Podcast: Learned Helplessness & Sex

by | Dec 1, 2022 | Podcasts | 10 comments

learned helplessness and sex plus Sam Tielemans
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Can we have learned helplessness with sex? 

As we talk more about how to get your sex life out of the pit that one, or both, of you have dug for yourselves, I want to talk about a concept discussed in psychology called learned helplessness (which can also lead to learned hopelessness). 

So today on the podcast Rebecca and I discuss some experiments that would never pass ethics approval today, but that taught us much of what we know about learned helplessness. Then licensed counselor Sam Tielemans joins us to talk about what healing from sexual compulsions and sins should look like. 

Listen in!

Or, as always, you can watch on YouTube:

Timeline of the Podcast

2:30 Getting out of the rut
4:10 What is ‘learned helplessness’?
8:50 Ethical example from school children
18:15 How do we fix learned helplessness?
26:15 Illustration story
28:40 Sam joins the podcast to discuss triggers due to sexual sin within marriage
49:00 identifying a safe couselor
52:00 Using wisdom and balance when dealing with sexual sin

Let’s talk learned helplessness

In the 1960s, Martin Seligman did a variety of experiments on dogs (don’t worry, none of this would be allowed today!) that taught us a lot about learned helplessness.

Dogs were put in a cage, and every time a bell rang, they received a shock. Once the dogs learned the connection, when they heard the bell ring they would run around, bark, whine, basically act all panicked to try to stop the shock. When they learned they couldn’t, many of the dogs just lay down and accepted it.

Eventually, the dogs acted the same way for the bell as for the shock, even if the shock didn’t come.

And in a follow-up experiment, the cage was divided into two, with a very small barrier between two halves that was easy for the dogs to climb over. A bunch of new dogs were introduced to the experiment. When the shock went off, the new dogs tried to escape, and hopped over the divider to the half of the cage with no shock. But the dogs with learned helplessness didn’t even try. The experimenters had to move their little legs and get them over the wall so they could understand that there would be no shock.

That’s called learned hopelessness.

So learned helplessness is when you believe your current circumstances cannot be changed, and learned hopelessnes is when you believe it will stay this bad and nothing can ever change.

Thankfully, you wouldn’t be allowed to experiment on dogs like that today!

But they did have a really cool experiment in a classroom with kids that’s interesting to watch (and doesn’t involve shocks). As we said in the podcast, it’s an interesting one to watch with your kids and talk about, too, so they can recognize the phenomenon in their own lives.

What does this have to do with sex?

You can have learned helplessness with sex! When something gives you a consistent “zap”, or shock, like the dogs had, and you can’t seem to change it, you can develop learned helplessness. So if sex gives you no pleasure and is a disappointment; if it makes you feel used; if it makes you feel pain–then you’ve got a zap. And not just that, but the things that tend to lead up to that zap–the bell, in the dogs’ case–will start to make you feel panicked.

So if kissing tends to lead to sex; if date nights come with an expectation of sex; if him holding your hand during a movie tends to signal he wants sex–then you may find yourself hating kissing, recoiling from his touch, and not wanting to go out for dinner anymore.

The only way around this?

  • Stop the zap. Whatever the bad thing is, stop it.
  • Decouple the bell from the zap
  • Learn new associations

Rebecca and I talk about that today in the podcast, and tomorrow I’ll write up a longer post on it!

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Sam Tielemans joins us to talk about what good counseling for sexual sins and addictions should look like.

In the second half of the podcast, I interviewed licensed counselor Sam Tielemans to talk about effective counseling for men especially with unwanted sexual behaviours (like porn use). Sam is a Vegas based counselor who has done extensive work with men and couples navigating this, and has some thoughts on what to look for in a counselor; what effective counseling looks like; and how to know if your spouse is serious about healing and is actually doing the work, and red flags to look for to see if they’re not.

Sam focuses on the root issues of unwanted sexual behaviors, encouraging men to learn to become vulnerable, to open up to their wives, and to stop using porn as an escape from intimacy or confronting the hard stuff in their lives.

He’s passionate about understanding what can actually motivate someone to change, and brings that into his counseling practice.

Things Mentioned in the Podcast

Learned Helplessness and Sex

What do you think? Have you seen the concept of learned helplessness play a role in porn recovery or sex issues? Let’s talk in the comments!


Sheila: Welcome to The Bare Marriage podcast.  I’m Sheila Wray Gregoire from baremarriage.com where we like to talk about healthy, evidence-based, biblical advice for your sex life and your marriage.  And I am joined today by my daughter, Rebecca Lindenbach. 

Rebecca: Hello.

Sheila: And we are in the middle of a series on the blog at baremarriage.com on how to get out of the pit you may have dug for yourself in your sex life when things are really, really, really lousy and you want to emerge from it because nobody wants a lousy sex life.

Rebecca: Exactly.

Sheila: We all want to feel connected.  But what do we do when there is so much pain and so much hurt and just so much feeling like you’re never going to get better.  And so that’s what I want to address today.  Before we get started, a special shout out as always to our wonderful patrons, who allow us to do this work because of their help.  They really helped fund last year when we wrote She Deserves Better.  Helped us fund all the research and Joanna’s stats for that.  That book is coming out in April.  It’s raising girls to resist toxic teachings about self, sex, and speaking up.  Is that right?  

Rebecca: I think something like that.

Sheila: Something like that.

Rebecca: We can never remember out subtitles.

Sheila: Yes.  But She Deserves Better.  And the patron money is also going to support two other big marriage surveys we’re doing in the next coming year and all kinds of really cool things.  So we’re very grateful to that money that is just letting us continue this work.  So if you want to support us for as little as $5 a month, you can do that at patreon.com/baremarriage and get access to our Facebook group.  It’s a wonderful place to hang out.  Our unfiltered podcasts, some merch, and more.  So go take a look there.  Speaking of merch, we have some exclusive merch for our patrons, but we also have some merch that you guys can get.  And as the holiday season is nearing, is creeping up, we have some great stuff that you can think about for stocking stuffers, some mugs, some just fun conversation starters.  Our love and respect mug because healthy people need both.

Rebecca: Yes.  Exactly.  For anyone who gets it.

Sheila: All our cool stuff turning biblical womanhood on its head and more.  So we will put the link to that.  If you go to baremarriage.com and click on the store, you will find our merch, and we will put a link in the podcast notes there.  So thank you for that.  Okay.  Last week we were looking at the four-point plan on how to get over these terrible ruts and the pits that we dig ourselves into.

Rebecca: How to undo the damage that you may have caused for years.

Sheila: Exactly.  And so first of all, it comes to redefining sex, understanding that it’s not a commodity.  It isn’t something that she gives, and he takes.  Or that he is entitled to.  It is the natural culmination of the intimacy and the relationship that you already share.  So we need to see it that way.  And then it comes safety where you feel safe.  You feel intimate.  And from there, affection and sex can then bloom.  But we have to get these pieces in place first.  So we covered safety last week.  We covered redefining sex last week.  What I want to talk about today is the phenomenon where you could really want to get better, but you could just feel like it just can’t happen because maybe you’ve been married 17 years.  And you’ve never had an orgasm.  

Rebecca: Yep.  Or else then the other side of it where you just don’t want to get better anymore.  And you don’t know how to want to get better.  Yeah.

Sheila: Yeah.  Yeah.  You just hate it.  You just hate sex.  You don’t think it’s for you.  For whatever reason.  It’s just become a mess.  

Rebecca: Yeah.  And when we were talking about the concept of this podcast, I immediately piped up, “Oh, that’s just learned helplessness and learned hopelessness.”  

Sheila: Right.  

Rebecca: We want to talk about this concept to explain how we can get to a point where we can know that something is good but just completely feel apathetic towards it.  

Sheila: Yeah.  And just not have any energy, any emotional bandwidth, to even try to get better. 

Rebecca: Well, let’s explain it on that great note.  So there’s been a whole series of experiments that were done around the 60s where they pretty much just did horrible things to dogs to see how they’d respond.

