is porn a problem in your relationship?

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Today I’m answering your top questions when it comes to porn in relationships: Is it an addiction? Is it cheating? What does the research say about it? What do you say about it, Abby? And how the heck do I deal with it, if it’s become an issue? I’m coming at you with all the answers today, so stay tuned!

Before we get into this, you need to know, I am 100% OK with ethical porn. I watch porn alone and I’ve watched it with Gary. It’s not a common thing, but it’s certainly something that gets thrown into the sexual mix. This isn’t about me just “reporting the news.” Yes, I talk about evidence-based approaches all the time (and I’ll do that again today) but, ultimately, this podcast is really my opinions culled from my decades of work with clients, the research and my personal views and experiences.

So, if you’re reading this today hoping I bash porn and all people who watch it, you might as well stop listening because that’s not going to happen. I’m also not going to get into a debate about the porn industry itself but I will link to ethical porn sites below.

What I do hope to do is shed some light, make you think a little about your views (either way) and, most importantly, talk about how porn affects your relationship! So, let’s start answering your burning questions!

Question #1: What Does the Research Say?

Ultimately, I’m not sure the research has many good answers because there’s a lot of conflicting research on how porn affects relationships. You can find studies that show watching a lot of porn being associated with less happy relationships and a bad sex life but you can just as quickly find studies showing the positive effects of watching porn in a relationship.

Researchers who conducted a more current, large-scale study out of Michigan State University believe they’ve identified why there’s so much discrepancy. The authors of this study maintain that those previous researchers who found that porn worsened relationships had flawed assumptions about why people watch porn in the first place, thus skewing their results. So they were clear that it really depends on why someone is using pornography to begin with – that’s the thing to look at to decide if it’s hurting or helping the relationship.

For the record, in their study they found that porn was actually associated with higher sexual satisfaction and openness among partnered women.

In the end, although many studies have linked porn use with relationship unhappiness, there’s no definitive evidence that watching porn causes people to be unhappy in their relationship; it could be that people who are unhappy in their relationships and with their sex lives just watch more porn.

Question #2: Can You Be Addicted to Porn?

Pornography addiction is not an official diagnosis. The big book we use to diagnose people, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders (DSM) doesn’t list it, which means you shouldn’t be diagnosing your partner with a porn addiction. What you’re dealing with might be a compulsion (which relieves anxiety) versus an addiction (which involves the reward center of the brain).

Because there’s no empirical scientific data, the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists (AASECT) says that people in their group are very careful not to pathologize the use of porn.

When someone is addicted to something, there are certain things we find when measuring brain activity with EEG’s. For example, when you’re addicted to cigarettes and see images of cigarettes, there’s increased brain activity. The same is true for other addictions like gambling and alcohol. However, in a pivotal study conducted at UCLA in 2015, they found that people who identified as struggling with porn did not have these characteristic spikes in their brain activity while watching porn.

And here’s what’s really crazy: these participants actually showed decreased brain reactions while looking at sexual images! So someone with a problem with porn doesn’t have the same relationship with porn as someone with an addiction.

But just because it’s not an addiction, per se, doesn’t mean you haven’t had large or small issues with porn in your relationship! In my work, I’ve found two key ways porn can be a problem:

1. Preoccupation: Porn is a problem if one partner becomes preoccupied with it. What defines preoccupation? To me it means they watch porn in such a way that it gets chosen over their partner, kids, family or work. If watching porn makes any of those other areas of your life “less,” then there’s an issue.

Examples might be working on a project for work but taking frequent porn breaks. Is your boss really paying you to watch porn? If you’re getting distracted from your work to watch porn, that’s an issue. Having said that, if you’re on your lunch break and you choose to masturbate to porn, have at it. But once the break is over, get thee back to work!

Another example would be if you were substituting sex with your partner with porn, if sex with your partner doesn’t feel as gratifying as porn, or if you can’t have an orgasm unless you’re watching porn alone. These are times porn is in the way.

Are you at the park with your kids and sitting on your phone watching porn instead of interacting with them? Or, you do play with your kids, but the whole time you’re waiting for it to end so you can go home and watch porn?

It’s also a problem if you feel shame or guilt after you watch it. Or if it’s linked to feeling shame or guilt when you have sex with your partner!

2. Keeping it a Secret

I don’t announce to Gary, “Hey, I’m going to watch some porn while everyone is out of the house.” But porn isn’t a secret either. If he asked, I’d readily tell him.

What I see happening over and over is that porn watching is kept a secret for two reasons:

  1. It wasn’t discussed before you committed to a long-term relationship/marriage and you think it’ll just upset your partner so you don’t mention it or you’re sure they won’t like it so you definitely don’t mention it.
  2. You did discuss it and your partner isn’t OK with it and, instead of working that out, you decided, “It’s not hurting anyone” so you decided to keep doing it (even though you promised not to) and need to keep it a secret

The porn is NOT what’s unhealthy in these cases. It’s the lack of honesty about your needs and wants and your willingness to lie to your partner and do something behind their back! Transparency is so crucial in a relationship, especially when we’re talking about emotional and physical intimacy and closeness.

In a 2017 study, they found that women in heterosexual relationships who thought their partner didn’t watch porn was dramatically higher than the number of men who reported not watching porn.

