two – a discovery of porn or a strand of long black hair where it didn’t belong. These women he pursued seemed delicious to him – like the kind of icing he couldn’t get enough of. He’d leave me like stale and discarded cake – unwanted on the plate. I wasn’t of interest to him. Why wasn’t I enough?
I was absolutely shocked when Conner’s therapist told me, “Sheri, Conner loves you.” The therapist might as well have told me I had 4 days to live, or that they needed to amputate a limb, or even that our house had just burned to the ground. At least those three things could have been palpable. But love me? It clearly didn’t feel that way.
Losing a limb or my home would’ve been easier to believe.
But the idea that Conner loved me amidst sexually acting out with other women, levelled me. Nothing about that statement felt true. In fact, I felt enraged and confused at the possibility.
Conner had hidden his sexually compulsive acts for years. I had no clue how deep he’d gone down this dark abyss. I just knew these sex acts were like cancer, eating our relationship from the inside out. I wish I could tell you my story was uncommon – but painfully, it’s not. It happened to me, and it’s happening to many of you.
So why didn’t I draw a line in the sand? Why did I wait so long before reaching out for help? As I think about it, there may have been several reasons I allowed things to continue for so long. I’m not talking about Conner’s sexual deception. I wasn’t responsible for what he was hiding. I’m talking about what I did or didn’t do with the sexual betrayals I had discovered. To be willing to look at these reasons has invited me into a type of honestly that’s incredibly brave. It’s admitting what I didn’t do – and then working to sort out the why? Ultimately, I was wrestling with shame, denial, and fear.
SHAME: The simple answer is, shame. What will others think about Conner and I if they knew? Even more frightening was the fear that others would make it about me. That raised eyebrow or splintering comment. They were the answers I didn’t want to hear. It happens to us, right? Our husband’s mothers elude to the fact that we’re not giving their sons “what they need.” Well-meaning yet misled clergy tell us we need to forgive them for looking at porn or pay better attention to them by getting another piece of lingerie. Therapists tell us to admire them, connect better, let go of the past, or touch their bodies more. How can I do that when his porn is still in the way? How can I grow deeper when we haven’t worked through the infidelity first? How can I heal when he says “I said I’m sorry, when are you going to stop looking in the rearview mirror?” When he’s not willing to empathize with how his sexual acts have hurt me? How can I forget how he told our children that the problems in our marriage were about me?
DENIAL: Denial had become my friend, or so I thought. I too was keeping secrets; I was keeping a secret from myself. As a way of coping with my pain, I didn’t want to see what was real. I had a case of what Drs. Freyd and Birrell call betrayal blindness. In their book Blind to Betrayal: Why We Fool Ourselves We Aren’t Being Fooled, they state, “The best way to keep a secret is not to know it in the first place; unawareness is a powerful survival technique when information is too dangerous to know. We remain blind to betrayal in order to protect ourselves. We fear risking the status quo, and thus our security, by actually knowing too much.”1
It was too painful to look. There was too much at stake. Both Conner and I were in a type of denial, me in my traumatically induced protective denial, betrayal blindness, and Conner in his denial of the severity of his addiction. Denial quietly opened the door for the sexual deception to continue to grow, underground.
Understandably, my not wanting to look enabled Conner to keep eating the cake. I hate admitting it – but painfully I know it’s true. It’s been a part of my story and what kept things unaddressed for so long. And that brings me to the third reason, fear.
FEAR: I was afraid. Afraid of losing our home if the other pastors found out, afraid of my family finding out, afraid of what people would think, afraid of Conner getting mad, afraid of it being my fault, afraid of discovering that Conner was hiding an affair, afraid of opening the mail because I didn’t want to see any more 900 number (sex chatline) calls, afraid of setting boundaries, afraid of someone seeing the cracks in my mask if I got too tired of faking it, afraid of confronting, afraid of confronting again after I found another discovery, afraid of it not changing, afraid of being judged, and afraid this would always be my life.
My shame, denial, and fear kept me behind bars. It enabled Conner to continue to have his cake and eat it too. What I didn’t know – is I needed help. It was too big of a battle for me to fight alone. I didn’t know there was support. I didn’t know what I needed to do. If any of this makes sense to you please know you’re in the best of company. These three reasons might be holding you captive too. In my book Intimate Deception: Healing the Wounds of Sexual Betrayal my aim is to care for your heart.
- My desire is to swap out your shame for validation and truth.
- To exchange your denial by lovingly helping open your eyes to reality, so you can get help.
- To honor your experience of fear and connect you with other brave women who are growing in their courage as well.
There’s too much deceptive cake eating these days. I say, enough is enough. It’s time to draw a line in the sand. We need to address what’s holding us back. Please don’t wait any longer. You don’t have to enable what’s happening in your home. You’re worthy of respect, honesty, and valor. Get connected to someone who can show you that you’re worth so much more (APSATS.org or IITAP.com).
- Jennifer J. Freyd and Pamela Birrell, Blind to Betrayal: Why We Fool Ourselves We Aren’t Being Fooled (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2013), x.