The Impact of Pornography on Marital Relationships
Understand Porn’s Effects on Your Marriage
Hope for a Healthy Relationship
God designed the Christian marriage so that “the two shall become one”. Not just sexually, but through emotional intimacy. Pornography rails against that design. Porn is false intimacy, and it’s isolating. The impact of pornography use on marriages is devastating. Porn undermines marriages and fills them with lies and deceit. But there is hope for your marriage to survive and thrive. It won’t be easy, and it won’t be quick, but couples can build a life free from porn.
How Pornography Affects Marital Bonds
Research has shown that pornography use is associated with the following trends:
- Increased marital distress
- Increased risk of separation and divorce
- Decreased marital intimacy and sexual satisfaction
- Increased appetite for more graphic pornography
- Increased sexual activity associated with abusive, illegal or unsafe practices
- Devaluation of monogamy, marriage and raising children.8
Numerous studies show that people who do not consume porn are significantly happier in relationships than those who do. This is particularly true for Christian marriages, because for Christians, porn use often causes even greater shame. People who feel this way often isolate themselves from their spouse. Their spouse feels the isolation and accompanying loneliness, but does not know why.
Replacing Love with Porn
Porn is easy. Marriage can be hard. Over time, people turn to porn instead of doing the work of loving, serving, and romancing their spouse. Instead of putting in the time to resolve a conflict, it becomes easier to ignore tension and turn to porn. Porn becomes a cheap substitute for real, healthy, marital sex. This strikes at the heart of a healthy marriage.
Dr. John Gottman founded the world-renowned Gottman Institute, a research center devoted to the study of relationships. Gottmann wrote in an open letter:
“Use of pornography by one partner leads the couple to have far less sex and ultimately reduces relationship satisfaction. We are led to unconditionally conclude that for many reasons, pornography poses a serious threat to couple intimacy and relationship harmony.
Why Do Married Men Watch Porn?
Men typically start watching porn as boys. At a younger age they are full of curiosity and want sexual stimulation. Over time, they learn to use the dopamine high as a way to dull the discomforts of life. The brain learns to treat negative emotions as a trigger. If a man has learned to use porn to medicate his stress then stress will cause him to start craving porn.
Once men become addicted, they’ve taken the drug for emotional relief to the point where it feels like they can’t live without it. Your brain learns that the drug is critical to your emotional stability. At this point, porn is about much more than just sex, it becomes about meeting the “needs” of the addicted brain. Unfortunately, it doesn’t take much porn use to get to this level of dependence.
Women Are Trapped by Porn Too
Younger wives are more likely to use porn. The impact of porn shapes a wife’s perspective just as much as the husband’s. Studies also show that those who watched more porn also placed a decreased value on the institution of marriage, the desire for children, and the need for faithfulness in a relationship. Those who watched more porn believed sexually deviant behavior is more common than it actually is.
The Trauma of Discovering a Husband’s Porn Problem
A wife often reacts to her husband’s porn habit/addiction by blaming herself. She thinks she somehow was not enough for him so he went looking for more. The addictive nature of porn is important for a wife to truly understand because it is not about her not being enough. It is likely that her husband’s porn use started before they married. It is critically important for the wife to embrace this reality and not make her husband’s porn struggle about her. Those women who do, typically create a toxic situation that shames and isolates the husband further. She can demand changes in a healthy, gracious yet firm way instead of a toxic shameful way. Sometimes husbands will blame their wife for their struggle with porn because they are living in denial instead of taking responsibility for their sin.
Betrayal trauma is a real condition after a wife has suffered the trust destroying revelation that her beloved husband and protector is looking at porn. But it is not just about this knowledge, it is the slow staggered disclosure that produces the most trauma. A staggered disclosure is when the husband owns up and shares only progressively, usually when he has been caught, more and more about his secret life. Each disclosure rips off the bandaid on his wife’s heart that she thought was healing. Women in this situation are regularly diagnosed with PTSD. This creates an agonizing situation for the wife and this is what causes many of them to leave the marriage. There is a right way and a wrong way to disclose to a spouse and we teach this in our program.
Dealing with the Discovery of Porn Use
There’s no need to follow the user’s tendency to minimize and rationalize the porn use. At the same time, it’s important to understand that shaming your husband often leads him to pull away and deceive even more. Your husband needs to understand that you are not okay with porn use and how it makes you feel, but that you are supporting them as they try to change.
Many wives think their husband’s porn use is all about them. They think, “I must not be enough for him sexually”, “If I was a better wife this wouldn’t happen”, or “I am failing as a wife”. These are all lies, because your husband’s porn use likely started before you were around. You should encourage and even demand that he gets help. Most men are not willing to get help until their wife demands that he does. He needs to understand that him staying stuck is not an option.
He needs to understand that the deceit about the behavior is just as harmful or even more harmful as the porn use. It feels much more like betrayal when he lies and deceives about it. Ask that he get into recovery and that he is honest. Honesty doesn’t mean that you know all the details because that typically only makes it worse. Don’t demand a full disclosure until he is making progress in his recovery. As the wife you need to set boundaries that make you feel safe (for example., his getting a flip phone). One of those boundaries is that he needs to establish a track record of sobriety before he fully discloses his struggle. Why?
