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My Husband Is Addicted to Porn: What It Means as His Partner and How to Get Help

Are you in a situation that's causing you to say, “My husband is addicted to porn, but I don't know what to do about it”? Many women and gay men experience this dilemma when they learn that their husbands, partners, or boyfriends might be porn addicts. So if you're one of them, you're not alone. And help is available that can enable you to understand your feelings, cope with them, and find the best path forward. After all, it's easy to find yourself asking, “Why does my husband watch porn when he has me?”

This article specifically discusses the partners of men who are addicted to pornography. Here's why: Men are both more likely to use pornography (Kinsey Institute, 2014) and to masturbate when doing so alone (Pile, 2014). Men are also over 500 percent more likely than women to become addicted to the use of porn (Stack, Wasserman, & Kern, 2004).

Plus, porn is easily accessible through the Internet at all hours and from most locations. The Internet is estimated to have about 28 million sites dedicated to porn (Daily Infographics, 2013). However, pornography is also available in printed materials, movies, and live acts. And some forms of porn are illegal to produce, view, and possess, such as those involving minors. Porn use is considered addictive when it is compulsive or continues despite negative consequences and disrupted life functioning (Carnes, 1991).

Hidden Dynamics and a Chronic Crisis

Porn addicts lead secret lives. With a boyfriend or husband addicted to pornography, powerful but hidden dynamics are created in a relationship that are similar to those in other addictions (Carnes & Adams, 2002). For example, porn addicts need more as time goes on. They also have withdrawal symptoms such as becoming preoccupied, anxious, and agitated when unable to use porn. So, for the addicted boyfriend or husband, porn addiction leads to emotional distance and physical absence. As the addict spends increasing amounts of time alone in his addiction, he neglects responsibilities, the relationship, and the household. Such effects severely affect the relationship as well as the partner's feelings about him- or herself.

Even before discovering her partner's addiction, dynamics in the relationship cause a woman to reappraise her relationship and herself. She may wonder, for example, if he has lost interest in her, if he is having an affair, if she is no longer attractive, or if she is inadequate sexually (Bergner & Bridges, 2002). The male partners of porn-addicted gay men may also experience those kinds of feelings. Such problems create a crisis, or a series of crises, that often continues even if the porn use stops or the relationship ends. Consequently, stress that is related to a boyfriend or husband watching porn can be elevated over a prolonged period of time and at traumatic proportions.

Discovery

Research has found that discovery of a partner's porn addiction is a life-altering and traumatic event with an impact similar to other devastating life events (Horowitz, Wilner, Kaltreider, & Alvarez, 1980; Ozer, Best, Lipsey, & Weiss, 2003; Steffan & Rennie, 2006). For example, a woman's ability to cope is typically overwhelmed as she becomes aware of her partner having led a secret life of sexual behavior outside the norm of a monogamous relationship (Glass, 2003; Steffans & Rennie, 2006). The same thing can happen to a male partner of a gay man.

Discovered behavior may also violate a partner's personally held moral and ethical values. For a woman, all of these are acute issues that call into question her view of her partner, herself, and their relationship (Bergner & Bridges, 2002; Glass, 2003; Matheny, 1998; Schneider, 2001). Male partners of gay men may experience similar doubts. These issues can dramatically affect the relationship long-term. Even a partner's subsequent relationships can be affected through negative appraisals of him- or herself as an inadequate romantic and sexual partner as well as through significant distrust of future partners.

Although the boyfriend or husband addicted to porn does not typically have sexual relationships with other people, his porn addiction certainly feels like infidelity (Schneider, Weiss, & Samenow, 2012). Many women (and, presumably, gay men) feel that their partners have been unfaithful and have “cheated.” They consequently feel lied to and betrayed (Schneider, 2000). They may also compare themselves unfavorably with people featured in the pornography that their partners use. They feel unable to compete with them in order to regain their partners' attention (Young, Griffin-Shelley, Cooper, O'marad, & Buchanand, 2000).

Some researchers have likened the discovery of a husband or boyfriend watching porn to the distress involved in other sexual trauma such as that of sexual assault.

Symptoms of Trauma

In the right circumstance, unwanted exposure to another's sexual behavior is traumatic. Some researchers have likened the discovery of a husband or boyfriend watching porn to the distress involved in other sexual trauma such as that of sexual assault (Minwalla, 2012). The common element between different forms of sex-related trauma is a sense of violation through the sexual behavior of another. People who discover their partner's addiction to porn often feel a significant degree of such violation. This type of traumatic reaction is sometimes referred to as sex addiction-induced trauma (SAI trauma).

