Pornography, Cybersex & Your Relationship
Suzanne Phillips, PsyD
For some adults the use of pornography (which includes adult and sexually oriented DVDs and websites) or cybersex (which might include visiting sexual chat rooms or sending explicit sexual emails) may be a passing curiosity, a source of sexual stimulation or serious addiction.
For adults in committed relationships, the secret use of pornography or cybersex is far more complicated, as it can ultimately impact both partners and pose a risk to their relationship.
Discovering Your Partner’s Secret Use
When a partner walks in on the other viewing porn that is quickly shut off or realizes that he/she is regularly visiting sexual chat rooms, there is often an initial shock followed by a mix of feelings including anger, distrust, rejection and betrayal.
- Some partners feel hit in the gut. “How Could She Do This?”
- Some become frightened, “Who is this Stranger?”
- Some are afraid to say anything and collude with the silence that surrounds the secret.
- For others the feelings spill out in anger
“If you want to view that trash – You don’t want me.”
“You’d rather find it in cyberspace than in our bedroom.”
- Whether they protest or not, many take their partner’s use of porn or cybersex as an indictment of their inadequacy- a feeling that disqualifies their desire and, in a vicious cycle, often justifies the other’s continued use.
- Whether they are comfortable or not with porn, most partners experience the “cover-up” as a rupture of trust and an assault to true intimacy.
Having the Secret Exposed
Given the denial that fuels the secret use of pornography or cybersex, it is not surprising that many partners will at first deny or negate the other’s confrontation of their secret- even in face of the evidence.
“How dare you check my computer!”
“I knew you would be too uptight to understand.”
Whether initially denied or not, however, many partners who value their relationship, feel guilt, shame, and lowered self-esteem when their secret is exposed. Essentially both partners are in crisis.
What Do You Do In the Face of a Relationship Crisis Triggered by the Discovery of Porn and Cybersex Use?
Like any challenge, a couple that believes they have a relationship worth saving can repair the breach of sexual secrets. To do so both partners need the courage to address the meaning and use of porn and cybersex and repair the impact on their relationship.
1. Talking so the other will listen – listening so the other will talk.
- Whether you partner is very upset and apologetic about their porn use or quiet and avoidant – ask to just calmly talk and listen together.
- Rather than judging or condemning, or feeling rejected or angry – try to be curious.
- Try to include both partners in the sharing so it is not an inquisition but an attempt at understanding.
- The expectation that partners who feel betrayed, judged, and angry can just talk this out in one sitting is unrealistic – BUT you can start anywhere, you can write as a step to sharing, or start by thinking about questions like:
Do we both want the relationship? How are we each feeling? What do we each think about porn or cyber sex? How does using it affect our relationship?
2. The Power of Understanding
Information often helps move people from a state of helplessness and confusion to a beginning feeling of control. Understanding more about the use of pornography and cybersex may offer some clarifications for both partners and the start of a plan for repair.
It’s worth knowing that:
One of the reasons that porn and cybersex is so compelling and often addicting is that it has a neurophysiolgical impact. If someone finds it stimulating or need-fulfilling, it is registered in body and mind. The problem with the secret use of porn for stimulation and sexual arousal is that it is not mutual; it too often replaces intimacy with the partner with erotic images and ritual.
- Much like drugs or alcohol, porn or cybersex may have little to do with sex and much more to do with the temporary relief from feelings such as guilt, loneliness, depression and post-traumatic symptoms. In the aftermath of trauma, for example, it is often grasped to fill in sleepless hours, distract from intrusive images and offset the numbing and fear of sexual performance.
- Porn is used more often by men than women as a primary source of stimulation. More men than women become addicted to porn.
- For some, masturbation to porn is an anxiety reducing ritual that has very little to do with sexuality.
- Cybersex as sexually explicit emails often involves an addiction to a virtual sexually desirous self.
- Chat rooms are used more by women who tend to be more relationship seeking than men.
- Women are more likely to become addicted to fantasy relationships or online connection as a temporary relief from painful feelings.
- While consenting adults need not answer to anyone about the sexual experiences they share, consenting does not include compliance, intimidation, embarrassment or disinterest by a partner.
The signs that porn, cybersex etc. have become an addiction include:
- Loss of control- Despite promises and the best intentions, the partner cannot stop.
- Denial of Consequences- The behavior cannot be given up despite job, health, legal and relationship consequences.
- All Consuming- Like other addictions, a sexual addiction becomes central to the partner’s life such that time, money, friends and family are given away in pursuit of the fix.
For something to change in the life of an individual and the relationship he/she shares – there has to be a plan. A common trap is the anxious insistence and agreement to terms and rules of a plan before the real problem is understood or accepted. The idea of a “working plan” implies working together to see what is possible for each partner and to adjust accordingly.
For example, the initial plan may be a commitment to honesty rather than specific behavior. The partner who finds and shares that he/she turned to porn again when things got stressful or when couple intimacy was resumed, participates in a way that opens the door for trust and perhaps the plan for self-help or professional help.
The help of a mental health professional can really aid and support a couple’s recovery. When it becomes clear that a partner is suffering with an addiction, professional help is a necessity. Often individual or couple treatment coordinated with a twelve step program is a valuable arrangement. With any plan the recognition of the need for the non-addicted partner to receive support becomes a vital component of the recovery for both.
With Belief in Yourself and Your Partner – Recovery is Possible
Suzanne Phillips, PsyD Bio
Dr. Phillips is a licensed Psychologist, Psychoanalyst, Diplomat in Group Psychotherapy and Co-Author of Healing Together.Learn More