Focus on the Family

Virtual Infidelity and Marriage

by Paul Coughlin

The photograph was invented in 1839, and in just 11 quick years the word “pornographer” was seeded into our dictionary—unaware of the Zeus-like power and combustive fury that was to come as virtual infidelity would some day be as close as a harmless-blue Click Here.

Once a loathsome industry of photographing haggard prostitutes with drunken johns, this underground market, now more acceptable and mainstream due largely to Hugh Hefner’s Playboy magazine (first edition 1953), is today an estimated $4.9 billion behemoth. Earlier this decade the domain name was sold for a record $7.5 million, as was valued at $65 million. Perhaps we should call it the Intercoursenet instead, as an estimated 28,258 people every second, mostly men (72%) but also women (28%) view pornography. Every 39 minutes a new pornographic video is being created in the United States.

Christians Aren't Immune

Christians aren’t immune. When surveyed, 53% of men who attended Promise Keeper said they viewed pornography that week. More than 45% of Christians admit that pornography is a major problem in their home. An anonymous survey conducted recently by reported that 54% of pastors admitted viewing porn within the last year. In an online newsletter, 34% of female readers of Today’s Christian Woman admitted to intentionally accessing Internet porn. One out of every six women who read Today’s Christian Woman say they struggle with addiction to pornography (Today’s Christian Woman, Fall 2003).

If only virtual infidelity were limited to viewing strangers copulate in what was once considered a sacred act just a few decades ago. In order to save, heal and protect our marriages from porn, we need to adopt a broader understanding of this pernicious and slippery world, an understanding that currently and unfairly pins most virtual infidelity on husbands.

The fact remains that electronic media, which includes the Internet, hunts both genders. More and more women are not just viewing porn, they are entering anonymous chat rooms and are more likely to act out in real life what others just type about. And as marketers know, it has always been women who have fantasized about relationships with men other than their husbands through soap operas, not to mention romance novels and magazines such as Cosmopolitan and other little sisters of porn of another kind.

The virtual infidelity that separates husband from wife is more than visual, and has been since fantasy, escape, betrayal, and the need to be held, loved, and understood—in a word connected in body and soul, which is a gift from God. Think of virtual infidelity as anything—images, wood pulp with words on it, chat rooms with words in them—that replace your current spouse with someone else in the recesses of the undisclosed regions inside you, where discontent grows and festers into a new, ugly, and unintended creation.

Both Genders Are Tempted

As this series explains, virtual infidelity tempts both genders in similar and divergent ways. A husband’s temptation toward visual infidelity is erosive: visible from the outside and easier to spot. A wife’s temptation is more subtle and nuanced, making it corrosive: less visible, attacking from the inside and harder to spot, acknowledge and heal.

This double-bladed sword of virtual infidelity is the result of a good desire, human connection, gone in the wrong direction and missing its mark, which is part of the definition of sin. Deep physical and emotional connection can result in a blessed state of relaxation, escape, and elation (the French word for orgasm, La petite mort, means “little death” the loss of consciousness of the world around you). All are God-given, the result of his great love for us. These blessed gifts and connections create a kind of mini-vacation from the usual stress and strain of life that creates mysterious yet real bonds. Unfortunately, virtual infidelity tempts us to take mini-vacations with someone other than our spouse. We need to learn to take them with one another—a sacred and a times difficult act.

Solutions to virtual infidelity pivot from moving from illusion to reality and from a passive to an assertive stance in marriage. Husbands and wives need to bolster their courage and be honest about their intimacy desires, and at the same time, bolster their understanding and be realistic about that they should expect from a gender that is similar but also different.

Corrosive Influence of Porn on Wives

One reason why pornography is more attractive to wives than husbands is its capacity for secretive retribution.

byPaul Coughlin

A frustrated and grieving woman in her 20s writes to Focus on the Family: “I’m addicted to porn…It’s so frustrating to find all sorts of help out there, but only for men…Are there any articles or studies currently out there for people like me?” Her search is not fruitless, but it will not be as fruitful as a man’s search for answers. Currently, the reasons why husbands turn to porn are better known, discussed, and more public than why wives turn to pornography.

The Seven-Year-Itch

Of course the reasons overlap. Two are boredom and pain. Call it the seven-year-itch if you want, but eventually the home fires begin to dim in the best of marriages. We grow bored with each other’s strengths as well as weaknesses, and for some such familiarity breeds virtual infidelity. Pain causes both genders to look for quick and convenient sources to salve it, and the deeper the pain, the further we often reach to make it go away.

Loneliness strikes at the heart of both husbands and wives, but tends to plunge deeper into the emotional expanse of women. This is one reason why wives are seduced by “emo-porn,” virtual infidelity that is more emotionally satisfying before it physically pleases. But like salt water, it creates a worsening thirst. With emo-porn, fantasy men perform stunningly between the sheets of conversation, emotional understanding, and emotional dexterity. Most mortal men cannot deliver such behavior, the way men do in soap operas and romance novels. Just as wives rightly complain when compared to the artificially created women of Internet porn, men should complain when compared to the artificial men of daytime television. Interesting, isn’t it, how they have such exciting jobs—no Joe The Plumbers. In the real world where real men burn through a lot of emotional battery life to make a real living, being expected to behave like men who don’t exist is more than wrong. It’s cruel.

