I’ve run across a number of couples lately — mainly younger couples — who are watching X-rated movies or pornography in order to “spice up their sex life”. It is not uncommon in our world to think that pornography has something to offer your marriage, but today, we’re going to take a look at what the research says porn really does for, or, more precisely, to your marriage.
So I am going to come at this as if I was talking to a younger couple, maybe newlyweds, and they’ve watched some porn together and they feel like it turns up the heat in the bedroom.
But I need you to understand, as the reader, that I am taking training to become a Certified Sex Addiction Therapist and that means that part of my counseling work is actually helping couples recover from the impact of pornography on marriage. I cannot begin to describe to you the depth of hurt experienced in the hearts of betrayed spouses and in the hearts of pornography addicts, too. Like bad enough for suicide to be on the table.
You should know that I am not a fan of pornography. While it certainly can produce heightened arousal, even if we were to push aside the moral implications of the sexual abuse and trafficking of men and women in that industry, the consequences of using pornography in your marriage are significant and very serious. So while I want to be non-judgmental and this post definitely isn’t aiming to shame anyone, there are some serious warnings to heed here.
Porn Impacts Marital Satisfaction
Research consistently finds that frequent porn use is linked to lower relationship satisfaction for all kinds of romantic relationships[i][ii]. Porn use is particularly damaging for marriages compared to dating relationships[iii], and this effect gets stronger over time so that the longer you are married and using porn, the more it damages your marital satisfaction.[iv] So something that may seem like harmless fun for dating couples or newlyweds is only going to cause more and more problems the longer you’re married.
Which direction is this effect? Does porn decrease marital satisfaction? Or does decreasing marital satisfaction fuel porn use?
A study in 2004[v] found that an unhappy marriage can be a predictor of frequent porn use. That’s probably entitlement coming out, although it may also be a coping mechanism—if I act out with porn, I can stay married and stay air “faithful”.
But other research shows that porn use can cause marital problems: A recent study in 2017[vi] surveyed married couples for porn use and marital quality in 2006 and then again in 2012. They found that porn use in 2006 predicted lower marital quality in 2012. In fact it was the strongest predictor of low marital satisfaction. So while the effect can go both ways— porn as a symptom and a cause of marital problems— “experimental research suggests that it is porn use that more often negatively affects couples’ outcomes than vice versa[vii]”
How Porn Impacts Relationships
So let’s look at the specific ways porn is damaging to marriages.
According to a theory called the Investment Model, commitment in relationships is comprised of 3 elements: satisfaction with the relationship, attractiveness of available alternatives and investment in the relationship[viii].
We just seen that satisfaction is impacted by porn use.
Porn use also increases your attention to attractive alternatives to your spouse, thereby lowering commitment to your spouse. Because you are looking at a wide variety of attractive alternatives to your spouse in the porn, you are likely to become less satisfied and committed to a single spouse and more desiring of variety.
This is one of the beliefs implicit in a worldview that accepts pornography: that a variety of sexual partners is more fulfilling than one sexual partner.
Even if you consider yourself faithfully married and you consume porn just to spice things up, you are, by virtue of your actions, also implicitly agreeing that being involved in other people’s sexual activities is necessary to provide greater sexual fulfillment in your marriage.
I would really challenge you on this. If you believe that sex is purely an animalistic urge, like hunger, and that it is not related to the intimacy of body, soul and spirit between two people, where they are joined and become one, then that animalistic urge really has no boundaries.
But if you are reading this today because you believe marriage is the ideal place for two people to become profoundly intimate, which is the journey of a lifetime, and includes emotional, spiritual and sexual intimacy, then pornography use has no place in that paradigm. Because to use porn is to say that the two of you are not enough.
Which, in turn, is really pointing to the fact that you are not comfortable with yourselves. There is a fundamental disacceptance of who you are: of one or both of you, either interpersonally or intrapersonally. And you are using pornography as a coping mechanism to distract from this reality.
Now: I believe marriage is a crucible for personal growth. So if you take your coping mechanism out, you have to deal with what is in front of you. And that’s a good thing: although it may be painful, it is a worthy thing. You will grow, you will be sanctified through confronting rather than coping. But porn is preventing this growth from happening. You’re really selling yourselves short on creating a soul-mate marriage.
