Heather Hawkins first discovered her husband Nathaniel was cheating on her four months into their marriage, but they just celebrated their 20th wedding anniversary.
To say the New York state based couple’s marriage hasn’t been a smooth ride would be an understatement. After first becoming friends in college the pair started dating in 1998, but it didn’t take long for things to start falling apart.
“That was a real traumatic wound for me,” Heather tells Yahoo Lifestyle of the first time she discovered her husband was having an affair. “I remember when he went to work, I was angry and I threw plates against a wall and it felt so good. I was so hurt.”
The next 19 years involved much heartache, several horrible experiences with various counsellors, and severe gaslighting, which saw Heather take much of the blame for what was happening, when in reality, and unbeknownst to either of them, Nathaniel was a sex addict and suffering from intimacy anorexia.
“I kept trying harder and harder to work on myself and try and find a solution and help for our marriage,” Heather, 43, admits.
The couple agreed to wait until their wedding night to have sex. But while there was a lot of chemistry in the lead up to their wedding in October 1999, Heather says due to Nathaniel’s disorder that all “went out the door as soon as the wedding band was on”.
“He didn’t know [about the condition] and he didn’t know he was a sex addict. In his mind he was thinking ‘once we get married there will be no problem’,” Heather says.
“The sexual problems started happening straight away. Our wedding night was horrendous,” she adds, revealing Nathaniel, 45, also secretly relied heavily on watching pornography, as well as having affairs.
And after discovering one such affair four months in, they started marriage counselling immediately, but issues with therapists saw Heather lose much of her confidence, as she was effectively blamed for what was going on and told to forgive him.
“I had one counsellor tell me I just had to take medication for my anxiety and all my marriage problems would go away,” she says. “And he basically gave my husband permission for what he was doing.”
Heather and Nathaniel, who have three children together, also share the same faith and sought help from their church, which is where the true extent of Nathaniel’s behaviour came to light.
“When my husband confessed everything he had done during the first nine years of our marriage I was in shock for two days,” Heather remembers. “It was so horrific; so much worse than I could have imagined. I couldn’t even tell you the number of affairs he had.”
After the confession they thought a fresh start would do the trick as things appeared to get better and so they decided to renew their vows on their 10th wedding anniversary in 2009.
“But low and behold because nothing was actually addressed correctly the problems just started again,” Heather says.
The mum suffered many more years trying to make things work with ongoing bad counselling, before she stumbled upon Dr Doug Weiss, a sex and relationship therapist and Founder of the Heart to Heart Counseling Center, and his books and website detailing intimacy anorexia.
Intimacy anorexia is a relationship disorder that occurs mostly in the context of marriage or long-term romantic partnerships. It is defined by the American Association for Sex Addiction Therapy as ‘The active withholding of emotional, spiritual and sexual intimacy from the spouse or partner’.
“I felt trapped, I love my husband. I love who he is inside, that person he was when we were dating,” she reveals. “So somehow I ended up on this website, and saw the hopeful statistics from Dr Weiss’ practice and then I found the information on intimacy anorexia and for the first time I felt validated, heard and understood.”
While they had been separated for two months at this stage, they agreed to do an intensive therapy course in July 2018, which Heather says was ‘life-changing’ and ‘transformational’.
“Since then things have been really really good. We’re 100 per cent on the healing side of the spectrum. Sexually and relationally, but we both have a long way to go,” she explains, adding Nathaniel had been sexually sober since May 2018, taking two polygraphs to prove it.
“We want to share our story because we want to give people hope. It can feel very hopeless and if you get the wrong advice or the wrong help it’s just deadly to the relationship and the recovery.
“It’s been a journey that, for a time felt like a roller coaster. But I have chosen to ‘hold space’ for him as he grows, heals and is recovering, whilst recovering myself.
“I am willing because I love him, he’s worth it, and our marriage restoration is worth it.”
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