Pornography and Your Relationship
Stanley Ducharme, Ph.D.
Looking at pornography while in a relationship is akin to lighting a stick of dynamite! As a sex therapist and psychologist, I have seen many couples who report that pornography has become an overwhelming and destructive issue in their relationship. Not surprisingly, men and women have very different attitudes about pornography and the use of sexually explicit materials. Often, these differences are deep rooted and can extend to the core of a relationship.
Many women experience pornography as an extreme form of sexism and have no tolerance for porn viewing by their partners. Although some women take pleasure in looking at pornography themselves, most women feel betrayed by the man who views porn. Some women are extremely disturbed by it. They feel cheated on! Women often feel that such men have a strong underlying hostility toward women. Yet surprisingly, research has never supported such a connection between pornography and anger at women.
The fear for many women is that they can't compete with the images of the "porn star". Dr. Barry McCarthy author of "Rekindling Desire" would agree (1). Real life women are unable to compete with the women in erotic movies and smut. It's a useless and futile exercise.
Dr. McCarthy believes that it's not the body of the porn star that men crave. It's the illusion that the women seen in pornography are ever ready to do anything to please their man. No woman in real life could or would want to be that way. If a man has the driving need to make his real life partner into a porn star, he may have a deeper problem. In such cases, the distinction between fantasy and reality begins to blur.
Unlike most women, guys typically view pornography as innocent and as a remedy for loneliness or the lack of a partner. Men often rationalize and justify their interest in erotica. They view it as normal behavior. Furthermore, pornography's effortless, online availability makes it an easy remedy for boredom and insomnia. Unfortunately, porn viewing may not sit well with a wife or girlfriend. Typically, her reaction will be to change or attempt to stop her partner's viewing habits.
Pornography surveillance by the woman often accomplishes little. It feeds resentment, mistrust and is seldom beneficial. Many women discover months or years later that the man never stopped. In fact, sometimes, porn viewing has dramatically increased and has become an even deeper secret in the relationship. Addictive behavior, such as looking at pornography, tends to intensify not diminish over time.
In some cases, looking at online porn can become an expensive practice. It can also occupy a great deal of a man's time. For example, some studies have shown that 10 to 20 hours per week of porn viewing is not uncommon for many men (2). Dependencies on pornography are widespread and universal across various cultures and socio economic levels. Porn viewing easily becomes a world unto its self. In some cases, the man becomes pre-occupied with tracking his favorite porn stars and endlessly surfing the web to find the most erotic videos.
Pornography as a pastime is usually not discussed publicly and is much more common than most people realize. It can be a casual activity or a chronic, compulsive behavior that occurs at work and at home. In some cases, it can interfere in the man's ability to function at home, with the family or at work. One psychologist, the late Dr. Al Cooper, described internet pornography as a "very powerful force that can quickly and easily become addictive, like crack cocaine."
When porn emerges in a relationship, the first step is a frank conversation over the man's motivation and level of interest. For example, he may feel that his sexual life with his partner is scripted and overly predictable. Or, he may miss the excitement of new partners. From this initial discussion with a partner, men usually agree to limit or stop their porn gazing. Most often however, this is much more difficult than the man or the couple imagine. Without professional or personal assistance, frequent relapses are almost unavoidable.
Looking at pornography is neither a good thing nor a bad thing. For many couples however, it can become a volatile issue that has the potential to destroy a relationship. Reactions to pornography can be as varied as sexual desire itself. It can be a healthy outlet for sexual fantasies. It can be a source of arousal and pleasure for both individuals. Or, it can destroy trust, raise insecurities and promote conflict.
If there are pre-existing sexual or trust difficulties in a relationship, pornography can intensify these issues. It can bring insecurities to the surface and destroy a woman's self esteem. The woman often questions her attractiveness, her partner's feelings for her and her adequacy as a lover. A man may feel guilty and shameful. He may feel like a failure after a relapse.
For some couples, pornography becomes a problem when the woman eventually reaches a realization that the man would prefer to look at porn than make love with her! Couple sex is much more complicated for many guys. Couple sex gets even more complex when erections and sexual functioning are problematic such as with aging, health issues or after a disability.
One recent study concluded that over 60% of adult men look at pornography. Given how potentially destructive this can be to a relationship, what can couples do about it? How can these differences be resolved? Despite the lack of easy answers, here are a few thoughts worth considering.
Sex therapists typically start by providing education to both partners. Avoiding blame and learning about sexual desire is an important first step. Sexual fantasy and the use of erotica are normal. For many couples, sharing fantasies and communicating about them can be a positive and healthy aspect of a relationship. It can intensify a couple's sexual relationship. It can also inspire couples to experiment more with their lovemaking.
Many people enjoy the use of graphic sexual images: especially men. In general, they are more visually oriented than women and enjoy the novelty, variety and curiosity. Men don't view pornography as an infidelity. They don't see it as a rejection of their partner. Often, they see it as a sexual enhancement that can add to the passion between the man and woman. For some couples, this is true. For others, it is not! Nevertheless, it is certainly worth a discussion and consideration.
If the woman continues to feel betrayed, it is important for the man to realize this. Regardless of how the man feels, he needs to understand his partner's hurt feelings. He needs to recognize the emotional pain that pornography can cause. When he does appreciate her feelings, he is better able to make changes. She meanwhile, needs to find a way to accept him and to forgive him. Compromise is often the most successful form of resolution.
As mentioned, a reliance on porn viewing may signify a problem with the relationship or a sexual discontent. This is a time for honest communication. Sexual dissatisfaction needs to be talked about without criticism and resentment. Such communication around these topics is obviously very sensitive but critical in repairing a damaged relationship.
Researchers and therapists agree that couples are better off treating the porn conflict as a practical matter rather than a moral issue. Looking at porn as right or wrong is usually not helpful. There is great variation in what sexually arouses different people. The question really is, "What can a couple do about it?" "How can the couple find some agreement?"
A couple may never see eye to eye on the issue of pornography. Recognizing that your partner's tastes are different than yours is important in a mature relationship. Ultimately, if pornography is repugnant to someone you love it may be worthwhile to call it quits. For all of us, there are certain compromises and sacrifices we make for the sake of the relationship. It's a small price to pay for someone that you love and care about!
1. McCarthy, Barry, Rekindling Desire, Brunner-Routledge, New York, 2003.
2. Psychology Today, Pg. 84-87, September 2005.