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Ask the Mental Health Expert Archives 2001-2004

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Secret Life

Q. I recently discovered that my husband of 23 years has led a secret life. He spends hours late at night in incest chat rooms and he encourages chatters to engage in incestual affairs. He has downloaded naked, sexually explicit pictures of 8- to 12-year-olds. He is heavily into pornography. He assumes a woman's identity on line as well. He denies it, but using a special computer program, I saw it all for myself. I am really sickened by this. Is this a mental illness? What do I do?

A. This discovery would be a shock for any spouse, and I can certainly understand why you are sickened by all this. Of course, I can't tell you whether or not your husband has a mental illness, but maybe I can put some of this in perspective and suggest some ways of dealing with the problem.

First of all, there are many quite normal men (and women) who occasionally surf websites with adult content. Within limits, for most of these individuals, this is probably not a sign of mental instability or illness, and may even represent a non-destructive outlet for sexual fantasies. But, when such on line activity starts to consume most of the person's time and energy; when it interferes with intimate social relationships; when the individual loses interest in most other activities; or when he or she feels powerless to reduce the activity, some clinicians begin to speak of internet addiction or suspect some form of obsessive-compulsive disorder. This is still a controversial issue among mental health professionals, some of whom believe that we have quite enough mental illnesses without adding internet addiction, cell phone addiction, Sunday TV football addiction, and a thousand other activities that many people simply love to pursue for hours at a time.

In the case of your husband, however, there are several other issues that may point to a more serious psychological problem:

1. The preoccupation with incest might indicate some unresolved traumatic issues stemming from his own early years;
2. The preoccupation with and down-loading of child pornography--in addition to being illegal--may point to a disorder of sexual desire termed a paraphilia (e.g., pedophilia);
3. His assuming a woman's identity on line may point to another type of paraphilia involving confusion or distress over sexual identity; and
4. His need to deny his activities to you seems to point to a serious breach of trust and honesty in your marital relationship. (I would be interested to know what led you to use the special computer program in the first place).

I doubt there is a simple or painless solution to this problem. I think the first step (if you have not already done so) is to have an open, frank discussion with your husband about how upset you are--without making accusations or insisting on his being in the wrong. If it felt right, you might say something like, "Honey, I don't want to attack you, but I'm really upset about what I've seen. Whatever the explanation, I love you and want to find a way to feel good about us again."

Give him time to respond, and just listen--even though it may be hard. If he continues to deny any of this, and you are convinced you are right, you may need to face a difficult personal choice: are you prepared to work toward preserving your marriage, or has all this made that impossible for you? If your marriage has been good in many other ways, and you want to preserve it, then I would strongly recommend that you and your husband enter marital therapy. Based on that therapy, it may turn out that one or both of you would benefit from individual counseling as well.

Most likely, your husband will need to work in individual therapy to deal with a lot of unresolved sexual issues. Individual counseling for you might allow you to ventilate some of your anguish, and to consider your options in a supportive and reflective environment. The question is whether you and your husband are committed enough to your marriage to see this through. I do hope you are able to find some way through this painful situation.

September 2001

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