Two ways to tell if someone is really serious about recovery

Call me cynical, but I have learned not to trust what clients say about their commitment to recovery. News flash: addicts have been known to lie. In fact, you may have heard the old joke: “How can you tell if an addict is lying? His/her lips are moving.”

But I think that’s only part of the issue. Addicts aren’t simply trying to deceive you when they express commitment to change, but don’t follow through. They really believe – in that moment – that they are committed to change. But later, they will not be committed to change.

This drives spouses crazy. The most common question I hear from the spouses of sex addicts is this:  “How can I trust that my husband is getting better?” Another way of phrasing that might be: “How can I trust that my husband is really serious about recovery?”

Conventional wisdom is that you can’t. You just have to hope that if your spouse expresses commitment to recovery, that this commitment will last. But it’s time to challenge conventional wisdom. Of course we can’t know anything with absolute certainty – we can’t predict the future. But there are two things we can look at to determine whether or not someone means what they say.

1. Calendars never lie

If you want to know what’s important to someone, look at how they spend their time. If you want to know whether recovery is important to someone, consider how much time they commit to recovery actions (going to support groups, doing recovery reading, making contacts with recovery friends, etc.). It’s as simple as that.

Recovery takes time. The pattern of addiction developed over years – even decades. Countless hours have been spent over the years in fantasy and various acting out behaviors. Habits were formed, neural pathways were forged. These processes will not be changed without diligent, ongoing effort.

If someone claims commitment to recovery, but isn’t willing to make time for it, they are not being honest with themselves or you. If someone claims commitment to recovery, and skips (or drops out of) their support groups, slacks off their recovery work, stops seeing their therapist after a few months, they are kidding themselves.

Recovery will take huge amounts of effort – read “time” – and during the first year it’s always too soon to take your foot off the gas pedal. There might be exceptions to this, but they would be exceedingly rare. In fact, I’m hard-pressed to think of anyone I have ever observed who went to too many meetings, made too many phone calls, or spent too much time doing recovery work during their first year. It just doesn’t happen.

So stop wondering if your husband “has what it takes” to recover. If you’re an addict, stop worrying about whether you’ve “hit bottom” or whether you’re “really ready” to recover. Just look at your calendar. How much time are you spending doing recovery work?

If you are not making enough time for recovery work, then change your commitments. Make sure you schedule the rest of your life around recovery, instead of scheduling recovery around the rest of your life. Put your recovery commitments in first, then build the rest of your schedule around them.

This might raise the question for someone: how much is “enough time” for recovery work?

That’s impossible to answer for a general audience. It depends on a host of factors. It’s best to talk this through with a counselor who knows about addiction, and/or someone who is further along in recovery than you.

Do not ask fellow group members who are struggling themselves with recovery whether or not it makes sense for you to back out of some recovery involvements because you are too busy or don’t need it anymore. They will most likely sympathize with you, remind you how busy you are, and commiserate with you about how hard recovery is to fit into our crowded lives. Talk instead with someone who has built significant, long term recovery.

2. Checkbooks never lie

If you want to know what someone values, see what they spend money on. If someone says they value recovery, but isn’t willing to pay for things they need to recover, who are they kidding?

I know, I know. It seems self-serving for me to write about this, because I offer programs for recovery that people pay for. Even so, I’m not going to dodge this issue, because it’s important. And I am not challenging people to do anything that I haven’t done myself.

Over the years I have spent thousands of dollars on therapy and recovery programs. In fact, my wife and I took out a second mortgage on our home to pay for me to go to a treatment center some years ago. In retrospect, I’m glad I made the choices I did, and invested the money in recovery. Those were the best dollars I ever spent.

Yes there are free recovery resources around, and by all means we should use them if they are helpful. But there are also many “resources” out there that are not only not helpful, but may actually make our problems worse. It only makes sense to find the best resources available to us that we can afford.

How much are you investing in your recovery? Recovery doesn’t have to cost a lot of money, but if helpful resources are available from people who are trained, skilled, and experienced in this field, why not work with them?

What does it say about someone’s commitment if they’re willing to spend money on all sorts of other things, but not on recovery? To use just one example, what does it say about someone’s commitment level if they will pay for cable TV – which gets them in trouble with their addiction – but aren’t willing to pay for recovery?

