Couples, marriage

What Research is Telling us About how Pornography is Impacting Long-Term Romantic Relationships

wife husband computer

A few years ago, I was sitting in front of my class of graduate students in a therapy training program when one of the students was describing some difficulty he was having with a case diagnostically coded in the DSM-5 (basically the diagnostic bible for mental health), but with a relatively rare prevalence. It made treatment trickier than some of the more common presentations assigned to the rest of his cohort.

Trying to empathize, I said that I could remember almost three decades earlier when I was assigned the only pornography case in the clinic, which was also associated with other paraphilic behaviors identified in the DSM-III-R (the version of the DSM at that time—which has since been altered to exclude any reference to sexual addiction). I added that as an early 20-something female, I had a “why me,” attitude when the intake staff informed me that they specifically wanted me to take the case so the male would have a real-life experience with a female instead of objectifying females in images.

The disbelief in the room was palpable. It took me a minute to decipher the incredulous stares boring into me from around the table. Suddenly, it clicked, “Oh,” I recognized, “You’re all thinking I can’t be telling the truth because you can’t imagine a time when couples weren’t bringing compulsive pornography use in as a problem at least 50% of the time, right?” “Yeah,” one student confirmed, “What do you mean you had the ONLY case of compulsive porn use?”

I knew it was the only case back then because the intake staff had driven the point home, explaining why they wanted me to agree to take it. “Well,” I continued, “Who in here is aware that Gambling Disorder is in the DSM?” All the hands went up. “OK, now, who in here is treating a gambling disorder case right now?” No hands went up. “So, you know it exists as a clinical presentation, but no one in here has that type of case. Well, that’s what compulsive pornography use was like before the internet.”

As I said the words out loud, a wave of nostalgia flooded my system. After watching the proliferation of compulsive pornography use through the decades, I longed for a return to the 80’s. I had anecdotally seen a shift in how pornography was impacting marriages, in a way the larger mental health community refused to openly acknowledge because the research was lagging and qualitative processes are always difficult to measure. Besides that, pornography covers such a broad range of materials and behaviors that trying to conceptualize it to regulate it is problematic when it’s viewed as normative and acceptable in varying degrees by a large percentage of the population. Another problem diagnostic professionals face is where to draw the line when pathologizing a natural biological human drive (except the DSM has an entire section on eating disorders, including binge eating–so…….).

However, regardless of whether pornography use is mentioned in the DSM, or whether it is officially an “addiction,” or not, it is showing up in couples’ therapy sessions in record numbers, and NOT just in religious populations. I tire of conservative religions taking the heat for sexual problems when the broader cultural messages and displays of sexuality are at least as much or more complicit in contributing to constraining sexual scripts for both males and females, which exacerbate disconnection in couples. In fact, research is verifying a clear decrease in religious beliefs and behaviors in general, so any increases in couples’ sexual challenges don’t seem to be correlated with increased religiosity (not to mention the fact that research also shows that higher rates of religiosity are significantly correlated with lower rates of pornography consumption).

The fact is that most media presentations of sexuality are dramatized and dichotomized in a way that denies the more complex and incremental ranges that exist for most people. Authentic displays about the emotional processes inherent to sexual intimacy are mostly absent at the societal level. Healthy relationship models of sexuality are nearly non-existent.

In my clinical opinion, many of the problems that come up with porn use in marriage have less to do with religious imperatives and more to do with attachment processes in long-term monogamous relationships. Sexuality is an expected part of a long-term monogamous romantic attachment, and is generally laden with special meaning. An expectation of sexual fidelity is normative in marriage. While some people report that porn can be beneficial to creating an erotic climate, or increasing comfort with sex, there are many partners who view it as betrayal and it makes them question whether they are loved or not.

Even in instances of consensual polyamory, attachment processes come into play in often unanticipated ways. I once attended a training with marriage researcher Dr. John Gottman in which he was questioned about long-term research related to polyamory, and he replied that his institute had problems gaining longitudinal research on those couples because they weren’t stable enough; in other words, too many of them ended their relationships to provide enough reliable data, implying that the lifestyle isn’t necessarily tenable for long-term couple relationships. Whenever I have treated polyamorous couples in therapy (which is admittedly not a lot), it is also my experience that they might agree to the arrangement but then struggle with emotions that arise when attachment security and a sense of “specialness,” to their partners are questioned. They start worrying that their partners will start caring about someone else more, and it often creates emotional pain for which they are unprepared. When many engage in the process, they report that it wasn’t “just sex,” like they thought it would be–there was emotional meaning attached.