SAI trauma is the direct impact of another's sexually addictive behavior. It can be triggered in various ways. Some triggers include:

  • Living with awareness of chronic sexual acting out
  • Experiencing erosion of one's relationship and life stability
  • Being deceived, betrayed, and/or manipulated by the partner
  • Being humiliated by the behavior
  • Seeing the pornographic images themselves
  • Happening upon the addict engaged in his use

This is not an all-inclusive list, and other things can be experienced that are overwhelmingly distressful.

Clinically, such exposure is psychologically destabilizing. Partners of porn-addicted men often have symptoms similar to those found in the trauma reaction known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The symptoms of PTSD include:

  • Physiological symptoms of anxiety and fear such as increased heart rate, feelings of panic, increased blood pressure, difficulty sleeping, appetite disturbances, and being easily startled
  • Flashbacks, nightmares, unwanted thoughts, and mental images and/or distressful memories related to the traumatic event
  • Intense emotional states and/or emotional numbing
  • Efforts to avoid reminders of the trauma
  • Suspiciousness and hyper-vigilance (i.e., excessive watchfulness)
  • Distressful sensitivity to “triggers” or reminders of the trauma (American Psychiatric Association, 2013)

People affected by a partner's porn addiction can have additional and very specific symptoms related to trust betrayal, feelings of loss, grief, and abandonment, fear of the partner engaging in other sexual activity such as promiscuity, prostitution, child sexual abuse and/or unprotected sex, and endangerment of their own health from infectious disease.

In fact, partners of gay men may feel particularly vulnerable to sexually transmitted diseases like HIV. According to one U.S. survey, over 98 percent of gay men reported viewing or being exposed to at least some porn during the past 90 days. In general, porn consumption isn't associated with a greater risk of contracting HIV. However, gay men who preferred watching porn in which the male actors had sex without condoms reported “significantly greater odds” of engaging in sexually risky behavior themselves (Rosser, et al., 2013).

Many people also experience social isolation and withdrawal in which they are too embarrassed or ashamed to seek support or help. For example, women with histories of other traumatic events may have symptoms related to those past adversities that are triggered by discovery of the porn addiction (Minwalla, 2012). Anxiety, depression, difficulty in the usual daily routine, anger, a loss of sexual drive, abstinence from sexual behavior, and a mental preoccupation with the addict's behavior are also typical (Bergner — Bridges, 2002; Carnes, 1991; Milrad, 1999; Carnes, 1997). Consequently, therapists and research findings both stress the importance of professional help for people whose partners are addicted to porn (Corley — Schneider, 2002).

Many women (and, probably, gay men as well) mistakenly believe that they will recover from the trauma of a husband or boyfriend using pornography when his use stops. This inappropriately leads to attempts to correct the situation through “detective behavior” (Milrad, 1999). They might say something to themselves like, “My boyfriend is addicted to porn, so I'm going to track his every move.” They may check for porn in the house or in vehicles and watch for signs of use—perhaps monitoring his online behavior, spending, and/or his whereabouts (Bergner & Bridges, 2002).

A man's porn addiction is not his partner's fault, no matter how responsible he or she feels. The pain is legitimate, and seeking help can dramatically decrease his or her distress.

Getting Help

Women and gay men in these situations can encounter a good deal of denial among friends and family about the seriousness of a porn addiction. For example, people may have beliefs that diminish a woman's distress, such as “all men behave this way,” “there are no harmful effects of porn use,” or “she is overreacting” (Wilson, 2007). Women (and male partners of gay men) themselves often have these beliefs as well, and they feel confused about the pain they feel. Because of shame about the situation, they may be quite reluctant to seek help. This is unfortunate for several reasons. Chief among them is that a man's porn addiction is not his partner's fault, no matter how responsible he or she feels. The pain is legitimate, and seeking help can dramatically decrease his or her distress.

Many resources can be found online, in printed materials, in community self-help groups, and at mental health clinics. Resources typically refer to “sex addiction” and “sex addicts.” Men addicted to porn are included in these categories. Available resources also tend to take two different approaches to helping partners of sex addicts. One is the trauma model, which addresses the partner's need to recover from sex addiction-induced trauma. The other model focuses upon codependency (i.e., the partner's behaviors that enable the addiction to continue). Many people find a mix of the two approaches to be helpful.