Another study in 2012[ix] found that husbands frequently using porn lowered their wives’ esteem, especially when the wife perceived the porn use to be problematic. Wives believed their husband’s use of porn was in some way their own fault and caused by their own unattractiveness.
Here’s a quote from the study: “In her eyes, his involvement implied that she must be physically unattractive, sexually undesirable, worthless, inadequate as a wife and as a woman, and weak and stupid for not taking a very strong stand against the pornography use.”
This reduced self esteem went on to reduce relationship quality and sexual satisfaction. So you can see the horrible effect it has on your wife’s image of herself when you turn to porn for satisfaction rather than her. A lot of guys, especially, don’t realize what pornography use does to their spouse.
Trust and Attachment
Now, I have been speaking about couples using porn openly, but if you are using it secretly, perhaps with the thought of enhancing your marriage you need to know you are creating a betrayal event. It is just a matter of time until that explodes.
Use of porn, and also the act of deception and hiding your porn use from your spouse, damages the trust and attachment bond in marriages[x]. This creates a “fault line” or a crack in the bond, which often then widens as the wife becomes distant from her husband after discovering his porn use and the attempts he made to cover it up. Couples often then become estranged due to feeling emotionally unsafe in the relationship. You’re creating a situation in your life that you don’t want your wife to be a part of, and that will erode at the trust between you.
High porn use lowers intimacy between couples and perceived closeness, especially for women whose husbands are problematic porn users. We saw how a husband’s porn use changed his wife’s self image, but it also affects her image of him. Discovering their husband’s porn use changed their view of the relationship, often leaving women feeling betrayed, and thinking that their husbands are no longer interested in them sexually or invested in their relationship[xi].
This discovery also changed wives’ views of their husband, reducing their respect for him and seeing him as selfish and objectifying of women.
Preventing the Cycle of Addiction
If you find yourself trapped in pornography and are looking for a way out, we have a special supplement to today’s show called “Preventing the Cycle of Addiction”. This guide will help you understand why it is so hard to break free and what your first steps towards recovery are. You can get this by becoming a patron of The Marriage Podcast for Smart People.
Pornography’s Influence on Stability and Infidelity
Due to the fact that porn use erodes commitment by increasing the amount of attention paid to potential alternative partners (as we saw above), high porn use is linked to lower relationship stability and to higher rates of infidelity[xii]. It is like you are opening a window in your mind that eventually opens doors in your life to things you never thought you would do.
See, frequent porn users are already in some way getting sexual fulfillment from sources other than their spouse, so it follows that they would have a higher acceptance of the idea of sex outside of marriage. A study in 2014[xiii] found that viewing internet porn or X rated movies predicted both extramarital affairs and divorce. Even when couples only watch porn together as part of their joint sexual activity, rates of infidelity are higher than for couples who never watch porn[xiv]. So even making this a joint activity is risky.
Sexual Satisfaction is Damaged by Pornography Consumption
Male porn use is negatively linked to sexual satisfaction for both husbands and wives[xv]. As with marital satisfaction, this effect gets stronger the longer a marriage with porn use goes on[xvi]. Porn use also damages intimacy, and lowers self esteem for women, both of which reduce sexual satisfaction.
Porn interferes with sex because it changes how couples think about sex. It affects couple’s sexual scripts- their beliefs about how they and their spouse should act during sex.
A study in 2007[xvii] surveyed men and women about what they think is important in great sex, and on what they think is important in pornographic depictions of sex. The more porn people watched, the more similar these two lists were: people who were frequent porn users believed that their sex should be similar to what is portrayed in porn.
You can see how that would be unhealthy, right? Since porn sex is all about performance and totally ignores intimacy and emotional connection, people whose sexual scripts are highly influenced by the porn they watch will miss out on this, which will make their sex much less satisfying.
So even the belief that porn can spice up your sex life is actually misinformed. You’ve been told a lie. Pornography distorts what should naturally unfold between you, and what should naturally unfold is richer and more intimate than anything you could learn from watching porn.
Further, since porn paints such an unrealistic depiction of sex, having sexual scripts based on porn can also lead to dissatisfaction with your spouse, or with yourself[xviii]. These effects include being dissatisfied with your partner’s appearance, sexual performance and levels of displayed affection.