Religious or not, many couples are displaying clinical challenges related to increased pornography use. After seeing hundreds of couples as a clinician and as a supervisor to therapists, if I said otherwise, it would be a lie. There are some anecdotally discernible differences in couples now compared to three decades ago, directly related to pornography. Now, research is emerging verifying the clinical challenges I have witnessed for some time.

Here is a short summary of what some of the research indicates about pornography use and its impact on marriage and other long-term romantic relationships, and which I have also seen clinically.

  1. Male pornography use is correlated with lower sexual satisfaction for both the porn users and their partners (and sexual satisfaction is highly correlated with overall relationship satisfaction, so relationship happiness is likely collaterally impacted through this pathway).
  2. Some studies have shown that male porn use is associated with lower interest in relational sex, and lower satisfaction with sexual partners.
  3. In some studies, porn use was related to weakened commitment to romantic partners (as measured by both self-report and outward observation).
  4. Porn use is associated with higher rates of extra-relationship flirtation, considering alternative partners, and infidelity.
  5. Women whose spouses use porn report lower self-esteem and increased insecurity about physical appearance.
  6. Some studies show that higher porn use is related to higher divorce and infidelity.
  7. Some research shows an association between higher porn use and less global happiness.
  8. Recent longitudinal research (2017) shows that higher rates of porn use are associated with decreased marital quality OVER TIME (this matters, because most of the research is cross-sectional, so cause and effect can’t be determined).
  9. Females whose partners use porn report decreased attraction for their partners and more damaged senses of self.
  10. Increased porn use is sometimes associated with a negative impact on financial well-being and work productivity, which impacts relationships.

It’s important to note that men use pornography at a higher rate than females. The research has demonstrated some subtle differences among gender. It seems that female use doesn’t necessarily have the deleterious impact on marriage that male use has, which could be that females use porn more frequently in a relational context while men use it more individually, or that the fewer females users don’t provide enough statistical power to show significant associations.

Also, most porn research has been cross-sectional, self-report, which can be biased, and with limited sample sizes, so generalizability is limited. Longitudinal research that is finally emerging is demonstrated more causality between porn use and decreased relationship quality.

What have I seen clinically?

For what it’s worth, as a clinician, I have seen several changes in couples that I believe have arisen from increased porn use. I’m just one clinician, but in my conversations with other couples’ clinicians, they are verifying these shifts as well:

  1. More instances of low relationship sexual desire in porn-viewing males and females married to porn-viewing males. I was learning sex therapy back in 1989-1990, and fewer instances of low male desire in young adults appeared clinically than now.
  2. More instances of male erectile dysfunction. I used to see this presentation almost exclusively in older males or those with a health condition. Now, I see it in young men with no known medical conditions, but with high rates of porn use.
  3. More instances of lower sexual quality reported for males and females. 
  4. More instances of males blaming their inabilities to perform on their partners’ appearances.
  5. More instances of wives’ unwillingness to engage in sexual experiences, often because they don’t want to be compared to pornography. In general, sexual safety is diminished.
  6. More women reporting what looks like a type of porn betrayal trauma in which they can’t safely engage in sex because images of what their partners may have been viewing flash in their heads.
  7. More women reporting inability to engage sexually because of increased self-monitoring about their own bodies, after feeling compared to pornography.
  8. More women reporting feeling manipulated into sexual behaviors with which they are uncomfortable, reportedly introduced by pornography.
  9. Seeming lower relational sex frequency. Again, I don’t have research numbers on this–it’s just a clinical impression. It seems like couples are having less relational sex in part because porn users are having sex by themselves with porn.

In many ways, sex therapy was easier back in the early 1990’s. I actually had an easier time getting females to engage in sex therapy exercises because to them, collaboration didn’t feel like competing with supernormal images.

One of the biggest indicators that pornography is a problem appeared via an open letter on pornography posted by Dr. John Gottman, viewable here. He is a gold star researcher. Like many clinicians, he used to support couple porn use for upregulating desire and sexual quality. This letter explains how he has shifted his position because the supernormal images presented in porn have a negative impact, as well as increased portrayals of violence toward women.