Emo-porn creates caricatures in the minds and hearts of wives. Most men just aren’t and cannot be that attentive, especially in marriage where responsibilities to provide weigh heavy upon them. Husbands are quietly deemed unresponsive and uncaring when compared to emotionally dexterous hunks of daytime lore, chat rooms, celebrity rags, and romance novels. Thus a secretive and snowballing form of marital discontent is born and nurtured.

Getting Even

One reason why pornography is more attractive to wives than husbands is its capacity for secretive retribution. Through concealed romps with other men, wives say they feel like they have “gotten back” at their husbands for hurting them for behaviors they committed or didn’t commit. It’s a passive-aggressive way of handling conflict without going through the difficult work of actually creating resolution.

Wifely virtual infidelity is less visible and more secretive, making it harder to expose and to heal. Some startling statistics to support this claim: Wives more than husbands are drawn to chat rooms and illicit relationships, rather than visual images of porn, though visual porn is still enticing (Nearly 30% of all visitors to porn sites are women). Women, far more than men, are likely to act out their behaviors in real life, such as having multiple partners, casual sex, even affairs. Seventy percent say they keep their cyber activities secret.

Emotional and physical pleasure through fantasy behave in the most primal ways upon our minds. And when they are associated with someone who is not your husband, it becomes more difficult for him to captivate you. Virtual infidelity does not free you toward greater connection with your husband, but dilutes this connection. And given the secretive nature of virtual infidelity and a man’s more limited ability to notice minute relational cues, he is likely to think that “Everything’s okay,” in his marriage when it’s not. Worse, he’s denied the very information he needs to play his role in mending it.

Erosive Influence of Porn Upon Husbands

It’s when work life and family life are at their peak—and at times at each other’s throats. Many men turn to porn during these exhaustive years as an illicit pick-me-up.

byPaul Coughlin

For the surprising number of husbands who think that pornography use is “no big deal,” consider this from those who work at ground-zero of divorce. During a recent meeting of divorce attorneys, two thirds of the 350 attorneys said the Internet played a significant role in the divorces in the past year, with excessive interest in online porn contributing to more than half such cases. Pornography had an almost non-existent role in divorce just 10 or so years ago.

The majority of male porn consumers are between the ages of 35-49. I highlight this fact because it provides both context and hope for the many men I talk with across the country. Just as there is fun in sin for a season, there is also a temptation toward particular sins for a season as well. For some men, this is a battle that may never have a complete resolution, but a welcomed truce.

Illicit Pick-Me-Up

It is no coincidence that these years are consistently among the most difficult for men. It’s when work life and family life are at their peak—and at times at each other’s throats. Many men turn to porn during these exhaustive years as an illicit pick-me-up. And surprising to many women, they aren’t so much lusting after that one woman on the monitor; she’s merely a conduit to feeling pleasure again. In many ways, the woman on the monitor who promises so much pleasure and admiration could be any attractive woman. It’s what she provides, not who she is, that matters.

It’s here where biology is especially unkind to husbands. As the more visually inclined gender, these images have the unique capacity to both hyper-sensitize and de-sensitize us, making them especially hazardous to male souls, much like addictive drugs. They also carry with them the deceptive capacity to make the viewer believe that the object can be possessed, seducing the viewer even further into delusion.

One of the most ironic examples of how far this visual-based delusion can go is in the life of the grandfather of porn, Hugh Hefner. Sandy Bentley, a Playboy cover girl and former Hefner girlfriend, observed how Hefner “has trouble finding satisfaction through intercourse; instead, he likes the girls to pleasure each other while he masturbated and watched gay porn.”

Unfair Trial

Image-based virtual infidelity, so enhanced by silicon and deceptive camera angles, creates unfair comparisons to real wives who are not sexually aroused at a moment’s notice. Real wives are picked apart and found wanting, tried in the one-way court of our minds with slim chance for a fair trial. Here wives are quietly deemed undesirable and boring when compared to the artificially slim, breast implanted, and those so eager to please, contort and perform—at least when the cameras are rolling.

Nate Larkin is an author, speaker, and founder of Samson Society, a national fellowship of Christian men who are serious “but not grave” about authenticity, community, humility and recovery. He’s also a former pastor who at one time regularly viewed pornography and who now ministers to men, especially pastors. He says that it’s the perceived anonymity of the Internet that gives pastors the courage to experiment with pornography.

Why pastors look at porn, he says, is multifaceted. “First, because he’s male, and sexual curiosity is hard-wired into the male human body. Second, because he lives in a fallen world, one in which his natural sexual instincts have been warped and titillated. Third, because he works under incredible stress, his performance critiqued on a weekly basis by an unrealistic audience who insists on treating him as an asexual being or as the sole inhabitant of a higher moral plane.”

Like all men, every pastor experiences moments of despair, anger or loneliness. “At such a moment, pornography can appear to be a safe alternative to adultery. To the man who is feeling insecure but doesn’t want to cheat on his wife, a few fleeting seconds with an imaginary lover can prove irresistible.”

