Secrets in Marriage: 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
Secrets in marriage nearly capsized Phil and Priscilla Fretwell’s marriage, as his sexual betrayal morphed to addiction. But it didn’t get the last word.
Secrets in Marriage: Phil and Priscilla Fretwell
Shelby: Hi, Shelby Abbot 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. Please use discretion when listening to this next broadcast.
Alright, now let’s jump into it.
Phil: It’s hard to think you’re never going to do it again because it’s such an addiction, right? It really is. It’s like, “I’ve got to try to minimize this. I feel terrible about it.” But to say, “Do you think you can ever get to a place where you will never do this again?” it was almost beyond my reach.
Ann: You were beyond the hope of that.
Phil: —beyond the hope. Yes, you kind of lose all hope on that because of the history. You have to get to a place where you are just absolutely disgusted in your life that you no longer want to live like this and ask God to come in and change you.
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: Okay, I’ve got a question for you. We’re going to go a little deep. If I was going to reveal a secret—in fact, why don’t I today—
Ann: You are going to reveal a secret.
Dave: —that I know is going to hurt you, and I’ve been hiding it for over a decade. I want to know before I tell you what it is, what do you feel hearing that as my wife?
Dave: You think you know everything about me, but you really don’t.
Ann: But see, I feel like I do know everything about you.
Dave: That’s the thing; you don’t.
Ann: But just for you to say, “I have a secret,” puts this pit in my stomach, because it flashes me back to years ago when you did have a secret. So, then it puts this fear in my heart and anxiety and anger even before I know what it is I’m already defensive.
Dave: Okay, so now I’m not going to tell you, because I don’t want to upset you, especially on the air.
Ann: No, it’s scary when you hear something like that.
Dave: The secret is I’ve never been a Detroit Lion’s fan - all those years I worked for them. Okay, I’m kidding, but I se that up because we’re going to talk about secrets today with a couple who had one in their marriage for more than a decade.
I’m real excited to talk about it with Phil and Priscilla Fretwell in the studio. [They] wrote a book called Savage Marriage. A lot of your book is about a secret. But first of all, let me just say “Thanks for being here. Welcome to FamilyLife.
Phil: We’re glad to be here.
Dave: You only had to drive a few miles. You live right down here in Orlando.
Phil: Yes, it’s terrific; yes, about 25 minutes from here.
Dave: When you hear us talk about this secret—obviously when we picked up your book, I couldn’t put it down. I kept telling, Ann, “You’ve got to read this book; you’ve got to read it now.” It’s gripping because I feel like we are walking beside you in this journey where this thing called a secret comes out.
Before we get there, tell us a little bit about yourselves. You’ve got kids.
Phil: We do; we’ve got five kids. Three that are adults and married and two grandkids. And we still have two kids, believe it or not, at home that are 14 and 16. We were figuring out the other day when these kids all get out of our house, we will have parented—what was it, Priscilla—for 40 years.
Dave: —40 years?
Phil: You’d like to think we’ve got it down by now, but we’re still learning.
Priscilla: Yes, and even last night our daughter called our attention to something that we do. We’re learning.
Dave: That’s always fun isn’t it when they call attention.
Ann: It’s never ending.
Priscilla: Yes, never ending.
Dave: Thank God for adult kids, right?
Priscilla: You forgot to talk about Cooper and Peanut and Rugger.
Phil: We have three dogs.
Dave: —Cooper, Peanut and what?
Phil: Rugger, yes.
Priscilla: Yes. They seem to like to run away so all of our neighbors know our dogs.
Dave: Really. You’ve got to get a thing called an electric fence.
Phil: Well, it’s a bit of an issue. It’s a big lot and it’s hard to get them corralled.
Dave: Forget that. Yes, we’ve got that, and I tried it on myself, and it works.
Phil: It works. [Laughter]
Dave: It’s really, really scary. But we started talking about a secret. Let’s walk through your story because your book starts at the beginning of your story and takes us on a journey.
I want to take our listeners on the journey we’ve been—and hopefully they’ll pick up your book and read it as well. I’m telling you, “You need to pick up this book and read it and share it with a lot of people.”
