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It Doesn’t Hurt to Look, Does It?

The real effect of pornography on relationships.

You might think viewing pornography can’t hurt a real-life relationship. Some even claim that erotic material impacts their relationships in positive ways. So a team of researchers at Florida State University developed an experiment to determine how consuming pornography affects adults' commitment to romantic relationships.

The research team recruited college students who were in heterosexual relationships and who viewed pornography on a regular basis. They were told the study was an investigation of “self-control” and were randomly assigned one of two activities to abstain from for a period of three weeks. Half of the students were asked to avoid looking at all materials showing nudity or sex, including websites, videos, and magazines. They were encouraged to be honest and to record in a daily calendar if and when they were not successful. The others were asked to abstain from eating their favorite food. At the end of the three weeks, both groups were asked how committed they were to their relationship.

The Result: The people who eliminated or significantly reduced their viewing of pornographic material were significantly more committed to their relationships than those who continued to view the material. These results held true for both men and women.

Feeling less committed to a relationship is one thing. But does the use of pornography also translate into an increased risk of infidelity? At least among college students, the answer appears to be yes. In a follow-up study, the researchers asked 240 men and women to fill out questionnaires on their pornography viewing habits, their relationship commitment, and how many people they “hooked up” with in the last year, other than their current partner. They found that as pornography consumption increased, relationship commitment decreased, and the likelihood of having sex with others increased. The researchers concluded: “Pornography consumption is not only related to weakened commitment in relationships but to the consequences of that decreased commitment, like infidelity.”

Why Is This Happening?

One way to answer this question is to consider the factors that predict relationship commitment. One is whether or not we perceive we have attractive alternatives to our existing relationship. When we believe that our prospect for attractive partners is abundant, we will be less committed to the relationship we already have. Interestingly, this phenomenon seems to hold true whether the alternatives are real and concrete, or whether the alternatives are only in our imagination. It doesn’t seem to matter if a potential partner is standing in front of us or if we’re viewing an attractive porn star on a computer. While porn actors are not really an option for most of us, spending time in their company can give us the impression that we live in a world with many available alternatives. And when we believe we have other attractive choices, we’re instinctively less committed to the partner we already have.

We may think it doesn’t matter where we place our attention, or that viewing pornographic materials will spice things up in bed with our existing partner. But what and whom we focus on, and what we choose to ignore, makes a big difference when it comes to maintaining our commitment to an existing relationship. If you value your relationship and want to remain loyal to your partner, be mindful of where you place your attention. Focus on your lover and the realness of that interaction and leave the fake thrills of pornography behind.

Heidi Reeder, Ph.D. is the author of the forthcoming book, Commit to Win (Hudson Street Press).

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Citation: Lambert, N. M., Negash, S., Stillman, T. F., Olmstead, S. B., & Fincham, F. D. (2012). A love that doesn't last: Pornography consumption and weakened commitment to one's romantic partner. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 31(4), 410-438.