Increasing technology and media today is making pornography more common at home. Research shows 46% of men and 16% of women view pornography in the United States every week.15 Almost half of internet traffic has to do with sex.11 Some are not worried by this statistic because they think pornography helps them learn more about sex, but in reality, it may poorly affect couples’ relationships by altering communication patterns and sexual desire.18
Many relationships where pornography is involved are impacted in some way.10 Some married couples may feel the negative effects even more because of their attachment style. Attachment style is how secure or insecure a couple feels in their relationship. Attachment styles are shaped by the way each person is raised.
Secure or Anxious Attachment
Couples in a secure relationship typically feel comfortable and confident with both themselves and their partner. Generally, they were raised by loving parents who were present in their lives. Since these couples feel safe together, they are more likely to have more confidence in sexual exploration and energy to do so.8
Other couples do not feel this security. Anxiety caused by experiences during childhood lead people to fear their spouse will somehow abandon or reject them. Anxiously attached individuals often come from families where parents were not involved in their lives.16 With their fear and anxiety, anxious partners are more sensitive to things the other partner says or does because they look for reassurance that their relationship is good.12 Therefore, making the choice to view pornography can be especially damaging to these marriages because viewing pornography does not encourage the love, trust, and bond of secure relationships.9
For anxious partners, the emotional connection that happens during sex plays an important role in their marital satisfaction.19 Sex is evidence to them of their partner’s commitment because it takes time, concentration, and communication.6 Pornography then, may not show commitment because one spouse is finding sexual pleasure outside of their marital relationship. To the non-viewing spouse, that may mean that their spouse does not want to make the effort for sex when sexual pleasure can be found on a computer screen.9 Pornography usage, especially when one partner does not approve, frustrates the ideal situation of having both partners share the same sexual values and expectations.16
Trust is an important part of feeling connected with a spouse, especially to someone who already deals with insecurity. Distrust makes the relationship an unsafe place to have new sexual experiences together.2 The confidence to have sexual experiences together is an important part of a secure relationship,19 but insecurely attached partners sometimes struggle to have full confidence in their spouse. Pornography, often called “virtual infidelity,” can lead the non-using partner to lose even more trust in their loved one.19
Pornography has been associated with decreases in couple communication. This can also contribute to lost trust.3 Couples can have a hard time reporting how much pornography their significant other is viewing,3 because it is secret. Those viewing pornography in religious families may choose to withdraw themselves physically and emotionally from their loved ones because they fear the shame they feel for doing something against their religious beliefs.13 Dishonesty in the relationship builds walls and encourages distrust.
Pornography affects both the emotional and physical parts of a relationship. It alters the part of the brain that deals with habit formation, compulsivity, and novelty.6 Similar to other addictions, the more pornography is viewed, the less excited the brain becomes with sex.6 For men in particular, there is an association of viewing pornography and a decrease in sexual variety and time spent during intercourse.7 Sexual intercourse plays a large role in marital satisfaction, so a low level of sexual satisfaction is associated with a decrease in overall marital satisfaction.2
Over time, pornography also breaks down the prefrontal lobe, affecting the ability to plan for the future, reason, pay attention, and change behavior.6 A shrunken prefrontal lobe is associated with inappropriate behavioral choices6 that may affect sexual intimacy. Since anxious attachment is linked to a greater likelihood of poor sexual performance8 already, the combination may lower the couple’s sexual quality.
Pornography does not just physically degrade the brain; it also creates unrealistic expectations, playing with the already sensitive emotions of someone who feels insecure in his or her marriage.5 Viewing images of an ideal or “perfect” sexual situation sets the stage for disappointment for both the viewer of pornography and their spouse. Both need a positive image of themselves to be able to have new sexual experiences together, talk openly with one another, and have a positive sexual experience.19 The unrealistic expectations begun by viewing pornography are associated with sexual dissatisfaction and insecurity in a relationship.9
A notable portion of couples agree that pornography degrades and objectifies women and that viewing pornography is only acceptable when both partners are viewing it together.3 It shows unrealistic circumstances and unrealistic people that may cause pornography viewers to establish unrealistic standards that their partner must meet.5 Anxiously attached individuals frequently have sex to show love to their partner. Disappointing sexual experiences or unmet expectations can cause fears of abandonment because insecure individuals think their relationship is bad.19 They are afraid of losing their partner and fear that they will leave at any time.12 On the other hand, securely attached couples are more likely to talk and work together to solve problems if they have a less than great sexual experience.12
Therefore, the use of pornography especially threatens an anxious relationship because it sends the message that the non-viewing spouse is not good enough and that the other person needs to find satisfaction somewhere else. The anxiously attached partner may also overcompensate for a fear of abandonment, sparked by pornography use, by clinging to the relationship in unhealthy ways.12
Improving couple communication, like talking it out, can make a relationship more secure and help in overcoming the negative effects of pornography. Someone who is anxiously attached is more likely to see talking it out as negative,12 so being able to talk about thoughts, needs, and feelings is necessary to building a secure relationship. Anxiety and insecurity may cause someone to avoid vulnerable conversations that would ultimately heal the relationship or resolve concerns because of the anxiety it causes.12 Adjusting how spouses talk to each other may help an anxiously attached couple develop the attributes of a secure relationship, namely trust, vulnerability, confidence, and positive self-image.