I’ve had the sad experience of watching people drop out of recovery programs because they were too expensive, only to relapse and lose their job or get divorced, and be really sunk financially. You might think I’m being dramatic, but it happens all the time.

So if someone is telling you that he or she is committed to recovery, and you wonder if you should believe them … stop listening to their words. Instead, look at their calendar and their checkbook.

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26 thoughts on “Two ways to tell if someone is really serious about recovery”

  1. My husband is involved in several men’s recovery groups, for which I’m thankful. However,we are unable to discuss his sexual addiction. It is the elephant in the room. He has been in the journey to recovery for about two years, but he is unwilling to share any progress with me good or bad. Our relationship is very superfical and it is very painful not knowing anything. His attitude seems very rebellious and his heart seems very hard. THere are no outward signs of transformation. What insight to do have on the little I’ve shared.
    Thank you,

    1. Another possibility is that he has never surrendered to the mutuality of a marriage relationship, and doesn’t even know how to even if he is willing. The notion of being accountable to a life partner, being honest with a life partner, trusting a life partner maybe something foreign to them. They may only know how use the partner as their scapegoat and dupe. Btw, your message does not suggest to me that you causing him any pain or being unforgiving. It is unfortunate that after enduring the trauma of this experience and having your whole life blown apart, anyone would continue to blame his poor behaviour on you. Narcissism and narcissistic traits are common elements in the personality of the sex addict, and sometimes when they are not medicated by their sexual activities outside their marriage covenant, these traits can become even worse. I hope his therapist is qualified to test for Personality Disorders, as this information may be helpful for you to make good decisions for your own wellbeing. Many blessings for this hard journey. I pray the best for both of you.

  2. Thanks for the comment Elise, and I’m sorry to hear that your husband is not talking with you about his recovery. From how you are describing things two things could be happening:
    (a) He is doing okay in terms of sobriety but is stuck in resentment and is more or less doing his recovery without involving you in it. I see this happen sometimes in relationships where a guy feels a lot of pain and judgement/unforgiveness from his wife.
    (b) He is not doing well in terms of sobriety, and is afraid of talking about it, or simply unwilling to talk to you about it. This is probably the more common experience, but could also be happening in some kind of combination with (a).

    Obviously if you guys could get together with some helpful third party – a knowledgeable pastor or counselor – that could help break the impasse. I think it would also be helpful for you to think about what you are willing to put up with. In other words, what if he is back to acting out? What will you do?

    Finally, I would also suggest doing whatever you can to get support for yourself (counselor, women’s group, supportive friends, etc.). The tricky thing about all marriage struggles around addiction is that there are two sides of the street (yours and his), and the only thing you can do anything about is your side.

    I wish I could say more, and give you something more constructive, but this is the reality of addiction. It’s hard to know what to do if there’s no communication, other than take care of yourself, hoping for the best, but preparing for the worst.

  3. Hi Mark. Thank you for the the straightforward, wise insights. I can definitely, wholeheartedly agree with everything you are saying. As they say in AA, it doesn’t work if I am looking for an easier, softer way. When I was up at the Faithful and True weekend in January, you guys kept harping, “What ever you put before your recovery, you will loose.” Thankfully, I took that to heart and have really felt the rewards. It HAS taken a ton of time and even money, but the freedom I am experiencing and the joy I’m beginning to experience in my marriage are priceless.

    I have a big burden for seeing other men in my SA groups get “unstuck”, yet often feel myself wanting recovery for them more than they do for themselves. I am realizing this is codependent thinking on my part and I want to be awake to that and continue to work on that. Any insights on your part as to being available to encourage others along on their journey or wisdom for me as how to maintain a healthy mindset on what my role (if any) would be with my recovery brothers?

  4. Paul – way to go on your recovery work, and it’s great to hear that things are going well! And you are right … it doesn’t “just happen.” I appreciate what you’re saying about wanting to help other people in their recovery, and sometimes wondering if you want it too much. The “recovery wisdom” on this subject is right there in the language you used: if we want recovery for someone more than they want it for themselves, we’re on the road to disappointment and frustration.

    The only way out of this is to surrender … to let guys have their own process. This has been probably the hardest part of doing this work (with addicts) for me. In some ways this is where we get to practice the third step in our dealings with other people. We turn our will and our lives over to the care of God … but we also turn other people over to the care of God. It maybe sounds trite, but it has helped me.