Sheila: Yeah.  So don’t worry.  These are not currently being done in universities today.  

Rebecca: No.  And there are a bunch of different iterations of this experiment.  But the main one that I learned about that we’re taught in every single psychology class—

Sheila: Yeah.  I was taught about this one too.  So I remember it took.

Rebecca: Is that what they did is they would have these dogs in the cage.  They’d sound off a bell or put—flash up a light or something like that.  And then a couple seconds later, the dogs get shocked through the bottom of the cage or through a harness or a collar.  Something like that.  Okay.  So the dogs—bell or light and then a couple seconds later, zap.  So what would happen is the dog started to realize, “Oh, that bell does not bring good news,” they would freak out when the bell happens.  They’d run around.  They tried to do anything they could to get the shock to not happen.  They’d bark.  They’d cry.  They’d whine.  They’d scream.  They’d be so scared.  And then the shock would happen, and they would just kind of then wait until the bell happened again.  And it was just this anxious mess as these poor dogs are in this—

Sheila: Were being tortured.  Yes.

Rebecca: They’re being absolutely tortured.  Okay.  They’re in this horrible little situation.  They can’t get out of it.  And nothing they do is really making it stop.  

Sheila: Right.

Rebecca: Eventually, what happens, which is interesting, is the first—two interesting things happened.  First of all, the dogs start reacting to the warning sign the same way they react to the shock.  So the warning signs start having just as much of a psychological influence over the dogs as the actual shock itself.  And this is called classic conditioning.  It’s really common.  It happens in humans all the time.  Okay?

Sheila: And remember this?  Because I’m going to come back to this in a minute in the podcast when we talk about how this relates to sex.  But keep going.  

Rebecca: Yeah.  We are.  But then the other thing that was interesting is after that had happened, after they started reacting to the bell, they kept going for longer and longer, and the dogs stopped reacting at all.  A lot of them just laid down.  And they just accepted that the shocks were coming, and there was nothing they could do about it.

Sheila: Yeah.  They just gave up.

Rebecca: This was called learned helplessness.  This is what (inaudible) and colleagues tend to call learned helplessness, which is you have learned there is nothing you can do.  And there is nothing you can do to stop it, and so you just give in.  Now what’s interesting is that they did a follow up experiment to this where they had a different set up.  They had a cage that had a little divider in between that was easily low enough for dogs to step over.  Not even having to jump.  Just so that there’s clearly two different halves of a cage.  They had some dogs that had been put through this first torture chamber, and some dogs that were fresh.  Okay?  Same thing.  Buzzer, zap.  But the zap only happened on the side of the cage that the dogs were in. 

Sheila: Right.

Rebecca: And so all the fresh dogs thought that, “Oh, that’s not great,” and they jumped over to the other side.  And then the bell came.  They zap.  And they didn’t get anything.  So they’re like, “Okay.  This is the safe part.”  And that—they just learned.  They figured it out.  They didn’t get zapped.  The dogs who had already learned helplessness didn’t even try even when their environment changed.  So the dogs that had learned helplessness did not try to walk over even when they now had an escape route.  

Sheila: Right.

Rebecca: So they didn’t say, “Hey, this is new.  Maybe there’s hope.  Maybe I can escape this time.”  No.  Their learned helplessness had turned into learned hopelessness.  And that’s why we talk about the learned helplessness and learned hopelessness as two different things.  Learned helplessness is I can’t do anything in my situation that’s ever going to change anything, so I might as well not even try.  Learned hopelessness is there is never an escape no matter what.  And so even when your situation changes, you still just keep giving up.

Sheila: Right.  And how do they get the dogs to eventually escape?  I think this is really interesting.

Rebecca: Yeah.  So they had to actually physically move the dogs.  So they had to take their little legs, walk them over the barricade, get them onto the safe side, and then allow the buzzer and the zap to go a couple of times while they dogs were safe.  So the dogs had to be physically forced to move.  They weren’t doing it on their own.  And that’s when they realized it was safe was when they saw the buzzer go, and it stopped being paired with the shock.  That’s when they started to realize that they were safe.

Sheila: But it took a long time, and someone had to help them.  

Rebecca: It took a long time, and someone had to physically make them do it.  The dogs were not helping.  The dogs just were going limp.  It is truly—if you’re really into animal rights, I’d maybe not look into this one too much.  But it’s incredibly interesting.  It’s one of my favorite experiments.  Mm-hmm.

Sheila: Yeah.  In terms of what we learn from it.

Rebecca: In terms of interest.

Sheila: As a dog owner, you would never want Winston—

Rebecca: No.  As a person who is interested in psychology research, I find it incredibly interesting.

Sheila: Okay.  Here is another example of a learned helplessness experiment they did recently which did pass ethics guidelines.

Rebecca: Well, this one is totally fine.  Yeah.

Sheila: Yeah.  I think it’s quite funny.  So it was a classroom setting.  And they divided the classroom into two groups, but they didn’t tell them that they were divided into two groups.  And they gave the kids—every kid got a set of three words.  Now group one and group two got different sets of words.  But the goal was to create an anagram.  So the word, for instance—one of the words was bat.  And so you were told, “Try to think of another word that uses the same letters as the word you’ve got.”

Rebecca: Yeah.  Just tab, right?

Sheila: Right.  And the kids were told, “As soon as you see a word, as soon as you can think of a word that uses all the letters, put your hand up.”  Now the kids thought that they all had the same lists.  But they did not.  So, for instance for word one, half of the class had bat.  But the other half of the class had the word whirl.  Like W H I R L.  So I want you to picture this.  Okay?  So the kids look at their papers, and the teacher says, “As soon as you can think of the word, put your hand up.”  

Rebecca: And almost immediately, half the kids’ hands go up.  

Sheila: Yeah.  And then the other half of the classroom—and this is on YouTube.  You can look it up.  We’ll put a link in the podcast notes.  It’s really quite funny.   The other half of the kids were looking.

Rebecca: Like, “What the?”

Sheila: And all these hands are up.  And they’re looking at their word, and they cannot think of it.  And then immediately, the teacher goes, “Okay.  Great.  Let’s move on to the next one.”  Okay.  So the next word that half of the kids had was the word lemon.  Okay.  So that—

Rebecca: Like melon.

Sheila: – is melon.  There you go.  Okay.  The other half of the group they had the world slapstick.  Okay.  So—  

Rebecca: Same thing happens.  Immediately, half the kids’ hands shoot right up.  The other half is still just like, “What the heck is happening?”

Sheila: Yeah.  Do not understand at all.  Then we come to the third word.  Now here is what is interesting.  For the third word, both groups had the same word.  Okay.  And the word was Cinerama.  Now the funny thing was I actually had to think about this, but I got it fairly quickly.  You didn’t.

Rebecca: No.  Well, okay.  We looked at it for all of 5 seconds.  And I was just like, “I don’t know,” because I’m usually very good at word scrambles and these kinds of things.

Sheila: It’s the word American.  

Rebecca: American.  But trust the one who is just fully Canadian and not at all American to not get that one.

Sheila: Yeah.  But what happened here was that the group that had had tab and melon—or lemon or bad, whatever it was—they did put their hands up pretty quickly.

Rebecca: Mm-hmm.  It took them a little longer.

Sheila: It took them longer.   

Rebecca: But they did it.

Sheila: But a greater proportion of group one put their hands up than group two.  And what they’re thinking is that group two just learned the lesson, “I’m not good at this.  I’m not good at anagrams.  These just aren’t for me.”

Rebecca: These are too hard.    

Sheila: This isn’t my thing.  

Rebecca: And the thing that I remember seeing is that—for the group who had the actual possible words.  Like the ones where it was possible to do this for.  The first two were incredibly easy.  And the third one was actually quite difficult and so both of them had the same level of difficulty on the last word.  But because they had bolstered their excitement and their feelings of competency, they were willing to work through it whereas the other ones—the other kids were not less competent.  At the beginning of the assignment, they were not—they were in the exact same situation.  That’s learned helplessness.

