How Pornography Impacts Marriage

By Greg Smalley
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Pornography — whether used infrequently or as an addiction — is a big deal. And it can have a major impact on a marriage.

“So, what secret did you share?”

I’m pretty sure that no husband wants his wife to ask this question … ever! And yet, this is exactly what my wife, Erin, asked me as we were driving back to our hotel after leading a marriage seminar together.

Erin and I had been discussing a recent business trip that I’d taken with two of my male colleagues. I was telling her that we’d had a great conversation over dinner — a very honest talk about some sensitive topics. At one point, we started talking about specific struggles that we, as husbands, faced in marriage. It was refreshing candor that I wasn’t used to having with the guys at work.

After the trip, one of the guys was talking to his wife and expressed the same enthusiasm about our authentic conversation. He told his wife that he had even confessed a secret to us and that it was great to be able to talk about it with other men who faced similar challenges. This couple had a very healing discussion. The original conversation was great for them. However, his wife then talked to Erin, bragging about how “our men” had opened up and shared their secrets with each other.

“So,” Erin asked me, “what secret did you share?”

At first I hemmed and hawed at her question. I explained that it was a private conversation and that she didn’t need to know every single “little” secret that I had.

“It’s no big deal,” I assured her.

“That’s OK,” Erin responded. “You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to.” Talk about feeling like I was stuck between a rock and a hard place!

“If I tell you my secret,” I explained, “you will be disappointed, and I really don’t want to experience that right now. We just finished a great marriage seminar, and I’m tired.”

I hate when I can clearly hear my own rationalization! So I took a deep breath, fought through the raging “flight” reaction I was feeling, and started talking.

Exposing the secret

To Erin’s credit, she did an amazing job of making the conversation feel safe for me — but it was still very difficult to be honest about a personal failing. My secret was pornography.

As I talked with Erin, I explained that I wasn’t an “addict.” I didn’t look at porn hourly, daily, weekly or even monthly. I think my exact words defended my porn use as “extremely infrequent.” In my mind, I’d always rationalized my slip-ups because they were sporadic and because I wasn’t looking at hard-core stuff — just a few images here and there. No big deal, right?

But I knew the truth: Pornography — whether used infrequently or as an addiction — is a big deal. And it can have a major impact on a marriage. Consider the following ways in which porn affects a marriage relationship:

1. Intimacy is sacrificed. True intimacy involves being fully known and fully knowing another. It’s similar to what the Bible describes in 1 Corinthians 13:12, “Then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.”

If you slow the pronunciation of intimacy, you get “in-to-me-see.” That sounds like being known by another. Until my secret was out, I never realized how much of my relational intimacy with Erin I had forfeited. To keep my secret to myself, I had to hide a tiny part of my heart from my wife — I couldn’t allow Erin to completely know me. I was expending effort and energy to make sure she didn’t discover my secret, so Erin couldn’t fully “see” me.

2. Real relationship is forsaken for an imitation. In the 1950s, renowned researcher Dr. Nikolaas Tinbergen discovered which markings and color patterns on a female butterfly were most irresistible to a male butterfly. He then constructed cardboard dummy butterflies and decorated them with these exaggerated colorations and markings. What he found was astonishing. The male butterflies actually ignored the real female butterflies and kept trying to obsessively mate with the decoys. Porn is no more real than the cardboard butterflies — it’s all built on a lie.

According to John 8:44, Satan is “a liar and the father of lies.” That would explain why this enemy wants men and women to forsake the real and intimate relationship found in marriage and pursue the counterfeit that’s offered in porn.

3. The true purpose of sex becomes twisted. Sex is a wonderful gift given to a married couple by God as a means of experiencing physical pleasure together and as a way to experience the deepest, most profound intimacy with a spouse — “and they shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). Unfortunately, pornography twists this true purpose of sex. Pamela Paul notes in her book Pornified that “pornography gives men the false impression that sex and pleasure are entirely divorced from relationships. In other words, pornography is inherently self-centered — something a man does by himself, for himself.”

Because porn is self-centered and self-serving, it doesn’t require that husbands be lovers of their wives. In the counterfeit world of porn, sex simply involves an image or video, masturbation and orgasm. The sexual arousal is immediate and gratification is instant — it’s all about personal pleasure. In fantasyland, it’s easy to pursue a perfectly air-brushed woman who acts like a nymphomaniac, never has a headache, needs no foreplay and requires no ongoing relationship. Porn rewires the brain to focus on “you” — not on intimacy.

God-honoring and marriage-honoring sex is about self-giving love. Righteous sex is about self-sacrifice. It joins two people together in love and should always strengthen a relationship rather than weaken it. The opposite of God’s design for sex between a husband and wife can be seen in the use of porn where satisfaction is always at the expense of your spouse — because it’s all about you. God created sex to be about love, sacrifice, mutual respect, dignity and care between a husband and wife. Great sex happens when the focus is on serving each other and not on getting our own needs met.

