Looking, Noticing and Seeing

This little write up could potentially cause a stir. I haven’t written it for that reason. I’ve written this to open up a different dialogue and hopefully shed some light on a dicey area that causes much strife for both men in recovery and their wives.

Let me start with my premise: there is a difference between looking and noticing.

I may have lost some of the women reading this already. Hope not. Hope you’ll read on.

In the context of sexual integrity issues or sexual addiction, men develop a habit of looking. There becomes an automatic response that once a woman (or man, if that is your style of acting out. For the sake of this conversation I’ll use ‘woman’, but both apply) enters the periphery our eyes are drawn there. The more depraved and deeply entrenched our sexual integrity issues, the more focused that looking can be. We can develop a habit of looking at exactly the right height to notice the body parts we’re most interested in. I’ve talked to men who have an uncanny ability to pinpoint a woman’s ring finger when he turns to look at her. To be clear, by saying it becomes automatic I am not excusing the behavior. It’s become a bad habit because of deliberate choices that over time have sunken into our subconscious. To that end, men entering the recovery process often don’t even realize they are doing it. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard the conversation where a wife is demanding her husband admit he intentionally checked out a woman, and he swears up and down he didn’t. Typically they find a stalemate at the point where she is fed up with trying to convince him to own that he looked, and he is feeling powerless to convince her that he simply noticed. Ugh.

Unfortunately the way many men (Including myself in the beginning) handle this difficult situation is to act like a petulant child and start in with the all-or-nothings. “I don’t know what I’m supposed to do, I can’t remove all women from this world”. “Am I supposed to quit my job and live in a cave?” “She’ll never believe that I didn’t look – she only believes what she wants to believe”. “Fine, we’ll just never go out in public together”.

But it can go other unhelpful directions too.

Some guys will land at the ‘its my recovery’ place where they further jeopardize their wife’s heart. “Well, I know I did the right thing and I can’t convince her otherwise, so she’ll just have to deal with it”. This will go south quickly.

Or here’s another one I used to justify my looking behavior: “She’s just a pretty woman, and God made her that way. It’s not wrong for me to appreciate her beauty”. Nice….cloak it in Scripture and make God the scapegoat. I wonder how that conversation will go when God looks us in the eyes and asks why we used him as the ‘out’ for our sin?

Then there’s the minimizing route. “Hey, I just looked…I didn’t touch. At least I didn’t flirt with her, or hit on her, or [fill in the blank with some past acting out behavior]. Just FYI, when wives are triggered, it is almost never helpful for them to hear you measure present progress against past acting out behavior. The guys in your accountability group can high-five you for not flirting or whatever, but most of our wives don’t want to give kudos for doing what we should’ve been doing in the first place: living with integrity.

Anyway, I digress. For men who are actively working recovery, managing their eyes and thoughts, as well as trying to honor God and wife, inevitably they will notice other women. Their eyes will be drawn that direction. After having lived by objectifying other people and trying to get a hit of the lust drug, the old habits and mechanics won’t die easily. But there is a difference between noticing and looking.

Looking is a willful, intentional behavior specifically connected to a lack of integrity. Noticing is a twofold thing. First, it is the residue from a life of looking. It may now be a habit, but in recovery noticing lacks the willful intent. I don’t say this to excuse it, nor to convince a wife that it shouldn’t be hurtful, but the heart attitude is different. Further, if a man in recovery bounces his eyes, replaces his thoughts and honors God with how he handles it, those notices that are residual from the addiction will gradually decrease over time. But I don’t know that they’ll ever go away, which leads to my second point.

Some noticing is normal. We notice people; because of their looks, their clothing, mannerisms, gait, etc. It is part of life. I didn’t say oogling, double or triple-taking, staring up and down, or laser focusing on specific body parts.

If this debate has led to a stalemate at your house, I urge you to talk about the differences. Talk about the heart attitude behind what your eyes take in.

Finally, what I hope we all move toward, is seeing. Not looking, not just noticing, but actually seeing. Let me explain.

God the father and Jesus the son both saw people as image bearers. Throughout Scripture we see interactions between the Divine and humanity where He sees beyond skin to what is happening in the heart. In John 4 we find a story of Jesus encountering a Samaritan woman at a well. While she’s bending over to draw water, I suspect Jesus isn’t looking down her shirt! He’s not gawking at her and he’s not checking her out. He even reads her mail in a sense and knows her promiscuity. Opportunity perhaps? No, Jesus sees beyond all that to this woman’s heart. My hope is that we can all begin to see people through the lens of image bearers. May God work in us to see beyond boobs, hair, butt and body, to instead see people as He does; broken, beautiful and in need of a relationship with Him.