Sheila: Yeah.  So anyway, it’s a really fun video to watch.  It’s a good one to talk to your kids about actually.  Just from a totally psychological standpoint.  What does it mean if you’re in this situation where you think you’re not good at something?

Rebecca: Exactly.  

Sheila: And how can that affect you?  And so how can we overcome this.  So it’s a fun video.  It’s really quite quick, and this did pass ethics review.  So you can go take a look at that.  But this concept of learned helplessness I think really can apply to our sex lives because so many of us feel like well, sex just isn’t for me.  It’ll never be for me.  It’s never worked.  And it has these—especially—there’s one group of people to whom—maybe you’ve got the best spouse in the world, but you just can’t reach orgasm.  You’ve tried all this stuff.  You think you’ve done everything you can.  And you can’t reach orgasm.  

Rebecca: And so sex becomes frustrating.  It becomes resentful.  You become bitter about it because this isn’t working.

Sheila: Because I’m a failure.

Rebecca: Yeah.  All these horrible things.  And every single time you have sex that happens.  

Sheila: Yeah.  It reinforces that idea.  I am broken.  Everybody else is enjoying this except for me.  

Rebecca: You might start to think, “Why is he making me do this?  Why is this easier for him than it is for me?  This isn’t fair.”  All those kinds of things which just makes sex really, really unpleasant.  

Sheila: Yeah.  Now we do have an orgasm course for those where the problem really is just orgasm.  It isn’t relationship and things like that.  So you can check that out.  We will put a link in the podcast notes.  But then there’s the other group too where it isn’t only that sex doesn’t feel good.  Or maybe sex actually does feel good, but it just has so many negative repercussions like we were talking about last week.  How it makes you feel dirty.  It makes you feel used.  I think it was 18% of our respondents in The Great Sex Rescue survey that we did they said that their biggest feeling after sex was negative in some way, feeling used, et cetera.  So if that’s you—now I want you to think about the dogs for a minute.  How at some point even the bell—they react to even the bell because when you know that something is coming that is going to make you feel used, you’re going to want to avoid that.  And anything that reminds you of that is going to cause almost a trauma response.  Like a fight or flight or freeze or something.  You’re going to not want it to happen.  And I think this is one of the reasons why so many women react.  Like they jump if their husbands touch them or try to kiss them.

Rebecca: Because I also think that for—there’s that level where it’s like the sex itself can be the bell.  But the touches or the—even the bids to go for a date night or to do things.  Literally anything.  If sex itself is not pleasant for you, your brain—we are—as human beings, we are amazing statistical learners.  That is literally the number one way that we learn is—in infancy, is statistical learning.  We learn when mommy has spoon in hand I am likely to have food in mouth.  Right?  We learn things that are—in this—just likelihood.  If A, then B is pretty much how our brains work.

Sheila: Mm-hmm.  Which is why when you don’t give kids stability and consistency, it’s much harder for kids to learn things.

Rebecca: And to develop in other areas.  Exactly.  There’s lots of complicated stuff there.  But in essence, we’re incredible statistical learners.  And so often our bodies and our subconscious minds learn and pick up on things that we, in our conscious minds, don’t even get.  So you have these women there they have been sex for 10 years.  They’ve had no orgasms or maybe very, very few or pleasure is very fleeting, if it happens.  They’re starting to feel really resentful.  They often feel quite used after sex.  They’ve got the obligation sex message blaring in their head, and so sex feels more like a duty than it does a fun activity.  There’s just a lot of negative stuff there.  And then they start to wonder, “Why don’t I enjoy kissing anymore?  Why do I always flinch when he hugs me when I’m doing dishes,” right?  

Sheila: “Why do I find myself panicky if he takes my hand while we’re watching a movie?”  

Rebecca: “Why do I want to go for dates with him in my mind, but then when he says, ‘Hey, we should have a night together,’ I immediately just start feeling, ‘Ugh.  Not again.’  Why is this happening?”  And this is all happening on the subconscious level.  

Sheila: Because you’re a dog and the bell has just rung.

Rebecca: Exactly.  Sex is coming, right?  Because often, we—in our conscious minds, we can’t put two and two together but our subconscious put it together.  When he acts like this, sex is likely to happen.  Or he is likely to ask for sex.  And so it is good, I think, to listen to what is your body saying and figuring out, “Okay.  What is this bell ringing?  What is this bell warning me about?  What is my body not wanting?” 

Sheila: Okay.  So we’ve got this situation—

Rebecca: That is no bueno. 

Sheila: Yes.  No good.  The couple doesn’t want to be stuck here, right?  We want to get to recovery.  But we’ve got this learned helplessness, right?  The bell rings, and we panic.  Whatever that may look like for you.  How do you get—and, I think, what a lot of women want to know and what a lot of men want to know too is how do we get to the other side.

Rebecca: Yep.  How do you get to the safe place?

Sheila: Mm-hmm.

Rebecca: Yeah.  And I think that what this really comes down to—and we’ve already said this before—is you’ve got to have the—the zap has to stop happening.  What this really comes down to is that the zap has to stop.

Sheila: And I want to say too—let’s take the example of the relationships not where he is actually raping her or something bad.  Maybe it’s just that she doesn’t orgasm.    

Rebecca: Or let’s talk about the ones where there’s just—that sex is just another thing on her to-do list where she is overwhelmed.  And it makes her feel frustrated and bitter and used.

Sheila: Yeah.  No.  But let’s even do the no orgasm first one.  Let’s do the no orgasm first one.  Okay.  Let’s say that she’s just not orgasming.  Remember that every time you have sex that she doesn’t orgasm you’re reinforcing it.  

Rebecca: That is the bell and the zap.

Sheila: That is it.  And does that mean that you can never have sex again if she doesn’t reach orgasm?  Well, maybe you need to take intercourse and his orgasm completely off the table for a couple of months and just work on hers.  

Rebecca: Yeah.  I’m going to be honest.  There is a lot of couples who message us on our comments where it’s like, “We’ve been married for 17 years.  She’s never orgasmed.  And now I want to make her feel good during sex, and she won’t let me.”  And I’m like, “Well, buddy, you’ve been feeling good for 17 years.  Maybe you wait.”

Sheila: Yeah.  And the reason that she doesn’t want to help—let you is because—first of all, she just wants sex to be over with.

Rebecca: Learned hopelessness.  It’s learned hopelessness.

Sheila: It’s learned hopelessness, and she just wants sex to be over with as fast as possible.

Rebecca: Yes.  Learned helplessness says that sex is going to happen no matter what.  Learned hopelessness says it’s not going to be good for me.  And so when he comes in and says, “By the way, let’s spend an hour on foreplay,” that’s a threat.  

Sheila: Yeah.    

Rebecca: Because it’s like we have a helplessness, hopelessness mindset.  Say, “Hey, I want to make this good for you,” it’s like, “Great.  There’s another bit of pressure on this for me now,” because this isn’t a good thing for her.  When we talk about removing the negative or aversive stimuli—that’s what we call them.  Aversive stimuli.  That’s the bad thing.  The zap.  Okay?  What that means is it has to stop happening.  It’s really that simple.  Okay.  If you are having sex with someone and sex is painful, do not have sex when it is painful.  When you go to see a pelvic floor physical therapist—at least when I went to see a pelvic floor physical therapist for vaginismus that was trauma induced from my labor and delivery, she very much was very clear.  If you have sex when it hurts, you will make it worse.  She told us that.  She was like, “If you have sex when it hurts, you will make it worse.  Do not do that.”  Right?  It was great advice.  Fantastic.  Because we are people who can be conditioned.  The zap is bad.  Don’t do the zap.

Sheila: The zap is bad.  Do not—

Rebecca: Whatever the zap is, don’t do it.  And you might freak out being like, “But that’s just sex.”  Okay.  Is it bad?  Then don’t do it.   

Sheila: Yeah.  Because if you’ve been having sex for 17 years and she’s never had an orgasm, it means he’s had 17 years of orgasm.   

