How to Break a Porn Habit

by Alisa on February 10, 2012

A Post Where You Get to Help A Fellow Reader Out

When I asked you all about your most vexing marital problems, AmyB commented:

Internet Pornography is a constant struggle. I’m not against sexual experimentation or even masturbation. I’m not even against other ‘consenting” adults using responsible pornography if they like it and it helps their sex lives, BUT I feel that in MY relationship I want my partner to direct his sexual tension and arousal to me, his very open sexual partner, not an anonymous person on a computer screen. According to him, pornography and sex with a partner are two totally different things. I still can’t help to think that it affects the dynamics of a relationship. Am I being unrealistic? Am I not allowing my partner to be independent in his choice to watch pornography? Should I respect his choice to watch pornography? He’s attempted to quit plenty of times and, at the moment, he doesn’t do it (to my knowledge). Still I know it’s a big struggle for him and I know that if he had the house to himself, he’d probably do it. What’s worse, I can’t do anything to help him.

Porn is one of those issues that tends to polarize people, so I’d like to attempt what might be impossible: a civil discussion about it. Here are the rules for commentating:

  •  No name-calling. I will delete any insults without a warning.
  • Definitely state your view. If you think it’s wrong, say it. If you think it’s a divine gift, say it. But DON’T attack someone else for not agreeing with your opinion.
  • If you try to comment and can’t, let me know. I’m still trying to fix what’s wrong with the commenting area on this site.

Got it?

I’ll start. My views on porn fall somewhere in the middle. It doesn’t offend me. I’ve watched it on occasion with my husband. It can be the spark that gets the mood started. All of that said, I think of porn much as I think of fast food. For me, fast food might be okay in a pinch—like when I’m on the New York Thruway at 3 am and seriously too hungry to go on. It’s not how I want to meet my daily hunger needs.

Similarly, with porn, it might work for a couple if it’s one trick in their arsenal of ways they get in the mood—and especially on those rare occasions when they are just too fatigued to come up with something better. But if it becomes a crutch–something you need everyday to feel happy, satisfied or in the mood—then it’s not healthy.

Because I didn’t feel completely qualified to tackle this topic, I also asked Stu Gray, who pens the Stupendous Marriage blog for insight. What follows are my questions and his answers.

Me: I imagine, like alcohol, some people can partake in porn and have it be a somewhat harmless pastime, whereas others get addicted and do much harm to themselves and their families. Do you agree with this? Or, after your experiences, do you feel there is nothing that is ever harmless about it?

Stu: I think from a scientific standpoint, that’s probably true. Some people are wired to be more prone to be addicted to alcohol, or drugs, or sex or food, and others don’t seem to be addicted to the ‘biggies’ that classify as addiction in our culture. The thing we can’t control is when the brain makes that click from “Its a harmless past time” to “I gotta have it all the time”. It’s a dangerous game to play especially with your brain and with sex. I heard it said once that “we aren’t born with an alcohol drive but we ARE born with a sex drive.” The drive that can be so good can end up driving us to do things that can ultimately be painful.

From a relationship standpoint, I think porn is harmful in several ways. Porn fans the flame of selfishness: She won’t give me what I want when I want it? I’ll take care of it myself.

The “me first” attitude tends to become a dominant factor. Great Marriages are made up of two people who love and give to one another. Porn rewires the brain to always be in a state of, “What can you do for me sexually?”

Porn usually leads to masturbation. Not for everyone, but for many. When you masturbate to an image other than your spouse, the sexual desire is fulfilled by someone outside your marriage. So, you have less desire to seek your spouse out for sexual connection. You also train your mind and your body to respond to images that are a false reality. So, your mind begins to think, “I want that all the time with my spouse.” Physically, if you are chronically masturbating, you begin to associate sexual release with images. This leads to a tough time in the bedroom with some people not being able to perform at all because it takes videos or images to be aroused.

Spouses feel like they can’t measure up because they don’t look like the images, and they don’t feel like the sexual fantasy you create when you “act out” with yourself.

Me: What are the signs that someone is addicted?

Stu: I think the quickest way to begin to see if someone is addicted is to ask him or her to stop. Most people who have a compulsion toward something harmful will say that they can stop anytime they want, that they just don’t choose to. So, call their bluff. Challenge them lovingly with, ‘If you can stop – do it’.

Most will begin with excuses about how it doesn’t harm anyone, that they are just having fun, or that it’s not a real problem. This type of denial is usually one indicator of an addiction. Also, if they do try to stop and can’t or begin hiding it, then they could be going down that road.