Some potentially beneficial resources for people in relationships with porn-addicted men include:

  • POSARC (Partners of Sex Addicts Resource Center)—This online resource has a lot of pertinent information. It also lists both free and for-fee services. One of the fee-based services involves consultation with a recovery coach via Skype and phone. Service providers are specially trained to help women involved with sex addicts and are in recovery themselves. POSARC's approach is trauma-based.
  • APSATS (Association of Partners of Sex Addicts Trauma Specialists)—This is an organization for treatment professionals that specialize in helping partners of addicts. Its website includes a list of specialists available to help partners.
  • COSA (Codependents of Sex Addicts)—This is a 12-step self-help program for partners of sex addicts. COSA's website offers a great deal of helpful information about related issues and where to find local meetings. The approach is codependency-focused.
  • Individual and group counseling or therapy—Many mental health clinics offer services for women partners of sex addicts. You can find more information by contacting those clinics in your area. You may also find local counseling and therapy resources by calling a crisis or information line in your community.

Aside from the resources above, you can also phone toll-free 1-844-810-3700. One simple call can connect you to the help that you need in order to move forward.

References

American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition: DSM-5. Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.

Bergner, R., & Bridges, A. (2002). The significance of heavy pornography involvement for romantic partner: Research and clinical implications. Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, 28 (3), 193-206.

Carnes, P. (1991). Don't Call It Love. New York, New York: Bantam.

Carnes, P. (1997). Sexual Anorexia: Overcoming Sexual Self-Hatred. Center City, MN: Hazelden.

Carnes, P., & Adams, K. (2002). Clinical Management of Sex Addiction. New York, NY: Brunner Routlege.

Corley, D., & Schneider, J. (2002). Disclosing secrets: Guidelines for therapists working with sex addicts and co-addicts. Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity, 9.

Glass, S. (2003). Not just friends: Protect your relationship from infidelity and heal the trauma of betrayal. New York City, NY: Free Press.

Horowitz, Wilner, Kaltreider, & Alvarez. (1980). Signs and Symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Arch Gen Psychiatry. Jan;37(1), 85-92.

Matheny, J. (1998). Strategies for assessment and early treatment with sexually addicted families. Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity, 5, 27–48.

Milrad, R. (1999). Coaddictive recovery: Early recovery issues for spouses of sex addicts. Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity, 6, 125–136.

Minwalla, O. (2012, July 23). Partners of Sex Addicts Need Treatment for Trauma. Retrieved from The National Psychologist.

Ozer, Best, Lipsey, & Weiss. (2003). Predictors of posttraumatic stress disorder and symptoms in adults: a meta-analysis. Psychol Bull. Jan;129(1), 52-73.

Pile, A. (2014, November 22). Porn Addiction. (M. Doutaz, Interviewer).

Rosser, B.R.S., Smolenski, D.J., Erickson, D. et al. (2013). The Effects of Gay Sexually Explicit Media on the HIV Risk Behavior of Men Who Have Sex with Men. AIDS and Behavior.

Schneider, J. (2000). Effects of cybersex addiction on the family: Results of a survey. Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity: The Journal of Treatment & Prevention Volume 7, Issue 1-2, 31-58.

Schneider, J. (2001). Back from betrayal: Recovering from his affairs (2nd ed.). Tucson, AZ: Recovery Resources Press.

Schneider, J., Weissb, R., & Samenowc, C. (2012). Is It Really Cheating? Understanding the Emotional Reactions and Clinical Treatment of Spouses and Partners Affected by Cybersex Infidelity. Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity: The Journal of Treatment & Prevention Volume 19, Issue 1-2, 123-139.

Stack, S., Wasserman, I., & Kern, R. (2004). Adult social bonds and use of Internet pornography. Social Science Quarterly, 85 (March 2004), 75-88.

Steffans, & Rennie. (2006). The Traumatic Nature of Disclosure for Wives of Sexual Addicts. Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity, 13, 247-267.

Wilson, M. (2007). Hope After Betrayal: Healing When Sexual Addiction Invades Your Marriage. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel.

Young, K., Griffin-Shelley, E., Cooper, A., O'marad, J., & Buchanand, J. (2000). Online infidelity: A new dimension in couple relationships with implications for evaluation and treatment. Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity: The Journal of Treatment & Prevention Volume 7, Issue 1-2, 59-74.