Ann: But Priscilla, it started out with a phone call from a video store, so it dates a little bit back. How long ago was that? How long had you been married at that point?
Priscilla: We had been married ten years.
Ann: Take us back to that day.
Priscilla: I was just running around the house doing what you do, and the phone rang. I went to it and the young lady asked, “You didn’t turn in your videos.”
I was like, “Videos? I didn’t rent any videos this weekend,” so I asked her what movies they were. She gave the titles, and I couldn’t recognize any of them. So, I said, “Let me ask Phil.”
I called him at work, and I just immediately asked him, “Did you check out some videos this past weekend?” So that’s how it all started.
Ann: By the title of the movies, did you have any inclination of the type of movies he had rented?
I asked. After she told me the titles I said, “What are they rated?” and she told me they were X-rated. I go, “Huh, we don’t rent those.” Then that’s when I called him right after that.
Ann: In your gut did you think, “Oh, this is a mistake?”
Ann: You did; like, “There’s no way.”
Priscilla: Yes, that’s why I called him. I go, “If I call him and he’s going to say, ‘No, I didn’t rent anything,’ I could immediately call them back and say, ‘I don’t know what you guys are doing but something is not right with this.’”
But that’s not what he said. He immediately said, “I’m going to be home in five minutes.”
Ann: When he didn’t say, “It wasn’t me,” and he said, “I’ll be home,” what went through your mind and heart?
Priscilla: That he was guilty.
Ann: What did you feel?
Priscilla: I felt a panic come on; like your heart is beating really fast—I just knew in my gut something wasn’t right, and anger—anger had always been my defense and there was anger there.
Ann: So, Phil, you walk in the door—
Dave: Go back to the phone call when you realize your wife has just found out your secret.
Phil: It’s like every guy’s worst nightmare that’s involved in watching porn, right? Because you are constantly living a lie to make sure nobody finds out your secret. Now she’s found out, so I leave. I don’t know what to tell her on the phone, but I think I need a little time to figure out how I can cover this up, make it better.
We only lived about 15 minutes from work so on the way home—I walked in the door, and I could tell that this was going to be a tough conversation. Instead of trying to just spin it, I had to tell her “I did watch those movies.”
Dave: You just came out and said, “It was me.”
Phil: I did, and it was terrible. Her reaction was bad, but we very quickly got to a point where we were going to—I needed to get it fixed. Well, you told me I needed to get it fixed.
Priscilla: Yes, I said, “You get this fixed. I’m not going to live like this.”
Phil: So, I did what every, I think, what every Christian guy did. I went out and hired a counsellor. We agreed that we were not going to tell anybody else; we were going to work on because we were well known at church. We were well known in the community. We just weren’t going to bring this out and share it with everybody.
We both agreed that we were just going to keep it under wraps and I was going to get fixed, and we were hopefully move on with life like so many guys do.
Priscilla: There was really no one to turn to. This was 1998, 1997.
Dave: We know by “video store,” and some of our listeners are like, “What are you talking about?” When you rent a digital movie and you pay for it, we actually had to drive down, get a VHS and return them within two days.
Ann: But you were feeling like “There’s no where to turn.”
Priscilla: There was no where to turn. I mean who do you go talk to about that in 1998?
He was right. It’s like, “Let’s just call up a counselor because they fix things like this.” It was very empty in the sense of there’s no help, there’s no hope, and you are stuck with yourself. The only thing you know how to do is hide. “If we can’t fix it, let’s hide.”
Ann: Priscilla, were you feeling like, “Okay, Phil, this is your problem. Go fix it.” Did you feel that part?
Priscilla: I did feel that part. I did not know what to do with this and it needed to be fixed. I had been exposed to porn, and I was like, “I don’t want this.” So that was why I was so adamant in telling him “This is not going to be a part of our life.”
Phil: But you know even in us looking back on this, there was some distance of “Phil, you go fix this,” but as we have now figured out decades later, some of her porn stuff was “Boy, I don’t want to ask him a lot of questions because—”
Priscilla: “—then I’m going to have to tell him about my stuff.”