People show signs of addiction in different ways. For one addict, it could look like a need for more edgy pornography. For another it might be unhealthy adventurous sex with your spouse. For another it could be moving from images to real life sexual affairs. Or, It could look like something as simple as erasing the history in your browser because you know that it hurts your spouse when they find it.

Many times people mistake the “symptoms” for the “problem.” If someone is addicted to pornography, somewhere, at some point in time, it may have started as something fun they did when they were single. But now, it has become the “go to” when they want to escape from reality. So, the pornography itself isn’t’ the issue. It’s a heart issue. Why does this person need to escape from their current reality and look to porn to fill that need? That is the point couples need to focus on first.

Me: Beyond the obvious, what is the allure that keeps someone coming back again and again?

Stu: The allure is no consequences and no denial. If you don’t have to beg or cajole the image on the screen, that is much easier than having to negotiate a time between soccer and after the kids go to bed, or when they don’t feel like it, or some other perceived excuse to not have sex. Porn never gives an excuse to not have sex.

That’s the seduction. It’s an easy YES.

Porn makes the sexual act all about body parts and the looks of a person. Porn offers a surface look at body parts that is devoid of any type of emotional connection, which is necessary in marriage and healthy relationships. Anyone who has been married and had sex with one person for several years knows that the sex can get better as you get to know one another better. It doesn’t have as much to do with the body as it does with the connection to your spouse.

 Me: Understandably, partners can feel hurt, angry, and envious of porn. While perhaps justified, these emotions don’t lead to healing, understanding or progress. What can a spouse do to help an addicted spouse overcome the problem?

Stu: To begin with, I think it’s important to understand that your spouse’s addiction has little to do with you. You didn’t drive your spouse to pornography. Your spouse might blame you, but your spouse made these choices.

That doesn’t mean you should be harsh or condemning. Try to take emotions out of it.

It is very important for someone who is addicted to know that there are consequences for behaviors. With love, say that this behavior is not acceptable for you and your marriage. Ask if it is a problem. Ask what they get from pornography. Suggest someone with which can talk openly about it such as a counselor, pastor, or support group.

It’s likely you’ll meet resistance. Until the addict decides that he wants to change, there will be no change. So, sometimes you have to be the change. I’m not saying divorce — but perhaps a long trip to see the family (if you don’t normally do that), or a separating until you see positive steps taken (like filters on computers, accountability with other people, counseling, or some other actions toward health).

There are also groups for spouses of addicted folks. Getting into a group that is healthy (not just badmouthing addicts) can be very beneficial. Also, reading about sex and porn addiction can be eye opening. There are several authors who have written specifically for spouses of sexually addicted people. Check out work from Mark Laaser and Pat and Stefanie Carnes.

Readers: Now it’s your turn. What’s your advice? What’s your take? Remember the rules.

A professional journalist, Alisa Bowman is the author of Project: Happily Ever After, a memoir of how she saved her marriage, and coauthor of Pitch Perfect, a must-read if you've ever had a sense of dread tie up your insides before a speech, presentation, or conversation. If you enjoyed this post, you will no doubt love her updates on Facebook and Twitter.

