Ray was desperate. It was becoming increasingly difficult to conceal his habit while keeping up normal appearances. He had "kicked porn" so many times he'd lost count. Over and over he had promised himself that he would never do it again, but his resolve had failed. He was weary to the bone of this effort-based approach to the issue. As a result, he had come to believe that he was an utter failure as a Christian.
I've talked with guys like Ray on countless occasions. In every case my response has been the same: "Of course you can't keep running and hiding. Of course you can't kick the habit on your own; no one can! If you really want to be free, you're going to have to open yourself up to others. You're going to have to learn to be vulnerable."
Why do I respond this way? Because at its root, habitual pornography use is not merely about the sexual high derived from viewing titillating images. It's fundamentally about emotions and relationships. It has implications for one's hopes, longings, life dreams and sense of belonging. This is what's so insidious about the lure of pornography. It cuts to the core of our humanity. It appeals to our deepest human desires with trickery and lies. In the process, it affects our capacity for genuine interpersonal connection. This is true whether the user is married, single or dating.
For all these reasons, recovery from this particular addiction isn't simply a matter of stopping the pornography use. It's about replacing it with something else. Stopping is always difficult, but relapse is almost guaranteed unless the void is filled with something positive. There's no other way to solve the problem in the long term.
Pornography: the great counterfeit
Pornography is based on the believable lie that one can have the adventure and reward of sexual engagement without the risk and hard work of a genuine, caring human relationship. This sexually deceptive material wounds its users at the profoundest level because it suffocates the thing they want and need most: life-giving connection with another human being.
By the same token, genuine relationship is the only lasting and reliable antidote to the damaging effects of pornography use. The solution lies in how well the recovering addict is able to learn and implement new relational skills. This doesn't happen overnight. It involves feeling, knowing and labeling one's own emotions and then learning to be emotionally vulnerable while relating to others who are emotionally vulnerable. This vulnerability is critical to three key areas. Let's look at each one.
Admitting the problem
It takes vulnerability to admit a problem and seek help. Notice the words "admit" and "seek help." You can't be healed from sexually addictive behaviors until you're willing and able to say, "I'm not OK. I have a deep, desperate need, and I can't deal with it on my own." The cure for the problem can't be found in isolation, self-effort or self-help alone. This means confessing your weakness and reaching out to others for assistance, which can be painful, of course. But that pain is the first step toward wholeness.
Ray took that step. Eventually he realized that unless something changed, his marriage would not survive. As a result, he and his wife agreed to attend intensive marriage counseling with a trained therapist. In the process, he and his wife learned to reconnect and talk about some very challenging issues. They uncovered the roots of pornography use in Ray's life. The counseling process wasn't easy, but it opened the door to positive change that wouldn't have been possible otherwise.
It takes vulnerability to become and stay "sober," to surrender your "acting out" (inappropriate sexual behaviors including viewing pornography) and to avoid the various kinds of integrity breaches that so easily entangle pornography addicts.
If addiction were an engine, shame and hiding would be the fuel that keeps it going. The only way to break the vicious cycle is to be known, accepted and loved for who you are. That's why veterans in the field of addiction recovery have a saying among themselves: "No group, no recovery." If you can't share your experiences in a safe place and get a grip on your own emotions, you'll never have the insights you need to find freedom. This almost always has to be accomplished in a transformational, group setting where people are routinely involved in one another's lives.
As a result of marriage counseling, Ray enrolled in a fully focused and specialized sexual integrity recovery group. There he learned the importance of conducting weekly emotional check-ins. The process initially terrified him. But after seeing and hearing other men talk about their lives and feelings with openness and honesty, Ray was able to identify emotion words that described his state of mind. In the process he became increasingly aware of his own actions and choices and learned to take responsibility for his emotions. Not only did this help him avoid his previous acting-out behaviors, but it also provided him with a new vocabulary to use in conversations with his wife.
Growing in healthy intimacy
It takes vulnerability to initiate and grow healthy forms of intimacy and a vibrant, healthy sexual relationship with one's spouse. When Ray initiated this same kind of emotional check-in process with his wife, the two of them began to enter into deeper conversations than they had ever experienced. Sometimes the emotional sharing was difficult, but they stuck with it. This led to increased spiritual, emotional and physical intimacy in their marriage. Their sexual relations became increasingly infused with a sense of patience, love and profound meaning — things that had been rare in the past.
Sex that has meaning and purpose — emotionally, relationally and spiritually — is unknown in the world of pornography. By casting a vision for an honorable sexual relationship in his marriage, Ray has found freedom from bondage to artificial intimacy. You can do the same. It begins with the willingness to embrace your emotional vulnerability.Geremy Keeton is a licensed marriage and family therapist with extensive experience in counseling couples and leading sexual integrity recovery groups with men. He is the senior director of the Counseling Services Department at Focus on the Family.
A variety of issues can fuel habitual pornography use. Understanding the deeper needs of individuals affected by this common problem is important. Reach out to well-trained helpers; if you are a married couple, do so together. Change is possible! We can guide you as you seek a referral and take your first steps toward recovery. You can contact us Monday through Friday from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. (Mountain time) at: 855-771-HELP (4357) or