Breaking the Chains of Pornography
February 2001

“Breaking the Chains of Pornography,” Ensign, Feb. 2001, 55

Breaking the Chains of Pornography

A husband and wife share how his addiction to pornography shook the foundation of their marriage—and how they turned to the Lord for help.

The Husband’s Story

I am a respected member of my community, and I have a loving marriage and a close family. Yet for more than a decade I experienced the awful burdens of guilt, shame, and devastation that result from prolonged sin. Throughout my 30s and into my 40s, I suffered from the escalating conflicts of an impossible war: a desire to serve the Lord while being involved with pornography.

This precipitated a slow but certain downward spiral to self-loathing and depression that resulted from my refusal to overcome my weaknesses. Finally, these very real chains of hell dragged me into thoughts of suicide.

Knowing that others struggle with the temptations of pornography, I feel impelled to share my story, which offers hope that this ugly sin can be overcome. I hope, too, that my story will serve as a deterrent so that others will see how seemingly insignificant actions can contribute to this addiction, and therefore they may avoid the problem altogether.

For me, the roots of self-destruction came long before my 30s, although my early influences could be called squeaky clean. I was raised in a warm and secure family nest. My good parents held numerous leadership positions in the Church but were mostly concerned about raising righteous children. Gospel discussions were a frequent part of our family life, and all of my brothers and sisters married in temples of the Lord.

I had an early record that did not indicate problems ahead. I became an Eagle Scout at age 14 and followed that by earning a Duty to God award. Throughout those years I prepared myself to one day serve a mission.

During that time, like most teenagers, I became curious about the opposite sex. By all appearances I continued to be an honorable young man, yet I ignored cautions from the Spirit against indulging in certain visual stimulations when they came my way.

Like the person who is susceptible to alcoholism, I failed to recognize this as a weakness Satan knew he could exploit. This no doubt set a tone for what was to come later in my life.

I remember attending a regional Explorer camp for 14- to 18-year-olds in my area and watching a movie there. It was rated PG, so I thought it was OK. But it featured a lengthy, inappropriate scene that aroused feelings I had never before experienced. Rather than walk out as I was prompted to do, I cemented that scene in my mind and mulled it over for weeks.

On another occasion, I traveled to a resort community with friends, all from active Church families. Two of them left our room to cruise around and returned with a popular soft-porn magazine. I knew I was standing for the right by refusing to look inside, but my mind was riveted far too long on a series of photos on the cover, and that, too, stayed with me for weeks.

Setting curiosities aside, I faithfully served a mission and returned with what I felt was a strong testimony of the gospel. However, over time I again started to participate in activities I should have avoided. While attending college, for example, my roommates and I took in a few of the abundant R-rated movies available in local theaters as well as inappropriate programs on cable television. As priesthood holders, we felt guilty when we failed to live up to our standards—but we didn’t change our behavior.

Self-deception became easier as the years went by. I convinced myself that these occasional pursuits were normal male behaviors—simply innocent forays into a little self-indulgence while outwardly remaining active in my Church activities and callings. Looking back, I now realize that I was not slowly casting off sin and advancing line upon line to perfection; rather, I was moving reel upon reel and frame upon frame down the broad path to destruction.

In my early adult years, I feel I still had the Spirit of the Lord with me often enough to find a choice and beautiful woman with whom I could unite in holy matrimony and start an eternal family unit. I loved my wife dearly, and I wanted to make her happy. Little did I realize how my self-centered habits would come to devastate her.

For many years I was usually able to control my behavior and would go months between what I would call “accidents.” But as time went by and the challenges of life confronted me, I sought ways to escape from the pressures through television. After spending many hours each week in front of the TV set—often into the early morning—my appetite for lustful things increased. I started to mill around bookstores looking for unseemly materials. Then, when I got a job that required international travel, a whole new world of filth became easily accessible through television, books, magazines, and even billboards.

When I was not consuming this material, my mind often was absorbed with salacious thoughts. This became the paradox: I was proud to avoid all of the popular soft-porn magazines and to resist certain cable channels at home; yet I was seeing just as much through regular hotel television services, books readily available in respectable bookstore chains, and other mainstream vehicles. The effect was the same: every time I succumbed, I wanted more, and I sometimes plotted how to get it without anyone knowing. The fact that the Lord was aware of my actions was not a sufficient deterrent, and I rationalized that what I was doing was not that bad anyway.

But I loathed myself. My soul and body were at war, and I was the main casualty, along with my wonderful wife and children. I truly wanted to be righteous and love the Lord, but this incredible monster was always in the way.

