Couples, Couples Therapy, marriage, Marriage and Family Therapy

What You Have to Offer that Pornography Does Not: A Message to Women

finger couple

Note: Even though both males and females may hurt their partners with pornography use, this article is directed toward a typical couple presentation with a male user.  Because this post has been misunderstood a number of times, I want to point out that my overall point is that human connection is a large part of the antidote to addictive behaviors, and when men are in active individual porn recovery, women need to understand that they offer the ability to connect in a way porn does not.  I realize that many men who have learned to cope by choosing to numb themselves out by using porn or other substances may not respond to the availability of connection.  I am concerned that women start believing they have to provide or become pornography to keep their partners from using, and that is a losing battle.  You cannot compete with pornography from a visual standpoint, because the images are supranormal.  You do have an advantage in the long-term recovery process, however, by being a three-dimensional person.  If you would like additional clarification, I would be happy to hear from you.  This post wasn’t written frivolously–Having seen couples in therapy since 1989, I am a witness to how pornography has proliferated and hurt marriages in the last few decades.  I’m not naive to its lure. Women are not responsible for men’s porn use, and men have individual responsibility to stop using it, but committed relationships provide one of the best contexts to heal from its use.  

I sighed as I sat across from an impeccably dressed, doe-eyed female client.  She was tearfully explaining how she didn’t think she could ever bring herself to be physically safe with her husband again after finding out that he had been viewing pornography, even though he was actively involved in individual and group therapy to discontinue its use and had achieved several months of sobriety. He was working very hard to change the destructive pattern in his life and in his marriage.  As she wept, she made her message clear, “How am I ever supposed to feel close to him again after knowing what he has been viewing on the computer?…I mean…I can’t compete with that…I can’t compete with those women.”

I answered without missing a beat, “Those women can’t compete with themselves either—first because they are false images, implanted, airbrushed and otherwise enhanced and second because one pornographic image of an individual isn’t satisfying over the long term.  That is exactly why a pornography habit is not characterized by viewing one ‘perfect,’ female, but by repeatedly seeking novel images designed to fuel an insatiable need for the next sexual high.”

My heart ached for her as she sobbed, and I momentarily yearned for the year 1989, before the internet provided such easy access to pornography which was wreaking havoc in so many marriages.  I handed her a tissue, leaned in close and waited for her to make eye contact with me.  I wanted to make sure that when I responded to her, she was tuned in and emotionally regulated enough to hear me.  I spoke slowly and carefully to emphasize a message I believed in, but which I knew was counter to popular culture.

I lowered my voice for emphasis.  “As a female, I know about the prevailing messages you hear around you all the time in our image-driven society.  I know pornography is everywhere and it feels hopeless.  However, I must adamantly disagree with what you just said, and I hope you, or at least a part of you will be able to hear me.  I must tell you that I see something quite different than you do from my work with couples.  The way I see it, you actually have a huge advantage over pornography.  You are a three-dimensional person who has the capacity to be a connected friend and lover in a way that pornography never can.  Ultimately, pornography cannot furnish what you can potentially provide in a relationship.  It leaves its users dissatisfied.  You actually have the ultimate competitive advantage over pornography.  The trick is to leverage those advantages.”

Don’t misunderstand me.  I’m not naïve.  I’m deeply aware of the proliferation and ubiquitous use of pornography and its resistance to treatment.   I’m familiar with the neuroscience explaining some of the powerful reinforcing properties of internet porn and its associations with a unique physically rewarding delivery system, shaping the brain in profound ways.  I have seen too many cases displaying some of the long-term effects of its use, and the relapses which so frequently plague its users.

However, I reject the fear-mongering which routinely accompanies reports of pornography use, because I believe in many ways we give pornography more power than it deserves.  Overwhelm and hopelessness generate powerlessness, and in couple relationships, this is death in the form of ultimate disconnection.  When women believe they “can’t compete,” with porn, they often hand themselves over to sexless, friendless, lonely marriages, further victimizing themselves.

A typical scenario is one in which a husband is either caught or volunteers the information that he has been viewing porn.  Since this is a betrayal of the committed sexual relationship in the eyes of many women, they end up feeling deeply wounded.  They don’t understand the porn use.  They make sense of it by believing that they were somehow not “enough,” for their husbands.  They can’t be physically intimate without worrying about what their husbands have been viewing, and if they are measuring up.  If they have struggled to be engaged sexual partners, this exacerbates the personal feelings of failure.  It is so painful, that they often just disengage from any attempt at a couple physical relationship at all.

Even though they aren’t ever to blame for their partners’ porn use, the withdrawal often increases the probability of a husband viewing pornography again to medicate the loneliness, which leads to more betrayal, and on the cycle goes.  Both partners end up ultimately lonely and isolated and feel helpless about how to fix it.  Husbands don’t know how to fix the betrayal in the past and wives don’t know how to ever trust their husbands or feel like they are “enough,” making sexual contact too risky.