{ 85 comments… read them below or add one }

Rebecca July 11, 2013 at 10:34 pm

When I saw this title I broke out into an immediate panic. My chest is tight and physically shaking. I could have written the question from my very own mind. Right now I’m facing more than my fair share of challenges to getting back to a healthy place both for myself and hopefully in my relationship with my hub. I have always been the shy-not-good-enough-just-doesnt-have-much-confidence girl. ALWAYS. For many reasons I have put myself, in a position to depend solely upon my husband. I’m trying to find my purpose again outside of who I am with him. Who I am with him is not who I want to be for the rest of my life. I’ve confronted him about our his lack of physical and emotional investment in me. I have asked for more sex, kinkier sex, spontaneous sex, give it to me hard, soft, now, build you up so that you can’t resist me sex and my efforts and pleas have been met with one of a few answers: I’m too tired, I’m so stressed out, I need to take a shower to the absolute ridiculous I think I have to poop. I’ve asked him if he ever gave any thought to the fact that he didn’t want to have flesh and blood living sex had anything to do with porn. I’ve asked, very politely and openly if he’d just try and not do it and just see if it makes a differance. I’ve been putting this issue on the back burner. Trying VERY hard not to jump to conclusions and count our marriage out. Unlike most women I can say that I actually never thought it was because of the way I looked. I have on the other hand been making an excuse for it that maybe if I can work on me and really become confident and happy he will somehow magically choose to not take the easy instant gratification of porn and really want to connect with me. I know deep down that the moment when I have to finally stand up and hold the boundary that if this marriage is to continue down a healthy path it absolutely must contain partner sex. I’m not all that confident yet and as many times as I’ve brought it up in the past its always blew up into a much much bigger deal than I ever imagined. I’m very reluctant to even talk about it with him directly. Because I want this marriage to be fruitful. I want us to compliment and not drain one another. I don’t expect him to stop all together but in my search to be self reliant and respect myself I have to decide where to draw the line that if he isn’t willing to comprimise I have to walk away. He’s given me more chances to redeem myself in this relationship than I’ve earned so I am willing to extend myself a little out of my liking in order to give him that same chance. And honestly, the moment in time when this really intense stage of no self esteem hit is when he stopped trying and I stopped asking because there’s only so many times that a woman can make sexual advances and be turned down before she cracks. The last few distant times that we even tried have ended with A.) his anger and frustration and ultimately deflection for not being able to finish or B.) he just could not, no matter what either of us did could maintain an erection which also led to more anger, frustration and I think the resentment is mutual. I didn’t mention this when I posted before because I’ve been in serious denial mode. Telling myself that things are getting better, this to shall pass. But everywhere I go, even when I’m not looking there’s some kind of reminder like the universe is unwilling to ever let this really go without me facing the dragon. I’m afraid. Terribly afraid and I’ve worked so hard to not let fear be a deciding factor in the determination of speaking my mind. I don’t want to face the music and possibly have to end this because he will not help me to understand or show me with actions that he’s willing to restore our sex life. I just don’t know when and at what point I stop telling myself that this will get better and accept he has a problem and unless he is willing to work on it it won’t get better. I wish I knew the right words to say to avoid triggering the typical angry response. I wish I knew how to make him not feel judge or attacked. That’s not where this is coming from. It’s coming from a place of love. I place I’d like for him to join me in. He’s upstairs in the bathroom right now at this very moment. Our bedroom that he has not slept in for months. He doesn’t ever go in there. Unless…. And I am supposed to just accept that he’s too tired to try with me and get over it. One of the things he threw up at me when he was demanding I give him more space “and you’ll quit busting my balls about me jacking off”…. I wish I had a magic 8-Ball to shake out all these answers.

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Richard July 12, 2013 at 3:36 am

Hi Rebecca,

Thanks for your message. I can tell you’re really hurting here, but you really really want your marriage to work and be good. You have a great attitude, to stay this strong and determined in your situation, and to seek out help rather than accept what you have.

I hope I can add a useful male perspective to your situation.

Firstly, I will re-iterate (and luckily for you this doesn’t seem to be an issue, but it can be for others), this is nothing to do with how attractive or sexy you are. A guy could be married to the hottest girl on the planet, and he’d still be drawn towards porn.

Of course, I do not know your husband, I don’t know anything about him, so it’s very presumptuous of me to try and guess his feelings and motivations. Still, you are here and asking for help, so it’s the best I can do, and I hope some of it hits the mark.

Masturbating to porn, rather than having partner sex, is an easy option. It’s driving to the corner shop that you could easily walk/cycle to. It’s microwave lasagne, rather than cooking a delicious meal from fresh ingredients. It’s slumping on the sofa with snacks on a Saturday afternoon, when you know you should be fixing up the garden. It’s an easy way out, instant gratification, but ultimately much less satisfying. But many, many people are not sufficiently self-disciplined, and take the easy option, and soon enough they don’t even feel bad in themselves for doing so.

Unlike the other “easy option” examples, however, sex is addictive. The closest thing is to food, and the easy-option sex is the chocolate or crisps we know we shouldn’t eat but still do, but our sex drive is even stronger than our drive to eat. This can lead to the porn addict situation your husband is in.

The system is deeply compounded by your husband’s difficulties keeping it up and/or reaching orgasm with you. For this, he has my sympathies – I went through a period of this. It definitely does make a guy reluctant to have sex – he doesn’t want the sexual frustration of not making it to climax, nor the embarrassment of you seeing him fail, nor the humiliation of seeing himself fail, and feeling he isn’t the great stud that all men like to imagine themselves to be.

I suspect that this problem has arisen partly from the porn use, and may be compounded by feeling that there are problems in your relationship.

I can understand why you bringing it up makes him angry. Men don’t like having their failings pointed out to them (and that’s how it will feel, however tactfully you do it); he doesn’t like the fact that you are blaming a habit he has that he isn’t prepared to stop. He almost certainly knows, deep down, that you’re right, but that only makes it worse and more frustrating, because he doesn’t want to have to admit to himself, even, that there is a problem, let alone acknowledge it to you. It’s easier just to keep going as he is, and if he knows he has a problem it’s easier to ignore it than accept that it’s there. Again, he’s going for the easy option.