Ann: “—expose you own—” yes.
Phil: We were both struggling. It was just my struggle was the one on the table right there. It’s not that you were struggling with porn.
Phil: No, that was history for you.
Phil: But it was still something you didn’t want to disclose.
Priscilla: Right, and I still had those images in my mind. It was ten years into our marriage and they would come up in my mind, too. It’s not like they were gone-gone. They weren’t.
Ann: Did you feel shame about that?
Priscilla: Oh, yes; big shame. Here you are, a pastor’s daughter and a missionary kid and Christian home, and you have this secret. It happened when I was in high school going to go babysit in somebody’s house and they have sex books and Playboy, and you’re just looking at it.
Ann: So, it marked you.
Dave: As you walk out of that conversation, Phil, did you think, “Okay, I’m going to fix this. We’re going to beat this. I’m going to get the counselor. It’s going to be a matter of time but I’m going to win this thing.”
Phil: Yes, I did. I approached it very much like I would approach a client or a business problem: “I’m going to fix it and here’s the path.” She agreed with the path, so I go find the best counselor I can absolutely find in town and start setting up appointments.
I was super forthright with them. Looking back on it I wasn’t 100 percent honest, but I did kind of work the plan through that. I went to him for five and a half years.
Dave: Five and a half years?
Dave: Did you beat it? [Laughter] Priscillas just laughed.
Phil: Yes. [Laughter]
Dave: I guess that’s the answer.
Phil: Five and a half years into this I’m at his office and I said, “Let me ask you a question: What do guys do that’s got this problem? Do we just go to a counselor the rest of our life?”
He said, “Well, frankly, Phil, most guys they get their sin down to a level they think they can manage and then they just stop.”
I said, “You know, I think I’m there. I think I’ve got it down to a pretty low level, and I can just manage it.”
He goes, “Alright.”
I stopped going and I told Priscilla, “I think I’m done with this and we’re moving on. She didn’t know much about what was happening at the counselor’s office. She really didn’t. She wanted to ask questions. I said, “If you keep asking me all these questions, I’m not going to be honest with him if I think I’ve got to tell you everything I’m telling him.
I kind of shut her down and created my own little secret world here with the counselor she didn’t know much about.
Ann: You guys, is that pretty typical, do you think, of someone struggling with porn? It could be men/it could be women. But there is this thought, “I’m just going to get it to a manageable—it’s not that bad,” but they’re still playing with that. Is that pretty typical do you think?
Priscilla: I think so.
Phil: Yes, I’ve heard people refer to everybody deals with a normal level of lust, so you just have to manage it as a guy. That had been my experience going to accountability groups that you walk around the table and everybody’s got the problem, so you just kind of manage it. You get through life and everybody else is doing it and it will be okay.
Dave: I would agree. With the guys that I’ve met with over 30 years/40 years really, in ministry, it’s that story. If you have a men’s group, and I don’t know about women’s groups, I know there’s issues there as well—but I know for men it would be “Go around the table. Who looked at something this week?” Three of the ten did; the other seven were good. Then next week, the other seven did and these three didn’t.
It was like a week or monthly thing, but it wasn’t a completely gone thing. It was sort of like, “Okay, we’ll pray for you. Quit it, and we’ll see you next week.” Am I right?
Dave: Is that sort of what you experienced?
Phil: Yes. We don’t press in. The reason we don’t press in is “I don’t want you to press into me.”
Ann: What do you mean by “press in,” asking deeper questions?
Phil: Yes, yes, like they said, “Yes, I struggled a little bit last week.” Everybody goes, “Okay, yes, we struggled.” Then somebody might say, “What happened?”
You say, “Well, I looked at some porn on a site. I was messing with my computer.”
Nobody says, “What were you looking at specifically? What was the genre? What was the trigger that took you there? How is that playing out in your marriage now? Is that what you looked at, is that showing up in your sex life with your wife now?”
We never press in deeply, and the reason we don’t is we don’t want anybody to ask us the questions.