When my wife began to realize the extent of my problem and confronted me, I angrily denied her accusations. But inside, I knew I needed help—I just didn’t know where to turn. Prayer felt hypocritical. How could the Lord love me when I did all these bad things? Or so I thought.

My wife pleaded with me to see a counselor with her, but I was too embarrassed to admit these failings to anyone. And despite it all, I wasn’t sure I actually wanted to start casting off these desires that raged within me. But, knowing my relationship with my wife was becoming tense, I finally agreed to seek counseling from a professional who also was a member of the Church. After my wife and I had a few sessions with him, I began to trust this warm, caring individual and to open up to him.

The real turning point probably came when, shortly after the counseling began, I sank briefly into the realms of an otherwise miraculous technology, the Internet—and fortunately was discovered. When my wife told me she knew I had been surfing on forbidden sites, it unleashed in me an unbearable humiliation.

Ironically, this very moment, when I thought I should have been most afraid of the Lord’s wrath, proved to be the catalyst which led me to finally quit running from Him. At first my thoughts turned to ending it all and letting my wife pick up the pieces. Surely, I believed, she and the children would be better off without such a wretched father in their home. But a stronger voice of reason suggested that suicide was a false option for all of us. It also told me it was time to stop thinking about a vengeful God and to start seeking the endless love He has for His children—including the ones who sin.

The night after the confrontation with my wife, I drove to a secluded place: an empty parking lot by a river, surrounded by forest. I sat in the car and for almost two hours unloaded several years of frustration onto my Heavenly Father. I admitted everything I had previously tried to cover up, and I pleaded for His assistance.

Gradually, two scriptures came into my mind, both word for word, one after the other. The first came from John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” Despite everything, I still believed in Him, and this thought gave me a strong feeling that He could indeed provide an anchor for me in my struggles.

The next scripture, I later discovered, was from Isaiah 1:18: “Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.” The scriptural words rushed into my mind with an incredible surge of hope and love. Yes, my sins were as scarlet, but through repentance I could become clean! I knew the prompting came from the Spirit and was exactly what the Lord wanted me to know and feel at that time.

That clear answer to prayer changed my disposition from despair to hope and gave me the courage to do what was necessary to cleanse my soul. It accelerated a process that had already begun with the counselor.

After that, my life turned into a series of blessings that helped me comprehend the error of my ways and start to repent. I continued to receive loving guidance from my counselor. I was led to helpful books and tapes. And I discussed my behavior honestly with my wife and my older brother. I was heartened to see that they still loved me, despite knowing my sins.

Involving my bishop was the most crucial element in this repentance process. I overcame my initial reluctance about that and agreed to an interview, preparing myself to fully tell the truth. We talked for almost two hours, and I realized then that this type of struggle was not mine alone—it is a growing problem among some members of the Church as pornography becomes more widespread, accessible, and culturally acceptable. The discussion also confirmed what I had learned that night in my car: the Lord knew of my problem, wanted me to overcome it, and would assist me through His faithful servant.

At the end of our discussion, I asked the bishop for a priesthood blessing. As he laid his hands upon me and spoke as the Lord’s mouthpiece, I heard tremendous words of encouragement and support. The Spirit of the Lord told me through him that I would continue to be tempted as a natural consequence of being human but that if I was prayerful and obedient I would gradually gain the strength to resist these temptations and their degrading effects.

The bishop and I met again periodically throughout the following year, and I felt each time his warmth and concern as he guided me back to the fold. He helped me realize my own worth and gave me encouragement to persevere.

After I first embarked upon my road to recovery, there were days when I thought I would be overwhelmed by the urge to revert to my former behaviors. But as promised in the blessing, as the weeks and months went by, my ability to withstand was strengthened.

I replaced my previous carnal escapes with immersion into the scriptures, with more honest prayers, and eventually, when I was ready, with peaceful and reflective visits to the house of the Lord.

I began to feel the solace of the Spirit of the Lord much more often in my Church meetings and in our home. My relationships with family members and acquaintances came more naturally than before. In short, I started to feel clean and whole once again.

Several years have passed since that fateful night in my car. I still have daily challenges and feel the natural anguish of imperfection. Now, however, these are the normal feelings of human frailty rather than the despair resulting from self-imposed addiction.

I am still burdened by occasional random impressions that were seared into my mind over the years. But now I cast them out, rather than inviting them to linger in my mind. I also understand a previously overlooked source of my addiction: the desire to escape. I thought I could dull the pains of the world, but all I really did was severely reduce the capacity of the Spirit of the Lord to comfort me. I now know that pains and sorrows are a normal part of life but that the Spirit can lift me up. I also know that the rest of my life will demand that I remain vigilant against the slings of Satan in this vulnerable area.