Because in this short article I couldn’t possibly address how to heal from pornography, I encourage you to check out Focus on the Family’s Pure Intimacy website for help with the pain of pornography and sexual brokenness.

After the secret is exposed

Porn is often seen as the easy road to sexual fulfillment because it’s so readily accessible. Pastor Jonathan Holmes explains it this way: “It is easier to type in a web address then it is to pursue intimacy with my wife. It is easier to view pornography for a few fleeting moments than to build a deep and abiding relationship with my wife. It is easier to selfishly fulfill my desires with no expectation of self-giving, self-sacrificing love for my spouse.”

There is a wonderful wedding vow in the Book of Common Prayer. As the groom places the ring on his bride’s finger, he says: “With this ring I thee wed, with my body I thee worship.…” Now consider Webster’s definition of worship as “the extravagant respect or admiration for or devotion to an object of esteem.” I love this definition as it applies to healing a marriage that has been ravished by pornography.

“With my body, I thee worship.” Our sexuality must be valued and protected. This means we don’t take the easy route of porn and avoid intimacy with our spouse. I want to reclaim my purity by fully offering my mind and body exclusively to my wife — as an act of worship. I want to extravagantly respect our sexual intimacy and faithfully pursue only her to fulfill my sexual desires.

Licensed couple’s therapist Laurie Watson writes in Psychology Today, “Making love to women is hard. Sexuality is complex and complicated, relational and physical for us.… But sex is glue in a marriage — in fact, it’s cement. There’s unparalleled joy in feeling connected to another real person through deep physical intimacy. Sex is the pinnacle of this connection, and it requires a man — a real man — to negotiate the rigorous landscape of making love to a real woman.”

Sex takes work in a marriage, and negotiating this relationship can be challenging at times. But I don’t want a cardboard relationship; I want true intimacy and oneness with my wife. This means that I am unwilling to keep secrets from Erin. It may be difficult to tell her when I fail or when I’m tempted, but I’m committed to living out the words of James 5:16 in my marriage: “Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.” It’s ironic. The very thing I feared — telling Erin about my failures — hasn’t led to conflict or disconnection. Actually, it’s had the opposite effect — it’s brought us so much closer; it’s brought us healing. After the talk we had in the car, Erin said something I’ll never forget. She said, “I’m so attracted to you when you are honest and share your mistakes.” Although I didn’t believe her at the time, I’ve been blessed to experience this truth lived out in our relationship.

I’ve begged Erin’s forgiveness for dishonoring her and our marriage. Through many tears and some difficult conversations, she’s given me so much grace and forgiveness. It’s been over a year since I’ve had a slip-up, but I still have moments when I feel tempted. I now have a great filter on my phone and I’m honest with Erin. I have Christian brothers to help hold me accountable, as well. It’s very difficult for me to admit that I’ve looked at porn, but I refuse to go back to a life of keeping secrets. From this day forward I want to protect my marriage and live out Proverbs 5:18-19: “Let your fountain be blessed, and rejoice in the wife of your youth, a lovely deer, a graceful doe. Let her breasts fill you at all times with delight; be intoxicated always in her love.”

In terms of pornography and your marriage, begin the healing process by bringing your secret into the light. Porn requires darkness and secrecy to maintain its power over you. Break this stranglehold and expose your sin to the light. Ephesians 5:13-14 exhorts, “But when anything is exposed by the light, it becomes visible, for anything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says, ‘Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.’ “ Stop rationalizing that porn is harmless.

In moving from darkness to light, let me offer a quick word of caution: As you courageously expose your secret, your spouse may not respond to you like Erin did to me. Your revelation may usher in a very difficult season in your marriage. Regardless of how your spouse reacts, fight through the fear of that initial reaction and trust that Christ will shine on you and use your truthfulness to restore your marriage.

On the other hand, if you suspect your spouse is involved in pornography, please don’t use my experience as a license to demand that secrets be shared. Focus on creating a safe place to have a respectful conversation with your spouse. If you need assistance, we would be honored to walk with you on the road to recovery and reconciliation. Please call 800-A-FAMILY to speak with one of our counselors.

Dr. Greg Smalley is vice president of Marriage and Family Formation at Focus on the Family and the author of  Fight Your Way to a Better Marriage.

Focus on the Family has resources and counseling to help you and your family. You can contact us Monday through Friday from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. (Mountain time) at: 800-A-FAMILY (232-6459) or [email protected].

© 2016 Focus on the Family.

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About the Author

Greg Smalley

Dr. Greg Smalley serves as the Vice President of Marriage at Focus on the Family. In this role, he develops and oversees initiatives that prepare individuals for marriage, strengthen and nurture existing marriages and help couples in marital crises. Prior to joining Focus, Smalley worked for the Center for Relationship Enrichment at John Brown University and as President of the …

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