Joe was distraught. He had come home from work one afternoon and found most of his personal belongings on the front lawn. His wife of 12 years, Jean, had put them there and locked him out of the house. Joe, a former student whom I hadn’t spoken with in six years, called me for help. As we talked over the phone, he filled me in on what had happened.
The previous weekend, Jean’s mother had come for a visit. She was a marriage counselor, and she ended up talking about the large number of couples she was seeing whose marriages had been harmed by pornography. She talked about how these men who used pornography grew dissatisfied with their wives’ appearance, how emotionally distant they became and how sex had become less frequent and less satisfying.
Once her mother left, Jean made it clear to Joe that they needed to talk. The marital symptoms Jean’s mother had mentioned seemed close to home. Joe made a few futile attempts to deny his use of pornography, but in the face of Jean’s unrelenting insistence, he finally confessed. They did not sleep in the same bedroom that night — Jean informed Joe that he could sleep with his computer! The next day, he had come home from work to find himself locked out of the house.
As I talked with Joe, he seemed surprised that his pornography use had come to this. As he put it: “I guess deep down I knew it wasn’t right, but I kept telling myself that it wasn’t hurting anyone, or at least no one else but me. Now I am beginning to see that my love, respect and affection for Jean have been slipping away.”
Like Joe, many men believe that viewing pornography is, at worst, a private sin with consequences that affect only them. But as Joe was finding out the hard way, pornography is in fact a sin that harms the most intimate of relationships — marriage.
Early research in this area began in the late 1970s. Researchers showed men pictures and movies of beautiful women, then asked them to judge the attractiveness of other women. After viewing these images, the men judged other women much more critically. This was termed “the contrast effect.”
Subsequent investigations of this contrast effect have used pictures of physically attractive women as well as erotica. Researchers have found that after repeated exposure to such materials, men judged their wives as less satisfying, less attractive and less desirable. They also reported feeling less love for their wives and lower commitment to them.
About eight years ago, marriage studies revealed a phenomenon among couples known as “Dual Income No Sex” (DINS). DINS refers to married couples who both work outside the home and have sex once per month or less. Nearly 20 percent of married couples in the United States can be classified as DINS.
Initially, social pundits explained that DINS couples were simply too tired for sexual intimacy. But this explanation did not ring true to me. Could it really be that young, healthy men were, on a regular basis, too tired for sex? Subsequent investigations have confirmed my early suspicions: Many of these men fulfill their sexual needs in ways that do not involve their wives.
Several years ago, as I was giving a talk in Minneapolis, a woman in the audience asked a personal question. She said that her husband used pornography and that during the past couple years he had become critical of her appearance and ability to perform sexually. She wanted to know if her husband’s reactions could be related to his use of pornography.
As this woman spoke, two things struck me. First, by any objective standard, she was an attractive woman. Second, she must have been desperate; after all, she had asked this deeply personal question in a room full of strangers. I found myself wondering how many other wives live with the degrading effects of pornography.
I have good news to report about Joe and his wife. Joe sought the help of a psychologist who specializes in men’s sexual struggles, and he has remained clear of pornography for more than five years. He and Jean have worked hard at reconnecting as friends and lovers, and not surprisingly, their marriage is flourishing.
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