Advice for a woman whose boyfriend looks at porn and wants her to be his “accountability partner”

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I got the following email from a woman who has been reading this blog. I thought it might be helpful to share her questions, and my responses (with her permission to share this). For those who might not be clear about the terminology, her boyfriend uses accountability software that creates a report about the web sites he looks at. She is his “accountability partner” in that she is the one who get the reports. Here’s her question, and my response  …

My boyfriend struggles with porn, and I’ve been his accountability partner (A.P.) for 6 months. I read his reports, which are sent as an email  every morning … and so I begin my day the moment I awake reviewing every word, site, text, you name it that’s in this report. It’s become part of my daily routine. Approximately 15 minutes a day I spend going over every detail, filled with anxiety I will catch him having done something. I’ve become addicted to monitoring him and I don’t trust him.

He’s told me he’s moved on from pictures and videos to gazing at real women in the world daily, and undressing them with his eyes. He said he is overwhelmed as they are everywhere and his problem is worse. He has no strong male support and I’m really the only one he can be held accountable to in his eyes.

It’s killing me. I can’t start my day without reviewing the previous day’s activity, and it doesn’t feel normal to track his every mood …  I finally told him last night I can’t do this. I begged him to let me off it. I cried, “Please…it’s killing me reading this daily. It seems you’ve been better, but I feel I’m the only one holding back your dam bursting. It’s wasting my days and I’m addicted to searching.” He began to cry.

(Later edit) Oh one more thing … he’s my ex boyfriend now. I broke it off a week ago from when this was written and he told me he’d still like me — his now ex-girlfriend — to be his A.P., regardless of my feelings. He knew I took being his A.P. seriously and that he absolutely would seek out bad stuff the minute I left the site, so I’m riddled with tremendous guilt over this. I haven’t left the site yet.

Ok, your thoughts….I’m sure you have an opinion here!

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My response:

Thanks for reaching out to me, and I’m sorry to hear about your painful story. As you suspected, yes I do have an opinion about this. Actually there are a few things that your email made me think of, so I hope you don’t mind if I share my thoughts in sort of a list form, more or less with some of my random thoughts and responses:

1. As a general rule, most sex addiction counselors (including me) do NOT recommend having the partner of a sex addict be the one to get the reports for Internet usage. I say “general rule” because there are probably always going to be some exceptions to any rule when it comes to relationships. But just so you know, I pretty much always discourage couples from doing what you guys have been doing … for the reasons you describe in your email. It creates additional suffering for the partner (you), because each day you’re reminded of this struggle, and you get triggered emotionally by reading through the reports.

Granted, some partners of sex addicts WANT to be reading the internet usage reports of the addict, if they’re struggling to trust the accountability process. They might need to see the reports themselves for their own peace of mind. Even in that case, it still is often damaging for them to be getting the reports, and they will often decide they don’t want to see them anymore.

2. Rather than have their partner reading thru his reports, a sex addict REALLY NEEDS to have a peer group, a sponsor, or some trusted person read them. This means that the addict needs to have another person he’s talking to about this, not just you. It puts too much pressure on you and your relationship for you to be both his partner and his sponsor. You are the beneficiary of his recovery, not the facilitator of it. Someone else needs to do that.

3. The fact that he doesn’t have another person helping him in his recovery is a big red flag. It’s going to be hard for him to recover without having other people to talk to. This is really really important.

Accountability software is a great tool, and is really helpful for people struggling with Internet porn, especially in the early stages of their recovery. So nothing I’m saying here is meant to disparage using this software … just that it needs to be seen as part of a larger set of commitments and actions that constitute “working one’s recovery.”

4. The fact that he feels such a strong pull to act out (“look at bad stuff online”), and struggles with sexually compulsive thoughts (undressing women mentally that he sees on the street) is a sign that he needs to do more work on the urges that are driving his recovery. In AA, they would talk about this as a “dry drunk” … someone who’s desperate to drink, and clinging to their sobriety by their fingernails. Once again this relates to the issue that there’s MORE things he needs to do for his recovery … OTHER THINGS than just having this accountability software.

By the way, I say this with no judgement. Pretty much every guy I’ve ever worked with has been in those same shoes. It’s just a sign that he needs to step up his work of recovery.

Here’s the important part for you to know: it’s NOT HEALTHY FOR YOU to be part of this. As you pointed out, it creates an unhealthy attachment for you to be digging into his history, turning you into a recovery policeman instead of a romantic partner … or as is the case now … an ex-romantic partner and friend.

5. I really don’t recommend that you continue getting these reports, even now as his ex-gf. Somebody else needs to get them. By continuing to do this role, you are hurting yourself, and you’re not really helping his recovery, because he needs to expand his “recovery team” to include a wider group of people.

So there you have it … I hope that’s helpful. Blessings to you as you work through your own sadness about this relationship, and try to set up healthy boundaries.

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