Before a husband is actually making progress in his recovery he will sincerely promise his wife he will never look at porn again. If and when he does return to porn, the temptation to lie will be huge and the devastation to the wife will be significant. Also, before the husband has established sobriety he will be more likely to rationalize and minimize the porn use and betrayal. So if he has a disclosure prematurely before he’s healthy it likely won’t be a full disclosure. Then when more comes out about his betrayal the next week and next month, it reopens the wound the wife thought was healing. This is called staggered disclosure – when a woman learns more about her husband’s porn use slowly over time and the wound never gets a chance to start healing. Women who go through this are often diagnosed with PTSD. It is very traumatic when they think they have all the information but it keeps dripping out and they are reliving the betrayal over and over. This scenario is why many women walk away from their marriage because it has become so toxic and harmful for them.
Watching Porn is Cheating
It is easy for a person to convince themselves that cheating on a spouse virtually isn’t really cheating. Christians know that rationalization won’t work. Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery’; but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:27-28). Lusting after someone in our hearts is adultery. It crosses a clear line that Jesus established. Don’t believe the lie that it isn’t cheating.
The Erosion of Trust: Porn’s Impact on Marital Trust
Most Christian wives who find out about her husband’s porn use will feel betrayed. The husband will need to rebuild trust with his wife. In our program we help husbands understand their wife’s need for boundaries in order to establish trust. It is about what makes her feel safe.
Watching Together Doesn’t Work
Even if both husband and wife are involved in porn use, it doesn’t diminish the issues around fake intimacy and false expectations. Whatever sizzle and spice are gained initially are completely erased by the negative impact watching porn has on married couples. It causes a lust for others to be a part of a couple’s sex life. The reality is this: 100% of all the peer-reviewed research done on the impact of pornography on marriages agree that porn use is never linked to positive marital outcomes.
One wife actually wrote her ex-husband to explain how porn impacted their sex lives:
“There were words for what we did but it was never making love. And without the extreme visuals, the videos playing in the background – you looking at them rather than me – you could never find satisfaction. So there could never be compromise. It made me feel that I was less than. There was never intimacy in what we did and in the end I stopped wanting sex. Not that you wanted it with me anyway.”
My Spouse is Addicted. What Do I Do?
It is important for the betrayed spouse to confront the porn using spouse in a way that promotes healing for them and their spouse. See more about how you can react in a way that will both protect you and help your spouse toward freedom.
Make sure you talk to someone. Don’t let fear of shame or judgement keep you in the shadows. It is important to see a counselor who has some background and training in addressing a porn or sex addiction. There are horror stories about the wife being told by a counselor or pastor that she just needs to be sexier for her husband. So make sure it’s a trustworthy, informed counselor or group. A trained counselor can be helpful, and in many cases the wife and husband will have different counselors to get coaching on what they need to do to repair the relationship. The Freedom Fight has a seven part Married Men’s module that can be helpful for both the husband and wife to watch and discuss as a starting point.
Not sure if you or your spouse is addicted?
One tool that many sex addiction therapists use is the SAST (Sexual Addiction Screening Test). It is a simple 20-question test that has been taken by tens of thousands of people. The test is more than 90% accurate in predicting sexual addictive tendencies in a person. This is an objective tool that can help someone start embracing reality about where they truly are.
Overcoming Porn Together
Outgrowing a porn struggle as a couple is a challenge that unfortunately many don’t try to make. But with help there are also couples that can have a better, more authentic and intimate marriage after surviving a porn struggle. Because porn has kept one or both partners isolated and in the shadows, they have not been completely known. Once the husband or wife comes out of the shadows and gets help, he or she opens up about those parts of life that they’ve hidden for so long. They become truly known and fully loved and it makes all the difference as they respond with understanding and love in return. Trust and respect can be brought back into the marriage. Don’t underestimate what God and community can do.
Renewing Trust in One Another
When a couple works towards a healthy marriage and leaves porn behind, trust can slowly be earned back. As the husband allows his wife to set boundaries that make her feel comfortable (e.g., locking up his phone, joining a recovery group, not being on the computer without another person in the room, etc.) vulnerability and trust is reestablished. It can even grow to new heights. He will grow to understand why he is medicating with porn, and his wife will gain a deeper understanding and empathy for his struggle.
Connecting Through Emotional Growth
In order for a person to break free from porn they have to grow in their emotional awareness. When they do they are able to identify and communicate their emotions to their spouse like they have never been able to do. This one skill adds a significant level of relational depth and harmony to a marriage. The person healed from a porn addiction becomes more emotionally healthy and whole which enables them to connect more deeply with others, especially their spouse.
How The Freedom Fight Guides Married Couples
The Freedom Fight is a porn addiction recovery program that addresses the key areas necessary to rebuild a marriage rocked by porn use. The program is focused on the principles of recovery to help a person addicted to porn break free, and relational and emotional growth are key parts of this recovery. The Freedom Fight will help the porn user put their sin to death and walk the path to genuine freedom.
Benefit From the Program Together
For men going through the Freedom Fight program, we encourage the wife to go through the married men’s module with him. This will give her clarity on what her husband is learning and it will help her understand why her husband needs time to get stable in his sobriety before he gives a full disclosure. Likewise, if a wife is going through the program then we recommend her husband also go through the married module with her and apply the principles there for helping a betrayed spouse.