  5. Mark:

    Excellent advice! I have started noticing that men tend to resort to “managing strategies” and that is a tip off that they are not going to make it. Managing strategies are when guys try to manage their problem rather than surrender and submit to the wisdom of those that have gone before them. They drag their feet installing filters or accountability software, make excuses about why meetings wouldn’t work for their schedule. Refuse to be honest with themselves and then cast that in the light of “protecting their wife” from certain knowledge about their behavior.

    Looking at how they spend their time and money are great ways to tip us off to whether the man is using a managing strategy.

    I have a dear brother. When his issue came to light he launched into 100 meetings in 100 days. He surrounded himself with others who know the ropes and have long term sobriety to meet with him every day. If he could not meet in a support group setting on that particular day he had a 5:00 AM meeting with one of the men. Some days he had both a face to face early meeting and a evening meeting that lasted till 9:30 PM. When his 100 days ran out he maintained the schedule. It has paid off for him in spades!

    Time and money…great barometers!

  6. Well put VIP. People tend to treat this struggle from the standpoint of “how little can I bet by with?” instead of “how much should I do?” Blessings with your recovery and with your blog.

  7. My partner is a sex addict andafter beingcaught out so many times he promised to stop. Well, in the past 9 months he has seen his therapist 4 times, he has not even bothered to make another appointment and is doing absolutely nothing to make me think he is serious about recovery. He never talks about it to me, I am convinced that he has just found a more devious way of acting out but I haveno proof. Is it possible for some1 who has been addicted to phonesex and mb and exhibitionism to be able to stop without therapy? Or am I just kidding myself and denying the fact that he is still acting out somehow??

  8. Caroline,

    I’m very sorry to hear about your story. Of course there is no way for me to say what your partner is or is not doing … some people can experience massive change in ways that defy common experience. But with that being said, I would add that the VAST majority of people who struggle with any kind of addictive or compulsive behavior will continue to struggle, unless they get massive support and make significant changes. What makes this problem complex is that people are often able to make changes – and maintain those changes for a time – without doing the rigorous recovery work. They then deceive themselves and others into thinking that they are “on top of it,” that they have somehow overcome the struggle, without going to all those meetings, doing that therapy, or even admitting that this was somehow an addiction. The fact that they are able to stop lulls them into thinking that there really isn’t a need to spend all that time, energy, and money doing recovery work.

    The problem is that they can’t STAY stopped. I see this pattern over and over again. The person I have described above doesn’t do the hard work of recovery, just exerts a little self-discipline, and stops for a while … but then stresses come, challenges in life come, and other things begin taking more energy … and the person starts going back to their old behavior.

    This is the concern.

    Two thoughts for you:
    1) Is it possible to set up some kind of conversation, ideally with a therapist to guide the conversation, where you can talk with your partner about your fears, and about what you need from him in order to feel safe / confident that he is not acting out?
    2) I would suggest that you do what you can to get support and help for yourself, so that you can be healthy regardless of what your spouse is or is not doing. By this I mean seeing a counselor, going to a women’s group, or participating in the Recovery Journey Spouse program.

    Blessings.

  9. If only you were my counselor, I love your articles! One day I was googling “how to tell if your spouse has really changed” , and after reading so many articles, yours made the most sense to me. It was comforting to have another confirmation that i wasnt totally crazy and making things up. Everyone kept telling me to just be patient and to keep loving him and supporting him. I kept trying to make myself believe that since my husband has so far “refrained” from looking at pornography, that his isolation behaviors (spending his time playing video games, browsing on computer, buying daily sodas and junk food, continually lying about little stuff even though ive made a safe environment for him) maybe werent a threat to his sobriety. My intuition kept telling me something was not right, and your article has helped me put what Ive been feeling into words. You have a gift for making complete sense. Thank you so much for that!
    Also I havent read through all of your articles yet, but by chance do you happen to know the success rate of individuals who stay completely sober from sex/pornography addiction for… 20? years or more? I hear so many stories of people staying sober for a few years and then relapsing etc etc and it would be nice to hear about people who have stayed sober. Ah, I wish i could ask ya a million questions.