Rebecca: Yeah.  And she’s had none.

Sheila: So it’s not so bad to say, “You know what?  We need to take 3 months, and take sex off the table to work on her.”  And that doesn’t mean you take sex off the table so that, “Okay.  Honey, now I’m not going to have an orgasm, but every night we’re going to try to bring you to orgasm,” because that is still threatening to her.  You may need to take everything off the table for awhile just for her to calm down.  To have that fight, flight, and freeze response go away, to work on the intimacy, to let her know that you’re still going to love her even without sex, and to let her know that you care about her response, and then she may be open.  And she may get over some of this learned hopelessness, helplessness so that you can work on her response to it.  

Rebecca: And let’s be really clear.  I think we may have already said this.  But as we’re talking about the practical, I do want to say again.  Learned helplessness and learned hopelessness is not the problem of the person who learned it.  That is because the environment was so aversive to them they had no choice.

Sheila: It was not the dog’s fault the researchers zapped them.  

Rebecca: No.  Exactly.  So let’s be clear here.  If we’re saying your wife has learned helplessness, it’s like, “Oh, why did she learn helplessness?”  No.  It’s, “Why is she in a situation where she feels that life is hopeless in this area?”  So when you’re looking for practical ways to move forward, the first question is what is the zap.  Because for some women, it’s going to be sex in general.  And sex has to be off the table.  Her pleasure, his pleasure.  Anything.  For the next 3 months, you don’t have genitals.  It does not exist.  Okay.  For other women, it might just be the obligation side of it.  We had lots of women in focus groups where the thing that they needed was just for their husbands to say, “Well, why don’t you just initiate then?  I just won’t initiate anymore.  We’ll just have sex whenever you want.”  And the pressure was totally lifted, and that was enough for them.

Sheila: Now other women are in the opposite situation where their husbands tell them, “You need to initiate.”  And so for some people, it’s like—it just depends what the zap is because it looks different.

Rebecca: Exactly.  So we’re not telling you what your zap is.  We’re just saying whatever is the thing that makes you feel bad—maybe the idea of not having sex feels bad for you, but you’d really like to have some selfish sex for once to kind of be able to enjoy it again because, frankly, he’s been having selfish sex for 9 years.  That might be the thing that you guys have to do.  It’s going be totally up to you and your relationship.  But what you have to be focusing on is what’s the warning bell that I’m reacting to and what’s the negative association?  And how can I separate those two things out?  So that this perfectly normal warning bell that is not actually a problem like hugging, like kissing, like date night suggestions, like initiating sex doesn’t lead to this fear response, this hopelessness, this helplessness.

Sheila: And I do want to say too.  We said that learned helplessness and hopelessness isn’t the person who has it—it’s not on them.  It isn’t always completely on the spouse either.  Part of the big reason for our research project on The Great Sex Rescue was to show that the evangelical church has primed us for this stuff.  The problem is that often we’ve adopted ways of behaving in the bedroom which then reinforce it.    

Rebecca: It’s that the husband doesn’t realize that he is the one pushing the trigger for the zap.

Sheila: Exactly.

Rebecca: Because he was told it’s the pleasure button.  Genuinely.  That’s kind of what it is.  Right?

Sheila: Yes.  Yes.  Exactly.

Rebecca: We had one woman in our focus groups who was talking about how she was—she experienced crippling shame around sexuality as well that her husband genuinely had nothing to do with.  It was very much purity culture, very much that kind of stuff.  And for her, her husband actually didn’t have anything to do with her healing journey.  For her, it was actually just going through and really searching what God had to say about sexuality and realizing that sex and orgasm was actually kind of like a God sanctioned version of ecstasy that you’re allowed to have.

Sheila: Right.

Rebecca: And for her realizing that sexuality and the Bible is not the very kind of—frankly, the G-rated, kind of Sunday School—spiritual intimacy with your partner will make you one as Christ and the Lord are one.  When she realized that sex in the Bible is not all about intimacy and you can’t use any other word for it because we’re embarrassed about it but it’s actually quite an erotic thing, she was able to overcome a lot of her self-consciousness.  So sometimes the healing journey you have to go through is going to be individual.

Sheila: Yeah.  But that doesn’t mean you caused it.  And sometimes it means that you need to go through something with God with your faith, et cetera.

Rebecca: So that’s why we want to give some practical advice, but we can’t give specifics— 

Sheila: Because everyone is different.  

Rebecca: – because we all have different triggers that make us think that zap is about to come.  Right?  And we all find different things aversive.  So if this is a problem for your marriage—I mean based on these experiments and just basic learning principles—I love learning principles.  They are my favorite courses of all time.  It’s going back and figuring out what exactly is the thing that is giving me a negative response.  So let’s go back to the example of a woman who realizes she hates kissing.  So she’s like, “Man, we’ve been married for 5 years, and I hate kissing now.”  And she realizes that kissing just makes her feel on edge because like, “Ugh.  Maybe he’s going to ask for it.  He tends to be more romantic when he wants sex,” and so it becomes a little bit of a trigger for, “We’re going to have sex that I’m going to feel exhausted through, and it’s going to do nothing for me.”  And she and him decided that, “Okay.  So we’re going to stop having bad sex, frankly.  We’re going to stop having bad sex for awhile, and we’re going to really work on romance separate from sex.  So first of all, what we’re going to do is take literally everything off the table.  No bell.  No zap.  So no kissing and no sex.”  Right?  And then they decide to put kissing back in while they know that no sex is going to happen.  So first of all, she’s been proven that no sex is happening no matter what.  And now it’s like, “Now let’s be affectionate again.  And let’s start to cuddle, and we’ll hold hands while we’re on walks.  And we’ll do all these different things, and no sex is happening.”  And there’s no repercussions for having no sex.  We’re not adding a new zap.  We’re not saying, “Well, I kissed you and held your hand and didn’t have sex.  So why can’t you give me a back rub?”  No.  This is just positive.  No zaps.  

Sheila: Yes.

Rebecca: And then eventually, you can start to really enjoy kissing again because you know that the negatives are not coming.  And then you can work on sex should not be a negative.  But it’s really hard to work on making sex good if touching is a problem.  And so that’s why we sometimes have to just move way back and recognize where has a conditioning taken place and how can we undo that by proving—not with words, not with intentions, not with just good beliefs—but proving with actions that my spouse is safe.   

Sheila: Yep.  Yep.  And that’s what it looks like to rebuild safety because so many of us have just got this learned hopelessness.  Things will never get better.  I will never enjoy sex.  My marriage will always feel terrible.  My body is broken.  And those are really hard mental things—mental spirals to get out of, if things in your life keep confirming them.  And so we have to back the truck up.

Rebecca: And I think it can be a profound show of love to your spouse to be willing to do the hard work to carry them over into safety.

Sheila: Yeah.  Exactly.  Exactly.  We have an interview that I want to play now with a counselor because a lot of people—the zap that they’ve experienced is a spouse’s porn use or sexual sin in some way.  And what do you do when that’s the zap?  And how do you rebuild there?  So I want to hear—Sam is a licensed counselor, who deals a lot with sexual addictions and sexual sin.  And let’s just hear what he has to say as he counsels couples.

So I am so please to bring on the podcast today, Sam Tielemans, who is from Las Vegas where he is a marriage and family therapist helping couples deal with porn and its aftermath.  So thank you, Sam, for being here.

Sam: Thank you so much for having me.  I really appreciate this.  I’ve been looking forward to spending some time with you.  

Sheila: Absolutely.  One of the big things we’ve been talking about on the blog recently is—and this is why I wanted to have you on—is this problem where often in Christian circles we’re told that we’re supposed to forgive and trust and do all this work of reconciliation.  But sometimes that is portrayed as the first step rather than how to rebuild trust in the relationship and what that real repentance needs to look like.  So I was hoping that you could just tell us how you take couples through this and what you’re looking for in whether or not a man or a woman who is addicted to porn, whichever—but whether they’re actually serious about recovery.