Anyone who says pornography isn’t having a negative impact overall on long-term marriage is either lying, ignorant, or in denial.

Some of the studies including for this post are listed below, and the abstracts are easy to find online for anyone interested. There are many resources available for people who want to decrease porn use, or feel betrayed and injured by partners who use porn. Patrick Carnes and his daughter, Stefanie Carnes, have worked extensively in this area. I recommend both authors’ books to couples who want to deal with compulsive pornography use.


A Love That Doesn’t Last: Pornography Consumption and Weakened Commitment to One’s Romantic Partner (2012) by Lambert, N. M., Negash, S., Stillman, T., Olmstead, S. B. & Fincham, F. D. in Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 31(4), 410-438.

Does Viewing Pornography Reduce Marital Quality Over Time? Evidence from Longitudinal Data (2017), Perry, S. L. in Archives of Sexual Behavior, 46(2), 549-559.

Pornography and Marriage (2014) by Doran, K. & Price, J. in Journal of Family and Economic Issues, 35:489-498.

Pornography Use: Who Uses It and How It Is Associated with Couple Outcomes (2013), Poulsen, F. O., Busby, D. M. & Galovan, A. M. in Journal of Sex Research, 50(1), 72-83.

Photo credit: Copyright: georgemuresan / 123RF Stock Photo

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.


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

Couples, Couples Therapy, marriage, Marriage and Family Therapy

Good Fences Make Good Marriages: Setting Boundaries in a Technological Age

couple and fence

As an undergraduate student, I was introduced to a poem written by Joseph Malins in 1895, in which he essentially describes the sensibilities of building fences at the top of a cliff in order to prevent falls requiring an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff.  It is a poem about prevention.  As a marriage therapist, I would add that in order to avoid disaster, one of the most important components of a marriage is building and maintaining a good fence.

The Biggest Threat to Marriage Today

If I were asked what the biggest threat to marriage is today, I would say digital technology, realizing it is a broad and controversial answer.  I don’t want to be misunderstood.  Technology is not inherently bad.  I enjoy all of the conveniences of reading email on my phone, communicating instantly with anyone I want from just about anywhere in the world, and finding information immediately.

However, the most common cases I see in couples therapy right now are those in which: 1) pornography use is hurting the marriage (accessed most often now through technology), and those in which 2) emotional affairs are hurting the marriage (most often perpetuated through technology).  Both of these presentations existed before the internet, but they are exponentially more common than they were prior to 1992, when I graduated with a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy.

In short, technology can expose marriages to more intrusive forces.  There is so much more availability to corrosive materials and to relationships with people outside the marriage, that people who want to stay in committed relationships need to realize the risks and set intentional boundaries in a boundless world. 

This applies to both spouses.  I would say that clinically I see more men using pornography and more women having emotional affairs, but there are women who use pornography excessively, and there are definitely men having emotional affairs.  I might see more women show up in therapy for emotional affairs because they are perhaps more emotionally invested than their male technological affair partners, but that’s just one guess; I have seen men who are deeply embedded in emotional affairs, ready to dump their marriages to chase the alternative digital connections.

The Problem with Pornography

Wendy Maltz, co-author of The Porn Trap, is another therapist who has been a witness to how technology has disrupted marriages with pornography.  She admitted that early in her career, she had sometimes recommended pornography use for couples wanting to address sexual concerns in their marriage, such as low sexual desire.  However, she confessed that after her clients began accessing pornography on the internet in a broad and immediate way, she realized how potentially harmful it was.

She pointed out that most internet pornography invites the user to have a relationship with it (the computer porn), rather than with their partners.  In this way, it was actually diminishing rather than enhancing her couples’ sexual relationships.  Additionally, many spouses feel betrayed and violated by their spouses’ porn use and experience it as an infidelity.  In fact, in many cases, the porn becomes preferable to the spouse, entirely fracturing the committed relationship.  It can diminish sexual performance and sexual quality as well.  She wrote her book in part to clarify the reversal of her opinion in the age of technology, and to try to mitigate some of the effects of pornography.  I agree with her observations about how internet pornography is negatively impacting marriages.

