**Side note—When I read the title to my husband, he said, “Do you really have to explain that? Isn’t it obvious?” The answer is that I don’t think it’s obvious enough, because men get socialized so differently than women. As much as they try, I think they have a hard time understanding the pain of felt betrayal and rejection that can be associated with pornography. Too often it is minimized.
Anyone practicing as a marriage therapist nowadays is going to have clients in which pornography is presented as a problem in the marriage by one or both spouses, regardless of religious belief. Whenever sexuality comes up in marriage therapy (which is almost always), it’s a complex topic with varying emotions, histories, experiences, desires and outcomes. Every situation is a little different. However, a somewhat typical presentation is one in which a husband is or has been viewing pornography and his wife feels betrayed by his behaviors and has a decreased desire to engage sexually with him. I want to attempt to explain why I think a husband’s pornography use can be so painful for women, and why I think it’s hard for men to understand why it’s so rejecting.
From the moment they are born, females get consistent messages that they are being evaluated by their looks. The message is, “Be pretty.” One of my earliest memories of elementary school is standing in line near my teacher and hearing my friend ask my teacher, “Ms. Hoffmann, do you think Lori’s pretty?” I remember feeling a sense of panic and watching my teacher carefully to hear her answer. “Yes,” she answered—what else was she going to say with me standing right there? I wondered why my friend was asking her when she followed up with, “Because I think she’s pretty.” I remember experiencing an emotion I hadn’t experienced before—fear that I wasn’t going to look good enough—fear that I wasn’t going to BE enough. The message I got was clear—People were evaluating me based on my appearance—something over which I had limited control.
In junior high, the messages about image intensify. Females are judged constantly and harshly on every aspect of appearance. Boys comment on body parts continually. This is the age at which some girls decide not to be “too smart,” and focus more on how they look. Social rejection related to looks is painful. Anyone who thinks this doesn’t happen more for girls than boys hasn’t been to a secondary school lately. Once when I got the highest score in the class on a chemistry test, I was horrified, worrying that someone was going to find out it was me, because our scores were graded on a curve. When one young man did find out, he said, “Lori Cluff’s too cute to be that smart.” Whether I was that cute or that smart was debatable, but his statement represented the predominant message for females in our culture. The message I got was that I needed to work harder to hide academic achievement to gain social approval.
Fortunately, I had a father who valued competency above appearance, but sadly, for many girls, any dimension of competency is underrated in comparison to their looks. Also, my father’s voice was influential but was often easily lost in the surrounding cultural message. It didn’t matter if I outperformed all but two boys in my high school cohort on every academic measure—it didn’t matter if I studied the piano enough for my teacher to encourage me toward a music major—it mattered if I looked good. Boys, conversely, are more frequently praised for their performances rather than their ornamental values. They simply don’t experience the same pressure about appearance, which I believe makes it harder for them to understand as men how deeply their porn use can hurt their wives.
As women age, the messages don’t get any better. Aging is to be feared because it makes you ugly. In my late 30’s, after my mother experienced serious heart health issues, I went to the library to check out every book I could on aging and health, determined to learn how to use exercise and nutrition to try to attain a better quality of life than she was experiencing. The female librarian recognized me from my previous frequent visits. She took at a look at my books and comforted, “Oh, honey—I always thought you were the prettiest girl.” I smiled wanly and thought, “What does that have to do with it?” It didn’t even occur to her that my concern was my physical health and not my looks. I can promise that if my husband walked up to the library counter with the same books, the assumption would be that he was trying to preserve his physical condition and not that he was clinging to his hotness factor.
Not only are women CONSTANTLY evaluated on how they look, but they are CONSTANTLY compared, implicitly and explicitly, as a group. Marketers target women by inciting insecurity to fuel consumerism—very effectively–so effectively that it’s rare to find a female who thinks she is skinny enough, toned enough, glamorous enough, pretty enough, sexual enough, young enough, shapely enough, perfect enough, flawless enough, enough ENOUGH. At age 5, I sat in front of the mirror wondering how I could get my hair to change to black like Snow White. I asked my mom if we could make my hair black, and she acted confused. My response came from comparing myself to the iconic Disney princess. Now, the pressure is SO much greater—with SO many more princesses to compare.
Disney princesses are literally child’s play when juxtaposed with the pressure elicited from pornography where surgically altered bodies are the norm. When prevailing female cosmetic insecurity meets the porn industry in marriage, the result can be devastating. In a relationship in which a female felt presumably safe and reasonably confident (not entirely—because let’s not get too crazy or unrealistic), suddenly she has to worry again about her appearance in a big way. Having a husband who is viewing porn can trigger every self-doubt a women has ever had about how she looks. In short, it’s common for a woman to conclude, “If he has to look at porn (other women), I must not be enough.”
Now, think about wanting to be sexual with a spouse who doesn’t think you are enough. For most couples, sexuality is an area of utmost vulnerability. I have often said that if you really want to destroy your marriage, criticize your spouse’s sexual performance. Both men and women are usually highly sensitive to evaluations of their sexuality, which is entwined with desirability. I have seen men withdraw from sex in a big way based on one performance-related comment. Women withdraw similarly when they find out their husbands have been hiding a porn-viewing habit.
In short, being married to someone who is viewing pornography can feel threatening to the attachment safety in a relationship. Part of attachment security is knowing that one is “enough,” for one’s partner. I believe that pornography can strike so deeply for women because intensely socialized insecurities (physical appearance) are combined with an intensely vulnerable aspect (sex) of the relationship.
Another important facet of attachment is predictability in a partner. Usually the deception that has accompanied porn use completely erodes trust. Commonly, women have reported discovering a partner’s hidden porn habit as a trauma and/or an infidelity. Many become afraid and hypervigilant and disconnected sexually and emotionally from their partners. Women repeatedly tell me that they can’t have sex without wondering what images of other women are flashing in their husbands’ minds. Building safety back into the relationship can be a slow process.
An important step in healing is to try as much as is possible to understand a partner’s experience. To understand better, ask your wife what messages she got about her appearance growing up and how pornography impacts those messages. Then, really listen and see if you relate. Be honest.
Wives’ Experience of Husbands’ Pornography Use and Concomitant Deception as an Attachment Threat in the Adult Pair-Bond Relationship by Spencer T. Zitzman and Mark H. Butler (2009), in Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity, 16(3), 210-240.
Photo credit: Copyright: kosmos111 / 123RF Stock Photo