You can’t compete in terms of performance — I don’t mean sexual performance, but in terms of acting. It’s like you watch a martial arts movie or any action movie and you know that you cannot drive like that or fight like that. That’s OK — the hero lives on the screen. But with pornography, people take the scenarios, the acting that they see and they expect themselves or their spouse to replicate this. But, that’s not possible in real life.
Porn in Marriage Impacts Men and Women Differently
Let’s point out a few gender difference that it’s useful to be aware of. Most of the negative effects of porn use in marriage come from the husband’s porn use[xix].
Male porn use reduces the husband’s sexual satisfaction through creating unrealistic expectations and negative evaluations of their own sexual competency, and reduces women’s self esteem and feelings of intimacy, which go on to impact marital and sexual satisfaction.
Female porn use does not have these effects to the same extent, with most studies reporting that female porn viewing has no effect or even small positive effects on sexual and marital satisfaction. Porn use doesn’t seem to be stigmatized in women to the same extent, and perhaps doesn’t affect their self esteem or expectations in quite the same way. But it’s still going to affect your intimacy and trust so it’s still a bad idea.
Religiosity and Porn Use
Here’s an interesting extra factor to those of you who share our Christian worldview, or follow another religion. A study in 2016[xx] examined links between religiosity, porn use and marital quality. They found that religious beliefs improve marital quality and that porn use lowers it. consistent with other research.
However, religious beliefs intensify the negative effect of porn use on marriage. The high guilt and shame attached to porn use in religious cultures, and the high emotional cost that a continued use of porn requires means that religiosity can make the negative effects of porn in marriage even worse.
Basically this is saying that if you are living incongruently with your value system, the negative effects of porn use are amplified. The solution is to get rid of the porn, not your faith!
Which really brings us to a good spot to conclude.
In episode 128, we made a research-based case for why the best sex is happening inside marriages.
And we get it: your marriage may not be like that right now. And it may be that the only sex happening is what happens on your phone. Or, worse, on your spouse’s phone. That’s a tough spot to be in. Super tough.
But: you probably have not exhausted all your options, if you really stop and think about it. There’s more and more internet based resources that are free. We’ve covered some of this in our episode on how to porn proof your marriage. Also, if you really want to take it seriously there are marriage and pornography recovery experts like myself who can help you. The first step is to reach out, and if you do so, I promise I will respond.
[i] Perry, “From Bad to Worse?”
[ii] Doran and Price, “Pornography and Marriage.”
[iii] Perry, “From Bad to Worse?”
[iv] Perry, “Does Viewing Pornography Reduce Marital Quality Over Time?”
[v] Stack, Wasserman, and Kern, “Adult Social Bonds and Use of Internet Pornography*.”
[vi] Perry, “Does Viewing Pornography Reduce Marital Quality Over Time?”
[viii] Lambert et al., “Praying Together and Staying Together.”
[ix] Stewart and Szymanski, “Young Adult Women’s Reports of Their Male Romantic Partner’s Pornography Use as a Correlate of Their Self-Esteem, Relationship Quality, and Sexual Satisfaction.”
[x] T. Zitzman and H. Butler, “Wives’ Experience of Husbands’ Pornography Use and Concomitant Deception as an Attachment Threat in the Adult Pair-Bond Relationship.”
[xi] Bechara et al., “Romantic Partners Use of Pornography: Its Significance for Women.”
[xii] Lambert et al., “Praying Together and Staying Together.”
[xiii] Doran and Price, “Pornography and Marriage.”
[xiv] M Maddox, K Rhoades, and J Markman, “Viewing Sexually-Explicit Materials Alone or Together.”
[xv] Perry, “From Bad to Worse?”
[xvi] Stewart and Szymanski, “Young Adult Women’s Reports of Their Male Romantic Partner’s Pornography Use as a Correlate of Their Self-Esteem, Relationship Quality, and Sexual Satisfaction.”
[xvii] Štulhofer et al., “Pornography and Sexual Satisfaction among Young Women and Men: How to Conceptualize and Measure Possible Associations.”
[xviii] Perry, “Does Viewing Pornography Reduce Marital Quality Over Time?”
[xix] Perry, “From Bad to Worse?”