Overcoming Sexual Addiction: Our Story: Phil and Priscilla Fretwell
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Phil And Priscilla FretwellPhil and Priscilla Fretwell are the co-founders of Savage Marriage Ministries, equipping couples to overcome wounds of their past to find forgiveness, experience freedom, and embrace hope for the future. They are also authors of Savage Marriage: Triumph over Betrayal and Sexual Addiction and Savage Marriage Small Group Study Guide: Overcome Your Past. Fight for Your Future. Based in Orlando, Florida, Phil retired in 2021 from Protiviti, Inc., a $2 billion global consulting firm, wher...more
Phil and Priscilla Fretwell articulate their complex, shared path to overcoming his sexual addiction — and the hope hovering on the other side.
Overcoming Sexual Addiction: Our Story: Phil and Priscilla Fretwell
Shelby: Hey, Shelby Abbott here. Just want to give a heads up before you listen to this next program. Today’s conversation on FamilyLife Today covers some sensitive but important subjects that might not be suitable for younger ears, so please use discretion when listening to this next broadcast.
Alright, now let’s jump into it.
Dave: So, I just read a study this morning from Columbia University done in 2022, so it’s recent. It said the average relationship, which includes marriage relationships—
Dave: —hides secrets. Guess how many? Thirteen!
Ann: Ooh, I’m going through my head, thinking, ‘Do I have any secrets from you?”
Dave: No, my question was, “Why? Why wouldn’t you tell the person who loves you more than anybody in your life your secret?”
Ann: Fear. You’re so afraid that they could see parts of you that you’ve been trying to hide for so long.
Dave: And they might leave.
Dave: They might walk out.
Ann: You might be rejected, and that’s our greatest fear.
Ann: Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Ann Wilson.
Dave: And I’m Dave Wilson, and you can find us at FamilyLifeToday.com or on the FamilyLife® app.
Ann: This is FamilyLife Today!
Dave: Phil and Priscilla Fretwell are back with us, and your book Savage Marriage, has the story that we’ve been talking about; and a lot more than just your story, because you go from your story to how God can meet you in the middle of some secrets, in the middle of the pain, in the middle of the brokenness, and do a miracle.
We’re looking at a miracle, because you walked this through—this secret of porn struggle to actual affairs. Phil, you were an elder at your church; you’re known as a symbol in society of what a man that walks with God looks like, and yet, you had this secret life going on. You thought you had an STD based on the life you were living. Now, you’re going to tell Priscilla that you’ve been hiding something for over a decade.
Dave: What did that do to your mind? How did you wrestle with that?
Phil: Well, I mean, it just gripped my heart. I would say, Dave, it’s like nothing has ever gripped my heart in terror of her reaction; of what this is going to do. Because our family really looked perfect. It really did. I mean, we had everything you would say you would want to have in a family. And now, I’ve got a secret that’s going to potentially destroy—
Ann: And then, not only would parts of community—your church—would find out, but you have five kids.
Ann: So, to expose this secret to your kids, to possibly be rejected and not just Priscilla; but this is a big thing.
Phil: It was a really big deal for me, and at the time, I was traveling still, a lot. I knew that I had a trip coming up. I knew I couldn’t tell her and leave, so I had to go on this trip, and the first leg was a long plane flight. It was 13 hours. I got on the plane, and it was kind of like, you know, I had been managing the secret and the emotions here during this week, because I was busy and everything.
But when I got on that plane, and they shut the door, you know, it was kind of like, now, I’m in my own mind, sitting in the chair. There is nobody else there. And it just started really settling with me there in that kind of dark flight over. I started crying, and I cried for five hours. I just couldn’t stop. I finally got up enough courage to send a text to one of my good friends.
You know, he and I had known each other since high school. So, he knew I had a porn problem, but it’s kind of what everybody knows about every Christian brother: they all struggle with it, right? So, that’s the way I’d made it sound to him. He didn’t really know the depth of the problem I had.
Dave: So, that’s what the text was? Just sort of—
Phil: It was, “I need to talk with you now.”