Dave: Yes, and I also found that—because we’ve talked about this a little bit—but when I admitted to my church early when we started a church that I had struggled with porn—this is 1990—I had guys want to meet with me and that was their struggle. So, they felt like, “Oh, I can talk to Dave about this.”
I learned over hundreds of meetings, and I never told a guy this, but when I listened to their story the first time they would met with me, I told Ann—I would never tell her any details—but I’d say, “I met with a guy,” and I’d just start counseling other guys, “If somebody comes to you to confess their porn struggle, you can multiply it by ten or a hundred. Whatever they are telling you, multiply it times 50, because they are not going to tell you what’s really happening. They’re going to say, “I struggled with porn this week,” and nobody asks, “Well, what’s that mean?”
Ann: That’s depressing.
Dave: That’s scary.
Ann: I’m thinking, as a spouse, as a wife, I’m hearing “What they told you? There’s more. It’s deeper? There’s probably more stuff going on?”
Dave: I’m guessing that’s true about any sin.
Priscilla: It is.
Dave: But definitely in this area.
Priscilla: It is. It’s like releasing the pressure; like a valve, just enough so that you feel better that I confess something. Then you shut it, and then you continue on.
Dave: Rarely do you get to the root.
Phil and Priscilla: Right.
Dave: Why are you doing this?
Ann: That’s what you by mean by “pressing in.”
Dave: You deal with the symptoms. You deal with the behavior; like it sounds like you did with your counselor a little bit. But do you ever dig in there and say, “What’s going on here?”
Phil: I think we’ve even soft peddled the whole term. It seems like the Christian culture has gotten to a place that says we’re comfortable with saying we have a porn problem because everybody deals with a normal level of lust—that’s what people think, right?
Since porn is mainstream now and lots of lots of people watch it with no guilt whatever, they feel safer in saying that.
Ann: As Phil was sharing that, Priscilla, I was thinking when Dave revealed to me that he had a secret, that he’d been struggling with porn, I had my own amount of shame and my own amount of self-doubt; my own amount of “Of course, because I’m not enough.”
Did you deal with any of that?
Priscilla: Yes, I mean when he confessed to me that he had this problem with porn, immediately it’s because I wasn’t enough for him. I already had low self esteem with my sexuality of going into marriage not being really prepared in that area. Now someone tells me that “I’m going somewhere else because—” and I had no idea what his problems were - the root, so for me it was all about me. I was not good enough.
Ann: Me, too.
Priscilla: I didn’t have enough experience so; therefore, I have to go find somebody else.
Ann: That’s hard. Who do you go to with that as a woman? To share, “Oh, my husband’s having this issue,” and I feel like that there weren’t a lot of places back then to talk about that.
Priscilla: So, you stuff that down. You stuff all of those feelings of inadequacy, anger, fear, and you actually live in denial for years. That’s what basically I did for 17 years.
Ann: Seventeen years after the video incident what happened then?
Phil: For 17 years, unbeknownst to her—I had convinced her all my porn problems were gone, right.
Priscilla: We didn’t talk about it.
Phil: We didn’t talk about it.
Ann: You just never talked about it.
Priscilla: Yes, and he’s done with counseling, so therefore it’s okay and “Okay, we’ll just live like that.”
Phil: We’ll just bury it and keep going.
What happened, as porn is something that is insidious because it’s never satisfied. It’s like a drug, and you are looking for the next high.
That keeps going to different levels of pornography, but sooner or later it showed up in my life with, I was traveling, I went to a massage parlor at a name brand hotel and had a massage that turned into more than a massage. It became sexual in nature. I was extremely ashamed of it. I went and prayed and repented and everything else. But then it kept happening.
I got to a place where it had gone beyond just the pornography and images in my mind to a real person. It crossed a line. I said, “Well, I do this but I never ever [am] going to have a real person involved.”
It went there and it became something as part of my life, not every day or every week or even every month, but it was a periodic cycle that lasted for about seven years.
Ann: Phil, after you would fall into this, you would fall into sin, I’m guessing you said you would repent or feel bad. Did you think, “I’ll never do it again”?
