What’s the big deal about pornography in a marriage? Well, so long as both spouses are in agreement about using it then it may not be a problem. However, my professional experience has demonstrated that most couples aren’t in agreement with pornography use because one spouse is usually NOT okay with the other one using it. Most often the spouse who isn’t using it is the one most bothered by the use of it. Now that’s not really a surprise is it? As a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist (LMFT) and a Certified Sex Addiction Therapist (CSAT) for the past 13 years this is an issue that I have dealt with on an almost daily basis with my clients. So let’s discuss five potentially harmful things about pornography in a marriage.
- Pornography can imprint physical and sexual expectations on the viewer that are unrealistic.
Just like watching a blockbuster superhero movie is an exciting form of entertainment depicting totally unrealistic scenarios and superhuman abilities, so too is pornography a titillating form of entertainment depicting unrealistic physical, sexual and relational expectations for couples. There really is no competing with something someone has taken time to present for the sole purpose of eliciting instant sexual arousal. Whereas most people who watch a superhero movie are able to leave the theater and not expect their spouse to become Thor, Iron Man or Wonder Woman, the same cannot be said for pornography in many cases. Viewers over time continue to have ongoing unattainable perspectives of what to expect from their spouse and their physical/sexual interactions with them.
- Pornography can impact the self-esteem and sense of attractiveness in the partner who is not viewing it.
Far too often a spouse affected by their partner’s pornography use has told me how deeply hurtful it was to their sense of self-worth and attractiveness to their spouse. “How can I compare to what they see on the screen? How can I compare to a woman/man so much younger than me with the fit, tight body? If that’s what my spouse really wants, how can I ever feel attractive to him/her?” Just a sampling of the internal emotional battles that the hurt spouse experiences.
- Pornography can elicit shame in the user.
Countless are the times that a person has sat in front of me and described the deep-seeded shame and guilt they feel for using pornography. Even though it provides a sexual hit when they use it, the unintended and undesired result quite often is a sense of shame for doing something that–on some level–they feel goes against their core values, and almost always goes against the expected boundaries and commitments of their marriage.
- Pornography can lead to dishonesty and deception in the user.
Most people already have a sense that their partner likely wouldn’t be comfortable with them using pornography, so they use it privately or secretly without their partner knowing. As a result, they feel compelled to be dishonest about their use of it and make up stories about what they’ve been doing, where they have been or who they have been with. They do this to account for the times when they weren’t emotionally or relationally available due to time spent using pornography. When asked by their spouse about possible concerns or potential discoveries of their use of pornography, they often present themselves as offended and/or angry at the mere suggestion. In our clinical circles we call this gaslighting or crazy-making because the spouse who is inquiring is led to feel crazy that they even had the thoughts. Spouses tend to have an inclination to trust their spouse instead of their gut initially. That is human nature, to wish to believe what one hopes for rather than what they fear.
- Pornography can result in emotional disconnection in a marriage.
When one partner is secretly/dishonestly utilizing pornography for individual purposes at the expense of marital connection and relationship intimacy, they often become distant and disconnected from their spouse’s needs and desires. That emotional disconnection can result in increased use of pornography and so neither partner receives what they genuinely need: to have someone they can rely on, count on to be there, and consistently open up to in vulnerable ways. Dishonesty breeds disconnection, resentment, hurt and anger.
Five signs your partner might be using pornography:
- Your spouse is spending more time on social media and technology.
- Your spouse is less emotionally available for communication, sex, courtship and the like.
- Your spouse is more critical of you and you often feel their disappointment and grievances overtly and/or covertly.
- You have thoughts, suspicions and/or a gut feeling that something just doesn’t feel right about what your spouse is doing or what they say they’ve been doing. They give you answers that don’t make sense or feel credible.
- Your spouse is more defensive and reactive to your emotional hurts and concerns.
So what can a couple do if pornography is discovered to be a part of one of the spouse’s lives?
Quite simply the answer is communication. Often the betrayed and hurt spouse finds themselves becoming more and more reluctant to address it or bring it up. Yet that is quite the opposite of what is most effective. Though the user of pornography may try to gaslight and confuse their partner, it is imperative that the one who is feeling hurt, betrayed and concerned be consistent in their expression of hurt and pain to their spouse. To express why they’re feeling it without feeling the need to have solid evidence to back up their concern. Often it’s important for the betrayed and hurting spouse to connect with a small circle of support people that can be helpful, compassionate and non-judgmental of either party in this situation. There are many support groups available for hurting spouses as well as for the spouse who is using pornography (SA, SAA, SLAA, SANON, POSA, CODA for example). Accountability for the one who used pornography is vital. And just as important is the support and guidance that other people who are dealing with a betraying spouse using pornography can offer to the betrayed spouse. Empathy from that kind of a community is vital to helping that partner stay strong, confident and firm in their determination to disrupt and change their behavior with pornography. A clear conversation about the expectations around sexuality, fidelity, pornography and intimacy is imperative. Both partners need to be clear as to what they do or don’t support, why and what their non-negotiables are. Often these conversations can be facilitated and enhanced by a qualified therapist or counselor experienced in dealing with sexual betrayals in a marriage.
Do your best to stay grounded and put a premium on self-care choices. Though difficult and unsettling, strive to maintain a positive outlook, an openness for help and support and above all (both parties) seek to be curious and inquisitive about each other so that empathetic attachment and connection can be preserved in the midst of a distressing and painful process. There is usually so much more going on in both spouses. Seek to understand one another. Work hard to avoid judgement and blame (both of you). And don’t forget to let yourselves play and have fun. This can often be a longer process to heal than most prefer… so mixing in a healthy dose of play and fun is critical to sanity and endurance.
*And just FYI… Thor is my favorite Superhero!
Mark Bell, LMFT, CSAT
To learn more about Mark Bell, LMFT, CSAT and his amazing work, you can go to his website: https://www.arizonafamilyinstitute.com/mesa-arizona/therapists/mark-bell.html