Dave: Oh, okay.
Phil: He called me on Wi-Fi on the plane.
Dave: So, here before you even talk to him, though, why five hours of tears? What was going on? Were you just devastated?
Phil: Well, I was! I didn’t know what I was going to tell her. I didn’t know how I was going to tell her. I didn’t know how she was going to react. I thought this could be the end of my life and career and family and relationship with my children; everything that I knew.
Dave: So, you were desperate enough, like, “I’m finally going to deal with this.”
Phil: Yes. Well, I didn’t know how.
Phil: I just knew that, because I had an STD, I couldn’t hide that from her. That had to be revealed. At least that’s what I thought at that point.
Dave: Yes. So, what happened on the phone call?
Phil: Well, my friend called me, and he listened to my story. I just dumped it all out. Man, I was just—
Dave: No more hiding?
Phil: No more hiding. 100% to him. And he said, “Well, there’s one guy I know that’s been able to help guys like this. His name is Paul Speed.” I didn’t know who Paul was, but he was with Whatever It Takes Ministries. He said, “I’m going to tell Paul to call you.” In ten minutes, Paul called me on the plane. And I just dumped it all out. He listened to my story, and he said, “Well, Phil, I’ve got good news for you.” I said, “What is it?” He said, “There’s freedom available for you. You think you have a porn problem, but you’ve got a pride problem.”
I knew I did. It was the pride and the arrogance that had kept me in secrecy.
Ann: Explain that more.
Phil: Well, the thing on the secrecy—you know, all this stuff on porn and sexuality and immorality feeds in darkness. It feeds in the dark recesses of secrecy, and I had kept it there. We found that, as it eventually came out, it started breaking the hold on me. I’d never, never been to a place to be able to bring it out because of my pride and arrogance about how I wanted people to see me.
That had festered and festered in my life. In a weird way, the porn experience fertilizes an arrogant life, because it tells you that you are the center of this imaginary world; which, to an arrogant, self-centered, narcissistic-type man, this is like nirvana, right? And he pinpointed my issue. He said, “You’re going to start breaking the back of your pride, and you’re going to start by telling your wife everything. Then you’re going to move on to your children.”
He went through this whole thing of me unveiling my life to all. He said, “You’ve been a hypocrite to so many people, Phil. You need to go back and tell them about your hypocrisy.” I hung up the phone. It was like a 20-minute conversation. The Holy Spirit told me, “This is the path for you.”
Ann: You could just tell?
Phil: I could tell. He confirmed it. I stopped crying. Not that the problem was over, but it was just that I had a peace on what it was going to take to get out of this.
Ann: Was that fear still there, that you could lose Priscilla?
Phil: Yes, it was.
Phil: Because I didn’t know. And he told me! He said, “You know, I don’t know what’s going to happen to her,” but he said, “You’ve got to deal with your issue and let God deal with your marriage.”
Ann: So, Priscilla, here you are again.
Ann: Hearing some news from Phil. Take us back.
Priscilla: You know, it’s interesting. He came in, and I actually thought there for a second, that he did have something to tell me. The way he looked at me, the thought came through my mind of, “He’s been unfaithful.” We sat at the table, and to me, it looked like he was having a nervous breakdown. He was just crying, and couldn’t get his words out, and it was just heart-wrenching for both of us. [Crying]
He started to tell me about his double life. He said, “I need to tell you, I’ve been living a double life.” In your mind, you’re going, “What? What are you talking about?!” And it went from bad to worse to really ugly right there. I just started screaming at him and getting ugly. I don’t know; we were two different people sitting at that table.
Dave: I mean, Phil, did you feel like, based on Priscilla’s response, you wanted to pull back in that moment? Or did you want to lean in and say, “Okay, this is going to be part of the journey?”
Phil: I knew I needed to press. Paul Speed had told me I needed to press. He had told me I needed to tell her everything, so I told her. And it was the worst conversation I’ve ever had in my life.
Ann: And Priscilla, you are living the nightmare. What happened? How did you even deal with that? You got angry? You were yelling?