The Trouble with Emotional Affairs and Technology

Besides porn, I see a HUGE problem with emotional affairs maintained through digital technology.  I remember the very first time a couple came in and the issue was related to cell phone texting.  The wife had her old boyfriend’s cell phone number programmed into her cell phone from when she was dating him a few years earlier.  After she was married, when she was unhappy with her husband, she would text her old boyfriend.  She didn’t see the harm in just finding out how he was doing.  The problem was that over time, she began texting him more and more, and since texting is such an immediate form of communication, she had access to him 24/7.  I recall recognizing in that moment the reality that technological access had profoundly shifted the playing field for boundaries in  marriages.   The natural boundaries that existed when I got married that prevented association with previous love interests had disappeared.   I accurately predicted that many more marriages would be affected by this lack of boundaries.

Texting is a low investment but  high response form of communicating, meaning that it takes very little effort to respond to someone with texting, but it can be perceived as highly responsive.  The couple began exchanging texts essentially all day long, and that relationship started to become more real to her than her daily interactions with her husband, which were often colored by the daily stressors and realities of life.  In many ways her real life partner couldn’t compete with the seeming emotional responsiveness of her texting boyfriend.

As she disclosed her complaints about her husband, her old boyfriend “validated her feelings,” that she didn’t deserve to be treated like that, and he shallowly declared that he would “never treat her that way.”  He continued to look like the hero by doing essentially nothing but moving his fingers, while her husband was trying to meet the demands of real-life experiences that inevitably arise when you live with someone.  The comparison was unfair.

The emotions experienced in these low-investment, high response relationships are very real.  People also emotionally disclose faster and more deeply with technology than with face-to-face interaction, so the relationships are often characterized by high emotional sharing, and the result is that the people involved experience heightened emotional closeness.  The emotions are linked with physiological responses, some of which are very rewarding and powerful.  People in emotional affairs experience a dopamine rush just like people in physical affairs, and they become confused by the experiences.  Because the emotions are real, the relationships feel “real,” even though they are in fact extremely limited in nature.

Most emotional affairs are relationship fragments—users are in essence taking the best part of the romantic relationship without having to invest or sacrifice like they would to maintain a real long-term committed relationship.  When people pursue dopamine-induced emotional affairs over their real relationships, the real relationships become casualties.  Let’s say the partner then pursues the emotional affair by developing a real relationship with that person.  Over time it becomes as predictably mundane as the original relationship (usually after about 18 months to 2 years).  This is often when a new emotional affair is started and the whole cycle repeats, damaging people in the process.

Your Affair is not Unique

As you read this from an outside perspective, I have no doubt that you can see the problem.  However, when people are caught up in emotional affairs, they think their emotions mean that their relationships are “special.”  Even though I point out to people repeatedly that their affairs are not unique from the other hundreds of affairs I have seen in my practice, they don’t believe me.  That’s because they are feeling such powerful emotions.  Sometimes they also mistakenly think they aren’t harming the marriage if they aren’t meeting with the affair partner in ongoing face-to-face contact.  Ongoing emotional affairs are in many ways more challenging than in dealing with pornography in a marriage.  I have seen women openly expressing true love and the desire to run off with an old boyfriend on Facebook while criticizing their husbands for looking at online pornography, which I find confusing and hypocritical.

Many people cling to their emotional affairs and refuse to set boundaries.  Many are dishonest about how much the distant but powerful contact with others is hurting the marriage.  Many unfairly expect their spouses to be ok with their casual contact with potential affair partners because they “aren’t seeing them in person, so what’s the big deal?”

In the example cited above with the cell phone texting, I asked the wife if she had any boundaries about texting other men.  She defensively inquired, “Are you telling me that I have to stop texting my old boyfriend completely even if I know that I’m not going to start a real relationship with him?”  I responded, “Neither I nor anyone else can tell you that you have to do anything.  However, if your spouse says it is hurting him, and you knowingly engage in behavior that you know is hurting your spouse, it is unreasonable to expect that this won’t chip away at the relationship over time, so you are putting your marriage at risk.  The question is, ‘Do you want to put your marriage at risk for divorce or not?’”  Sometimes also I have to point this out when a husband thinks his wife should just be okay with his pornography use.