Phil: It’s hard to think you’re going to never do it again, because it’s such an addiction, right? It really is. It’s like, “I’ve got to try to minimize this. I feel terrible about it.” But to say, “Do you think you can ever get to a place you will never do this again?” it was almost beyond my reach.
Ann: You were beyond the hope of that.
Phil: —beyond the hope. Yes, you kind of lose all hope on that because of the history. You have to get to a place where you are just absolutely disgusted in your life where you no longer want to live like this and ask God to come in and change you.
Dave: Priscilla, did you have any idea?
Priscilla: I did not. I was completely blindsided by his admission. I was just floored that he could do something like that; something that I had really thought we had gotten over, but that he could—not that there’s a difference—I still believe that watching porn is an infidelity of sorts because you are not thinking of your wife; you are thinking of someone else—but for him to say that he crossed that line to go to the massage parlor, that is a person, so to me it was even deeper.
This was a betrayal of the utmost. It was a person, and I was a basket case after that with how I felt about him and what was going on.
Dave: You’ve kept this secret for quite a while. Why did you finally tell Priscilla? What happened?
Phil: I got to a place that I was super disgusted with my life. I felt—I don’t think I was ever suicidal—but you kind of get to a place that you say, “This life really isn’t that much interesting.”
I remember telling you one time, Priscilla, that “If something happens to me you guys would probably be better off. You could live here with the kids. You’ve got a life planned out. My life is just kind of hum drum.”
Ann: Were you successful in your field and career?
Phil: I was. Yes, I was really successful and all that. But it’s this piece on constantly this cycle of feeling terrible and needing to repent and never feeling like you’re going to get past it, that really had me in a place of despair.
I cried out to God and I asked Him, “I need a rescue out of this, and I don’t know how to get out of this. I’ve tried everything; I’ve been to counselors, I’ve had apps on my phone, I’ve done you-name-it.”
If I asked you “How do you get free from this?”, I will have done the top nine things on your list of ten probably. I just couldn’t get free. But what I wanted was an instantaneous healing; like, I go to the church two cities over. Maybe I respond to an altar call. I go down and somebody maybe they’d hit me on the head and I’d fall down. I don’t know what happens, right, but I’m instantaneous—
Dave: You wanted it quick.
Phil: I wanted it quick. That’s just not what God had for me. He did have a healing, but it wasn’t quick and it wasn’t instantaneous.
I had gone on a trip, and I came back from it and I thought I had noticed some symptoms that led me to believe I had contracted an STD, and it scared me to death. The terror that gripped my heart, because I knew—I mean I have put her through all sorts of stuff emotionally, but I knew I couldn’t hurt her physically. I knew I would have to tell her.
It turned out that it wasn’t an STD, but I thought it was. That was enough to push me.
Ann: Were you petrified to tell her?
Phil: I was. I was absolutely terrified. I thought I could lose my marriage; I thought I could lose my job; I thought I could maybe lose all my kids. I was chairman of the elders at my church. I was just—lots of leadership roles and recognition in the community. I just—it absolutely terrified me.
Dave: The fact that Priscilla is sitting here with you now means we’ve got to hear the rest of the story.
Dave: We’re out of time. I’m telling you, if you are listening and you are like, “Woah, woah, wait!” you’ve got to wait until tomorrow because we’re going to go into part two tomorrow.
Shelby: You are listening to Dave and Ann Wilson with Phil and Priscilla Fretwell on FamilyLife Today.
If you want to hear all the intense details of the Fretwell’s story, they wrote a book called Savage Marriage: Triumph over Betrayal and Sexual Addiction. You can pick up a copy at FamilyLifeToday.com to hear how God redeemed their story.
Speaking of secrets, you might have told a few to your young ones who might be questioning the birds and the bees. Well, if this is you, we have something special to offer you as a way to help. When you give any amount this week, we want to ship you a copy of Justin and Lindsey Holcombe’s book, God Made Babies: Helping Parents Answer the Baby Question.
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Now the once perfect life that Phil and Priscilla had is about to take another hard turn. Tomorrow Dave and Ann are joined by the Fretwells, as Phil is now forced to go into the details with Priscilla about the possible STD he might have. Their story continues 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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