Priscilla: And stomping, and walking around the kitchen waving my hands and just—
Ann: Did you think you were done?
Priscilla: I really did for a split second there. I thought, “I guess this is all over.”
Priscilla: He’s living a double life. He’s not the person that I married. He’s not the person that I saved myself for.
Ann: Did you even feel like, “Do I even know who you are?!”
Priscilla: That’s right. I mean, you’re just like, “Who is this person?” And at that moment, you think, “All you are is a liar! That’s what you are. You’re a liar. Nothing you say is true.”
Ann: Did you say that?
Priscilla: I don’t know if I did, but I sure did think it, you know?
Priscilla: But it is—you know, I will tell you, even walking into church, you go, “Every man in here is a liar. They’re all hypocrites, and they’re liars.” That’s how I felt when I went in the next Sunday, you know?
Ann: And where was God in it for you?
Priscilla: Well, it’s interesting. Right then, I didn’t think there was God right there, right?
Priscilla: Philip asked me, after he told me everything, at the end of this conversation when we were both crying; he said, “Will you do me a favor? Will you help me heal my mind?” And for a split second, I was just [thinking], “I don’t want to talk to you. I don’t want to breath your air. I don’t want you to touch me. I don’t want you to look at me. Don’t do anything.” But in a split second, the thought came into my head: “I’ve been with this man for 28 years. The least I could do is get him well. I don’t have to stay with him. I just get him well, and then I leave.”
So, with asking me to help his mind heal, he told me about Whatever It Takes Ministries. There was a retreat for women, and it was actually five days from [then]. “Will you go to that place for me?” And so, I did. Five days later, I was on a plane to Georgia to go to a retreat; to be in a cabin with 15 other women who are as bad off as I am. And it was a Godsend for me.
Ann: What did you discover there?
Priscilla: Well, it’s interesting. I discovered that God brought me there to fix me.
Ann: That’s a turn!
Ann: Were you surprised by that?
Priscilla: Well, I actually was, but because, in my hypocrisy, I was the Christian wife that looked like she had it all together, but she never really had an experience with the Lord Jesus. I had my ticket out of hell card, right? I was a Christian. I believed what Jesus did; but I really didn’t have an experience with my Lord. And so, I’m sitting in that cabin, and they’re going through the workbook, and that’s what the Lord said to me: “I brought you here to fix you.”
That’s all I needed to hear. I walked through all the different things in that workbook, which was, you know, the lies that had influenced my life, the wounds I’d carried my whole life, and what that has done in my belief system; of me, right. How I saw myself. It was a life-changing weekend for me.
Ann: Were you so surprised in some ways that you weren’t dealing with Phil and “how messed up he is” and how to cope with him? [Laughter] All of the sudden, you’re into your own stuff!
Ann: Isn’t that crazy that that’s where you went?
Priscilla: Yes, it is crazy! Because, you know, I went there with five questions to ask Jenny Speed.
Priscilla: “We’re going to fix this once and for all!” You know?
Ann: Right! It’s “his problem!”
Priscilla: It is! It is his problem. But going that weekend and working, even, through forgiveness and what forgiveness really is, and experiencing that in my life toward people who had hurt me in my life. Then I realized I could also forgive Phil for what he’s done.
It didn’t mean I had all the fuzzy, warm feelings toward Phil. It just meant I had forgiven him, and now we had to work through forgiveness.
Dave: I mean, you’re working on forgiveness five days after his confession!
Dave: Were you able to get anywhere near, or did you get there by the end of the weekend?
Priscilla: Well, I believed God for forgiveness. It did not mean that I had—that everything was great when I went home, because it wasn’t great when I got home. It was really hard to be there with him. But the one thing I was reminded of was how much God had forgiven me for my apathetic and rebellious spirit, because that what I had been with God. I was very apathetic toward Him.
Ann: So, you had a God encounter that weekend.
Ann: A God who loves you, who sees you, who has heard you, who knows you, and who wants to heal you.
Priscilla: That’s right.
Ann: That’s beautiful.