Yet Larkin says that for a pastor to admit such a mistake, however, is fatal, forcing his sin and the reasons for it even further underground where redemption is impossible. “If anyone discovers what he’s done, he’ll be tarred and feathered and carried out of town on a rail. So what does he do? He takes his guilt to God privately and makes a private promise never to make that mistake again. And maybe he won’t. But speaking for myself, that’s how I became a porn addict.”

Traveling Toward Marital Intimacy

Though there is overlap, husbands and wives tend to take two unique paths toward intimacy. It’s important to understand where they lead and that sometimes we may have to force ourselves onto them.

byPaul Coughlin

Accountability to another person about your visual and emotional infidelity can be helpful—but not as helpful as we like to believe. After a while, one husband told me, “It’s pretty easy to lie to the person who is questioning you. It’s so autonomous--how are they really going to know?”

Putting computers out in the open is helpful as well in order to break the power of autonomy. But what happens when no one is around to see you on that website or watching that soap opera? There is a more lasting approach: Addressing the reasons why a husband or wife would turn to someone other than their spouse when desiring sexual and emotional intimacy, then creating a realistic level of intimacy within your existing marriage.

As mentioned previously, virtual infidelity increases when we are lonely, in duress, angry or spurned. These are threshold experiences, portals toward infidelity but also intimacy since conflict can sometimes be intimacy in disguise.

Two Paths Toward Intimacy

Though there is overlap, husbands and wives tend to take two unique paths toward intimacy. It’s important to understand where they lead and that sometimes we may have to force ourselves onto them in order to create a stronger and co-mingled path toward intimacy.

Generally speaking, women prefer talking and thinking together as men prefer touching and other forms of physical togetherness. I was unaware of these distinctions for the first 15 years of my marriage and this ignorance lead to unnecessary heartache. When my wife would desire to sit down and talk and think with me about everyday matters, I did not understand just how important these activities were to her. I treated them like items on a To Do List—check them off and be done with them. I did not understand that like foreplay, she enjoyed talking and thinking together with leisure and creativity. I have since learned to force myself to slow down and to be a better listener, knowing that she finds pleasure in these experiences and her pleasure is important to me. Now I find pleasure in these activities as well, but they still are not my primary paths toward intimacy. I’m still, after all, a guy.

Likewise, some wives may at first have to force themselves to move in the direction of their husband’s path toward intimacy. This is not to say that wives do not enjoy touching and other forms of physical togetherness. It’s just that for some it isn’t their primary form of expression. So for some wives, this could mean going on more walks together or taking up an activity that requires touching, like dancing. It may mean making sex more creative and frequent than before.

Christians More Passive

No discussion about the intersection between sexual and emotional fidelity and contemporary Christianity is complete without addressing pervasive passivity. Studies show that people who attend church have a more passive personality than the population in general (one study has the discrepancy at 60% to 85%). Passivity is sometimes a manifestation of cowardice, which is a sin (Revelation 21:8).

Passive people are more prone toward addiction. And this is particularly damaging when it comes to virtual infidelity, an ideal hiding place for the passive personality. Here passive people have their needs placated but never truly met; sexual arousal and emotional titillation, but never tenderness, adoration, and a soulful repose. Here the passive do not have to undergo the challenging duty of standing their ground and stating plainly what they desire as normal human beings. Passive personalities prefer that their spouse guess as to what they really want, which is unfair, confusing and fertile soil for inevitable resentment. And most passive spouses behave this way because they are fearful. There is a great acronym for fear that is helpful when understanding this side of virtual infidelity: False Evidence Appearing Real. Many times, though we might feel very uncomfortable at first, the fact remains that many of our fears are unfounded. Many spouses are willing to at least try to help the person they love to have their needs met in their marriage.

Honest, Frank Explanations

So for some husbands, an honest and frank explanation of just how important sexual intercourse is to them is in order. Wives are not born with this knowledge and our culture rarely reveals it, so they need husbands to tell them how difficult it is for them to keep their thought-life pure without their wives’ help. Likewise for wives, an honest and frank explanation of emotional connection may be in order, and probably has been for a while. Both genders need help understanding each other’s inner regions, which are both similar and unique, and they need to express these truths without anger, sarcasm or contempt (eye-rolling is the most common expression of contempt). During such times, putting your thoughts on paper beforehand helps to keep them straight in our minds. It is the foolish spouse who does not heed and honor such a tender and powerful revelation of the soul.

Being sexual and emotional are normal, healthy and right in marriage. There is no good reason to apologize for either desire since both come from the good hand of God. Having both needs met in a realistic fashion is among the main reasons we marry in the first place. These facts help to give us the courage we need to talk about them without whimpering or yelling.

And finally, a word of warning for all of us who live in our hyper-sexualized age: Erotic and highly emotional experiences are not meant to be consumed with great regularity. Like all things deep and sacred, they are not designed to be on tap 24/7. They are powerful, too powerful it seems, for the human soul to regularly absorb, very much like radiation, which also possessed a mysterious capacity to heal and curse. These facts help to put our good desires in perspective during our age of virtual infidelity.

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