Couples, Couples Therapy, marriage

Why a Husband’s Pornography Use Can be so Painful to so Many Wives

42915540 - offended the wife with her husband playing computer games**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.

Reference:

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

Attachment, Couples, Love, marriage

The Number One Question Men Ask me About their Marriages

man and wife in bed

From time to time, I deliver presentations in the community related to marriage.  I have noticed that a common question comes up repeatedly from the married males in my audiences.  I am asked this question often enough that I am choosing to address it in a blog post.

Before I address the specific question, I want to be clear that I believe these inquiries are coming from individuals in relatively low to moderately-distressed marriages.  Many people in my audiences are feeling well in their marriages and are looking for improving upon what is already a solid foundation.  I’m making that clear because I realize that this point of view isn’t representative of many other marriages which are experiencing more disconnection and outright criticism from their partners.

The question I am asked routinely by men is, “How can I make my wife believe that I really think she is beautiful and I am happy with the way she looks?”  The question is usually followed up by an explanation that the female partner talks regularly about not measuring up when it comes to physical appearance, and expresses a lack of confidence in body image.  Overall, men routinely report diminished quality in physical and emotional intimacy as a result.

This may not seem like a big deal to some people, but it can actually be an enormous barrier to connection in marriage.  When husbands try to compliment or reassure their wives about their physical appearances and it is dismissed, this is actually a form of rejection.  Not only that, but many women tend to self-monitor during physical intimacy, because it feels vulnerable, so this is when many of them focus on their appearances instead of on their partners, and they generate a huge disconnect.  This behavior also reduces their own sexual satisfaction.  If the husband has a history of viewing pornography, there is often increased vulnerability and fear around measuring up to some kind of media-generated, false standard.  In those cases, healing the injury related to porn use may be necessary before developing any kind of real closeness.

In short, I try to explain to men that our culture is particularly toxic to women when it comes to accepted standards of beauty, and it is so pervasive that it is very common for women to worry that they don’t look good enough—especially for those who have experienced permanent alterations with some pregnancy and childbirth experiences.  Then, in the brief period of time I have to address the question, I try to explain to men how they can communicate to their wives how this negative self-talk affects them and keeps them from being able to get close, e.g. “When I tell you I like the way you look and you say, ‘I don’t believe you,’ it leaves me with no way to get closer to you, which feels lonely somehow,” (or something similar—if I have time, I will find out specifically from the husband how it impacts him and help him find language for that).

With the negative messages women receive about body image, it’s actually amazing that any of us has a shred of confidence with a body that hasn’t had cosmetic surgical intervention.  As a mother of 7 children and who hasn’t had cosmetic surgery procedures, I completely understand.  However, I want to be a voice for how damaging it can be to our marriages when we allow ourselves to be victimized by the dominant negative messages about appearance.

Women are not completely powerless.  Here are a few things to do prevent negative body image talk from disrupting marriage.