Key Ingredients of Change

Over and over again I hear people talk about what brings about change in a person. Especially for folks struggling with sexual integrity issues like pornography, visiting prostitutes, strip clubs or massage parlors. Once sexually addicted, the question becomes even more difficult to answer. Psychotherapy and counseling some people say. Only God, others say. Circumstances. The twelve steps. Crisis.

I’m going to suggest there are 3 key ingredients that facilitate change. Sure, we can name a bunch of things that help, but I’m suggesting that if these 3 aren’t present, true change will not occur.

First, being unwilling to accept our personal status quo. I was talking with Shelley last night and, after she expressed a way I had hurt her, thought about the reality that I’m kind of tired of being me. At least, I’m tired of that part of me; that way of living. We all know that feeling where we just sort of realize we’ve become comfortable with the status quo. The question becomes: will we do something about it? People who are unwilling to change reach a point where they consider it adequate to measure the present against the past. The mindset here is saying, “at least I’m not who I used to be” instead of “I’m not yet who I could be, who God is calling me to be”. If we want to guarantee change, we cannot accept that who we are today will suffice for the future God has for us. We must be unwilling to accept our personal status quo.

Second, we must challenge our constants. Sounds pretty underwhelming, I know, but it can be surprising how much we’re willing to accept about ourselves because it’s how we’ve always been. We land at our age, be it 25, 45, 55, 75 years old and we’re “just the way we are”. But how’d we get there? Because we didn’t challenge the constants. To guarantee change is to question our norms, our standards and our default settings. It is to question our motives, why we believe what we believe and why want to believe what we believe. It means we have to question the narrative by which we live, and ask ourselves where it would be more meaningful to just tear up the script.

Third, in order to change we need to humbly submit ourselves to people who are unwilling to accept our personal status quo and who will challenge our constants. You know the people who, when you bring something up and sort of know what their response is going to be, blind-side you with some out-of-left-field question that puts you on your heels? Those are the folks I’m talking about. One of my accountability partners in the early days, Kurt, would always ask “5 whys” when he was digging into something in me. He’d take my first answer and toss it like garbage. Then my second, he’d give a little “hmm” and challenge a 3rd answer to be more insightful. Eventually, even if we didn’t get to 5 (which when we did was super-frustrating and made me hate Kurt some mornings!), we went beyond the status quo, beyond the easy answer, and deeper than I typically thought.

Maybe the people that do that for you are your accountability partners. Perhaps it’s a counselor. Maybe it’s the pastor you listen to on Saturdays or Sundays. Could be the guys at poker night. It might even be what you read that does it for you. We have to humbly submit ourselves to people who won’t let us stay the same.

I believe if we’ll adopt a posture of humility, submit to others’ input, challenge ourselves, and stop measuring progress by what we’re not doing anymore we actually make ourselves malleable. We become willing to see what we were once blind to, and become perceptive to what the Spirit prompts in us. We become moldable in the hands of God to be made like his son.

Prison

This weekend at the Every Mans Battle workshop I heard someone say they finally have hope they can life free. Like they were getting out of prison.

While hard for some people to believe, living the sexually addicted lifestyle is not fun; it is horrible. Sure there are moments of excitement, where getting away with something taboo feels like an adventure. And moments where we feel self-confident and reassured, like we measure up. There are brief periods of feeling like we matter, are wanted and even needed.

Then we get slapped in the face with reality. It’s not exciting; it’s a prison. And a hellish one at that.

The shame that drives the addiction is compounded by living in the addiction. The prison door swings open wide for us to escape, only to be handcuffed and locked up again – by ourselves. It’s not the life we want. Most guys I talk to want to be married, to be in love, to serve and honor their wives, to feel deeply respected by their families, to be pillars of leadership at work, church and home. If singleness or the playboy lifestyle were all they wanted, they would’ve pulled the ripcord long ago.

Instead, the authentic man is trapped inside a self constructed prison. We sometimes look out on the lives we wish we had like an inmate stares through the fence to freedom. To carry the metaphor further, we’ll even try to make a break for it, all the while knowing the guards of the addiction are tracking us down. It feels like it’s only a matter of time until we’re locked up again. It can seem like a life sentence.

Remember, it doesn’t have to be.

Freedom is possible through the power of Christ, changing our hearts, minds and character. Shed the jumpsuit and take the steps of confession, repentance and doing the next thing to get help. Maybe that’s come to the workshop. Maybe its just tell your counselor the truth. Perhaps its call off the affair. Whatever it is, take the next step!