You Must Set Boundaries to Preserve the Marriage

If you want to build a long-term, high quality and stable relationship, build a sturdy fence.  Protect your relationship.  No one can make you.  You can hide just about anything in this day and age at some level, but if you are, you are injuring yourself and your relationship the most.  Set boundaries intentionally.  In short, if you are engaged in a conversation you wouldn’t want your spouse reading over your shoulder (commonly texting, Facebook, chat rooms, messaging capabilities through your online game, etc.), you are making your relationship vulnerable to eventual decay. It’s a risky choice.

Remember, if you build a fence around your relationship now, you are less likely to need an ambulance later. 


An Ambulance Down in the Valley, poem by Joseph Malins (1895).

The Pornography Trap: The Essential Guide to Overcoming Problems Caused by Pornography by Wendy Maltz and Larry Maltz (2009), William Morrow Paperbacks.

Couples, Couples Therapy, Family, marriage, Marriage and Family Therapy

Mending Broken Hearts: Marital All-Stars

broken heart pictureI struggled in writing this, hoping to get the tone just right.  My intention is to provide hope and support to someone.  I sincerely hope that comes across.  If it helps one couple, it will have been worth my time writing it.

As a marriage therapist, I often see many similarities across cases, and I have mentioned in previous posts that it is very easy for me to have hope for difficult cases; I see enough couples change that I know it is possible, even if I can’t accurately predict outcome.  A few weeks ago, I met with a couple I had not seen for a few months for a check-up type of appointment.  They had already completed several sessions of marital therapy and reported improvement, but were showing up occasionally just to make sure they didn’t drift back into old patterns.

In cases like this, it’s not uncommon to see some level of reversal back into previous habits.  When this couple reported that they were still doing well after 8 months, and described specifically what they were doing differently, I asked permission to describe their story with the intent of providing hope to other couples facing similar difficulties, with the understanding that identifying characteristics would be changed to protect their privacy.  I am certain that many other couples will be able to see themselves in this marriage and will know that there is a way to repair.

I will call the couple Justin and Amber.

Justin scheduled himself to come in alone because he had been depressed for a while.  In our first session, he described his depressive symptoms and told me about his marriage and family.  He said his marriage was “terrible,” and that he couldn’t remember the last time he had been physically intimate with his wife.  He spent most of his time avoiding her and said he was pretty sure she didn’t like him either.  He described their relationship as almost non-existent, except to minimally communicate about practical household management and childrearing.

Like many husbands, Justin traveled frequently, so it became easy to avoid his wife, but his loneliness and depression persisted.  Over time, his coping mechanisms for dealing with his emotional pain were viewing pornography in his various hotel rooms and visiting hotel bars occasionally to drink so he could “feel something.”  Amber had no knowledge that he had ever engaged in either of these behaviors over their 20+ year marriage.  While he was at home, he played the part of the conservative husband who didn’t ever drink or look at porn.

Justin had been to a medical doctor who prescribed an anti-depressant, but he said it only made him feel “numb,” and that he was still miserable.  I questioned him about his medical, psychological, educational, occupational, social and family backgrounds in order to understand his depression better.  Most of what he said looped back to his marital relationship.

This is what I ended up saying to Justin: “I am going to tell you what I think, and you are probably not going to like it.  You are more than welcome to pursue therapy with another therapist who may have a different opinion.  Almost everything you are telling me is related to the fact that you have to hide your coping behaviors from your spouse.”  I further explained that people who have something to hide generally create distance from their spouses and continue to stay disconnected.  I explained that even if we examined his thought patterns and emotional regulation skills, I was afraid that the fact that he was pretending to be a different person when he was with his wife would keep him stuck in his depression.  “You are living incongruently, and that almost always generates discomfort,” I continued, “As long as you continue to lie to your wife, I believe you will continue to be miserable.  I would like to help you disclose your behaviors to your wife in a way that you can be authentic and start a more genuine marriage relationship.  It’s risky.  You need to think about it and decide if it’s worth the risk, but I need you to know that I believe that until you are honest, you will continue to be depressed.”

He immediately agreed and said he knew that’s what he had to do, even though he was terrified.  I said, “I understand.  It is terrifying.  I will help you.”  Over a period of several months, his attendance at therapy was hit-and-miss.  I suspected that he was avoiding our sessions to delay the potential disruption to his marriage.  I was very patient about it, realizing that it is never effective to push people into something, but to gently guide them along at their pace.