  • Recognize the negative impact the media and broad culture have on appearance and body image (with no sign of retreat). In short, we are in a consumer culture.  Most of the time, people are selling something, and it is basically their job to make you feel like you are lacking.  One of the easiest ways to do this is by preying on outward appearance.  I cannot approach any makeup counter in a major department store without someone tsk-tsking about the crow’s feet developing around my eyes, or some other visible “flaw,” etc., because they want to upsell me some kind of anti-aging miracle cream.  They want me to feel bad about how I look so I will buy more product.  I have been tempted at times to say, “No thank you—I would like to develop as many wrinkles as possible, and I’m afraid that cream will interfere with the process,” just to see what kind of reaction I would get. Pease recognize that you are so much more than your appearance.
  • Have the courage to challenge the false messages of the toxic culture. Prevailing messages often, if not always, have nothing to do with truth.  However, when we are constantly wading through them, we accept them as fact and don’t bother challenging them.  Physical beauty and attraction in marriage is actually influenced by many variables.  So-called objective standards of beauty are not enough to maintain a long-term relationship, and partners can become more or less attractive to each other based on their accumulation of experiences together.
  • Recognize the false messages that the culture teaches about men. Personally, I experience my male clients as far more complex and deep than the media would have us believe.  In popular television shows, movies, etc., men are presented as emotionally dull, unavailable, simple, and almost always hypersexual.  This is insulting to both genders.  It is normative for men to express the desires they have to be close to their wives physically because they feel acceptance and love from their wives in those moments; they do have a harder time becoming emotionally vulnerable, because, quite frankly, our culture socializes (beats) it out of them (I addressed this in an earlier post entitled, “In Defense of Men,” that you can access here).  Men don’t always have the higher sex drive, but when they do, I believe it’s about more than just testosterone levels–men are socialized to seek connection through physical means–it’s a societal norm.  Men are seeking deeper connection with their wives far more than they are given credit for.  Many men have explained to me that if their wives aren’t willing partners, they would rather not be physically close at all, because of the way it makes them feel emotionally to have a disengaged partner.  In the words of more than one husband, “I don’t want to feel like a rapist.  I want to connect with my wife.  I want her to want to be with me.”
  • Recognize the benefits of a close physical relationship. One of our drives as human beings is to have sex, and it’s not gender-specific.  However, men are generally expected to be sexual, and women are expected to be desired.  Women have very limited societal role models for healthy sexuality.  Instead, they are presented with polar opposites of prudes or prostitutes, with no happy medium.  This is unfortunate, since sex is a bonding behavior and can increase overall closeness in a long-term couple relationship.  If women had permission to be sexual, they would likely be more invested in nurturing close physical relationships, despite body type and perceived flaws.
  • Try attuning to your partner instead of self-monitoring in vulnerable moments. When people focus on their own body flaws in intimate moments, they aren’t available to focus on their partners.  This practice of focusing inward is referred to as “spectatoring.”  Non-verbal attunement, which makes up a great deal of physical intimacy, is disrupted.  If tempted to ruminate on that extra ten pounds or the leftover stretch marks, try purposefully attuning to your partner as well as to experienced sensation.  I recommend author Barry McCarthy for books related to physical intimacy.
  • Use mindfulness to shift out of negative self-talk/thoughts. In simplest terms, focus on breathing, and if your mind is wandering to your flaws, notice that you have shifted (which might also mean you are becoming more fearful), and refocus yourself back to your breathing.  Try to stay present and engaged.
  • Ask your partner what they like about your body, and what they like about you besides your body, and then risk believing them. Most of us do not have what is sold to us as the ideal body type—that’s one of the ways that a consumer culture can perpetuate constant insecurities and reap financial benefits from them.  People become cherished and special to us through a variety of experiences and means.  Yes, it is possible that even though you wish you were 4 inches taller, and had a smaller waist, your husband likes you just the way you are, because you are his partner, and you are the one with whom he wants to bond.

In short, risk believing that you can actually be enough.  If you can never be enough, you are in a constant state of victimization, and it generates a state bereft of contentment and joy.  If you can see yourself for the complex individual you are, complete with talents, a personality, and character, instead of just a body type, you can also reach out and help others feel more acceptance and peace.

As long as we feel insecure in how we look, and don’t believe our husbands when they try to tell us they are attracted to us, we are allowing faceless entities to disrupt our marriages.  We are in essence denying ourselves potential connection and happiness.

References:

Ackard, D. M., Kearney-Cooke, A., & Peterson, C. B. (2000). Effect of body image and self-image on women’s sexual behaviors. International Journal of Eating Disorders,28(4), 422-429.

Pujols, Y., Meston, C. M. & Seal, B. N. (2010). The association between sexual satisfaction and body image in women. The Journal of Sexual Medicine, 7(2pt.2), 905-916.

 

Family, Fatherhood, Marriage and Family Therapy

The Best Message a Father can Give his Daughter

daddy-daughter (2)
Photo courtesy of Gray Wren Photography, http://www.graywrenphotography.com

I can recall a particular moment in my adolescent years like it was yesterday.  I couldn’t wait for my dad to come home so I could tell him that I had won some kind of designation in my junior high school yearbook based on my appearance (save the commentary, people…I got plenty of feedback from the clique of mean girls, walking behind me, whispering just loud enough for me to hear, “She’s not even that cute….”).  It was one of those strange American public school traditions that should probably be banned, and hopefully is by now.  No one was more surprised than I.

