Is Pornography Destroying Your Marriage?

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Since pornography's migration from magazines and videos to a digital format, it is readily accessible, easily kept private, and anonymous. As a result, pornography use has become more prevalent. A 2020 study published in the Journal of Sex Research found that 91.5% of men and 60.2% of women reported pornography use within the previous month.

Women also view porn, yet men are still the biggest consumers. Pornography can be an acceptable way to explore and express sexuality, but for some people, it can become a problem that harms their well-being and relationships. Pornography use can negatively impact marital intimacy and reduce relationship satisfaction.

This article explores what you should know about porn and marriage, including how porn affects relationships and why people may utilize pornography. It also provides tips for how to cope if porn has become a problem for you or your partner.

Porn and Marriage

An increasing number of couples report that pornography is causing difficulties in their relationships. Research shows that pornography use is one of the strongest predictors of poor relationship quality and stability, both for those in dating relationships and married couples. It's even been linked to divorce.

But what is it about porn that harms relationships?

Breaks Trust

Usually, the person looking at porn doesn’t want their partner to know. The secrecy, shame, isolation, and lies this kind of sneaking around introduces into a relationship often snowballs into all kinds of problems.

Keeping secrets from your partner is a recipe for disaster. When romantic partners keep secrets from each other, their trust in each other erodes and their confidence in their relationship starts to waver. This, in turn, can negatively affect your relationship.

But even if porn isn’t kept a secret—even if partners are open and honest about their consumption—it can still do real harm.

Decreases Satisfaction

There is some research out there that suggests porn viewing can improve a couple’s sex life. For some couples, it might add a little “spice” to an already awesome experience. But for the majority, research says that porn does the exact opposite. 

In "An Open Letter on Porn," world-renowned clinical psychologists and relationship experts Drs. John and Julie Gottman write about how porn negatively affects relationships. 

Drs. John and Julie Gottman, Founders of The Gottman Institute

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.

— Drs. John and Julie Gottman, Founders of The Gottman Institute

Obstructs Emotional Intimacy

Frequent porn use can also cause users to emotionally detach from their partners. Michael Taylor, a marriage and family therapist in Kentucky, agrees, saying "Pornography is a poor substitute for the bonding version of sex. The vulnerability is removed in pornography, and that makes it too simplistic to produce the security and bonding that are a significant part of the physical interaction of a couple."

In the most extreme cases, porn can separate the user from their partner—both in terms of time and emotions. The resulting emotional detachment from sex is very dangerous to the viability of the marriage.

Creates Unrealistic Expectations

When you go to the movies, you know that the movie has been edited, and that the people on screen are actors who have been paid to bring a scripted character to life.

But for some reason, people have difficulty making these same connections when they watch porn. They forget that real sex isn't the same as the perfectly scripted scenes they see on the internet. This leads them to have unrealistic expectations about sex and a warped view of what a sexual partner should look like and be willing to do—expectations that can never be met.

Decreases Self Esteem

Janie Lacy, a licensed mental health counselor and certified sex addiction therapist in Florida, says, "Pornography can lower the sense of self-esteem and self-worth of the wife because she may compare herself to the women that her husband is viewing on the screen." And research shows that her assessment is spot on.

For example, some women worry they can't compete with the beautiful young women her partner is viewing on the screen. Many even begin to view themselves as “sexually undesirable, worthless, weak, and stupid.”

When you are constantly bombarded by negative thoughts about yourself, they eventually start to creep into how you relate to your partner. Low self-esteem eventually gives rise to jealousy and overall distrust in the relationship.

Reasons Why Your Spouse May Be Watching Porn

If you discover that your partner has been watching porn, you might feel distressed, angry, or betrayed. Some people may even feel that viewing porn is the same as cheating.

It can be helpful to understand some of the reasons why even a committed partner might view porn.

  • Porn may act as a substitute for affection: Some researchers suggest that when the need for affection is not met, people may turn to pornography to fulfill these social needs and combat feelings of loneliness.
  • Porn use may be a way to cope with stress: Porn can sometimes act as a coping mechanism when people are dealing with stress or other mental health issues. It may serve as a form of escape or provide a sense of stress relief.
  • Porn activates the brain's reward pathways: People may view porn because it activates the reward circuitry in the brain, releasing "feel good" chemicals that produce feelings of pleasure. It can have a powerful effect on the brain, which is why porn use is sometimes described as addictive.

Porn addiction is not a recognized addiction, and some experts suggest that characterizing porn use as addiction contributes to negative attitudes about sex. Research has also shown that attitudes about porn use create more distress than pornography itself.

If Porn Is a Problem in Your Marriage

Of course, there are relationships in which porn use is mutually enjoyed. But if porn isn't OK with you, then it’s not OK in your relationship and should be addressed. Unfortunately, this is an important conversation that far too few couples have.

Here are some tips on how to broach the topic of porn with your partner and get back on track:

  • Start your conversation right. The first few minutes of a difficult conversation generally determine the outcome, so be direct and calm. Use the same tone and attitude you would use for any low-pressure topic. Do you want steak for dinner? Are you into having a porn conversation with me tonight?
  • Leave judgment at the door. Tread lightly and choose your words wisely. Nothing is more upsetting or alienating than feeling like your sexuality is being judged.
  • Ask questions. Ask them what they like about porn. Find out if their porn use is something they consider a problem and need to work on, or if they think that porn is OK.
  • Own your feelings. Take the time to calmly and clearly explain why you feel the way you do about porn. Be honest about why it bothers you. This may require you to open up about insecurities you may have about what you look like or how you have sex.

If you can't resolve the issue alone, consider seeking the help of a couples' counselor or sex therapist. You can also look into marriage counseling to see if you think there are other problems in your marriage that may be leading to excessive pornography use.

Taylor warns that while experimenting with porn is understandable, doing so just to please your partner can wind up backfiring. Not only will it "reinforce or excuse avoidant or abusive dynamics," but it also has the potential to lead to addiction.

A Word From Verywell

Pornography use is a risky venture that can wreak havoc on a relationship if used in excess. If pornography crops up, view it as an opportunity to express your sexual needs, and explore together how to improve your sex life. Don't sweep it under the rug. Your marriage may depend on it.

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Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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