Anyway, enough of my totally unqualified and ill-informed psychology. What can you do to help improve your situation? Well, firstly, you need to try and understand how he feels about the situation, why talking about it makes him angry and it gets confrontational, and hopefully my thoughts will help you do that.

On a more practical level – As hard as it may be, it will really help if you are as loving and sympathetic and supportive as possible if/when he does have sex with you but goes soft or can’t climax. Don’t act frustrated, or disappointed, or angry. Tell him it doesn’t matter (as convincingly as possible, however untrue it might be!), give him a kiss, a hug, a cuddle. This will help reduce the stress, and performance anxiety, and there’s nothing in the world like worrying you will go soft, to make you go soft (believe me, I’ve been there!!!). Don’t do anything that will put him off from trying another time.

This may or may not work, but it did for me when I was having problems staying hard: even if I couldn’t stay hard when inside my partner, I could if I started masturbating once I pulled out. So, tell him you want to watch him cum. Stroke, or lick his balls, while he strokes himself. You could stroke him too, but however good you are at it, you’ll never know exactly what he needs as well as he does, so he’ll probably need to finish off himself. Take it in your mouth, if you’re into that. No, it’s not anything like as satisfying for you, BUT at least you are doing something together, and it’ll boost his performance confidence if he does cum with some participation from you. It’s a bridge towards where you want to get to.

The other thing I could suggest does depend very much on how comfortable you are with it. Watch porn with him, and have sex with him while it’s playing. This is much better if you can sit on a couch with him and it’s on the TV – computer screens are too small and the seating arrangements aren’t good for two. Let the images turn you both on. Yes, he may have one eye on the screen while he’s doing things with you, but he’ll be using those images just to help him stay hard – it’s a route to beating that performance anxiety that is the real block to him wanting sex with you. Hopefully, after some time, he’ll be up for having sex with you without porn playing, but again this could be a bridge to help you get to that point.

I hope this is some help, I hope I haven’t upset anyone by being too graphic, and I really hope things work out and your marriage and sex life improves.

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Rebecca July 12, 2013 at 8:12 am

Thank you very much. We’ve tried watching it together in the past. We’d connect the laptop to the tv with an hdmi cable and sit back and be selfish with ourselves and then when we both felt pulled to the other we’d focus on us, together. It didn’t work. In a way it did because now I do see that instead of just going to bed because “I knew it wasn’t happening” I stuck it out and something did happen. Lastnight after my desperate attempts to find some advice to set change in motion I stumbled upon my very own resolution. I was being honest with myself and everyone else around me and speaking what I was important without worrying how it’d make them feel. That doesn’t mean I’ve turned into an insensitive jerk. Rather it means I am not taking shit that only I can decide I don’t deserve. It hit me, that I was doing this everywhere except with him. I had set these boundaries and told myself when to keep them and when to compromise but I wasn’t actually enforcing them. So I really accepted that I could do nothing to the situation except change how I reacted. I can’t tell you because I don’t know exactly when standing up to him made him want to have sex but out of seemingly nowhere he pounced on me. No porn, no fancy romancing, just him and me there together and nowhere else but in that exact moment. It still didn’t end in his ejactialtion but that’s not important. It’s progress and its ok. Instead of internalizing and trying not to show that I was so insecure when he decided it wasn’t happening I reached with a sincere and content smile and took the power to hug him, to kiss him and to feel his body open up and accept me. It was amazing. And then we made the mistake of talking to much. We started on another sensitive subject. His female companionship with a gorgeous lady coworker. I tried to make him feel that what I had to say was not jealousy it was just trying to know how felt. He reacted rightfully in thinking I was being insecure and used the tools that he normally would. The ones like his tone of voice becoming deeper, and spewed rather that spoken, he eventually stood up and when I asked him to please not intimidate me he stood up and leaned down and stuck his finer at me. I didn’t get upset, I didn’t allow myself to become fearful and take the crap and let myself endure this until he felt my opinions were subdued. Instea I stood up, took several deep breaths got control of my shaking voice and told him I didn’t and would not be intimidated. My feelings only matter if they do to me, and they do. If u can’t respect me enough to listen and not express your anger in the right ways, I am not going to encourage you that it’s ok by sitting here and taking it. He dared me. Said if I really thought that I would’ve just left and not had to say it. So I turned on my heel and resisted the urge to run from the room but instead I walked calmly, confidently and purposely. I had no need to make sure I got in the last word or to extend the argument any longer by thinking he would come around. I went to our bedroom put on my clothes (we had not rushed to get dressed but had say naked for hours) turned down the sheets and told myself it was the only way. And if he really deserved me and meant what he said about me and how he wanted it to be then I did exactly what I should. A few minutes later I heard footsteps and the doorknob turn. He came to me kneeled down beside the bed gently took my tearful face in his hands and kissed my cheeks and told me he was so, so sorry. That I’d never put him in his place like that before so he had no idea how to handle it. But that he was proud and thankful that he could know that I was doing things for me, not just submitting to whatever I thought he wanted. And it felt so much better than the sex, it was so satisfying and for the first time in a long time I felt that not only did I want this to work but so did he. It was hard and I really had to make up my mind that I didn’t need him. That if he wasn’t going to do things like I deserve then I had a right to leave. And it paid off.

