Editor's note: This article was originally published on Lori Cluff Schade's blog. It has been republished here with permission.
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.
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. 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 looking at 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 am resistant to 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.
Lori Cluff Schade, Ph.D., is a licensed, practicing marriage and family therapist and supervisor and adjunct faculty member. Her research has been covered in national media outlets and addressed in television and radio interviews. More importantly, she is a mother of seven and owner of a metaphorical gray picket fence.