    1. Kate,

      Thanks for your encouraging comments about this blog. I’m glad you’re finding it helpful … although that is mixed with sadness about how things are going in your marriage. For me I think the issue of commitment to lifelong recovery is very important … not viewing the struggle as simply a problem to solve, or something to “get over.” This doesn’t imply that I don’t think that things change over time — I believe they really do, and that the power of the addiction really gets diminished. But life continues to throw things at us, and especially with anything sexual, we’ve got to be careful because we are sexual people, and even though we may go through long periods where we don’t feel a lot of “pull” from the addiction, it’s amazing how it can come back with a vengeance when things get hard. I more concerned about peoples’ recovery (their ongoing movement towards emotional and spiritual health), than whether or not they have been technically “sober”. Sex addiction has many of its own variants of “dry drunks”. Anyway … I hope you can do something helpful for yourself in the midst of your concerns about how things are going for your husband.

      – Mark

  10. I would have believed this article a month ago. Unfortunately, I am married to (now separated) from a man who for the past 4 years was able to attend five SA meetings a week, talk to his sponsor weekly, sponsor 2 other men in their recovery, complete an intensive outpatient program at a hospital, find a higher power, readily use expensive therapy, and take his antidepressants. We would talk recovery often, and he was spending a huge amount of time “in recovery”. The only money he had access to was one credit card, his computer had all sorts of “blocks” on it so he would not be able to access unsavory websites, and I monitored the money and computer for the past 4 years. I recently found out all of it was an act……he used his “recovery” as yet another layer to hide his actual sexually addicted behaviors. He was able to get around all of the protective computer software while making it look like it was still working, he stole what he needed for his addiction, and he continued to act out during the times he wasn’t working or “doing his recovery”. All that said, sex addiction is a killer, and the lying, play-acting, and cover-ups seem to be more of the sociopathic variety. I know my husband’s story, and feel sorry for his childhood and the way he leads his life, but as far as me, there is no way whatsoever that a partner can live a healthy life with a positive sense of self-esteem while there is an addict in the house. I don’t care if they seem to be gravitating toward recovery or not, partners will suffer (enormously) if they allow the addict to stay under the same roof and hope that recovery works for the addict.

    1. Pretty much nothing will stop an addict who is not ready to change. If someone is as far along with, and as “committed to”, recovery as your husband was / is, and they are still lying and acting out … then there’s not much help for him or you without major changes / consequences. Very sorry to hear this. What you’re describing is rare and extreme … but not unheard of, and very sad. Something is still going on in his life that he’s not coming to terms with yet, and my guess is that he’s not even letting himself face it … and won’t face it until he’s lost more. Sorry, thanks for writing, and sorry it’s taken so long to respond to your comment.

  11. Reese- I’m so sorry for the continued lies and cover of addiction. We’ve been married 20 years and been through a sexting incident early in our marriage that almost led to divorce. Ten years later he had a DUI, a year after that a second DUI resulting in his drivers livens being lost for 18 months; along with DUI school, 200+ community service hours, jail time, $20,000+ fines and attorney fees, and a lost job. Guess who drove him around the whole time? With our three small children stuck in car seats as he began a new business. Now I’ve discovered multiple encounters with prostitutes, a secret, cell phone, and all kinds of other crap. He’s in intense recovery and wants to come back. He’s a very likeable guy to the rest of the world, but very difficult to live with. We’ve been separated 7 weeks and I will be pursuing divorce soon. It’s so hard to think about all the ways he’s neglected me and the kids and out us at risk for diseases or legal issues. It’s crazy. I can’t continue to worry about what he’s doing it if he’s recovering or relapsing.

    1. Ruth,

      I’m soo sorry to hear about your story. I can’t imagine how devastating and frustrating it would be to have gone through all that together, and then discover the secret life stuff still going on. Blessings in your journey.

  12. This helped me so much! My ex-husband refused to get into recovery, while telling me at the same time he would do anything he could to get his famiy back. Then he would blame me because I wouldn’t take him back first. He acted as if I should show him trust and forgiveness without him doing anything. What I endured with this crazy making for 18 months caused me to be suicial and diagnosed with PTSD. I finally had to divorce him because he just would never do more than SAY he wanted his family back. He had 15 online affairs and 6 in person over the course of 3 years (that I know of). But he swears to me he doesn’t have an addiction. He just made a few bad choices! Thank you for writing this article! It gave me such great clarity about what he was not doing.