I do not want to minimize the pain and complexity in a marriage with a history of porn use. These situations are deeply personal and intense, highly nuanced, and often layered with sexual traumas and other sexual impediments.  However, I believe it is a movement toward healing for women to realize how much they have to offer their long-term committed partners that pornography cannot offer.  In a sense, I am hoping women will take their power back.  This isn’t meant to pin the responsibility for healing on the female partners, but to help them access hope that recovery is possible, and to increase their recognition of their unique value in long-term relationships.

Here’s just a quick, off-the-cuff list of things a real committed partner can provide in a relationship that pornography cannot:

  1. Words of reassurance
  2. An intellectual discussion about an idea
  3. A walk together
  4. A pick-up tennis match
  5. A recreational bike ride
  6. A shoulder rub
  7. A sincere, spontaneous compliment
  8. An inside joke
  9. A list of meaningful memories
  10. A photo album of days of yore
  11. Real friendship
  12. Actual skin-to-skin contact, promoting the release of specific “bonding hormones.”

My experience leads me to believe that both males and females alike ultimately want to feel emotionally and physically connected to their long-term partners.  However, as life happens, they often get detached, and when porn is accessed by one of the partners, the ensuing betrayal makes it seem nearly impossible for them to find their way back to connection.  I know it is painful, but giving up is not the answer.

Really, as a first step, we must stop giving pornography so much power. 

Pornography is in no way improving the overall quality of sexual relationships, but rather diminishing it.  We are so flooded with sexual images that much of the mystery that historically fuels excitement is absent.   In that regard, we are all victims, male and female alike.

We can improve our relationships by focusing on the unique aspects of real bonded togetherness which pornography completely lacks.  Couples can also begin generating new conversations and new experiences together in order to unite against pornography, leaving it behind.

Again, the road may be long and rocky and likely circuitous, but there is a way back to recovery.

Choose one item from the list above and start taking your relationship power back today!  Exercise your relationship power in a way that pornography cannot.

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12 thoughts on “What You Have to Offer that Pornography Does Not: A Message to Women”

    1. We are wired to be attracted to others–that’s not unusual, but people who value their long-term monogamous relationships must also make decisions in favor of preserving the relationship at times. If the relationship is secure, people are more likely to sacrifice for their partners. They are less likely to do so if the overall relationship is strained. People make decisions to put their relationships at risk everyday, but it’s not recommended for relationship preservation. Exploring novelty within the relationship might be a substitute for some people.

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  1. This is all good and well . So if us women are to see that we offer so much more than potn and therefore should be valued more highly , why is it men so seldom see this and choose to put their desire for porb above our feelings
    Where is their responsibility in treating women as if we are more importbat than porn , as if our feelings matter .
    It’s fine to tell a woman she offers so much more than porn but very hard for her to believe when her husband chooses porn over Her feelings repeatedly
    I would argue that its a form of abuse and asking a wife who is hurting to just believe she offers more is like telling a beaten women that he doesn’t really mean it and she is a worthwhile person . Of course she is , but it changes nothing until men change their behaviours and start treating women they claim to love as if we matter.

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    1. I’m afraid you are misunderstanding the intent of my post. I’m aware that it is painful to be married to someone who has been viewing pornography, and I don’t advocate it ever in a marriage because it becomes a competing attachment to the marriage, just like drugs, alcohol, infidelity, technological affairs, work, video games, hobbies, etc. can be, becoming more important than the spouse in a marriage. Also, any ongoing addiction, affair or abuse is unacceptable. I’m not saying here that pornography is acceptable or that men shouldn’t be held responsible. Anyone who has ever been in therapy with me knows that. The reality of healing any kind of addiction, though, is that real human connection is a huge part of the antidote, regardless of the addiction, and pornography certainly contains enough addictive properties to be in this category of behaviors. My intent is that to ever heal a marriage, women first need to believe that they have something to offer that pornography does not, and that thing is REAL human connection. This post is written for people who want to heal their marriages whose husbands are in active recovery. Of course, if a husband continues to view pornography, he will never be safe at all and the wife won’t be able to ever believe she can attach to him. I am concerned that too many women are just buying into the lie that they need to compete with or become pornography, which is impossible anyway. Here is a TED talk explaining how human connection is the antidote to addiction: http://www.ted.com/talks/johann_hari_everything_you_think_you_know_about_addiction_is_wrong?language=en

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      1. I agree with your comments to women to boost up their self-esteem. But most porn users are not getting therapy and won’t. In fact, society totally accepts the use in spite of the damage it does to their relationships and partners . The myth put forth to justify it is that men have such a strong sex drive their partner is not enough to satisfy their desires. men have even come to prefer porn to their women and actually no longer want the responsibility of marriage and monogamy. It is a celebration of male right to selfishness. Porn further causes disrespect of women, adultery, violence, and divorce. Men stupidly keep it secret thinking women won’t find out. They want to hold onto the respect they have received from women. Porn use is shameful and embarrassing for good reason. It diminishes men’s ability to have fully satifying sex with real women. So it robs men of their masculinity and full desire to give women. Women do not get the full focus from men they deserve and damages how well men perform
        sexually with them. When women realize what has happened, they lose both their sexual desire and respect toward the men. They become pathetic weakings to the women, with no self control. The respect men are said to need even over love evaporates.

