Can Porn Impact Your Relationship?

Research tells us porn creates problems in some, but not all, relationships.

Posted Jun 08, 2020

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Porn vs. Relationships

Several weeks ago, I published an article looking at whether the use of pornography by one partner in an intimate romantic relationship counts as relationship betrayal. My conclusion, based on my long-standing definition of cheating – infidelity (cheating) is the breaking of trust that occurs when you keep intimate, meaningful secrets from your primary partner – is that porn may or may not be cheating, depending on how a couple mutually defines the boundaries of their relationship. If both partners agree that pornography (or any other sextracurricular behavior) is acceptable, so be it. If, however, one partner is looking at porn (or engaging in some other form of extramarital sexual activity) and keeping it secret, or if the other partner knows about it and doesn’t find it acceptable, then the behavior is cheating.[i] To know for certain, couples must talk about pornography or extramarital sexual activity and how it fits (or doesn’t fit) within the bound of their relationship.

In this post, I address the next logical question to be asked: How does porn use (regardless of whether it qualifies as infidelity) impact relationships?

One study drawing on longitudinal data from the 2006 and 2014 General Social Surveys, which track marital happiness, porn use, and marital status, among other things, found that the probability of divorce roughly doubled for married couples who began pornography use between survey waves, and that this relationship held for both women and men. Conversely, married Americans who discontinued pornography use between survey waves were somewhat less likely to divorce.[ii]

Of course, these findings create a cause and effect question: Does marital dissatisfaction lead to porn use, or does porn use lead to marital dissatisfaction? The research on causality seems, for the most part, to conclude that porn usage and relationship discord are a two-way street. Some people may become unhappy in their relationship because they or their partner have started to use pornography, while others might turn to pornography because they are less than satisfied in their marriage.[iii]

Relationship Problems Linked to Pornography

There are countless reasons that a relationship might struggle – everything from a couple being painfully mismatched in their values and desired lifestyle, to one party wanting/needing more intimacy than the other can provide, to one or both parties failing to respect and value the other. The use of pornography can play into any of these issues, and countless others, including the following:

  • Betrayal: As mentioned above and in my previous post, pornography can feel like a deep betrayal. If using porn violates a couple’s relationship boundaries or is done in secret, then it qualifies as cheating. As such, it creates a profound sense of betrayal and an abiding loss of relationship trust. And absolutely nothing will diminish relationship satisfaction and connection faster than feelings of betrayal and a loss of trust.
  • Avoiding Relationship Issues: Many people use porn the same way they use a drink – to avoid (albeit temporarily) the problems and vicissitudes of life. If a relationship is struggling, for whatever reason, one partner may choose to use porn as an emotional escape instead of facing the difficult and occasionally painful issues that arise in even the best intimate relationships.[iv]
  • Diminished Self-Esteem: Non-porn-using partners often wonder what porn performers offer that they don’t. This can wreak havoc on their self-esteem. They can’t help but compare and contrast, and when they do so, they nearly always find fault in themselves.[v] Interestingly, many porn users say they are far more attracted to their spouse than the individuals they look at online. This does not, however, reduce the impact on their partner’s self-esteem.
  • Unrealistic Sexual Expectations: Porn users, over time, can be exposed to every type of sexual activity you can imagine, and quite a few you probably can’t imagine. Eventually, as their usage escalates, they can lose touch with the fact that porn is entertainment, not a reflection of how real people in a real relationship tend to relate to one another either emotionally or sexually. This can lead to unrealistic sexual expectations and relationship strife.[vi]
  • Sexual Dysfunction: One increasingly well-documented issue with porn use is male sexual dysfunction – erectile dysfunction (ED), delayed ejaculation (DE), and anorgasmia (the inability to reach orgasm). For the most part, porn-driven male sexual dysfunction occurs only with real-world partners, and not with pornography. Basically, online pornography creates in some men an emotional disconnection that manifests physically as sexual dysfunction with their real-life partner.[vii]

Let’s be clear. Not all porn use is problematic for couples. In some forms of sex therapy, for example, using porn together can improve sexual and relational intimacy. That said, some couples find that porn use violates relationship boundaries and creates relationship problems. 

References

[i] Schneider, J. P., Weiss, R., & Samenow, C. (2012). Is it really cheating? Understanding the emotional reactions and clinical treatment of spouses and partners affected by cybersex infidelity. Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity, 19(1-2), 123-139.

[ii] Perry, S. L., & Schleifer, C. (2018). Till porn do us part? A longitudinal examination of pornography use and divorce. The Journal of Sex Research, 55(3), 284-296.

[iii] Muusses, L. D., Kerkhof, P., & Finkenauer, C. (2015). Internet pornography and relationship quality: A longitudinal study of within and between partner effects of adjustment, sexual satisfaction and sexually explicit internet material among newly-weds. Computers in Human Behavior, 45, 77-84.

[iv] Weiss R. (2015). Sex addiction 101: A basic guide to healing from sex, porn, and love addiction. Health Communications, Inc. 

[v] Bridges, A. J. (2010). Pornography’s effects on interpersonal relationships. The Social Costs of Pornography: A Collection of Papers, 89-110. Bergner, R. M. & Bridges, A. J. (2002). The significance of heavy pornography involvement for romantic partners. Research and clinical implications. Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, 28(3), 193-206.

[vi] Zillmann, D., & Bryant, J. (1988). Pornography's impact on sexual satisfaction 1. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 18(5), 438-453. The significance of heavy pornography involvement for romantic partners. Research and clinical implications. Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, 28(3), 193-206. Senn, C. Y. (1993). Women's multiple perspectives and experiences with pornography. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 17(3), 319-341.

[vii] Park, B. Y., Wilson, G., Berger, J., Christman, M., Reina, B., Bishop, F., ... & Doan, A. P. (2016). Is Internet pornography causing sexual dysfunctions? A review with clinical reports. Behavioral Sciences, 6(3), 17.