Dan Carlson* stares out a window. Susan*, his wife of 26 years, sits beside him—sometimes wiping away tears. She nods her support as their story unfolds—a story of sexual addiction and deception that they would give anything to rewrite.
"My secret life began years before," says Dan, cradling coffee in a Styrofoam cup. "Back in Colombia as a missionary kid, a friend introduced me to detective books. The graphic sexual scenes excited me. I stayed away from Playboy-type magazines, but I began reading these books and fantasizing. My thought life was out of control. And I never asked God for help."
At 17, when his parents threatened to send him back to the States if he didn't end a relationship with an older Colombian girl, Dan began sneaking around with her. "There was nothing sexually inappropriate, but my parents didn't approve of my romance. Once it was forbidden, the danger excited me for a while," he recalls. "I wanted adventure. Something beyond my dull existence."
Though that relationship didn't last long, and he returned home to the States shortly after, Dan's lust for the forbidden remained in him, even after meeting the woman he would marry.
"I remember the night we met," says Dan. "In August 1972 the church put on a hayride. That's when I noticed Susan's pretty smile, the way she talked."
Susan takes his hand. "I liked the way you were shy and quiet," she laughs. "So different from me."
Susan found herself captivated by this soft-spoken 22-year-old. "We couldn't have been more opposite," she says, "but I was impressed with his knowledge of the Bible and his love for God. I wanted to marry someone who would be a spiritual leader. I hoped he'd be the one."
A week after they met, Susan received a letter. "I love you," wrote Dan. "I want to marry you." In the following weeks, they dated often. Soon they were sexually involved.
"I felt guilty," says Susan. "I was this church girl from a Christian family, and I knew it was wrong." By December she was pregnant.
"I always dreamed of a big wedding and a perfect marriage," she says. "Instead we had a quiet ceremony, and the marriage? It was the pits from the start. There was emotional distance."
After the birth of their first child, the Carlsons looked like the ideal church family. Dan and Susan were youth sponsors, and Dan was appointed church secretary. Interested in business administration, he signed up for night school, and every Wednesday left their small town for a two-hour drive to Seattle.
After Dan married Susan, he initially quenched his lust with trips to X-rated movie theaters. But during the drives to Seattle, thoughts of heightened sexual excitement consumed him. One night he shoved a newspaper ad in his pocket. A beautiful girl in a skimpy outfit beckoned. After class Dan found himself sitting in the car, his heart pounding, gazing at the blinking lights of a massage parlor.
"The amazing thing is that he showed me the ad when he got home," Susan said. "He told me he went there. I asked him what they do and he said, 'Oh, they just rub your muscles and relax you.' I said, 'They dress like that?' I was so naive, so trusting. That he was honest enough to show me the ad made me think everything was okay."
Each week as Wednesday night approached, Dan's struggle began. "I had this war within. I knew right from wrong, but the wrong was so enticing. I asked God to help me and I meant it. Then I went in the opposite direction."
One day while Dan was gone, Susan called her bank to ask why her checking account was missing a hundred dollars. Another bank had taken the money with Dan's approval, she was told. When she questioned him, Dan lied. He said he withdrew the money for a massage parlor visit, but when he learned a prostitute worked there he ran from the building.
Susan wasn't convinced so she set up an appointment with their pastor. During the meeting, Dan confessed only to an addiction to pornography. He said nothing of the nude massages. Turning to Susan, the pastor asked, "Do you give him what he needs at home?"
"I was shocked, embarrassed," she recalls. "I began wondering if it was all my fault. I thought Dan had come clean and if I was a better wife in bed and out, things would be fine."
"If I had made myself accountable at that time, it could have made a difference," Dan says now. "I was genuinely sorry for what I'd done. I would fall on my knees, pray for healing and promise God it would never happen again. But when I got discouraged or lonely or bored, I was right back at the massage parlors."
Dan's obsession grew along with their family, which included three small children. Following their tenth anniversary, Dan began selling office equipment, a job that took him far from home. By then he had begun to pick up prostitutes. One night as he stood negotiating with a hooker in Seattle, headlights came toward him.
"My parents lived in Seattle, and for some reason I was sure it was their car. Relief flooded over me. I was caught. I could finally get help." When he realized it wasn't them, he was disappointed. "I wanted to get out, but I didn't know where to go. Through my lies and deceit I cut myself off from my wife and my family, the only people I ever loved."
His secret world now included strip clubs, escort services, filthy theaters, and cheap motels. Terrified of disease, he visited medical clinics every few weeks. Twice he was robbed by prostitutes. One night, completely broke and desperate, he took off his wedding ring and offered it to a call girl. "I have no money," he said, "take this." She refused and walked away. "I was as addicted as any alcoholic," he admits. "The time and money I was spending on this threatened everything I valued."