Here are some suggestions to build a secure relationship and help a couple facing the negative influence of pornography:
- Recognize that not all struggles with pornography are addictions.14 Calling a struggle an addiction fosters feelings of hopelessness and despair because partners who view pornography feel like they have become the addiction or their struggle defines them when in reality, they don’t understand what being addicted really means.
- Check up on each other frequently.17 See how each spouse is doing. Physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually try to understand the other’s needs. Being able to connect on all levels builds trust and opens the door for communication about habits that could potentially harm the relationship.
- Compliment each other. Social scientist John Gottman says the “magic ratio” of positive to negative interactions for a successful marriage is five to one.1 Filling each other with love is essential for a fulfilling marriage, which would decrease the need to seek other reassurances in unhealthy ways.
Consider researching more about the effects of pornography and ways to get help by consulting the information listed below or visiting with a qualified professional.
Additional Online Resources
Written by Amber T. Rodriguez, edited by Brittany Passmore, Dallin Rodriguez, Rachel Augustus, and Professors Julie Haupt and Stephen F. Duncan, School of Family Life, Brigham Young University. April 4, 2019.
- Benson, K. (2018, October 30). The magic relationship ratio, according to science. Retrieved from https://www.gottman.com/blog/the-magic-relationship-ratio-according-science/
- Butzer, B., & Campbell, L. (2008). Adult attachment, sexual satisfaction, and relationship satisfaction: A study of married couples. Personal Relationships, 15(1), 141-154.
- Carroll, J. S., Busby, D. M., Willoughby, B. J., & Brown, C. C. (2017). The porn gap: Differences in men’s and women’s pornography patterns in couple relationships. Journal of Couple & Relationship Therapy, 16(2), 146-163.
- Dunkley, C. R., Dang, S. S., Chang, S. C. H., & Gorzalka, B. B. (2016). Sexual functioning in young women and men: Role of attachment orientation. Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, 42(5), 413-430.
- Goldsmith, K., Dunkley, C. R., Dang, S. S., & Gorzalka, B. (2017). Pornography consumption and its association with sexual concerns and expectations among young men and women. Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality, 26(2), 151–162.
- Kühn, S., & Gallinat, J. (2014). Brain structure and functional connectivity associated with pornography consumption: The brain on porn. JAMA Psychiatry, 71(7), 827-834.
- Leonhardt, N. D., & Willoughby, B. J. (2019). Pornography, provocative sexual media, and their differing associations with multiple aspects of sexual satisfaction. Journal of Social & Personal Relationships, 36(2), 618–641.
- Luke, M. A., Sedikides, C., & Carnelley, K. (2012). Your love lifts me higher! The energizing quality of secure relationships. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 38(6), 721–733.
- Maas, M. K., Vasilenko, S. A., & Willoughby, B. J. (2018). A dyadic approach to pornography use and relationship satisfaction among heterosexual couples: The role of pornography acceptance and anxious attachment. Journal of Sex Research, 55(6), 772-782.
- Manning, J. C. (2006). The Impact of Internet Pornography on Marriage and the Family: A Review of the Research. Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity, 13(2/3), 131–165
- McNair, B. (2002). Striptease culture. London: Routledge.
- McNeil, J., Rehman, U. S., & Fallis, E. (2018). The influence of attachment styles on sexual communication behavior. Journal of Sex Research, 55(2), 191-201.
- Nelson, L. J., Padilla-Walker, L. M., & Carroll, J. S. (2010). “I believe it is wrong but I still do it”: A comparison of religious young men who do versus do not use pornography. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 2(3), 136–147
- Oaks, D. H. (2015, October). Recovering from the trap of pornography. Retrieved from https://www.lds.org/ensign/2015/10/recovering-from-the-trap-of-pornography?lang=eng
- Regnerus, M., Gordon, D., & Price, J. (2016). Documenting pornography use in America: A comparative analysis of methodological approaches. The Journal of Sex Research, 53(7), 873–881.
- Stefanou, C., & McCabe, M. P. (2012). Adult attachment and sexual functioning: A review of past research. Journal of Sexual Medicine, 9(10), 2499-2507.
- What is a Marriage Meeting? (n.d.). Retrieved from http://marcianaomiberger.com/e-books-2/sample-starter-kit-introductioin-chapter/
- Willoughby, B. J., Carroll, J. S., Busby, D. M., & Brown, C. (2016). Differences in pornography use among couples: Associations with satisfaction, stability, and relationship processes. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 45, 145–148.
- Zitzman, S. T., & Butler, M. H. (2009). Wives' experience of husbands' pornography use and concomitant deception as an attachment threat in the adult pair-bond relationship. Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity, 16(3), 210-240.