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.