Ruptured Attachments: What’s Porn Got To Do With It?

As a sex addiction therapist I work with my clients to help them understand how their compulsive use of porn impacts their lives and relationships. In this process it is often helpful to look at the “who, what, why, where and how” of their porn use. I go beyond asking my clients the obvious questions of “How often do you masturbate to porn?” and “How often do you have sex with your partner?” I break it down more by asking, “What types of porn do you watch? Vanilla? BDSM?” “What types of scenarios are you aroused by?” “Where do you watch porn? At the office? At home? Where in your home do you use it?” The answer to this last question is typically in a place where my client can keep it secret from his partner. So here my client is: in his home having a sexual experience that does not include his husband or wife. I begin to reflect of how this may be affecting his relationship and how his partner might be impacted.

Imagine your own relationship and how compulsive porn use could affect it: You are lying in bed waiting for your husband, hoping to spend some intimate time with him. If you were to discover he was down the hall masturbating to streaming porn videos how would you feel? Many partners experience a range of emotions including hurt, confusion, anger, and shame. These discoveries leave some partners wondering, “Am I not enough?” “Why does he find porn more arousing than me?” “I will never have the body some of the porn models have…does he want that?” Prior to a discovery or disclosure, many partners report that something was not right in how their partner responded to them. He may have been irritable, quick to anger, detached, there but not there.

One begins to wonder where the porn user’s mind is in relation to his partner. The answer is: not present. Connection between partners is broken. There is a rupture in the relationship. Repeated use of porn, and the secrecy involved in its use, creates more and more of these ruptures leading to a wider divide in a coupleship. Not only is physical intimacy threatened, but emotional connection can be endangered as well. Emotional connection is the foundation of healthy, loving, hot sex with an intimate partner.

Evidence for the decline in emotional and physical intimacy in relationships related to porn use was recently presented at the American Sociological Association (ASA) Annual Meeting. In a decade long study, which collected data from thousands of American adults titled “Til Porn Do Us Part”, researchers cited that pornography use is associated with a significant increase in the probability of divorce for married Americans. The couples participating in the study reported having a good marital quality before porn was introduced into their dynamic. The group surveyed excluded couples that reported poor marital quality at the beginning of the study. The study also found that the younger a person was when he or she began viewing porn, the higher his or her probability was of getting divorced. Overall, the research presented highlighted marital instability and low levels of happiness in the coupleship the longer porn was viewed by one or both of the partners. One can view these findings and see how broken attachments and connections can be attributed to the compulsive use of pornography.

The allure of porn is very strong. It is hard for many people to just stop watching, potentially leading to porn addiction. All of that erotic imagery bombards the reward center in the brain, flooding it with neurochemicals creating a high similar to cocaine or heroin. Chief among these chemicals is dopamine. Dopamine lights up the reward circuitry in our brains, fueling more desire and cravings often leading to addiction. This clearly takes ones’ mind off of their partner increasing fixation with porn. With the compulsive use of porn, the brain’s neural pathways begin to build stronger connections in the reward center. These powerful connections can reorient us from our intimate partners to porn. Our arousal pattern is changed: porn will turn us on– not our partners. This leads to emotional and physical problems in the bedroom. Porn addicts, some as young as 25, report porn-induced erectile dysfunction, post-orgasmic illness syndrome (POIS), and problems with ejaculation. For more on the biological and physical impact of porn check out www.yourbrainonporn.com, an immensely informative site exploring the science behind porn addiction with educational (but not dry) videos, reboot strategies, and blogs written by people struggling with porn addiction. Like all addictions it can lead to out-of-control behavior and negative physical, social, and psychological consequences. When we look at broken connections between partners we are looking at serious relational consequences.

So we can begin to see how compulsive porn use threatens the connection between romantic partners. I liken it to all relationships where one partner is in addiction. The addiction becomes the third party in the relationship and this third party is always present, taking more time, energy, and affection out of the coupleship. Many porn addicts have shared with me that the thought of using porn, with its excitement and intensity, is always humming in the background as they move through their day. If you are in that preoccupied state, you are longing for your next “hit.” Getting that next hit becomes a priority. A powerful relationship with porn develops. Now, enter your boyfriend who wants to spend time with you: go out to dinner, see a movie, share a workout or a shower. “No”, your porn partner says, “I want my hit…now.” This leads you to get irritable with your boyfriend. You make an excuse to avoid spending time with him. You ignore his bids for attention and affection leaving him feeling dismissed, flatten, sad and angry. Again a connection is broken. There is less security and stability in the relationship.

I think for some couples using porn together may be a positive thing in the boudoir as long as it does not become a required part of a couple’s sex life. Porn use becomes problematic when one, or both, partners get hooked on the addictive high and desire porn more than a loving partner.