Sam: Yeah.  I think it’s a great question.  So one of the first things that I do when I work with couples is understand if they’re both on the same page.  What I mean by that is in terms of their goal because sometimes if a wife comes in and says, “There is too much damage.  I don’t want work on this,” but the husband says, “I’ll do whatever I can,” but she’s like, “No.  I’m,”—if they’re misaligned in their goals, then it’s—there is a conflict there.  And the same thing is true for the opposite.  If the husband doesn’t really think it’s a big deal and the wife does, there is just a different path, right?  Because you can’t make him do anything.

Sheila: Right.

Sam: But for the couples who are on the same page and want to heal but they just don’t know how and they don’t know what to look for, the first thing that I like to do is try to better understand why it happened because if you don’t have a better understanding of why somebody struggles with pornography or any other coping mechanism, if you don’t know why—I guess let me speak to that a little bit.  When I work with people who are struggling with addictions because they’re coping with pain—it’s an escape for them.  Some people choose food.  Some people choose alcohol.  Some people choose pornography.  There is so many different ways for us to cope as people.  And for people who are exposed early, when they’re young, it often becomes—well, that can become an easy choice for them because it just helps them get away from whatever is happening emotionally at the time.  And then it just becomes a habit.  Then it becomes something that’s ingrained.  And so the first thing is to better understand why it’s happening.  What are they escaping from?  What are they struggling with?  And once we can identify that, then you can actually deal with the issue.  Because it’s not because—sometimes there is some misunderstandings with pornography and sexual addiction.  It’s not because the husband is not getting enough sex at home.  That’s why he’s turning somewhere else.  It has nothing to do with that.  Sex has become an outlet or an escape.  It’s a mechanism that he’s using to cope, and so we have to better understand, first, what that is.  And then once you do, then you’re tailoring your time towards addressing that issue.  Because once you do, the behavior almost takes care of itself.  There’s things that you can do to help with that.  But in terms of eliminating the addiction, we have to understand the core of it.  And in terms of being able to rebuild trust in the marriage, the wife needs to understand what happened and why or else she’s afraid that she was going to drop.  Either she was going to drop and she’s not going to be able to protect herself.  So that’s always where I like to start with couples.

Sheila: Right.  Now I’m curious what you said about how like if they’re not on the same page.  If a wife feels like she just can’t—the pain is too much.  Even then, this is still a worthwhile thing to go through with a guy, right?  It might not be—

Sam: For sure.  100%.  Oh yeah.

Sheila: It might not be to restore the marriage.  

Sam: Yeah.  I agree with that 100%.  Because whether or not the wife says, “I can do this,”—most of the time when I’m working with people, they both want the change.  They both want him to overcome this.  And sometimes I work with people where the wife says, “I need you to get better.  I’m not in a place to work on the relationship.  I don’t want to heal right now.  I’m too hurt.  I’m too much in pain.  There is no trust.  You have to figure this out.”  So then yes.  I’ll work with the husband to then help him work through this to then build the bridge to start to repair the relationship.  But yeah.  Either way, it’s so important for the husband to get the help, if he is the one that’s struggling.

Sheila: Right.  Okay.  So if you’re that wife and let’s say you’ve been married for 15 years.  And you found out on year 4 that he used porn.  And he swore he’s stop.  And then you find out on year 7 when you’re pregnant with your second kid that he’s using it again, and he swore he’s stop.  And now this has happened 4 times.  How do you know this time is going to be different?  What are the signs that she can look for that he’s serious this time?

Sam: Yeah.  It’s a great question.  I think it goes back to—at least in part, we need to understand why it’s happening because if he’s just like, “I don’t know.  I promise I’ll stop,” there’s no new variable in that.  In other words, his commitment isn’t enough.  Because if it was, it wouldn’t be an issue.  He could just realize, “Oh, this doesn’t work in my marriage.  I need to stop.”  And then he does.  But for the people who go back to it, it’s not because they’re not committed.  And I think that’s a part of what is so tricky about all this.  I’ve had I don’t know how many conversations with people where the wife says, “You knew that this hurt me.  You knew this was a problem, and you did it again.”  And on its face, I’m like of course.  It makes perfect sense why she would say that.  If they had a very clear conversation and he goes back to it, it’s like, well, she interprets that as he must not care.  When in reality, it’s not about not caring.  It’s he doesn’t have the tools to sustain the decision of not going back.  He gets wrapped up back into these old patterns.  And if you don’t address why he’s there, it doesn’t matter how fervently he commits.  Without the tools to create a new pathway, it’s not going to work.  So like I said in terms of first steps, he’s got to understand why it’s happening.  And then number two, she has to see him taking steps towards those things, whatever that might be.  And we can talk more specifics about that, if you’d like.

Sheila: What are some examples of the steps that she would be able to identify that, “Okay.  Yeah.  Maybe something is actually happening here”?

Sam: Yeah.  So one of the biggest reasons why somebody struggles with an addiction is—there’s a couple of them.  Number one, they have these negative beliefs about themselves.  It’s self-esteem issues, self worth issues.  They feel like they’re unworthy.  They feel like they’re flawed.  It’s like shame basically.  It’s like being so hard on yourself.  And when you feel like an unworthy person, there is so much weight with that.  That’s such a heavy negative place to be.  And when somebody struggles with addiction, that’s often a big part of what drives that.  They just feel so bad about themselves that they find some outlet to deal with the pain that they feel.  Which unintentionally, it’s like—again, looking at it from the outside, it’s like, “Okay.  So you’re feeling about yourself.  And then you turn to a behavior that’s going to cause you to feel worse about yourself and then destroy your marriage,” it’s so hard sometimes for people to wrap their mind around that.  And that’s why it’s kind of like it’s not rational.  Right?  It isn’t logical.  It doesn’t make sense on the surface.  But once you understand, it’s him coping from those negative beliefs about himself.  A part of what he then must do is address those things and take steps towards helping resolve that conflict of feeling unworthy, feeling broken, and becoming more, feeling better about himself, improving that self-esteem.  And if the wife is seeing him take steps to address those things, that’s an indicator for her like, “Oh, that’s different.  It didn’t use to be like that.”  So that’s number one.  Another one that comes to mind is so often men who do this just compartmentalize everything.  And they don’t really know how to connect with their wife on an emotional level.  And as a result of that disconnection—I’ve heard this phrase multiple times.  The opposite of addiction isn’t sobriety.  It’s connection.  And so often, people compartmentalize, and they live isolated internally.  And they’re not open and vulnerable.  And they don’t really tap into their own pain much less their spouse’s and really have conversations that bring them together.  So the other part of that is helping them know how to build a connection with his wife in a way that maybe has never been there.  And when she starts to feel more and more connected and safe and seen and loved by him, those are, again, very clear markers like, “Oh, this is different.  He never used to tell me about this.  He never used to share with me his fears or his stressors or when he was feeling sad.  But we’re connecting in a new way.  These are new variables that didn’t used to be there,” which is, again, evidence of like, “Well, maybe I can start to trust because he’s showing up differently now.”

Sheila: Right.  Because I think that’s one of the big—if you’re married to a master manipulator or someone with real narcissistic tendencies or something, they’re not going to be able to emotionally connect.

Sam: Right.  That’s right.

Sheila: You can hide.  And you can pretend a whole lot of things, but you can’t actually become vulnerable with your wife.

Sam: Yeah.  Much less in—because I think a lot of couples have moments, right?  It’s not that all is bad.  It’s not that the whole marriage has been awful.  Sometimes that’s the case.  But most of the time, that’s not the case.  Most of the time there are moments.  But you cannot sustain that if you are manipulating and hiding and lying, compartmentalizing.  You can just feel that.  I’ve had so many women tell me they just knew something was off.  But then when the discovery came out, when it was either disclosed or more often caught, she’s like, “This is what’s been wrong the entire time.  I just knew something was wrong,” because she could sense that.  And the same is true when you have that connection.  You can also sense that too.  You can feel like this is real because you can’t fake that.  So you can really get a sense of like, “He’s with me right now in a way that he hadn’t been in the past.”

