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Sex

To the Wife Upset About Her Husband’s Porn Viewing

An open letter from a sex therapist.

Key points

  • It can be upsetting when your husband has watched porn again, even when he has promised not to.
  • Porn is symbolic in meaning and he likely understands this.
  • Your husband may have personal growth work to do, such as understanding his emotions and learning interpersonal skills.

Dear Wife,

You discovered your husband’s porn stash, looked at the history on his internet browser, looked at his phone, or otherwise discovered that he is watching porn. And it is porn that you dislike, maybe because you find it off-putting, believe it is demeaning to or exploitative of women, or just plain disgusting. Maybe it depicts sexual activities the two of you have never done or you will not do. So the two of you fought about it. Maybe you called him a sex or porn addict. The whole thing got scary and upsetting. And maybe he has already promised not to watch porn again but you found out he watched porn again. Maybe this is now the fourth or fifth time he has made and broken that promise. Cue more fighting and your demand that he go to therapy.

Syda Productions/Shutterstock
Source: Syda Productions/Shutterstock

Now here he sits in my office or on my Zoom screen. I see a man who is afraid of losing everything that is important to him: you, your children, the life the two of you have built. I see a man who is confused by his sexual decision-making and does not totally understand his motives. I also see a man who avoids certain things, like understanding his inner life (meaning feelings) and interpersonal conflict, and his avoidance tactics have actively contributed to the predicament you both are in now.

First, let me tell you with certainty that despite what you think or how you feel, he really is not comparing your body to the bodies of the female porn performers. He has told me so and I believe him. Because he also understands his body is not like the bodies of male porn performers. This is not what he is focusing on or thinking about when he is watching porn. He loves your body—because it belongs to you, his beloved.

Second, keep in mind that so much in porn is symbolic. It is fantasy. It depicts sex without all the real-life obstacles that every couple, including the two of you, encounter regularly. Obstacles like fatigue, the effects of chronic stressors in one’s life, complex and unresolved feelings about one’s partner, the fact that sexual functioning is not always reliable, anxiety about one’s own performance, anxiety about your partner’s experience and satisfaction. He understands this about porn and does not expect his real-life sex life with you to look even remotely like the sex in porn. He enjoys the sex the two of you have.

So why is your husband watching porn, even when he has promised he wouldn’t? Great question. This is the journey he and I will embark upon: finding the answer. You deserve to know the answer and I want him to give you an answer(s) that is authentic. This is what he and I are finding out during his sessions so far:

  • He struggles to understand his inner life and inner experiences. His range of understanding is limited to “stressed,” “tired,” and “frustrated.” He and I will work on helping him expand his understanding to include many other emotional states, like “overwhelmed,” “resentful,” “helpless,” “ashamed.” and “afraid.” This has direct implications on his sexual decision-making.
  • Breaking his promise to not watch porn again has damaged your relationship. His integrity matters to him, you, and me. It is clear to me he understands the damage he has caused and feels horrible about it—which is part of the reason his anxiety is at an all-time high these days. He knows there is a lot on the line and things were said in anger that truly frighten him about his possible future. He has not been able to show you these feelings because he is not feeling safe. His not feeling safe may not be about you, so don’t take it personally.
  • He avoids. Like all of us, he avoids discomfort. Yet his avoidance behaviors are so impressive and so well-honed that he can barely verbalize that which he is avoiding—he just quickly pivots to avoidance behaviors before he is even aware of what he is doing. We will be working together to help him figure out not just what he is avoiding but why. Remember that people always do things that make sense—to them.
  • He avoids telling you things that he knows will make you upset or disappointed in him. His number one priority is to make you happy. You are lucky to have a spouse so attuned to your happiness. (This dynamic can be problematic, which I've written about here.) So when you are unhappy with him—like when he breaks a promise —sure it makes for a deeply unpleasant dynamic between you two in the house but it is also a huge blow to his sense of self. He knows he is not living with integrity and that is painful to him. We will be working on helping him develop the courage to tell you the hard things he needs to tell you and then hold steady when you rightfully express upset or disappointment.

Last, we’re going to talk about your sex life. It plays an important role in all this, too. He told me your interest in sex declined after the birth of your second child. Trust me, this is common for couples and completely understandable. Yet that was hard for him to deal with and he did not have the words or resolve to express it to you at the time. Plus he felt some guilt for asking for sex when it was so clear you were not interested. I will encourage him to share what he discovers about himself with you. I hope you will be open and kind-hearted when he does.

I ask that you be patient while we work on all this. Getting into your own individual therapy might help you cope right now, too, and learn to hold steady for the bigger conversations between the two of you that are most likely to come. I do not see this as the end but actually the beginning of a new, more intimate, connected, and mature stage in your relationship. This conflict over his porn viewing is just the vehicle to push you both into it. Hang in there. I’m rooting for you both.

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