When women then discover that their man is watching porn and they didn’t know it, they can feel traumatized and what seems like a “little issue” can be cause for divorce (yes, I’ve seen it happen)!

To me, if you’re fighting about porn, it’s a symptom, not the issue. In other words, if you scratch the surface, there’s something else causing your issues.

Question #3: When is it a Problem?

There are six main signs I see that show that porn is a problem:

  1. Consistently losing track of time while watching porn and then being late to events, missing them altogether or not having enough time to do something else well.
  2. Continuing to watch despite negative consequences in your personal or work relationships or with your self-care.
  3. Attempting to manage it but quickly going back to old patterns (“I’ll only watch on the week-ends or a couple times a week” but then watching daily).
  4. Not feeling satisfied with your sex life with your partner or having it affect it negatively.
  5. Feeling guilty or ashamed after watching or after having sex with your partner.
  6. Your thoughts are consumed with porn all the time.

Question #4: Is Watching Porn Cheating?

Whether watching porn is cheating completely depends on what the two of you decide is cheating. Like anything else in the relationship, it should be discussed. For some couples, flirting with someone else is cheating and for others it’s an innocuous way to blow off steam. Some people invite others into the bedroom and some couples have agreements that the other person can have sex with people when they’re on a business trip. It’s ALL about what you agree to which is why having these conversations is critical!

Question #5: What Should I Do if Porn is Affecting My Relationship?

It’s time to have an open, loving conversation about it. Here are some questions to discuss (some of these might be hard for you, but it’s important to be open and willing to question your own assumptions and beliefs):

  • What specifically bothers you about your partner watching porn? Saying, “It’s just not right” or “It’s not how I was raised” aren’t enough. Dig deeper (with love) to find out if there’s feelings of competition or inadequacy.
  • Why do you feel you have the right to curtail their watching of porn? Would they have the right to object to things you do that they don’t like such as looking at Pinterest, being on a soccer team, or watching “Keeping Up with the Kardashians”?
  • Why does your partner watching porn carry more weight than other things you do that they don’t like?
  • Why is your partner watching porn? What are they getting out of it?
  • Ask the person watching porn how they think it affects your relationship.
  • If one partner doesn’t watch porn, ask them how they think porn affects the relationship.
  • How do you feel about yourself after watching porn?
  • How do you feel about your partner after watching porn?
  • Ask each person what they like about their shared sex life.
  • What would each person like more or less of?
  • Why do you give your partner’s porn-watching meaning that they don’t give it?
  • And why do you believe that your interpretation what porn means (it’s cheating) is more accurate than their description of it (I’m just relaxing)?

Come up with something you both agree to. If you can’t find a resolution, get professional help. You can check out the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists for someone with specialty in this area.

Wrap Up:

Masturbation is a healthy, normal thing and that doesn’t change if you’re in a relationship. Using porn to masturbate is often a way to relieve stress, relax, or just get some physical pleasure. I think of it as a self-care activity but not as something that’s meant to replace having sex with your partner.

As long as you realize that porn is fantasy and not something that should or necessarily even can be acted out in real life, you’re on the right track. It’s a great way to explore your own sexuality and desires and really get to know yourself sexually.

A last take-a-way would be, if you’re unhappy about your sex life, talk about that instead of talking about porn. If you’re happy with your sex life, maybe it’s time not to worry about porn at all.

If you think the big problem in your relationship is poor communication, you can learn my top 5 strategies for communicating like a rock star. Click here for my FREE Communication Tool Kit for Couples!

RESOURCES 

The Do’s and Don’ts if Your Partner Cheated

8 Rules for Giving Great Feedback

American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists

Some great ethical porn sites to check out:

  • CrashPadSeries, a subscription-based site available at three price tiers
  • FrolicMe, which offers a week-long trial for $6.25
  • Bellesa, which offers a 2-day trial for $2
  • Four Chambers, a pledge-based membership site

 

RESEARCH

Destin N. Stewart and Dawn M. Szymanski, “Young Adult Women’s Reports of Their Male Romantic Partner’s Pornography Use as a Correlate of Their Self-Esteem, Relationship Quality, and Sexual Satisfaction,” Sex Roles 67 (2012): 257-271.

Spencer B. Olmsted et al., “Emerging Adults’ Expectations for Pornography Use in the Context of Future Committed Romantic Relationships: A Qualitative Study,” Arch. Sex Behav 42, no. 4 (2013): 625-35.

Megan K. Maas, Sara A. Vasilenko, and Brian J. Willoughby, “A Dyadic Approach to Pornography Use and Relationship Satisfaction Among Heterosexual Couples: The Role of Pornography Acceptance and Anxious Attachment,” J. Sex Res 55, no. 6 (Jul-Aug 2018): 772

Nicole Prause et al, “Modulation of Late Positive Potentials by Sexual Images in Problem Users and Controls Inconsistent with ‘Porn Addiction,’” Biology Psychology 109 (July 2015): 192-199.

Jason S. Carroll and Brian J. Willoughby, “The Porn Gap: Gender Differences in Pornography Use in Couple Relationships,” Institute for Family Studies, October 4, 2017.

Raymond M. Berner and Ana J. Bridges, “The Significance of Heavy Pornography Involvement for Romantic Partners: Research and Clinical Implications,” Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy 28, no. 3 (2002): 193-206.

 

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