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How Using Pornography May Affect Relationships

Many couples consider or experiment with watching porn together.

Key points

  • Prior research on the connection between pornography use frequency and sexual wellbeing have produced mixed results.
  • Male pornography use may be linked to negative wellbeing, including less relationship satisfaction, new research suggests.
  • For women with high levels of anxious attachment, more pornography use may be associated with lower relationship satisfaction.

Sexually explicit material is often a societal point of contention. You can find literature discussing the “value” of pornography for individuals or couples, used cathartically or to prompt sexual discussions within marriage, for example. But many people believe there is a downside to explicit images, not to mention furthering the exploitation of some of the men and women who are recruited to make it. And within committed couples, research indicates the explicit warning labels on adult material should include a relational health warning label as well.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay
Source: Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Pornography May Be Hazardous to Relationship Health

Beáta Bőthe et al. (2021) explored associations between pornography use, motivations, and the intimate wellbeing of couples.[i] They note that prior research studying the associations between pornography use frequency and sexual wellbeing has yielded mixed results. Their cross-sectional dyadic study generated a myriad of observations, some particularly relevant to pornography use and relational wellbeing.

They note that when men turned to pornography in an attempt to reduce negative emotions and stress, resulting improved mood came with lower levels of sexual arousal, leading to less partnered sexual activities and lower sexual wellbeing. Bőthe et al. also note that using pornography for emotional avoidance was associated with higher levels of hypersexuality and problematic use of pornography, both of which are linked with lower sexual wellbeing. They conclude that turning to pornography to reduce stress and negative emotions may reveal underlying problematic use that can reduce men’s sexual wellbeing.

Brian J. Willoughby and Nathan D. Leonhardt examined a similar issue in a piece entitled “Behind Closed Doors: Individual and Joint Pornography Use among Romantic Couples” (2020).[ii] They studied a variety of actor and partner associations relative to pornography use in 240 committed heterosexual couples from the United States. Although their results linked female and couple pornography use with sexual desire and satisfaction respectively, such use was not linked with other indicators of wellbeing. Male pornography use was linked with a variety of negative wellbeing indicators, including less female sexual desire, lower male positive communication, and less relationship satisfaction.

Acceptance and Anxious Attachment

Megan K. Maas et al. (2018) studied the use of pornography within heterosexual couples as linked with acceptance and anxious attachment.[iii] They began by noting that most research exploring pornography use within committed relationships has found such use to result in negative outcomes. Nonetheless, they note that the variability in such use within couples merits closer examination.

They found that for women who experience a higher level of anxious attachment, more pornography use results in a lower amount of relationship satisfaction. They found the opposite for anxiously attached men. With the degree of pornography acceptance, they found that men who are more accepting reported greater relationship satisfaction, and those who are less accepting reported less relationship satisfaction.

A very practical problem, however, is that relational health and satisfaction require considering the views and values of both partners. And the acceptability (and desirability) of watching pornography is an issue that consistently yields different viewpoints between men and women, a critical divide that can destroy relationships.

Building Healthy Relationships

A large number of married couples don't watch pornography, either alone or together, choosing instead to enjoy a healthy relationship built on love, respect, and mutual desire for each other. For partners who use pornography, either out of compulsion or curiosity, consider that many couples who have experimented with explicit material in the past report that they are much happier, and their relationship is much healthier, without it. They choose instead to focus on a bright future together.


[i] Bőthe, Beáta, Marie-Pier Vaillancourt-Morel, and Sophie Bergeron. 2021. “Associations between Pornography Use Frequency, Pornography Use Motivations, and Sexual Wellbeing in Couples.” Journal of Sex Research, March. doi:10.1080/00224499.2021.1893261.

[ii] Willoughby, Brian J., and Nathan D. Leonhardt. 2020. “Behind Closed Doors: Individual and Joint Pornography Use among Romantic Couples.” Journal of Sex Research 57 (1): 77–91. doi:10.1080/00224499.2018.1541440.

[iii] Maas, Megan K, Vasilenko, Sara A, and Willoughby, Brian J. 2018. “A Dyadic Approach to Pornography Use and Relationship Satisfaction Among Heterosexual Couples: The Role of Pornography Acceptance and Anxious Attachment.” The Journal of Sex Research 55 (6): 772–82.

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