For twenty-seven years, Rhyll Crowshaw and her husband have been working through the effects of his sexual addiction. With the help of therapists, bishops, introspection and prayer, Rhyll has developed the strength she needs to keep herself safe. She now also helps other victims of sexual addiction feel safe through her organization S. A. Lifeline.
My husband and I were married forty years ago in the temple, in 1973. We both felt like we were really prepared and that it was the right thing to do. We started a family fairly soon. In 1986, when we had five children, one day my husband was driving towards our home and I was driving the other direction, and he saw me, stopped me, and asked me to come with him. He told me his whole history: he had seen pornography when he was six years old. He was very drawn to it. He kept looking for it after that. He had some history of inappropriate relationships in high school, and after we married, he felt like it was going to go away and that he would be just fine. He would be loyal and true. This is thirteen years into our marriage he is telling me all of this, but by then his behavior had just gotten worse. He traveled a lot with his business. He was very successful in the business world. When he was gone on trips, he started viewing porn in a motel room, and then he started going to strip clubs. Then he started picking up prostitutes. He had been doing that for most of our marriage.
Can you elaborate on why it was possible for you to live with him for 13 years and not know?
He was extremely good at hiding his behavior. We have worked with thousands of people now in the S. A. Lifeline program, and I’ve learned about the shame surrounding sexual addiction, especially in our culture. People get extremely good at living a double life. The majority of the women I have worked with never knew. I never saw one shred of evidence that he had a double life going on.
With this particular addiction there is no smell, no needle marks. So that leaves us in fear of: What if? What if men we know are addicted, and we don’t know it? I answered that question for myself by learning instead what recovery looks like. How do I know if he is acting out? How do I know if I am safe? Safe emotionally, but safe physically too. That is one of the big questions every woman whose husband has been acting out with other people must ask herself and should ask herself. How do I know if I am safe?
After his first disclosure, he was sincerely interested in changing. He told me, he told our church leaders, he believed he could and would change, and he was sincerely interested in repenting. After his first disclosure, he was told by church leaders, “Just stop doing that. You’re better than that. And you are loved.” He was very successful in business and had church callings that were very important. So people knew him to be a very kind, good man. This other behavior, this Jekyll and Hyde, was very confusing to everyone, mostly to me because I’d never seen him act out. There was no shred of evidence that he had ever done porn. None of it.
What was the catalyst that made him stop you on the street, after thirteen years of marriage?
The catalyst was that maybe he had exposed me to a disease. He was a kind enough person that he certainly didn’t want to be putting me in danger.
Obviously you were shocked. Did you think about leaving him? Were you always committed to staying with him? What was your reaction?
I didn’t even consider leaving him. He was in tears. He was saying, “I’m so sorry. I don’t want to do this anymore. I’m so sorry I’ve done this to you. Can you forgive me?” And my belief was that we forgive. We do forgive. So I thought, “What is my responsibility here? It’s to forgive.”
The only advice we got at the time was stop doing it, forgive and forget. Move on. That was twenty seven years ago. No one knew about sexual addiction at that time. At least no one talked to us about the fact that a person could be addicted to sexually acting out. Life went on.
We had two more children… twins! Then ten years later, in 1997, he came forward to me again. He had been sober for three years, and then had hidden his behavior for the next seven.
Did you say sober?
Sober. Meaning he wasn’t acting out with other women. In sexual addiction, he could be sober by not acting out. He and I had a sexual relationship, but he could be sober which means he didn’t do porn, masturbation, strip clubs, and prostitutes for three years. Most people would think he had it completely under control. He was white knuckle sober: “I won’t, I won’t, I can’t, and I shouldn’t.”
Was it something that you were talking about on a daily basis during those ten years to help him stay sober or was it something that went into the background of your life?
I would ask him, “How are you doing?” He would say, “I’m fine. I’m doing well.” Sometimes his response was, “Why do you not trust me?” So he would put blame back to me. Then I started to believe — and this is what I call the “crazy committee” — I started to believe that I didn’t trust him enough and it was my fault if he behaved badly. He is a good man, and he is a nice man. So it’s not like he is an angry person, but there were no signs that he was an addict so I didn’t know if I was safe or not. The only way I could know was to ask him.