Today, I stand amazed at the love Jesus offers me. It is a great blessing to visit the temple with my dear wife and renew our love together. What a tragedy it would have been for both of us had she not stood steadfast in her faith and led me to a higher plane, despite the anguish and misery I caused her for so long.

There is truly one source of light and truth and joy. That source—the Savior—will never leave us, no matter how far we’ve fallen. He is there to lift us and inspire us, and He holds the only fruit of real worth—that of eternal happiness in His presence. It is ours to grasp if we but repent and obey Him to the end.

The Wife’s Story

My worst Mother’s Day was more than five years ago. That was when I told my husband, Jim,* that I could not bear his addiction to pornography any longer, that it was as if he had a mistress in the house. I also told him I had sought counsel and a priesthood blessing from the bishop. Jim was angry and sullen, but the truth was out. It was no longer a dark, never-to-be-discussed secret.

It had taken me more than 10 years to realize he had an addiction. It had always disturbed me that he spent 20 to 30 hours each week in front of the television, but when we argued over his viewing habits, Jim declared that I had unreasonably high standards. He reassured me that, like many men, he simply needed to unwind after work.

Finally one day I pointed out that his shows all seemed to have the same theme: sex. He sheepishly admitted that he had difficulty leaving such shows alone. I still didn’t understand his actions for a time, but I finally began to realize that his behavior was similar to an addict’s: He would abstain from TV watching for a little while, usually in response to my pleadings; then he would return with a vengeance. It was a repeating cycle: binge, abstain, binge again. Astonished and sickened by this realization, I suddenly understood why Jim’s love for me and our children seemed so anemic.

I wondered how this could happen to me—to us. We were both returned missionaries, we both came from good families, we were married in the temple, and I believed the Lord had led us to each other. Now I felt all alone and totally unprepared. No one had ever told me what to do if I discovered my husband was addicted to pornography.

At first I sometimes wondered if I were making it all up. In some ways Jim seemed to function just fine: he went to work and attended all his Church meetings. But in other ways, he didn’t function well. He didn’t talk with the children much, except at the dinner table. Often he would even leave the table to eat by the TV. He would accept Church callings but seldom do much with them. We rarely attended the temple together. I felt like a single parent most of the time, caring for our children and home while he lived by the TV. I often fantasized about smashing the TV with a sledgehammer.

When Jim traveled, I knew he probably had access to anything he wanted. I worried about him, but at the same time I was relieved to have him gone because our house would feel more serene. When he returned, I would sense that he had withdrawn into his addiction, and I felt as if I had to reclaim him.

As his addiction deepened, he would frequently slip out of bed to watch TV. I would awaken, realize he had left, and go crazy inside, wondering what he was watching and thinking. I would kneel and offer a desperate prayer, fall asleep, then awaken to pray again, only gradually falling asleep.

I tried to make up for his absence with the children, but I discovered it was impossible. When my oldest son complained that his dad loved the TV more than him, I tried to reassure him, but my heart was broken. How could I have been so foolish as to imagine that I was the only one who felt abandoned?

There were other evidences our children were suffering. A Primary teacher pointed out that our oldest child was always angry. A baby-sitter reported that when our youngest son played house with her children, there was rarely a dad in their pretend family. When there was, he was only a minor figure—just like in our family. In my bitterest moments, I wondered if the children would be better off if we divorced. Maybe then they would receive more attention from their dad, because he would have to visit them without the TV.

I continued to confront Jim about his behaviors, steeling myself for his anger and counteraccusation: I was a disappointment to him as a wife. This devastated me. My worst fear was that my inadequacies might be driving him to his addiction. Sadly, I knew I would never be able to compete with his addiction-fed expectations, but I came to realize that this failure to measure up was not my fault.

One day as I was driving and anguishing over our situation, I felt particularly angry at Jim, his family, the Church, and even the Lord. I vividly remember the place on the road where I suddenly felt the Spirit of the Lord acknowledge that I was indeed facing an extremely difficult problem. But then came an added message: Pushing away the Lord and the Church would not give me the hope and direction I needed. The Lord could help me. From that point on, I realized how badly I needed Him, and I turned to Him often for guidance and strength.

Eventually, after a particularly painful argument, Jim agreed to counseling. We were fortunate to find a wonderful counselor, George, who also was a member of the Church. Our sessions were rocky at first, since Jim and I were both trying to get each other to change. But George’s wisdom and encouragement lifted us each visit. To our surprise, we often felt an outpouring of the Spirit as he counseled us. One of the most important principles I learned during those sessions was the effect of shame. When a person is addicted to pornography, he wants to escape the shame he feels, and he often does so not by turning away from his addiction—the source of his shame—but by turning toward it to numb his feelings. I began to screen my expressions for shaming words.