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      2. I agree with everything you said. Unless men are in full recovery, nothing changes. Unfortunately, you are correct that most of society condones pornography use and doesn’t acknowledge the detrimental effects. Many of my clients are from a conservative religious population in which many of the men are in treatment to recover from pornography, but this is likely not representative of the population at large. Active porn use diminishes individuals and relationships in all the ways you identified.

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  2. My long term boyfriend and I have been fighting for 6 months about sex. In the beginning it was just that we weren’t having it enough. Then we started fighting about small things that didn’t matter, which always led to the fight about sex. It was always an uncomfortable conversation for him and then slowly I was able to uncover that he felt pressure to perform. I didn’t realize until recently that we had fallen into a cycle of fighting and it became a threat to our relationship. Every failed effort on my part diminished my confidence to try again. Every time he saw I was hurt he felt that he wasn’t close to me and didn’t even want to try.

    He believes he is not attracted to me in the sexually desirable way because of porn. And that he has me on a pedestal and feels that it is shameful to think about me in that way. During the fights his side was always the same – that the fighting didn’t help and it made him feel less close. He was hopeful that it would be okay if we just focused on our relationship and bonding and having fun ( a lot of what you’ve said).

    I’ve stopped here to comment because this is the only thread I’ve come across that dicusses the power of human connection. I personally don’t have a problem with him viewing porn but I do see that it has a negative impact on our relationship. We stopped fighting and we are just trying to be happy without sex. I realized I was too focused on wanting to have sex “regularly” than listening to what he said would help him. I want to believe it will because the alternative is leaving him and who is to say the next guy won’t have the same addiction. Porn is everywhere. Aside from that I love him and I’m happy …but for this one thing.

    My concern is that he still watches porn and doesn’t think stopping will make a difference. More than anything I want to stop fighting about this so I’ve let the sex thing go for now. Our relationship is great other than a this issue. We spend a lot of quality time together and are constantly touching. We respect one another.

    Although we’re not married I want to make this relationship work. There is definitely an added pressure though because we are not married. I’m just not sure when it is time to call it quits.

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    1. The sad reality is that pornography viewing can affect sexual performance, and sexual bonding is an important part of a close romantic relationship, so if he doesn’t see that it impacts the relationship and you see that it does, you might have to make a difficult decision about whether or not you can continue a relationship that doesn’t feel entirely safe and predictable in that sense. Unfortunately, this is happening more and more.

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  3. Hi Lori, I appreciate the intention of your post however I can’t help but note that all of the things you more can be provided by ‘friends ‘ . A hug , memories , inside jokes . That’s all friendship. Nothing different . The hormones from touch can be released from parent/child contact , friend contact .
    What many of us women want to offer our men is sexual desirability . The desire that they give to the women in porn and herein lies the issue for many of us . The very special unique thing that we should be providing to our parter SOLEY … He decides to get from other women . Visual and sexual stimulation and unfortunately that CANNOT just be overlooked simply by the fact we can also have relationships with these men just like we can with other people in our lives .
    We want something deeper with our husbands ! Something that included OUR unique gift of OUR special and sacred sexuality and the sharing of our body . When they use porn they reduce this to less than meaningless and no amount of ‘friendship ‘ heals that wound

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    1. I completely agree with you. The sexual system is one of the unique facets of romantic attachment relationships. The reason I did not address sexual partnership here is that so many women feel violated by pornography when I see them in therapy that it turns them away from sex–sex becomes very triggering. Many of them feel objectified during the sexual act and view themselves as objects or play things. I purposely mentioned things outside of sexuality which can expand other facets of the relationship. A safe, bonded attachment relationship is identified by partners taking turns reaching out to each other for emotional needs (which is sometimes entwined with sexual need) and responding to those needs. As stated at the beginning of the article, healing the attachment injury of pornography assumes sobriety or at least effort on the part of the spouse to understand how it is injurious and to stop that behavior. A partner who continues to view pornography and reject a spouse sexually isn’t safe under any circumstances, and friendship doesn’t replace that. I did not mean to suggest that. I am simply pointing out that ultimately a three-dimensional person offers the level of responsiveness that pornography can’t. Pornography is a pseudo-connection instead of real human connection. Some men will continue to be dismissive in their attachment relationships and choose those pseudo-connections–and they will always be unsafe to partners who are hurt by pornography use. I hope that makes sense.

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