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Wife of religious leader recounts her family's private battle

Published: Saturday, Sept. 18 2010 11:00 p.m. MDT

Anderson speaks publicly about her husband's porn addiction because she knows there are many other women like her.   (Sarah A. Miller, Deseret News) Anderson speaks publicly about her husband's porn addiction because she knows there are many other women like her. (Sarah A. Miller, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — If you can picture the shock, the pain and the lingering internal damage of being hit hard in the stomach with a baseball bat, then having to keep quiet about it, that's what it's like to find out your husband is addicted to porn.

You're horrified, you're feeling betrayed and you're terrified someone will find out — especially when he's a prominent religious leader.

That's how Christina Anderson remembers feeling when she found images her husband had forgotten to erase on the family's computer a few years back. A nationally known leader in his denomination, Pastor Bernie Anderson now shepherds the Wasatch Hills Seventh-day Adventist Church, sans the double life and the constant fear he held tightly to back then.

They've held their marriage together, though Christina says she'll never forget the hyper-vigilance she felt about keeping his secret in the beginning, even though it was eating her alive.

"I just figured that was the end of his career. In our denomination, appearances are very important and we don't talk about our stuff. He was our only source of income. I was very nervous about what would happen if it ever leaked out, but privately, I had no clue what it even was. ... It was something I'd never been exposed to, and I didn't know you could be addicted to it."

'There were signs'

Like so many other women, she had watched her adoring husband pull further and further away from her and their daughters during the first seven years of their marriage, not understanding why his time at the church or in his private office in the backyard was always so much more enticing than they were. "There were signs along the way, but I didn't see them. ... Even when he was with us, he wasn't with us. He wasn't fully engaged in what we were doing."

There were always plenty of reasons for Bernie to be at the church or in the office early in the morning, late into the night and on weekends, too, she says. He spent most of his time alone, isolated with a computer, including the laptop he used at church but could pick up and take with him.

As she felt more isolated, distance wasn't the only issue.

"There is a pruning process some men use by taking the focus off themselves and putting it on you," when questions are raised about the lack of family and couple time together. She remembers feeling guilty for bringing it up, because he would turn the tables with a comment like, "Oh, you're just kind of the jealous type," which made her out to be the one with the problem. "Looking back, I can see the behavior pattern, taking the focus off of him and putting it on me."

Her requests for more time together were also met with an appeal to logic – she came from a close-knit family with parents who were happily married, while his parents divorced. "He would say 'I came from a different background,' or 'I haven't seen this type of love or relationship.' He used it to excuse the distance from me and the girls."

Even at church or in the mall, as she tried to converse with him, his mind would wander and she found him unable to stay on track. "He would look at women and be physically undressing them in his mind. I had no idea." When she confronted him about his lack of attention, he'd accuse her of being jealous all over again. "After a while I stopped even saying anything. I didn't want to be the nagging, jealous wife."

To this day, "I don't know that he ever acknowledged that," she says. "I just remember that I would feel bad. It created a self-doubt inside me. I never thought of myself as the jealous type."

Same as an affair

Because sexuality is part of the sacredness of marriage for most Christians, when the truth came out Christina felt "it was the same as (him) having an affair. If you're going to look at it on the screen, you've already done it in your mind." When she discovered the images that shattered his secret on the home computer, "it took me years to get them out of my head, and it took me four days to get up the courage to confront him."

She thought he would "probably try to justify it, but he started crying," telling her it had been a problem from the age of 15. "To me, it was like seeing the entire marriage as a lie … like all we had done together was not true. But he didn't try to make an excuse."

Having said it out loud, Bernie "thought it would be done. But we didn't realize he would be just like a drug addict or an alcoholic. We didn't have any clue about the very ugly ride we were about to go on."

Initially they agreed to keep it a secret over concerns regarding his church and community standing, as Bernie made the "never again" pact over and over, always promising this time would be the last. But after 2.5 years of trying and failing to break free, Christina says her self-esteem was "in the tank. We didn't tell anyone, and that was our mistake."