Sheila: Right.  So in your practice, I mean how often do people honestly get over this versus how often do the guys just keep relapsing?  Maybe that’s too simplistic a question, and you can’t pull a number out of your head.  But do you see both things happening?

Sam: I do.  And those who really get the tools to deal with it, they overcome it.  And they find freedom.  And I think there is a couple different ways to do it.  Again, there is a more traditional approach, which is the 12 step.  It’s accountability, partner, software on your phone, all of those things.  And I think that approach I haven’t really seen help get to the core of why somebody is struggling.  It’s more of like surveillance and accountability, and you’re kind of—I don’t know.  Almost locked down where it’s like—it’s not this sense of freedom of, “Oh, it’s not a part of my life anymore.”  It’s like, “Oh, no.  This thing is here. And it’s always going to be here.  I just have to maintain it.”  And I think a lot of people get caught in that kind of an approach where it’s just maintenance.  And it’s not truly working through it.  And so when I work with guys who are struggling with this I like to take a different reproach where we’re really resolving the core of the issue like we’ve talked about and helping them find that freedom so that then it doesn’t even—I’ll work with people.  I’m working with somebody right now who—so I work with people doing a 12-week program.  We’re half way through, and he started off saying, “I don’t allow myself to have wifi because I don’t trust myself.  My wife doesn’t trust me.  I’m not ready for that.”  So we’re about half way through now, and we’ve done some good processing to help him resolve the core of why he’s been struggling.  He calls me yesterday.  He’s like, “Hey, can I talk to you for a second?”  And then so he calls me.  And he’s like, “This is a good call, by the way.  You don’t have to be afraid or anything.  But I feel like I’m in a place where I can get wifi now.”  And so he’s had his wife turn the wifi on because he wanted to watch a show.  And then he turned it off when he was done.  And he’s starting to feel a sense of freedom that he didn’t used to have which can only really happen when you deal with the issue.  Because once you solve it, it doesn’t have to follow you around forever.  People truly do overcome this.  And if you get the right tools and are actually dealing with the core of it, it’s not something that just is in the back of your mind all of the time that you have to fend off.  You truly just step away from it.  It’s not a part of your life anymore.  So yes.  There’s totally hope for people who are struggling with this.

Sheila: Right.  If a guy is going to keep relapsing and not really doing the work, what are the signs?  Other than that they won’t emotionally connect.  Are there certain signs that you see?

Sam: Yeah.  I mean I think people who continually relapse—it’s one of two things.  Number one—I guess it depends on who we’re talking about.  If they’re committed and they’re trying, it’s just an indicator if they’re continuing to relapse that they’re not quite at the core.  They’re not quite there.  They have not resolved something whether it’s some internal emotional—not being able to cope with emotion in a healthy way or having some of these negative beliefs or fears or—their identity is like, “Well, I’m an addict.  Therefore, at some point, I’m going to struggle.”  That’s another really limiting belief that people have.  Working through all of those things—so if there are still continual relapses, there is just something not quite there yet.  There’s a puzzle piece that’s missing that once is there—okay.  I’ll go back to the example of the guy that I was working with just a couple days ago when he called me.  He’s like, “I kept giving myself permission that this is something I’m going to struggle with,” because he had been struggling for a decade.  He’s like, “Well, this is just a part of my life.”  So he just gave himself this permission to slip, but then we did some processing to help him eliminate those excuses and see them for what they were.  They just excuses that he gave himself.  And after those shifts—that was one of the pieces for him that helped was not allowing himself, not tolerating, “Well, it’s just one more time.  Or I already slipped.  I might as well go a little further.”  Or whatever he’d rationalize.  He just decided.  He’s like, “I’m not going to do that anymore.”  And on top of the other work that he did, he was able to step away from that.  And so it’s either something is missing, or they haven’t quite dealt with the cause of it or whatever it is the next step that’s out of place.  

Sheila: Mm-hmm.  And do you ever see people who just—they’re paying lip service to recovery, but they’re not really invested in it.  And they’re still blaming their spouse or externalizing all the reasons.

Sam: Yeah.  For sure.  I think that’s really common, and I think when people are in that place—I’ll share with you another example.  I remember working on a clinic.  So I’m in Las Vegas.  And Salt Lake City is about 7 hours from us.  And I started working at a clinic.  We opened up, and we’re doing this special.  It was like free assessment.  I don’t know.  Whatever the director—it’s like free assessment for opening up for this month.  Somebody drove from Salt Lake down for the free assessment.  And husband and wife were there in the room.  And the wife says—one of the first things—this is—some of these cases you never forget, right?  Wife says, “My husband doesn’t really care, and he doesn’t really want to overcome this.”  And I said, “Okay.  Well you guys drove quite a ways to tell me that he’s not interested.”  And so I turned to him, and I’m like, “So what?  Where are you with this?  What are your thoughts on this?”  And he’s like, “Yeah.  I just—I’m struggling with this.  I don’t think this is going to be out of my life.  I don’t really know if this is that big of a problem.”  So I’m like, “Okay.  Well, we have 50 minutes.  Why don’t we just talk through this?”  And they’re going to go back to Salt Lake.  I’ll never see them again.  And so I started to ask questions to better understand what’s the reason why he turns to it.  What’s going on in his life?  Why does he think he’s struggling?  After about 10 or 15 minutes, he’s like crying.  And he tells me that pornography has been a coping mechanism in his life for his entire life.  And he had been depressed for years.  And if it wasn’t for this, he probably would have committed suicide because he had no way to deal with his pain other than just numbing out and watching this stuff online.  And so he said, “It’s not that I don’t want to get rid of this.”  He’s just, “I’m terrified that if I do I don’t know where I’ll be as a person.  I don’t know if my depression is going to come back.  I don’t know what that would mean for me, and so I’m just scared that if I get rid of it then who knows what’s going to happen.”  And that’s so different than it’s not that big of a deal, and I don’t really care.  And she’s over exaggerating, and it’s just her fault.  And everybody does it.  That’s a night and day difference on the experience of the husband.  And most of the time, the husband is not going to get into that deep—those deep fears because they’re so well defended and protected that they then just put it off and like, “No.  You’re the one who is over reacting, wife.  This isn’t that big of a deal,” and whatever else he says.  The defensiveness is there.  So if you can get underneath that and really uncover why somebody is in that protected, defended posture, it will totally change how you see it.  And that session—that’s what happened for the wife.  Him, in his tears, sharing how afraid he was of what might happen without his crutch completely changed how she saw him.  Now you have so much to work with, right?  Now it’s not like, “I don’t care, and this is wife’s fault.”  There is so much you can do now for both people to really have a pathway forward to healing.  And so yeah.  I think most of the time people will present their defenses when really there is so much more going on underneath that.

Sheila: That’s interesting.  What would you—or how do you counsel couples when she just feels really betrayed and isn’t sure—even if he does do all of this good work, how can she get over the betrayal?  How do you help him help her get over the betrayal?

Sam: Yeah.  That’s a great question.  I think that’s very often where women feel so stuck is they’re so hurt by this.  And a part of what helps with that is—a part of why it hurts so much is, of course, because it’s, for most couples—that’s such an important, sacred part of the marriage.  And if turns outside of the marriage, there is betrayal there because that is supposed to be reserved for just them too.  And so often what happens is when husband turns outside—and, by the way as a quick little sidebar, this goes both ways.  I keep saying husband.  But this is both, right?  I’m just short handing it, right?  

Sheila: Yes.  Yes.

Sam: So wives struggle with this too.  But just for shorthand, so the husband—if he turns outside of the marriage, it not only breaks that bond.  But number two, it can either create or amplify her own insecurities of not being enough, not being attractive, not being beautiful, not being sexy.  It really causes a lot of damage on that level too.  And so apart of what helps when healing this is addressing the core wounds inside of her.  If she got the message, “Well, my husband did this because he doesn’t care,” then we know the opposite must be addressed.  We must make sure that he can communicate how much he really does care because she took the message, “I’m not enough for him, so he turned away.”  Then, again, part of the treatment is making sure that she feels reassurance and resolve that it really had nothing to do with her the whole time.  But that he was struggling with his own stuff, and she is enough for him.  And she accepts—yes.  And that he accepts her.  