So the second time he came out to me was in 1997, and I went through all of the spiritual guidance I could get. Temples, bishops, stake presidents . . . I knew it was my decision to stay with him or not. I kept asking God, “What am I supposed to do?” I felt I needed to help my husband; he could clearly not overcome his addiction on his own. We did find a therapist who finally said to us, “He’s an addict.” That was the first time I had ever thought his behavior was not my fault. I couldn’t be responsible for him. After he came out to me the second time, I bought this little rough handcart, just a tiny thing, and presented it to my husband and children at Thanksgiving time, because I had been reading the stories of pioneer women as part of the pioneer sesquicentennial and I related to those women. I said, “Dad’s struggling, but we are going to get through this together, and this handcart is a reminder that we can pull together. I will pull with the Lord’s help.”
Did you personally at this time have anybody else you could really turn to? Were mentors and friends an important part of this, or were you dealing with this with isolation with him?
My parents knew, some of his family knew, but they didn’t really understand because they hadn’t had this kind of experience. I have sisters who are wonderful; they knew that I was struggling, but nobody had really had experience with this sort of thing, so I did it mostly on my own. Our church leaders were wonderful. They were supportive. They were kind. They were also not certain how to help stop his addict cycle.
Nobody ever suggested that it was your fault within a church setting?
No! No! I know many women who have a church leader say, “Well, if you will only do this, he won’t do that.” But for me, nobody ever caused me to believe that his behavior was because I wasn’t enough. But that was already an internal feeling for me. No one needed to say it for me to feel I wasn’t enough and that, because I wasn’t enough, he was going elsewhere. I already felt it internally. That is such a damaging belief and attitude for women: to compare ourselves against the public plastic image of perfection or of sexual desire. It’s so damaging and it’s so false. It is so false. But I felt it internally. I would mention that to my husband and he would always say, “Oh no, you’re exactly who I want,” but it didn’t make sense to me. Then why did he act out with other women? Not until I learned about sexual addiction and I became educated about it did I understand that it really doesn’t have anything to do with these men’s wives or their girlfriends. Sexual addiction is not about sex, it is about lust.
Sexual addition and sexual attraction to one’s girlfriend or wife are completely separate things. That was really hard for me to believe at first. I mean, there were times that I said to him, “I think you’re lying to me” because I couldn’t make the connection. I understand it now. I certainly understand it much better than I have in the last twenty-seven years, but I still occasionally go to that place of not feeling my own worth. I go there and compare myself and say, “Well, I’m not enough.” That for me is a victim’s place, and I know that’s not who I ultimately am. So I have tools to bring myself back out of that place.
I also know recovery behavior. I know the difference of what addition looks like, what it talks like, what its face looks like, how he deals with life. That’s the only way I know if I’m safe. I have my own boundaries and he has his own.
Eight years ago, he came forward for a third time. At that point, I figured the marriage was over. That was when I said, I can’t do anything more. I had what I call my first major surrender moment. It was right on our front lawn on a Sunday morning, and I looked at him, and then I looked to heaven and I turned my hands up, with my palms up and looked to Heaven and said, “Take him.” The only thing I could do was to give him to God because I felt like I had done everything I knew how to do and probably tried harder than I should have to just keep making it work. I went to therapy with him, I encouraged him all along the way, and I thought I could help him. But the night before, he had had an experience when he came to himself, and I figured the marriage was over.
What does that mean, he “came to himself”?
He said, “I will do whatever it takes because I will die in this behavior.” It was a spiritual experience that he had. He had been arrested two weeks earlier. He believes that was God’s way of interrupting his life.
So the day of that third disclosure, he went immediately to the bishop again, and he asked if I would go with him. I didn’t know what to do. I really gave my life over to God for that day. Then he called, or talked or went to every one of our children and sat down with them and told each one of them his entire story.
They didn’t know until that point?
They didn’t know all of his behavior. They knew that their dad had some challenges. They knew that he had some church discipline, but they didn’t really know the details and they didn’t ask. So he made the opportunity with every one of our kids to tell them the entire story. We had five married children and two teenage sons. That was an appropriate time to tell the children. The prostitution, strip clubs, the history. It was one of the hardest days of our married life and one of the best days because it was like opening up this huge wound that had been hidden and scraping it clean. The way that he did it was very humble. He could have reacted to the anger of our sons, in particular; our sons were angry that a father who had been such an example to them would have betrayed us so much. And yet within a few days, they each came to him with their arms around him and gave their encouragement, but they still needed to find trust as well. We all just took it one day at a time. In fact, we took it one minute at a time for me because they looked at me and asked, “What are you going to do, Mom?” I said, “I’ve been doing this for so long, I don’t know.” From that night on, he moved his stuff out to the camper and he said to me, “I don’t deserve to be in the same bed.” I was fine with that because it gave me some space to find some peace.