Like many other women, she bought into the belief that she was somehow not enough for him. She's since learned that, "It has nothing to do with you. It's not how you look or your level of sexual desire. You think he is doing this because you are not enough, you'll never be enough and he'll never get better." But she's learned the images she thought she had to compete with "aren't even real."

She worked with a Christian counselor on her own, talked with good friends and read a lot of books. "It's hard for women to understand, and I needed some insight." She also vowed to invest in herself. "I think to get your self-esteem back is very important. When I was angry, I realized I needed to do that."

Despite all her efforts, Bernie's behavior continued to cycle. Finally, she took their girls to visit her parents and "I told God when I got back home I was going to leave" her husband. "Thankfully, God had intervened in Bernie's heart. When I was gone, he told someone" about his problem. "That was the key. You can't get it done on your own."

Telling other people

The confidant was the man Christina considered to be their pastor, even though Bernie was leading his own congregation at the time.

At that point, "I wasn't afraid to have him know. But then Bernie found he needed to start telling other people. He told all the pastors in our conference. There is a stigma that comes with it." She started wondering how her friends would react, whether they would pull away, whether her children would be able to continue playing with friends they loved, whether she would lose her social standing in the church.

To complicate things, Bernie seemed to be finding some kind of catharsis by sharing his story as a cautionary tale within church settings, while she was nursing deep emotional wounds and wondered whether their marriage would survive. Just as the national press started to get wind of his story and began barraging them with interview requests, her brother was killed and she had to help her parents deal with his death. "I was happy for him, but I wasn't sure about me."

They moved to Utah in 2004, and after a year, "I was still so angry. I would think back about how betrayed I was. It took me a long time to work through it."

Since her husband began sharing his secret, they've been interviewed together and separately by both national and local media, and Bernie's book, Breaking the Silence: A Pastor Goes Public With His Battle With Pornography, was published in 2007. They've both talked with hundreds of people as they continue to work through the process of rebuilding and sustaining their marriage and family and try to serve as a resource for others with the same struggle. "It's like a grief process, grieving the fact that your marriage isn't anything like you thought it was."

Even today, Christina continues to face the threat of what her husband's choices could do to her. She agreed to speak with the Deseret News, knowing she has never told any of her friends or colleagues at Primary Children's Medical Center, where she works as a child life specialist. "I work with primarily LDS people. They may read the paper because they are LDS and it's the Deseret News. I'm used to being on the evangelical side of things," but she's not sure what the reaction will be with co-workers.

"Bernie and his story have been out there for some time (in this community), but not me. Even eight years out, it's still funny how you react to people knowing. I don't know what they will say or do or think." Yet she's decided to speak publicly because she knows there are so many other women like her, at various stages in the process of discovery, confrontation or recovery. She knows to the core of her soul that the "scourge of sexual sin is its secrecy."

Recovery

At home, she was "hyper-vigilant at first about checking the computer," once his secret was out. "But I finally had to say, 'I'm not his mother. I'm the mother of three kids. Now if he wants to spend the afternoon alone, I'm fine with it. I know he longs to spend time with us. It's very different than when he used to long to spend time with his computer."

"That ugly stuff was worth it," she says, as she's watched a better man emerge through a battle that could have taken both him and their marriage to the ground. A big part of their recovery process "was God and (Bernie's) willingness to acknowledge" his problem. "I think when you're saying one thing and living life a different way, it catches up with you. I just don't think he could live that way any more. He was going to have to choose one path or the other."

Just as Christina came to the point where she was ready to leave her husband, she says, "every person has to draw a line in the sand and say 'enough is enough.' You have to say, 'this is my heart and my heart can only take so much.' " By not doing so, "you enable a person's behavior. For 2.5 years, I enabled him. God knew it and I did too. It was time for me to stop enabling him."

Looking back, she remembers feeling he had "taken every ounce of what I thought about myself away, but I've always believed love is a choice. It's not just a feeling, it's a choice. I believe God gave me the love I have for Bernie, and that if I trusted in him he would give me that feeling back.

"I wouldn't go back and do it again, but if I had a choice to marry someone else or to not even have this in our lives, I wouldn't change it, because what we have now is good and a blessing. It's taken a lot of work, but it's worth it."