Sheila: Mm-hmm.

Sam: So where she is feeling hurt, so often when people can’t get past it is because those hurts are not being addressed.  They’re just being brushed over.  And it’s like, “Well, he’s doing better.  He hasn’t slipped in 6 months.  Wife, why are you still upset?  Shouldn’t you forgive him by now?”  If she gets those messages, it’s like—yeah.  I don’t know.  I don’t know I think it needs images and analogies.  Imagine you’re crossing a fence and then your sweater gets hooked on a chain link fence.  You can keep walking, but unless you go back and unhook where you got stuck things just keep unraveling.  And I think the same is true with this.  If her pain is not addressed and her insecurities or fears aren’t really resolved, she is going to just stay stuck there because you can’t just forget about this.  So I think that’s one big part that helps couples heal.  

Sheila: Right.  Okay.  So I have so many couples—this is probably the number one thing people ask me about.  Who really need counseling in this area.  What are some red flags?  If they’re going to see a counselor, do you have any suggestions on how to identify when this counselor is not really going to be able to help you when it’s about porn?

Sam: Yeah.  I mean I think if you’re getting any of those messages of—oh, man.  There’s a handful of things we could say.  If the wife feels blamed in any way, it’s not going to be a good fit because there has to be—this is such a nuanced, complicated issue, right?  And so there are so many moving parts that you have to understand.  And so if the therapist just, again, doesn’t understand addiction and doesn’t understand what drives it and why a husband is struggling with it or a wife again, then they’re going to give advice that is going to be so misapplied in your relationships.  So if you’re hearing advice like, “Just go on more dates.  Spend more time.  Have sex more.  Wife, this isn’t that big of a deal,” that happens for a lot of couples when they go in.  They hear that type of messaging.  So if you’re hearing that, then you just know they’re not trained.  It doesn’t mean they’re a terrible therapist.  It just means they don’t have the skill set to deal with this complexity because they just haven’t been trained in it.  So knowing that if you’re feeling blamed or any pressure, then it’s probably not going to be the right fit.  That’s probably one of the biggest indicators.  And then number two, if they are not actively addressing—if you start and it’s like, “Okay.  It feels pretty good.  He’s understanding us both.”  If they are not making sure that he—the husband—is actively addressing the core of the addiction, if it’s more like maintenance and surveillance type of stuff and, again, accountability—not that there is anything wrong with that, but that doesn’t heal the core of it.  So if it just doesn’t feel like those core things about self esteem, core beliefs, connection, learning how to not compartmentalize, then you might not be getting deep enough.  So there’s a couple little signals.

Sheila: Perfect.  Well, Sam, I really appreciate you coming on here and helping us out with this.  Where can people find you?  

Sam: Yeah.  Sure.  Thank you for having me.  I think this is an issue that affects a lot of people, so I appreciate the work that you’re doing.  I know that you have a book about—you said The Great Sex Rescue.  And there are so many tools that you’re providing which is so phenomenal because I know that a lot of people are struggling and they feel alone in this.  So I think it’s great you’re offering resources for people who are struggling too.  In terms of—I have a website called coupleshealing.org where I’ve got a couple’s course that’s free.  I’ve got a podcast for couples and individuals who are struggling with this that you can find some information on the website.  But all of it is there on that website.

Sheila: Okay.  That’s wonderful.  I will put a link to your website in the podcast notes so people can find you.  And I really appreciate this.  We’ll have to have you back on to talk about some other big counseling thing in the future.

Sam: Yeah.  Thank you so much for having me.  I really appreciate your time.

Sheila: Thanks, Sam.  So what I get from that is that as we’re looking at this whole problem of sexual sin we have two competing issues.  One is you certainly don’t want to be in a situation where your spouse is honestly changing and is honestly doing the hard work and is really getting real and understanding that they’ve hurt you and understanding the root of the problem, but you’re stuck in learned hopelessness and helplessness.  So if your spouse is doing the work, we do want to acknowledge that, hopefully, if you’re able to, right?  But then the other danger is your spouse isn’t doing the work.  And your church and your spouse and your family is all saying, “Well, you’re being unchristian by not forgiving.”  And so we need—there’s that balance, right?  Because you can make a mistake on both ends where the first is you don’t—you let yourself stay stuck.  And that’s really hard not to stay stuck.

Rebecca: Yeah.  And I also think that the other thing is, of course, there’s a whole other category of situations with porn users going on here which is often it crosses over to sexual assault or sexual coercion or anything where you’re autonomy has been taken away from you.  And often it doesn’t even matter if they’ve done they’re working and they’re going to change, sometimes things are just—there is damage that has been done.  And a man reaps what he sows.

Sheila: Yep.  And it’s great that he’s done the work.  It’s great he’s changing, but that doesn’t necessarily mean your relationship can be restored.  And that’s just a fact.  And we need to give people permission to say, “I’m just too traumatized, and this is too much.  And I can thrive better somewhere else without this relationship.”  So we need to acknowledge that.  But we also need to acknowledge that there can be a problem where you don’t see that he really isn’t changing.  And you listen to all the nice words when he hasn’t done the work.  And so that’s where I think being with a counselor who is good at this stuff and who can help you see whether your person is really changing or not—and if you’re with a counselor who is all about you need to forgive him, that’s not safe.  You need to be with someone who can really take your spouse through the journey and hold their feet to the fire.  

Rebecca: Yep.

Sheila: Yeah.  So that’s good.  So there you go.  There is our talk on learned helplessness and hopelessness.  Don’t ever try this at home with your dogs.  

Rebecca: Please don’t.

Sheila: I’m so glad universities are no longer doing it.  

Rebecca: Oh my goodness.  

Sheila: But it’s a really neat concept.  Go check out the video with the kids and the anagrams.  Super fun.  And we will have links to Sam’s practice.  We will have links to all of these experiments in the podcast notes.  And please check out our series on the four steps to recovery that happened on the blog this month because there is so much more there.  And hopefully, it can help you as you try to figure out if we can dig out of this pit.  So thank you for joining us on Bare Marriage.  And we will see you again next week.  Bye-bye.

Rebecca: Bye.

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Author at Bare Marriage

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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  1. Jo R

    This is such weird timing. In yet another bout of insomnia, I realized that Christian women have been TAUGHT to not like sex and not want sex, by pastors, teachers, and authors. They’ve also been TRAINED that sex sucks, by their husbands. It’s EXACTLY Pavlov and his bell. I also realized that advice to wives to make their husbands think the husband is good in bed is literally—LITERALLY—teaching wives FAWNING behavior. 🤬🤬🤬

    From your merch promo: I can think of quite a few people I’d like to be Jael to. Is that wrong??? 😉😉😉

    For the spouse that struggles and is using twelve-step programs, software on devices, etc., the problem is that those things are all external control vs. internal control. You can’t simply plant good seed on weed-covered ground. You have to plow under the weeds that are already there, killing them and starting from absolute scratch, then plant good seed. Because otherwise, the weeds choke the wheat. Roots, people!

    For the spouse that appears to be “stuck” when the other spouse is making real changes… Perhaps it would be more fair and even accurate to say that the “stuck” spouse is actually looking for FRUIT. Certain personality types could fake “progress” quite well. They can fake proper behavior for a time. After all, that’s how such people wind up married in the first place. But since they ARE faking, they can’t do it forever. So the “stuck” spouse is in fact actually checking to MAKE SURE the “growth” isn’t an illusion. Maybe??? 🤔🤔🤔 If the spouse has been doing whatever it is (porn, concentrating on his own pleasure at the expense of his wife’s, whatever) for a year or two or a decade or three, the wife’s internalized bodily history does not simply get waved away by a few weeks or even months of the husband’s good behavior. It may well take years—yes, plural YEARS—of effort to retrain both spouses to the new reality.