    1. Thanks for writing Debbie. Sorry to hear about your situation, but it seems like you came through it with clarity and health. Men who insist on being trusted without going through the hard work of rebuilding trust by demonstrating trustworthiness … well let’s just say, at this point in my life and work, I’ve lost a lot of sympathy for them.

  13. Hello Mark,

    I am currently addicted to masturbation and have had impulsive sex addict like behaviors, 3 prostitutes in my lifetime, 20+ girls I’ve slept w.. no condom for a lot of those girls always condom w Prostitute

    I am only 20 years old..

    I crave opportunities I missed w girls many moons ago and it doesn’t even matter but it’s still a persistent thought

    I’ve also had a drug using life as well

    My mother died when I was 6

    Could there be a correlation between losing a parental figure and sex addiction

    I live in a college town where sex is a big thing and I feel as if I want to look at the world through different lenses

    I want to be able to be loyal and honest to my wife one day (: I am being completely serious

    I just want to make sure I get everything lined up before hand so I can wisely eliminate temptations

    God bless

    1. David,

      Thanks for writing, and sorry for the delay in responding. It would be good to do recovery work at this stage of your life in order to get you into a frame of mind that would allow you to develop healthy relationships with women. Starting recovery work when you are single — before you get into a serious relationship — is the best thing you can do for your romantic prospects! You mentioned the loss of your mom at age of 6 — yes this definitely is an important factor to look at, especially since the loss occured early and it was with your mom. I would strongly encourage you to find a good counselor and spend some time talking about this, related to how it’s led you to have a strong craving for sex. They are related, and working on them together is important.

  14. Hi,

    My husband and I have been separated almost 6 weeks.

    Most of it was to do with alcohol addiction and not making any real progress – 3 years of going round in circles.

    It recently came to light that he has been unfaithful to me (4years ago) within the first 6 months of our marriage!
    He doesn’t yet know that I am in possession of this knowledge – the source of this information is impeccable and was present when it happened.

    He has been completely sober and working a very active programme of recovery for the past 6 weeks and although I haven’t seen him (others have) and he reports all his efforts and how his life is completely changed, new path, new man, new outlook, weight loss, very sorry for pain inflicted on me etc etc
    It’s all sounding very positive and as though he’s taking it seriously this time and maybe this would have been enough to make me want to return to give our marriage another try but the infidelity is so incredibly difficult to get passed. I’m not sure I can live with that uncertainty – I definitely didn’t think he was the cheating type. There were other incidents a couple of years back when he was texting another woman and another time when I discovered he had logged into a dating agency website…!

    I chose to move on and forgive after tearful apologies and promises that he was never actually unfaithful but this most recent discovery of ‘actual’ cheating feels like the final straw.

    He is giving me space and time to deal with my emotions / feelings as per my request but there comes a time when a discussion must take place and decisions made…..

    Your views would be very welcome

    1. Tess,

      Thanks for writing, and I’m sorry to hear about how things are going with your husband. It sounds like a good thing that you’re giving each other space, and is encouraging to know that he’s taking recovery seriously. That all sounds good. I’m not an expert in restoration of marriages after affairs … I think Dave Carder is one of the best authors on this topic — check out his book “Torn Asunder.” I don’t think anyone but you can know what your heart is able to work through. There are so many variables: how healthy other dimensions of the relationship are, the length of the affair, the amount of dishonesty associated with it, etc. The one thing I will say is that when you add the other things you mentioned (texting another woman, logging into dating websites) there is a pattern of seeking attention and searching for possible sexual liasons … that this affair is not an isolated thing, but part of a pattern. There’s a lot of recovery that has to happen in his life, and a lot of restoration and healing work to take place in your relationship … and that’s all still a risk, because his future adherence to a recovery program is unknown. I wish I had an easy suggestion or guidelines, but there aren’t any. I’d do some searching about Dave Carder’s material. Blessings.