'Crisis of truth'

In an interview with the Deseret News, Pastor Anderson said men who indulge in porn have an innate ability to mentally "compartmentalize" their thoughts and actions. That may be particularly true with religious leaders or others involved in full-time ministry, because the hypocrisy is so great.

"They have this part of sexuality, and it's separate from what we experience from our spouse. We can live with that level of incongruity. That goes on until there is a 'crisis of truth' of living one way" connected to family, church and vocation on one hand, and "this other way" of secrecy, indulgence and constant guilt on the other.

"You can maintain a marriage relationship that way. It may not be the ideal, or meeting the needs of your spouse, but you can get by. And many do that for many, many years," he said.

For Pastor Anderson, it was seven years, to be exact. Seven years of marriage with a secret he wouldn't tell.

For most of that time, he was dealing with a successful and growing ministry. Looking back, he recognizes "the seductive nature of success and the intoxicating effect of a compliment," which often led to some of his most vulnerable times with porn.

"Perhaps subconsciously we start believing in too many of the good things members tell us about our sermons, demonstrations of compassion and biblical insights. ... Don't be surprised at the subtle lure that accomplishment and accolades can bring. These lead to a sense of entitlement; they lead us to act as though we can do or have whatever we want."

That sense of invulnerability feeds the problem, his wife would later recall. "Everyone knows you, but no one knows you."

Unknown to Pastor Anderson, his wife had been suspicious for at least two years about some of his activities, but kept her questions to herself. One night, after finding computer images he had forgotten to erase as usual, she confronted him. Rather than becoming defensive, he admitted his involvement. She agreed to keep silent if he would stay away from it.

The bargain worked for a while. Until he moved into the pastor's study at their new church and began taking a personal laptop computer to use there. Months went by, and in the summer of 2003, his wife acknowledged to herself that the signs of his continued addiction were unmistakable. She was gathering the courage to leave him.

Duality of porn

Better than most, clergy know the difference between sins of omission and commission — the first is a failure to do something God asks, and the latter is a choice to do something God forbids. The duality of porn encompasses both, Pastor Anderson said. Addicts focus on the choice to indulge, but don't understand how they fail others around them in the process.

"It wipes the soul out of a marriage," he said. "There are some that feel it will make the sexual relationship (with a spouse) stronger, but that's the lie of pornography."

Looking back, he sees the lost time with his children, the lack of an intimate relationship with his wife and the time that could have been used for meaningful friendship among the casualties.

Fear of embarrassment and potential job loss kept his wife silent most of the time, and she rarely spoke to Pastor Anderson about it. "Part of me was afraid that he would console himself with more porn, and part of me was unable to verbalize what I felt. Looking back, I know this was the biggest mistake of my life," she later recalled. "It was such a toxic way to live.

"He would go in cycles of repentance and desire to be close to our family. Then there'd be a longing to pull away, to flee to his fantasy world. In retrospect, that was our whole married life. ... Each time he came back, I welcomed him. After all, I loved him. ... But one day I realized that I was loving him at the cost of myself."

Her self-image was torn to the core.

Not immune

An unbidden confession to a fellow clergyman came just in time while Christina and the girls were away at a church camp. Then — of his own accord — he confessed to church superiors, thinking he would certainly lose his job and his livelihood. But the depth of his remorse and his determination to confess without the threat of getting caught publicly convinced them he was sincere. They let him stay.

"Going public allowed me to make the point that I was more interested in authenticity than popularity, which I think is an important place to arrive at. It no longer mattered so much what people thought about me. The conviction that God placed on my heart was to speak out, even at the cost of losing my job."

To this day, he knows he is not immune. "You have to live with the fact that there is a vulnerability there. ... But you never play the game of saying 'just this once won't hurt.'

"It's like being addicted to alcohol."

The greatest safeguard is one that's often the most difficult to do, he said. "It's making sure our relationships are open and real and honest.

"The minute you start to hide and escape and things become secret, that's when you're in trouble."

Editor's note: Pastor Anderson's book, "Breaking the Silence: A Pastor Goes Public With His Battle With Pornography," was published by Autumn House Publishing.

Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company