When I visited George in private sessions for guidance, he told me to refrain from trying to control Jim, pointing out that Jim needed to make his own decisions. During another visit, he gently warned that Jim might not ever be willing to fully break his addiction.

George counseled me to take care of myself—get sleep, seek out friends, find nurturing activities. One such activity was playing the piano. As Jim sat in front of the TV, I found much comfort in playing hymns such as “Where Can I Turn for Peace?” and “Though Deepening Trials” (Hymns, nos. 129 and 122). I also sought out the company of a few good friends who showered me with love and encouragement. Most important, I learned how to strengthen my relationship with the Lord. I prayed each day that something would happen to lead Jim to fight his addiction—that others might say something, that he might read something, that our children might do something—anything. I didn’t know the pathway out of his addiction, but the Lord did.

I recognized that when Jim retreated to the television, I would become anxious and cross with our children. I began to pray that I might not respond that way, since they needed my love and attention more than ever. I discovered I could keep this resolve better by reading the scriptures and praying. I attended the temple regularly and often entered the names of our entire family on the prayer rolls.

Because we subscribed to the Internet, I occasionally checked the history of sites accessed on our browser. I hoped Jim’s uneasiness with technology would be on my side, that he would never discover the pornography so easily accessed there. But to my dismay, one day I saw a listing of several hundred sites that had been accessed in past weeks. I clicked on a few, and my fears were confirmed. My heart pounding, I confronted Jim. He was chagrined, and I was sickened and a little frightened. Though I didn’t know it then, this was a major event in helping him realize he had a problem. I discovered a blocking service and immediately subscribed.

I decided that since I couldn’t change Jim, I could focus on what I could be learning. For example, what could I learn about love? Could I love Jim in his weakness? Isn’t that what I would want if I were in his situation? Wouldn’t I want someone to be honest with me—to recognize my addiction and point out its consequences, even when I didn’t want to hear it, and at the same time maintain hope for me? If I had given up hope for myself, wouldn’t I be particularly relieved to know that the one closest to me believed there was a way out? I began to see Jim’s goodness more clearly, realizing that he was just like me except he had allowed himself to become trapped by Satan. I began to see his pain a little better. I believe now that his pain was much greater than mine.

We both began to rely on the healing power of the Atonement. I believed what Elder Bruce C. Hafen, now a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy, has said: “Sometimes we say that no other success can compensate for our failures in the home. And while it is true that no other success of ours can fully compensate, there is a success that compensates for all our failures, after all we can do in good faith. That success is the Atonement of Jesus Christ. By its power, we may arise from the ashes of life filled with incomprehensible beauty and joy” (The Broken Heart: Applying the Atonement to Life’s Experiences [1989], 22).

Gradually the periods of abstinence lengthened, and slowly my fears began to subside. Jim has now been clean for several years. I’m not certain how it happened, but I know it was only with the help of the Lord. His Atonement changed our hearts, and a wonderful bishop, a loving brother, and a skilled therapist were His tools.

I always wanted Jim to ask for my forgiveness, but he didn’t for a long time—he felt too overwhelmed by his battle. When he finally did, my heart overflowed to bursting. Still, it took time and work for me to forgive. Past hurts resurfaced again and again in my mind. Jim’s love, now stronger than ever, helped, but forgiving him has ultimately been my labor. I have had to pray for the Lord’s help with this, and I have been blessed.

Since Jim began the repentance process, his countenance has changed. He continues to be vigilant and avoids taking any risks. I’ve stopped wondering if a setback is around the corner. Our marriage is stronger than ever, and we continue to rely on the Lord. This great hardship has been transformed into a much needed blessing.

I have learned firsthand the reality of these scriptures:

“All things wherewith you have been afflicted shall work together for your good, and to my name’s glory, saith the Lord” (D&C 98:3).

“The ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with songs and everlasting joy upon their heads: they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away” (Isa. 35:10).

Not long ago, as I shook hands with our stake president after renewing my temple recommend, he expressed admiration for Jim. He had just attended a meeting with priesthood leaders in which Jim had offered a prayer. The stake president told me that as my husband prayed, he felt very strongly that Jim was in the right place, doing much good in his new calling. My heart was full as I left the stake president’s office. Indeed, my sorrow had at last been replaced by joy.

  • All names have been changed.

Electronic composition by Charles M. Baird; photography by Steve Bunderson, except as noted; posed by models

Background: Photo © Photospin