I thought my dad would be happy.  When I told him, his lips went tight and he looked more concerned than pleased.  I remember asking, “What’s wrong, dad?  Don’t you think I’m pretty?”  He said, “Of course I think you’re pretty.  I just really want you to understand that your appearance is not the important part of who you are.”

He proceeded to explain that the world was going to constantly send me messages that my appearance would be what mattered, but that it was in fact transitory.  I remember him saying, “You have a sound intellect.  You need to develop your mind and your character.  Those are the things that matter.”

As I proceeded through high school, he took a great deal of interest in my academic endeavors.   He was delighted when I decided to take an AP Computer Programming class at the neighboring high school, but somewhat lukewarm about the cheerleading outfit I brought home.  He had what I decided was an unhealthy interest in my math grade.  He constantly emphasized education and called it my “best insurance policy.”  By the time I was ready to leave home, I really did believe internally that the best part of me was not my appearance, despite the cacophony of messages to the contrary.

We live in an incredibly toxic culture as women.  We need more dads who are actively counter culture.  We need louder messages that, “Your appearance is not the important part of who you are.”

I am really saddened by the amount of women continually surgically altering their appearances to meet a certain standard, and to fight natural aging processes.  There is so much time and energy, not to mention self-hatred and anxiety that accompanies these endeavors.  Even though I understand it, I am still sad, and worry about the next female generation.  I am always trying to be cognizant about the messages I might be sending to my daughters.

The proliferation of pornography in the last few decades has further increased female anxiety over appearance.  I have lost count of how many women I have had sitting in front of me expressing self-loathing because they feel that they cannot match up to the images on the screen, which also distances them further from their spouses.  Here is a typical exchange…..

Woman (despairingly):  I can’t compete with the images my husband has been looking at on the computer.  I can’t be enough.

Me (therapist):  The women in the images aren’t enough either…..that’s why men look at more than one image. Who are you besides your appearance?  What is your value besides how you look?

Too many women are struggling to answer these questions.

There are two potential benefits to this conversation.  The first is the facilitation of identity development independent of appearance.  I really want women to learn to manage toxic cultural messages by realizing in fact that they are multi-dimensional and as such can continually develop more meaningful qualities.  Secondly, if a woman can identify a broader identity, and her husband really is in recovery and is not actively viewing porn, he can voice to his wife what he respects about her besides just her appearance, and can affirm that as a three-dimensional relationship partner, really connecting with her is superior to the pseudo-connection of a screen, and she might be able to start healing.  Again, this only happens if a husband really is in recovery, and if the marriage feels safe enough to disclose those types of feelings.

A great way to identify aspects of self that matter outside of appearance is to think in terms of relationship context.  I often ask women, “What kind of mother, sister, grandmother or neighbor, etc. do you want to be?”  My Swedish grandmother was widowed at a relatively young age, but she made herself relevant by driving most of her widowed friends to their doctor’s appointments and visiting them often.  She had a profound influence on me through her kindness and service.

I attended an eating disorder conference a few years ago, and was extremely impressed with one of the presenters, Cynthia Bulik, who authored a book entitled, The Woman in the Mirror: Stop Confusing What you Look Like with Who You Are.  She spoke about the nature of body image problems with women across the life cycle, from early childhood to late adulthood.  Something she said stuck with me.  She pointed out that with so many unhealthy socially transmitted messages about image and who we are, the question shouldn’t be, “Why are so many women developing eating disorders?” but “Why are so many women NOT developing eating disorders?”  She proceeded to describe the necessity of identifying the moderating agents which prevent women from falling prey to the toxic culture.  This implies hope that we can mitigate the contaminating broad cultural messages.  In large part, I think it starts at home.

Women, if you really want your daughter to grow up believing that she is more than her appearance, I propose that you really need to believe it for yourself.  That’s why it’s so important to have a solid identity.  Including fathers in the dialogue is imperative.  I have a conviction that one of the most powerful messages a father can give his daughter out loud and often is that she is more than her appearance.  I believe it will make a difference.

For more information on Dr. Bulik’s work, visit www.cynthiabulik.com