That was eight years ago. We celebrated his eight year anniversary of sobriety a couple of months ago and it’s kind of like his birthday date. The eight years have been quite a process. We’ve learned that being white-knuckle sober just isn’t good enough for the long run. White-knuckle sober doesn’t work for any addiction.
Because you’re just working so hard?
All it takes is a bored, lonely, angry, stressed, tired trigger, and you lose your determination. In sexual addiction, there are lust triggers everywhere. And addictions are simply ways to medicate; this is about medicating your emotions. We’ve learned in our research that sexual addiction is a true brain addiction: the nature of the addiction means that the brain will always want more and different ways to feed the addiction. Why do sexual addicts go from pornography to strip clubs to prostitutes to affairs? Because it’s the nature of addiction that the brain doesn’t just want more, it wants different.
How regularly did your husband visit a therapist?
We went to marriage counseling at my request multiple times even before he got honest about his behavior. We have gone to therapy together on and off over the past twenty-seven years. A good therapist is very hard to find. After the second disclosure, we saw a therapist for one year and that was it because we were told we were good, and he thought he was. But then once he slid back into the behavior, he was so ashamed that he didn’t seek help again.
It’s a vicious cycle. An addict will say they’ve stopped a thousand and one times. We have to learn not to start again, and learning how not to start again is the hard work. Because if you ask any addict how many times has he stopped, he will say, Every time I’ve acted out. So how do they learn to not start again? It’s a lot of hard work, a lot of education, therapy, and trust in God. We no longer regularly see a therapist and haven’t for several years, but working twelve step and helping others work twelve step is really a great blessing to our own recovery.
I’m now starting to speak about our recovery, and I mean “our.” Not just his. I never knew I needed to recover. I never knew that I had been deeply traumatized by the betrayal. As I’ve worked with therapists who are really researching this, and from my own personal experience and other women’s experiences, it’s PTSD. Just because he stopped acting out, there was nothing that could take my fear away that I was going to have to live my life in pain and fear the rest of my life, even if we were divorced. The trauma was not going to go away. Just to leave the relationship was not going to mean that the trauma was going to be gone. I wanted to come out of this fire more like the phoenix. Not just the pile of ashes. That has been a great gift to me. It’s a gift from God.
Part of your recovery has been starting S.A. Lifeline.
In 2009, we started the S.A. Lifeline Foundation. We recognized how we had stumbled and fallen and made so many mistakes and nearly ended our family over this. Was there a way we could help other couples and families recover, truly recover and not stumble and fall so much?
Our goal is to offer hope and resources for those striving to recover from the affects of pornography and sexual addiction. We’re not a therapy group. We don’t run meetings. We are a resource but first and foremost we offer hope that recovery is possible and that’s our defined focus. You’ll notice that I said the affects of pornography and sexual addiction. That means it’s not only for the men or the women who have the addiction, but it’s also for the spouse. We have discovered that unless the spouse heals and begins to live a life of peace and serenity and joy, she stays in that victim place–fearful, resentful, angry–and the marriage is not going to thrive.
What would you say is the most important thing that the gospel has helped you with over the past twenty-seven years?
It’s a really basic testimony and belief that God loves me, that He knows my pain, and that He is there with me. I’ve also discovered that no matter how hard we try, we cannot change somebody else. Somehow I thought I could fix my husband, but I couldn’t make him give his will to God. I can’t even do that with my own children. All I can do is work with God. You know the serenity prayer? “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change . . .” It has meant a lot to me. I cannot change circumstances many times and certainly not other people. I need courage to change the things I can change, which is to look at myself. Do I have issues? Do I have “stuff” in myself? I do! So I need to spend more time looking at my stuff and working at it so that I’m being true to myself and gain the wisdom to know the difference between what is his issue and what is mine. I must be true to myself and God. Being true to myself also means supporting my husband’s recovery actions and behavior, but refusing to enable a spiritually deadening, relationship damaging, socially-harmful addiction.
At the beginning, I don’t know if I could have handled that kind of self-analysis when I was going through so much trauma, but I do know that it’s part of the education that I went through. People have questions, “Why would you stay?” Kind of like, “You’re not very smart, are you?” I don’t make a judgment on that because I have occasionally thought, Why did I stay? I know that I asked. I know that I pleaded. I bloodied my knuckles at the door of Heaven over and over again: What am I to do? The answer was, “Stay just for today! I’m going to care for you just for today,” and He has. So I would humbly go to God and plead for His help and give my will to the most powerful, loving being in the universe.