Priscilla: It was a healing experience for me, and it was a life-changing experience for me. You know, growing up in a Christian home, I had never experienced life with my Lord. For the first time—and not exactly right then, at that moment, as we walked through forgiveness, I was able to see it happen, and then I could see what the Lord Jesus meant [by], “You need to forgive one another.”
It is a supernatural experience when we do that, and that was life-changing for me. The Lord has just worked in my life. He has worked in my soul, in all the things that have wounded me. There are still some, you know? It’s one thing at a time each day.
Priscilla: But you know, for me, every day that I woke up, I would say, “Lord Jesus, you’re forgiven me for what I’ve done against you, and I know I can forgive Phil, because you’ve forgiven me.”
I will tell you, I probably said that for months and months. I do remember, at Thanksgiving, I told our whole family that I had forgiven Phil. I stood up in front of everybody and said, “I just want you to know, I’ve forgiven Phil.” That was the first time I can remember having a time that I said, “Okay, that’s it,” you know?
Dave: And yet, when you come home from that retreat where you had an encounter with God, you just said it was still really, really hard.
Ann: Coming home.
Priscilla: It was.
Dave: Often, we think, when we’re on the mountaintop—
Ann: “It’ll be okay.”
Dave: —“Everything’s going to be different,” you know?
Dave: And I’m not saying it wasn’t different, but it was still hard. What did that look like?
Priscilla: Well, I came home, and I wanted to set some boundaries for me. He had a choice of whether he wanted to sleep in the guest room or he wanted to make our room twin beds. It’s a king size bed, so, “You have a choice.” But I didn’t want him to touch me. I didn’t want him to hold my hand. “I don’t want anything.”
And it was almost as if we started a reset button in our marriage. That reset button not only had to do with sexual intimacy, but it had to do with everything else that should be included in that. That’s the spiritual intimacy and the emotional intimacy. That is something that we did not have in our marriage prior; the 28 years. I mean, we liked each other. We were (what do you call that?) compatible, you know? We liked traveling, and we liked being with each other; but that spiritual and that emotional intimacy, we didn’t have. So, that was what we were going to work on.
Dave: But you weren’t going to be touched.
Priscilla: For a long time!
Dave: Which makes total sense.
Dave: So, help us understand. How did you work on that?
Phil: Well, we didn’t touch, right?
Phil: When she gave me the choice, “Do you want to make our king-sized bed an imaginary twin?” I took that one, right? I thought maybe our heels might touch one day, you know, or something like that.
Phil: So, that’s what we took, but over time—and it took a while, and it was very, very slowly—there was maybe a hand squeeze. That’s where we went: through hand squeezes, right?
Phil: So, it kind of slowly evolved.
Priscilla: It was weeks of not touching each other. But in those weeks, and I will say, from then on, he pursued me emotionally and spiritually.
Ann: What does that mean? What’s that look like?
Priscilla: Well, he was very interested in me as a person, you know?
Dave: Was that new?
Priscilla: To me it was new.
Dave: Yes, yes.
Priscilla: I was like, “Wow! You really want to know how I feel,” you know, “and what I’m thinking.” So, that was new for me, because he had always been—we had done life logistically. “This is where we are going. This is who we’re going to see. This is what the kids have to do.” But it was never like, “Hey, what’s going on with you? Where’s your heart? What are you thinking? What are you going through?” It just started to be different with us.
Ann: I think there are probably a lot of listeners that are thinking, “That’s us.”
Ann: “That’s us! We’re raising our kids. We’re busy. We’re working. We’re tired. We check in on each other.”
Dave: I mean, we’ve definitely done that.
Ann: Totally! We’re living life. So, to check in emotionally, we long for it!
Ann: But it’s a scary place to go, too.
Phil: Yes. Well, we didn’t even know how to really do it so much. And what God started showing us was, Jesus taught the disciples and said, “I want you to be one with each other like you’re one with Me.” We had just kind of never understood that very well. So, we started saying, “Wow!” So, that means between Priscilla and me, we’re supposed to be spiritually intimate just like we are with the Father, just like Jesus was with the Father.
