- As many as one-half of women in romantic relationships disapprove of pornography and nearly one-third of engaged and married women consider porn a form of marital infidelity. Tweet This
- Pornography’s scripts of eroticism, objectification, promiscuity, and misogyny combined with secrecy can significantly impair attachment for both partners. Tweet This
- Hiding, denying, and lying is like buying pornography use on credit—the relationship debt is simply postponed, not avoided, with interest accruing daily. Tweet This
“One day when my husband left the house, I built up the courage to search our Internet history. What I found was a stark reality. I felt sick and numb, until the pain and the anger finally rolled in. I can handle a lot of things—but lying isn’t one of them.”
Discovering a partner’s pornography use, as this woman did, is not a unique experience.1 As pornography floods the globe, couples are confronting new issues and conversations surrounding its use. While research reveals many adverse outcomes of pornography use for couple relationships, one factor is exponentially compounding the harm: secrecy.
Awareness of a partner’s pornography use tends to be largely incongruent with actual use. In a nationally representative study of couples in committed relationships, 37% of men reported more pornography use than their partner believed was occurring. In casually dating relationships, 43% of the men reported using pornography daily or every other day, while none of their partners reported awareness of that level of use. Partner’s awareness was much more congruent with women’s actual pornography use (69%), stemming from more than 60% accurately reporting that their female partner never uses pornography.
These results are not surprising. Pornography use is largely a private behavior, and far from a casual announcement. Viewers may reason that their private behavior concerns only themselves or hide their activity to prevent negative reactions from their partner. However, openness and honesty in a relationship—transparency—is about more than pornography itself.
One of the vital elements of relational well-being is secure attachment, or a partner’s ability to view the relationship as safe and dependable. Besides being a matter of relationship ethics, keeping intimate information and behavior from one’s romantic partner, especially when it touches upon the sexual realm, can erode relationship trust and couple intimacy, jeopardizing secure attachment.
Sustaining secure attachment requires openness, honesty, fidelity, and trust. With men three to four times more likely to view pornography alone and leave their partners in the dark about it, pornography use is known to specifically impact the attachment trust of female partners. However, the partner is not the only one affected. Pornography’s scripts of eroticism, objectification, promiscuity, and misogyny combined with secrecy can significantly impair attachment for both partners. Still, individuals remain motivated to hide their pornography use, with the consequences often mis-weighed.
Why Hide It? Because Porn Hurts
The relationship meaning attached to pornography use varies. It is generally perceived as either harmless, a gateway to sexual compulsivity or more-serious betrayals, or virtual infidelity. As many as one-half of women in romantic relationships disapprove of pornography to some degree and nearly one-third of engaged and married women consider pornography a form of marital infidelity. Though perceptions are subjective, they matter within relationships. When there is misalignment between behavior and expectations regarding pornography use, it can lead to stress and conflict in the relationship, with one in five engaged and married partners reporting such conflict.
Among married couples in particular, relational distress from pornography use is significantly higher, as there is a firmer expectation for commitment and often deeper investment. Frequency of pornography use is predictive of relationship instability through lower levels of commitment, increased positive attitudes toward extramarital sex, and increased infidelity. Consequently, pornography use is experienced by many as “infidelity-lite”—a lesser helping of the negative consequences usually associated with actual intimate betrayal.
Does viewing pornography together lessen the harm? Some research has reported that mutual pornography use is associated with lower levels of distress, but the same research notes that couples who never viewed pornography together had the best outcomes across relationship quality measures.
Fear of conflict or relationship rupture is a principal factor discouraging disclosure, though this can be counterproductive to sustaining relationship stability. Hiding, denying, and lying is like buying pornography use on credit—the relationship debt is simply postponed, not avoided, with interest accruing daily. Conversely, the relational stressor of pornography use is mitigated when relational expectations of honesty and trust are met.
Honesty Hurts Less
Whether porn use is discovered or disclosed makes a difference, adding to or ameliorating attachment threat. Women who discovered their partner’s pornography use viewed it as a “traumatic event,” experiencing emotions similar to women whose partner cheated on them. Conversely, women whose partner came forward and disclosed their pornography use reported lower levels of distress and higher levels of relationship satisfaction. Additionally, men whose partner knew of their pornography use reported that it was easier to talk about sex with their partner, suggesting that honesty may moderate some of the negative effects of disclosure.
Furthermore, an analysis of disclosure in which extramarital sexual activities had been recurrent, long-standing, and thus particularly distressing to the partner found that honesty was foundational for healing and an improved relationship. Ninety-six percent of sexually compulsive persons and 93% of partners believed that disclosure had been the right thing. Honesty requires courage, vulnerability, and respect, as it shows one’s partner that the couple relationship is more a priority than protecting oneself or one’s pornography use.
Hiding, denying, and lying is like buying pornography use on credit—the relationship debt is simply postponed, not avoided, with interest accruing daily.
Given its prevalence, all couples can take time to have intentional discussions about pornography use. While honesty and authenticity can be daunting, the silver lining to these conversations is their power to promote and sustain a relationship of trust, central to secure attachment. Indeed, honesty is the very genesis of intimacy. A couple therapist can help facilitate these crucial conversations, scaffolding safe couple interaction through any anxiety, fear, and distress.
Here are some other points to help prepare both partners to take part in a disclosure conversation:
Suggestions for the Disclosing Partner
- Be accountable for the behavior. Accept, don’t project, responsibility.
- Approach the conversation with the intent to improve the relationship—a “we” rather than “me versus you” mindset.
- Include all major elements of the behavior but avoid details that produce imagery for the partner to ruminate over.
- Often pornography is used as a means of emotional coping or support for sexual concerns and desires. Knowing this can help avoid shame, as well as address and ameliorate these underlying motivations.
Suggestions for the Receiving Partner
- Try to listen nonjudgmentally with the intent to understand your partner more deeply.
- Externalize and depersonalize the behavior. That is, see beyond the behavior to the person, with empathy.
- Just as importantly, separate your partner’s behavior from yourself. Their porn use is no reflection on your personal worth, value, or desirability, sexual or otherwise.
- In the immediate aftermath, avoid important decisions, such as relationship (attachment) threats and ultimatums. They won’t make the problem go away, just encourage it to go underground. Give yourself some time to respond.
Suggestions for Both Partners
- Discuss the personal and relational meaning pornography holds for each partner.
- Set desired individual and couple boundaries regarding pornography use.
- Remember that disclosure is often a process, not a one-time event. Additional expectations may need to be established.
The Reward of Openness
Choosing to openly communicate about pornography use provides couples with a valuable opportunity to align their values and set mutually agreed-upon expectations to protect feelings of trust and safety over the long term. Additionally, if a partner desires to discontinue viewing pornography, relationship openness and accountability provide scaffolding for desired change. Honesty about pornography use can be a transformative gateway to deeper intimacy and secure attachment in couples’ relationships.
Misha D. Crawford is a Master’s student in the Marriage, Family, and Human Development program, Brigham Young University. Mark H. Butler, Ph.D. Marriage and Family Therapy, is a Professor in the School of Family Life, Brigham Young University.
1. Anonymous internet account, publicly available