    • Nathan

      > > I realized that Christian women have been TAUGHT to not like sex and not want sex

      It’s a bizarre combination that some churches teach. First, you aren’t supposed to like sex, want sex or even THINK about sex. On the other hand, you’re also taught that your primary purpose for existence is to provide sex to your husband any time he wants it.

      • Jo R

        Oh, it’s very weird.

        While you’re single or even dating or engaged, a “good girl” doesn’t engage in any sexual activity at all, maybe not even kissing or just holding hands.

        When you get married, a “good wife” not only goes all the way to intercourse, but she’s also supposed to be enthusiastic, to initiate, and to do it as often as her husband wants.

        So a 180-degree change in just a few hours. Right! 🤯😳😲😱

        (Stole the good girl/good wife dynamic from someone on, I think, Sheila’s FB page.)

  2. Phil

    Super interesting podcast. I really liked what Sam had to say and so much I am going to reach out to him. Being a recovering “addict” or sexually compulsive what ever you want to call it….I have been a member of a 12 step group for coming up on 20 years this February. In those 20 years I have learned that while 12 step programs are definitely helpful they are not the total answer for everyone. In fact I have heard numbers as low as 5% success in AA and even lower success in sexual recovery 12 step groups. I would be so bold to throw a 1.5% success rate on 12 step sexual recovery. Groups. I cant back up the numbers with any hard data but I could go through my phone and tell you that I have hundreds of guys phone numbers who have either dropped out and I can recall them or I absolutely have no clue who they are at this point. In addition, if people hang around and actually heal, most of those folks are gone by 10 years. Right now in my local group of typically around 60 we have 3 -4 guys including myself around the 20 year mark. The rest are all less than 10 years and vary in level of success. I believe I have enough information to back up the less than 5% success rate I have heard quoted. This is how I reasoned it though. I went biblical. The path is narrow. I have taken that statement from Jesus from the Sermon On The Mount and rationalized this is why our group is like this. However Jesus also says ask and it will be given and I have worked with SO MANY men who have asked and believe they are not worthy because God has not given it when truly they have not done the work. It seems I may have missed the mark here as there are 3 chapters worth of sermon to consider. Hmm 🤔. Super interesting. I am hopeful I can get to Sam. I really want to talk to him. There are other methods to heal and I have tried them and other methods do work. I want to hear what Sam’s method is because I have not heard quite what he is talking about before. If he has other answers then WE need to get that information out there!

  3. Hope

    Possibly the most helpful podcast I’ve listened to yet! Thank you so much!

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      I’m so glad!

  4. Jen

    Awesome podcast. Side note: the notes seem to be from a previous podcast, not this one – at least on the Podcast app.

    I’m totally in learned hopelessness mode, so I’m so glad you’re teaching about this. I couldn’t get my husband to engage emotionally with me, and it just got worse as he dove further into secret sin. Of course I became hopeless, especially when the actual issue was hidden from me. I knew in my gut, but he denied for three decades, so I figured I was the problem. Helplessness leads to hopelessness, which leads to depression and finally full breakdown. The idea that marriage should bring life is often metaphorical, but I’ve learned that it can quite literally bring death. I hope healing brings life.

    What Sam said about stuck wives was interesting. Just like the addict may be stuck because he hasn’t yet plumbed the depths of his pain, the betrayed has years or decades of Pavlovian training to work through. I feel it in every fiber of my being. Sometimes, right before my husband comes home from work, I get almost panicked. After decades of dryness, I think I panic that he’s going to go back to his old ways and reject me/run from intimacy. And I simply can’t take any more. The hope that he will still be the healing man when he gets home from work is almost painful.

    The classical conditioning is so much more than reactions to sex (although I experienced that too — who wants to kiss someone who neglects and rejects you all the time?). Lots of areas to consider here.

    One more thought: it is so wonderful to hear Sam speak hope. If people are willing to do the work and face their pain, healing can happen. Perhaps this is what Jesus meant when He asked people if they wanted to get well. It’s not magic – it’s work ruled by God’s boundaries. If you invite Jesus to do this work
    With you, healing is possible.

    Thanks for this great episode.

  5. Lgs

    The studies are so interesting! And applicable in many ways. I am thinking about how I was taught the very strict headship/submission roles and obeying parents (even when you are an adult) and that helpless feeling and being unable to grow up (really) because I wasn’t allowed/able to make independent choices. Even just as a child saying I didn’t want to do something and being pressured to do the thing anyway. Like me being 5 and my dad putting me on a too big for me bike and pushing me down a hill.
    I said I didn’t want to, but be didn’t listen and pressured me into it. I knew I had to do what he said I had to do because that is always how it was. I panicked as we were going down this hill and crashed the bike and it scratched his leg and he yelled (also normal for when he got hurt or was mad) I was scared and ran to tell mom. I felt responsible for him getting hurt, but as I look back I clearly DID say no, but he pressured anyway, and he got hurt when I crashed. When I told my mom she was frustrated with him and her expression hinted to me that maybe I wasn’t the one in the wrong, but she didn’t seem to have much authority to change anything.
    Once I was married that “headship” went from my dad to my husband and I made the best of what I could in my “role” but now I am learning to stand up for myself in many small ways. It may not look very different from the outside, but small things like feeling able to say no and not people please to strangers (even) is so much healthier for our brains! Learned helplessness seems to go right along with the submissive role teaching.. because, we can’t do anything, just trust God and our husband, but there is no ability to change anything. And being taught to obey as I did goes back so deeply.

    When I went through a year long advocacy class for abuse survivors, the really big thing they taught was to not tell someone what to do (ever) but to support them in ways that they can think and feel supported to make their own choices. Empowering others and ourselves is exactly oposite of what I was taught! I was also taught as a kid that we don’t have free will. I now know how unhealthy it is for us to feel unable to make choices in our lives… and since I believe that God is good, he wouldn’t tell us to do things that are proven to be unhealthy human behavior, right? Some would ignore the evidence and pain in others and just say, God is good and he says to obey authorities, so just do that (submit) to your own detriment, unhealth, and helplessness– rather than questioning their own beliefs about “roles” for men and women that have been proven to be unhealthy for human interractions.

    As I am raising my own girls, teaching them that they have choices.. that they aren’t responsible for other people’s emotions or behaviors, that they can say no (even in simple things like not being coerced to hug people they don’t know or don’t want to hug– even if that doesn’t lead to abuse it is still important to learn body autonomy!) respecting their choices of what to eat and encouraging them to trust their body and sensations… sometimes I just remind them to check in with themselves (Do you need to stretch, get a drink of water, do you need to connect with a hug?) Anyway, it is such a different approach than what I learned. Which was to obey and submit and be “trust God” by doing nothing.. it maybe looks holier? But feels scary and awful. We can trust and obey God WHILE making choices and moving forward.. we can follow Jesus even if no one else is choosing to follow him too.

    I am thinking of that part in the second Narnia book “Prince Caspian” where Lucy is supposed to follow Aslan, but no one else will believe her so they don’t follow and she feels like she can’t follow him either. Later she learns she needs to follow him even if no one else will. I always loved that part of the book! Maybe now I understand why I appreciated that section of that book so much!

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Yes! We used the passage from Prince Caspian in a post a while back. It’s so good!

      I’m glad that you are overcoming the baggage you were taught. I’m so sorry that you went through that. It is a hard thing to unlearn!

    • Laura


      That’s so awesome how you are teaching your daughters about body autonomy. It can be as simple as saying no to a hug. Unfortunately, a lot of adults push hugging on everyone. I’ve never been much of a hugger and I suspect that as a child, I was touched inappropriately by a grown man. I don’t know if it was inappropriate touch or just that he pushed hugs on everyone, even me. Maybe that’s what made me feel like I had been violated. I hope that that was the case and I was never molested.

      One big problem I have with a lot of people from church is that they like to hug everyone and I just go along with it. The one good thing I could say about the pandemic was that I could freely say no to hugs and not get judged or ridiculed for it.


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