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Richard July 12, 2013 at 8:30 am

Rebecca – I’m so glad for you, and I’m so glad you have stood up for yourself. You are absolutely right that the only person you can change is yourself. You can hope that your husband can change, and you can create the right conditions for him to do so, but only he can make that change.
I think maybe when some women try to internalise all their problems, or just accept a bad situation, don’t say what they want, and try to do whatever their partner wants to be the “perfect wife” then the husband ends up losing respect for them, and with the respect the attraction can go too. (N.B. this can also happen the other way round too!). If you stand up for yourself more, and let him know what you want rather than just trying to please him, then he will respect you more. Hopefully, with this respect, sexual attraction will also revive.
Good luck, and keep it up!

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Rebecca July 12, 2013 at 1:40 pm

I stopped pouring my free time into google searches for desperate things like: how to stop my divorce, how to make him love me, how do I know if he loves me, should I worry about about his female friend. I stopped all that bull because I can’t make him do anything. I can’t keep him. He’s not an object or a right. He is a man, a friend, a brother, a son he was many things before he was a husband or a father. Not one single thing is more important the other and not one of these things can take the place of the other. It’s unrealistic to think that one single person could satisfy every single need the other has. Trying too hard to fit and bend is why this marriage isn’t working. It only makes sense to stop all that crap that didn’t work and try something else. After all I’m not insane, not entirely. I may have been foolish but I’m not insane and isn’t that the very definition of insanity? Doing the same thing over and over expecting different results? Nothing was ever really going to change or get better until I really hit the emotional rock bottom and was given no other option other than taking responsibility for digging my way up into the land of the living again!!! You can try and make someone see the rational side of their fears and insecurities but ultimately you cannot change them for the greater good owed to them. If by chance you are under the impression you did, wake up! IF its genuine change its temperory, more than likely that person is just like me and has agreed to change and did it for you and on ur terms. Which means they’re going to end up let down and resentful because they thought they were doing good and that u just can’t see it or don’t appreciate it. Which creates more insecurities and drives the person to go to even more extreme measures to try and give you what they think you want. It may sound cynical or that I’m trying to say that you can’t help anyone. But that’s not true. You can help to influence or inspire them but ultimately the power it takes to really change or get help depends upon their desire to get better. And you can communicate to them what exactly it is you are unhappy with. But If they don’t want it, forget it. If u can stick it out and stand by your partner because u know this is just a phase do so. But don’t sacrifice things that make you resentful you’re doing nobody any favors. I’m thankful my husband did but I also find it a little upsetting that he was so unhappy that he forced himself away and effectively left me grasping for him but also took time away from his kids. I’m upset that he wasn’t honest and I’m MORE upset that I made him feel that he couldn’t tell me about his problems because I was to focused on making sure I pointed out all the problems I saw. See I knew deep down subconsciously that I was doing something wrong. I didn’t know what but it made me exaggerate and point out any and all flaws so we never had the chance to address or talk about the important things that we didn’t like. COMMUNICATE. Practice it, try different methods and if u can’t with words write it all down. U have to. U owe it to yourself and your partner.

I apologize for not being able to stop myself from writing incredibly long responses that ramble on over many different points and are hard to read because of my sent acne structure lol! I just spent so much time denying the problems that really mattered and now that I am becoming aware of a new one or more everyday I’m in a rush to get them off my chest. I’m smart enough to know that I don’t need to hinder my efforts by talking hubby’s ear off about all the things I am going to change. Words are empty and hollow at this point actions are the things that stick!!

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Sara March 22, 2014 at 9:36 pm

Richard, both your responses to Rebecca were terrific, thoughtful and much appreciated.
Rebecca, I’m so glad things got better for you! I hope they have continued to improve.

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