Financially the Carlsons were close to ruin. "We lost our house because we couldn't make the payments," recalls Susan. "Dan blew our savings. He was making $50,000 a year, but we had a huge debt. My mom even gave us $4,000 to help pay off MasterCard. Everything was spiraling downward and out of control." To cover up the financial problems, Dan convinced Susan that she was no good at math, so he had to handle the banking. Often he wrote down "$100 for tithe," in their checkbook. "The money went to prostitutes," he says, shaking his head.
"I fought him on everything," says Susan. "There was no peace in our house." Depressed and suicidal, she began experiencing panic attacks. "A friend told me that her husband had been involved with prostitutes and warned me that Dan might be too. I said, 'No way. He's a deacon in our church.' I should have clued in, but I didn't want to."
The friend encouraged her to seek counseling, and there Susan found a listening ear. She read of the importance of a prayer partner and approached an older woman in the church. Together they began praying for Dan. "I knew Dan was only telling me part of the truth, so I wrote down this prayer: 'Lord, help Dan to be honest and truthful with himself, his family and especially with you. Amen.'"
On Monday, October 23, 1995, those prayers were answered. "We lay in bed and neither of us could sleep," says Dan. "I knew I had to come clean." At 3 a.m. Susan began asking questions. And for the first time in 20 years of marriage, Dan gave honest answers.
"I had asked him before if he'd ever been with another woman," says Susan. "He had always denied it. But that night he sobbed like a baby and admitted his sin."
Susan's first thought was "I'm not crazy after all." Then she turned to Dan and said numbly: "I love you. I forgive you."
The next day Dan quit his job, hoping to avoid the temptations of the road, and began the painful task of coming clean before his friends, his family and his church. But 20 years of deceit had built a thick wall that would take years to chip away.
"My emotions were a roller coaster," says Susan. "I would cry one minute and laugh out loud the next. Pity was mixed with revulsion, love with hate."
A Christian counselor recommended separation. "We needed time to work through the pain," says Susan. "I was horrified of AIDS or some other disease, and deep down I didn't think he could ever break free."
Jobless and losing hope of reconciliation, Dan moved to a nearby city to look for work. He collected bottles and cans to keep food on his table and to send a small check each month to Susan and the children.
"I started meeting weekly with a pastor for accountability," he says. "I read and prayed and memorized Scripture by the hour. Each day I read My Utmost for His Highest. Each night I fell asleep in the middle of a prayer."
Though some told them to leave each other behind and get on with life, friends and family pledged their support and prayers. A counselor encouraged Dan to list each sinful incident he could remember, bring it to God in confession, then thank God for his forgiveness. Each time this was done, Dan burned the list.
Meanwhile Susan had her own struggles. "I had to find work for the first time in my married life," she says, "but I'm amazed at how God took care of me. A counselor offered to see me once a week for free, and I told her openly of my anger and depression. I'll never forget the day I woke up and realized the pain was gone. I remembered it, but I didn't feel it any more."
After more than a year of separation, Dan moved to an apartment in their small town. "He didn't pressure me," says Susan, "but sometimes he invited the family over for meals. I couldn't believe it. He had never cooked a full course meal complete with a salad before! He would ask if there was anything he could do for me, and he didn't expect anything in return. For the first time ever I began seeing my husband as a servant."
In January 1996, following 16 months of separation, Susan asked Dan to come home for good. "I could tell by looking into his eyes that he'd changed," she says. "I knew that blame keeps wounds open. Only forgiveness heals."
Dan didn't offer any assurances. "I just told her that God had changed my life," he recalls, holding her hand now. "And she could tell that he had."
"God gave us both the same verse during our separation," Susan remembers. "It was Joel 2:25, 'I will restore to you the years that the locusts have eaten.'"
On March 16, 1997, Dan and Susan renewed their vows in the presence of friends and family. But they know the struggle is far from over. Dan still battles anger and depression.
"I've spent 20 years a slave to sexual addiction, a slave to sin," he says. "God gives me victory day by day. But I have to do my part. I'm careful what I watch on television. I stay away from places where the memories linger. And I guess the biggest thing is honesty. I'm back on the road these days selling cell phones, but I'm staying clean. I know that broken trust takes years to restore."
"God is rebuilding this marriage," says Susan. "We look back and marvel at his mercy, his protection from disease [medical tests have all been negative], his hand on our children. All of our children are following Jesus today." But the hurt is far from over.
"Our daughter started counseling, so that hurts," confides Dan. "I'm really working on getting closer to the kids, but sometimes I worry about my son . . . " His voice trails away. There is silence. Finally he continues, "I want my children and everyone to know that there's hope. While I was caught up in this I thought I was beyond the reach of God's grace. I know now that it isn't true. I want my life to show that grace from now on."
"The prayer I've written down," says Susan, "is 'Lord, help us grow together.' I'd be happy if God would answer that. He's the healer of my broken heart. He gives me freedom from false guilt. And you know something? For the first time ever I feel real love from my husband. Real unconditional love."
Phil Callaway is the author of four books, including Making Life Rich Without Any Money(Harvest House).
* Names and some identifying details have been changed.
1999 by the author or Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership magazine. For reprint information call 630-260-6200 or e-mail