So, I couldn’t sleep. I mean, I was waking up at 2 or 3 in the morning. You would get up. We started spending probably two to four to six hours a day together reading our Bible, praying, and processing; because we just didn’t know what to do. I had a journal; I was journaling a lot. And slowly, God started creating spiritual intimacy between us that we really had never had. I mean, we had our own individual—but as far as us doing that together, we had never really built spiritual intimacy. And so, what we saw God do is, as we became spiritually intimate with one another, learning how she felt about God, how I felt about God, and processing, God built emotional intimacy out of that. We really—it was an amazing experience for us, because we became emotionally intimate, I think probably for the first time.
Ann: And Phil, you ended up—for part of your process, you went to a retreat with men.
Ann: But you also decided to confess everything to not only Priscilla, but your five kids.
Phil: Yes. And it’s interesting, Ann; when I first floated that idea with Priscilla, because it was at the point I was confessing to her when I got off the plane and got home, I said, “We’re not going to keep this secret. We’re not going to do it that way. We’re going to tell our kids.” Man, she started really wailing, because this was like, “Wow.”
She said, “Well, not Beck and Anna Hope. They’re only 9 and 11.” I said, “No, Beck and Anna Hope, too.” And boy, she just lost it!
Ann: Aw, I can’t imagine.
Phil: She was just—
Dave: I mean, when I read that—
Ann: Dave came in the house and said, “Ann! Wait ‘til you hear this!”
Ann: Like, “He told all of their kids! Even the 9- and 11-year-old!”
Dave: Let me ask you one last question, because we’ll revisit the kid part: as you were walking through these dark days and you’re trying to get out of the valley, did you ever want to just quit? Did you just feel like, “You know what? I went to a retreat, and I was hopeful. Phil went to a retreat. We have some hope, but this is so stinking hard, I’m not sure I want to do the work.” Did you ever feel like, “I want to quit.”
Priscilla: Yes! [Laughter]
Dave: You’re smiling. What’s that mean?
Priscilla: No, it’s just that, you know, when you’re going through a hard time like this, it is painful. You don’t know—you’ve got 6-9 months of pain that you’re working through. It’s not like you come home, and you say, “Yeah, everything’s great and we’re back together again.” It’s working through both of our pain that we both hold in our hearts, that we have to go back and talk about. So, yes, there were some painful moments that we thought, “Okay, this is it! We can’t keep going.”
Shelby: You’re listening to Dave and Ann Wilson with Phil and Priscilla Fretwell on FamilyLife Today. Stick around, because Priscilla has some really important words of encouragement for wives who are going through some of the same things that she’s gone through. That’s in just a second, but first, make sure you check out the Fretwells’ book. It’s called Savage Marriage: Triumph Over Betrayal and Sexual Addiction. You can pick up a copy at FamilyLifeToday.com to get more specifics and insights into today’s conversation.
So, why do we have a hard time telling people we care about the truth? Maybe it’s pride, or maybe you just don’t know how to bring it up. Right now, you might be in a situation where your kids are asking you difficult questions; maybe even about how God makes babies. How do we talk about that? Well, when you give any amount this week, we want to send you a copy of Justin and Lindsey Holcomb’s book, called God Made Babies: Helping Parents Answer the Baby Question. It’s our help to you and it’s our way of saying “thanks” when you give this week.
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Alright, now here’s Priscilla with some important words of encouragement if you are someone who resonates with their story.
Ann: Priscilla, talk to the listener, the wife, who has discovered this with her husband, and she’s just really struggling. What would you say to her?
Priscilla: I would tell her that there is hope; there is hope in Jesus; that He is there going through this with you; that there is a healing that can be done in your life; and there’s a healing for him, too.
Shelby: Tomorrow, Dave and Ann are joined by the Fretwells once again, where Phil’s story continues. He fully reveals his sin to his kids. Stay tuned, because the Fretwells’ daughter, Sarah, will be joining in to tell about her experience. That’s coming up tomorrow.
On behalf of Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Shelby Abbott. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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