Intimate love — 15 February 2010
The effects of viewing online pornography on intimate relationships.

Online pornography viewing has become a more frequent presenting problem for couples entering marital therapy. Their many concerns include: discomfort about discussing this subject, confusion about how to understand and process this phenomenon and fears about its impact on their love relationship.

Technology has facilitated pornography to become a widely used industry with annual revenues in excess of $13 billion in the U.S. and $100 billion worldwide. A 2000 MSNBC study reported that 70 percent of pornography users were secretive about their viewing and 8 to 15% developed compulsive sexual behaviors that affected their lives. The American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers and the British Nielsen NetRatings identified pornography use as a major contributor to divorce and relationship difficulties. A 2008 Nielsen Online survey revealed that 25 percent of American employees risk their job security by accessing pornography at work.

The current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, (DSM IV- 1994), does not include pornography addiction as one of its disorders. Wendy Maltz, an internationally recognized sex therapist and author explains therapists dilemma in“ Out of the Shadow – What’s the Prevalence of Porn Doing to Our Psyches?” She states, “Unlike other common mental health concerns, such as depression or substance abuse, we have no reasonably coherent and agreed upon clinical perspective for what constitutes a ‘porn problem’ or how to approach it.”

What is known are the neuroscientific findings, users’ reports and consequences to their relationships.

Neuroscientists such as Harvey Milkman, Peter Shizgal and Helen Fisher, among others, have independently found that pornography viewing does activate the pleasure centers in the brain releasing chemicals such as: adrenaline, endorphins, testosterone and serotonin and with sexual release adds the love and bonding chemicals of oxytocin and vasopressin.

Pornography viewers (not including users of illegal child pornography, sadistic or degrading images) report that they were initially spurred by curiosity, aided by the availability, ease and privacy of the Internet. What began for some as a pleasurable, recreational diversion gradually evolved into a habit and perhaps even an addiction.

It is no wonder then, that some partners of pornography users perceive this habit not only as a distancing behavior, but also a relationship betrayal. Those who get pleasure and erotic satisfaction on line are often viewed by their spouses as disloyal. Women, in particular, object to their partner’s fascination with attractive screen images, with whom they feel they cannot compete. For some, the partner’s preoccupation with inanimate objects is perceived as an escape into fantasy and a withdrawal from reality and family life.

In “Depathologizing Porn”, therapist/author Joe Kort offers another perspective with his question “Why can’t it be Just an Acceptable Diversion?” He suggests that men’s isolating use of pornography and women’s more relational consumption of erotica through romantic novels may be combined to help couples be pleasured, without secrecy or shame through mutual sharing of erotic fantasies. He also finds that therapy can help pairs resolve their differences.

Katherine Hertlein and Fred Piercy’s research found, that even family therapists were affected by their own age, gender, religiosity and personal experiences in dealing with Internet infidelity. Yet, the high costs of pornography viewing to both partners merit the assistance of an able professional.

• Do not make pornography viewing a secret from the mate. Secrecy may have a poor prognosis for your relationship.
• Monitor the time, emotional intensity, mental preoccupations and your home/work risky behavior to assess your immersion in pornography.
• Respect your mate’s feelings. If your pornography viewing is disagreeable to him/her, address it immediately or seek professional help.
• Periodically discuss your and your partner’s physical/emotional satisfaction in your relationship. This can help you keep your passion and intimacy solid.
• If you are a spouse of a pornography viewer, do not personalize it, panic or despair. This serious issue can be handled and your love connection can be healthily restored.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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