  15. Hello , I found out about my husbands life long porn use 5 years ago . And a very wrong relationship with an employee , I called it emotional adultery , he called it ” a wrong relationship ” . It went on for over 5 years .
    We had been togethor over 30 years before I had any idea what ‘porn use’ meant and that my husband did it , ever . as naive as a child . My question is this ; he told me about a sliver of his porn use after hearing a testimony from a man who confessed to his wife this habit and that man got into true recovery ……so he decided he’d ” try ” that approach . He did not count on me being so devastated and hurt , and shocked . So a couple weeks later I am still reeling , and he is mad I ask anything , ” don’t forgive and trust him ” , I cried …..what I now know were all normal reactions , especially considering he was insisting he was now entirely ” free ” and what I was hearing and reading that describe recovery ( much like your article here ) did NOT match his behavior at all !! I bought books , sought out counselors , went to counselors , talked talked talked , he took polygraph exams , failed , insist they are ‘ bogus’ ……just years of excuses and no true change being seen . So now , what he basically is telling me and our children and all HE has chosen to involve , that he is not now nor ever was a ‘ porn addict ‘ , hence he does not need any kind of recovery because he was not a ‘ addict ‘ . He only used porn every 3-6 months and only when it practically landed in his lap . Aside from that handful of times he purchased it and the one time he went to it in a work computer . He has insisted all this 5 years that was IT . My issue is , what if I am off ? What if he is just being his normal selfish self , he has been a workaholic our whole relationship and basically self absorbed always , so addict behavior is basically him anyway . When any situation comes up where I have to remind him , ” I won’t do that , because I do NOT trust you .” He still holds fast he is trustworthy and insists , ” When have you witnessed anything ? Found anything ? …..” And I haven’t , ever . Not in over 35 years . EXCEPT I had his computer analyzed and there is , uck , porn . BUT that could have been someone at work , it was used by someone else . But he went to another mans computer to view the one video he says he watched because I had recently insisted he install covenant eyes on his own . Just coincidence ? Could he actually be the angel husband most women dream of ? And he is mad at me because I am insisting on true recovery behavior to go back once again to even try to trust him . I sure hope I am making a little sense . I am asking you this because we have been to so many counselors , I have spent thousands of dollars to hear him ONLY insist he is being honest, and the polygraphs are a hoax and his utter lack of any empathy or compassion or understanding to me is just because he is so irritated that I do not trust him . He insists he truly repented and had a ‘ real heart change ‘ . ( even though he says he tried to stop since he was 8 and had been masturbating well over 3/4 of his life . ) Of course there is so much more , but do you think he could actually NOT be a porn addict ? And his anger at me then justifiable ? I waffle between confused and knowing without a doubt he is a very good liar , deceiver and probably doing far far worse than he has let on . Thank you for reading this , thank you very much .

    1. Thanks for writing Needs Answers. I’m not sure where to start in responding … there’s a lot of pain and questions in what you’re saying, and I also hear the frustration of being involved in this for a long time, and having spent thousands of dollars trying to get answers. Addiction is cunning and baffling, and it creates a wake of deception and confusion. I also know that the concept of “addiction” itself is problematic, and many people really resist accepting that label. So here are a few thoughts:
      (1) don’t worry about the label of sex addict, or try to get your husband to admit or accept it for himself. What is it that you are willing to tolerate … and unwilling to tolerate in terms of lying, and in terms of pornography use?
      (2) it seems like there’s a lot of energy around knowing the truth about his porn use — proving what he did or didn’t do. If it’s that important to you, why not do a lie detector test? They are controversial … some sex addiction counselors advocate their use, others don’t. I’ve seen them be helpful, I’ve seen them make things worse, and I’ve seen cases where the addict “passed,” but then the spouse dismissed the results because she felt that he was such a good liar that he probably just somehow “beat the test.” My response is always: “If you are so convinced that your husband is such a good liar that he could — and did — pass a lie detector test, why are you still together?”
      (3) It seems that there are a lot of other things going on in your relationship beyond just possible porn use and lying. If he is not using porn, does that mean he is now an “angel husband”?
      (4) I hope you can shift to focus more time and energy onto your own emotional and spiritual well-being, regardless of what your husband does or doesn’t do. There are great programs for people in relationship with addicts and/or just difficult people — programs like codependents anonymous, alanon, and the like, and books about codependence. Once again, don’t worry about the label “codependent” … the issue is for you to be able to feel good and at peace regardless of what is going on with your husband … to detach from that drama.

      Blessings to you

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