Several months after our first session, I asked him to help me understand his spotty attendance at therapy better.  I knew he was probably afraid.  That’s exactly what he told me.  “I’m scared,” he said.  “I know,” I replied, “Tell me what you are the most afraid of.”  He answered, “That I will explode my entire marriage.”  “That could happen,” I responded, “It makes sense that you are afraid because you really have no idea how your wife will handle this.  Do you realize that in many ways you are already living as if your marriage has exploded?”  He agreed.  After that, he wrote down everything he wanted to say to his wife and we spent a few weeks preparing for a joint session with Amber.  We processed possible reactions, and I told him not to be surprised if his wife responded with LOTS of emotion.

I had Amber come in alone first to explain her side of the marriage, and she corroborated his story that the marriage was entirely disconnected, and she wasn’t sure she even cared.  It didn’t surprise me at all that she said she knew he was hiding something but she didn’t know what.  I explained that I wanted to have a joint session in which he could be more honest about what was feeding his depression, and I explained that it might be hard to hear.  She agreed to come in with him, even though she wasn’t sure herself that she really wanted to be married to him anymore.

When the day arrived a few weeks later for them to show up together, I scheduled an extra-long session and was still uncertain that they would show up.  They did.  Justin was very thorough in confessing his hidden behaviors for the previous decade.  His disclosure was very genuine and heartfelt.  I was watching Amber very carefully to see how she was receiving the information.  Predictably, she was teary, sad and angry.  Anger is a very normal response in this scenario.  Anger in some ways can help people feel more powerful and/or protected, and it can even offer temporary analgesic effects from emotional pain.

Despite the anger, Amber stayed with the grief she felt over becoming so disconnected from Justin.  Instead of raging at him, storming out of the room, or any number of angry reactions she could have had (and which I honestly expected), she gave a marriage therapist’s dream response.  I asked her what was happening for her and she said, “I’m angry, of course, but I’m mostly really sad that he feels like he has had to hide so much from me.  I’m sad that he thought I would be harsh and judgmental when I really want to help him.  I really wanted to have a better marriage.”  I had her talk to him about that, and for the first time in almost a decade, Justin could allow himself to believe that maybe Amber cared about him.

Over the next several months, the couple came in regularly.  Their improvement was non-linear (as usual), but they consistently worked at their marriage.  Amber did have episodes of being angry and just wanting to be far away from him.  I didn’t blame her.  He had been very dangerous to her by hiding his behaviors.  However, she continued to stay focused on the fact that she wanted to understand the situation as well as she could so they could repair their marriage and create a higher quality relationship for themselves and their children.  Justin continued to disclose his feelings of fear, anxiety and shame when they occurred, instead of going to his old behaviors.  He disclosed to her when he was being triggered.  She listened to him and instead of blaming and criticizing him, she tried to understand what was going on for him and asked how she could help him with his insecurities.

Over time, she also started going to him with her own vulnerabilities.  Their physical intimacy went from non-existent to mutually satisfying and regular.  Within 6 months the couple was displaying a completely different marriage than the one they had 14 months previously.  I was surprised and yet delighted when they came back several months later and said things weren’t always easy, but they were still doing things differently and staying connected.  In the words of the husband, “We can still talk about hard things.”  Wow.

I learn so much from couples like this.  This marriage worked because BOTH of the partners stuck with it and took risks and kept trying.  Sometimes I will see couples who have been greatly disappointed in their marriages, and they sometimes think they are the only ones in an imperfect marriage.  When they feel this alone, they lose hope for healing.  Some of them divorce, but possibly many more continue to stay miserable and disconnected.

This post is not an indictment of people who don’t want to trust partners who are untrustworthy.  EVERY situation is different.  In this instance, Justin felt safe enough that his wife was able to take risks with him, and there were times that she distanced herself.  There were also times when he wanted to retreat just like before.  I am sharing this post to demonstrate that there are indeed couples who face very big challenges and betrayals and end up building something better from the wreckage.

I would never recommend a betrayal as a strategy to bring marriages closer.  I can confidently state, however, that couples can sometimes use the tragedy to become more connected after the terrible incident.

I’m not naïve enough to expect that this couple could not disconnect later.  However, if they stay focused on their marriage and continue to do what they are doing, they are likely to make it easier for their children to believe in their own marriages, perpetuating a cycle of intergenerational security.

They are marital all-stars.

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.