In the meantime, in order to be true to myself, He also told me to set boundaries. In the process of being true to myself I must say, What is right? What is wrong? Wrong is to lust after another woman in your heart. Wrong is to go out seeking prostitutes. That is wrong. Wrong is going to pornography. Those will not work in my life. And if another person forces those things into my life, the most loving thing I can do for both myself and my husband is to set boundaries.
Can you tell me more about these boundaries?
For instance, a victim attitude is an attitude that goes along with addiction: I’m unique, I’m a victim of problem I can’t control. So if he goes into victim mode, I’m not comfortable with that, and I will let him know. I will say, “I feel ‘victim’ coming from you and I am going to need to detach from that.” We call it “detaching with love.” It doesn’t mean that I’m leaving, I’m just detaching because I can’t fix this. We discovered that we don’t fix each other. God loves us and helps us. There is only one Savior and it’s not me.
I wrote a book called, “What Can I Do About Me?” I discovered that writing about boundaries was the most difficult thing in all of my writing. Boundaries are about love for myself and my husband. I need to feel safe. A very basic boundary is that if my husband acts out sexually, then I will need a separation time. The “if… then” clause is critical. But how will I know, given our history, if he’s acting out? That goes back to understanding what his recovery looks like, and having a trusting connection with God.
Many of us try to help our spouses, but we’re really trying to fix them. I think we can encourage, but there is a point where we need to say, this is not my business. It’s between him and God. And if he will take it to God, I have full confidence that God will help him. Just like if I take my worries and my sins and my stuff to God, He will help me. I have to give my will to Him.
It’s like Elder Maxwell said: All that we have to give is our will, everything else is a gift to us, but we have one thing. I have one thing that is just mine and that’s my will. If I give that to God and I can trust Him because I know that He loves me, and He wants all the happiness in the world for me. If I can trust Him with my will, He will make wonderful things happen. That doesn’t mean that painful things are going to go away. In Mosiah 27 it talks about how the Lord didn’t remove the heavy burdens that were on the people’s backs. He didn’t remove them, but he made it feel as though they were not there. And I have written three dates next to that scripture where I knew that’s what God was doing in my life.
I don’t know what the answer is for any other woman out there who is dealing with a husband’s sexual addiction, but I do know that my path, though hard and very painful, has been guided out of love by a very loving Heavenly Father who knew my pain. In our foundation work with S.A. Lifeline, one of my main goals is that I can help be an instrument in His hands. That’s my desire.
Is there anything else you’d like to share?
I guess there is one thing. We believe that pornography and sexual addiction is a plague. It is the one thing that will take more families down than any other addiction. However, we know that recovery is possible. It’s not easy and it takes a lot of time. It’s about living a healthy lifestyle more than just recovering from the effects of sexual addiction.
My husband wanted that healthy lifestyle; he wanted to recover. If the man knows there are tools available to recover, and he has had time to take advantage of those tools but chooses not to, there is often no choice for a woman but to leave the marriage. That is a decision between her and God. However, if a marriage can recover and individuals can work their own recovery, families can survive. A strengthened family built on honesty, humility, accountability, and connection. Those four things will enable us to deal with the challenges that are facing our families and our children. Our goal is to let people know that it is possible, and it’s an amazing gift and blessing to have a marriage recover. It’s possible. I know it’s possible. Has it been easy? No! Some days, even now, are hard, even though I believe that my husband is not acting out because I have been given a gift from God to recognize his behavior and to detach when I need to. But our relationship is better than it has ever been in forty years.
At A Glance
Rhyll Anne Croshaw
Location: Mappleton, UT
Marital status: Married for 40 years to Steve Croshaw
Children: Paul 39, Amy 37, Megan 35, Spencer 34, Tara 31, Preston 23, Tanner 23
Occupation: Co-Founder and Vice President S.A. Lifeline Foundation
Schools Attended: PMontana State University, Utah State University, BS of Family Life from Brigham Young University
Languages Spoken at Home: English
Favorite Hymn: “How Firm A Foundation” verses 3,4,5 and 7
On The Web: www.salifeline.org and www.rhyllrecovery.com
Interview by Neylan McBaine. Photos used with permission.