Understanding Your Addiction
With the recent release of the movie, 50 Shades of Grey, we as a culture have again revisited important issues about sexual matters that often don’t get talked about or clarified to the extent that we learn lessons that will actually improve our relationships. So, I am going to use this opportunity to talk about how pornography affects the emotional intimacy in romantic relationships. I’ll start with a question someone asked me recently.
I recently found out that my husband has been secretly viewing pornography online for years without me knowing. I feel very hurt by this discovery and disgusted by the thought of what he’s looking at. I told him this and he doesn’t see it as a big deal. He says “all guys use porn.” I need a reality check. Is pornography that prevalent with men? And what should I do with these feelings?
This is a very important question and one that many couples struggle with. First, it is correct in saying that many men turn to pornography on a regular basis. It is estimated that 40 million Americans regularly visit porn sites on the internet. But, it isn’t just men. About one-third of those regular visitors are women. But those who claim that porn is not a “big deal” are wrong. It is a very big deal because of how it erodes the physical and emotional intimacy in real relationships.
Here are some things to consider:
- Healthy relationships are built on trust. To be intimate with someone is to make yourself vulnerable. Trust is the assurance that your partner will respect that vulnerability and honor you. If your partner is secretly inviting others (complete strangers no less) into the exclusive realm that should be reserved between the two of you, it breaks that trust and feelings of violation usually follow. Broken trust takes time and a lot of work to heal.
- The key to a strong, long-lasting relationship is the couple’s ability to build emotional intimacy. Emotional intimacy, not sexual intimacy, is what makes a relationship most meaningful. Of course if you take your cues from the porn sites or even from the relentless messages streaming through the media, you might think that sex is the prime binding agent in relationships. Despite the fact that this myth is pervasive in our sex-obsessed culture, it is the emotional intimacy that makes a person feel valued, cherished, loved, cared for, listened to and appreciated. When emotional intimacy is kindled between two people, satisfaction with their sexual union is far greater. There is no need to go outside of that relationship for other types of sexual stimulation or entertainment.
- Pornography creates unrealistic expectations about your spouse and sexual behavior. Pornography has been shown to weaken commitment in marriages because it creates an utterly false impression of what a normal body looks like and what sexual behavior is really about. The sexual relationship is meant to be mutually satisfying expression of each partner’s love for the other. In contrast, porn is about self-gratification and often involves dominating or mistreating the other person.
I have found that people most prone to use pornography are those who have love deficits that occurred earlier in their lives. They have often come from homes where love and affection were scarce. We all are eventually exposed to porn at some point but those with love deficits seem more drawn to it as a substitute for the real relationships that weren’t as nurturing as they needed. If the person repeatedly returns to porn to get that excitement, it can become a compulsive behavior that may turn into an addiction over time. Don’t give up the fight to get these strangers out of your bedroom and your imagination. Your marriage may depend on it.
Article written by: Gary Gilles, LCPC
Gary Gilles is a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor in private practice for over 20 years. He is also an adjunct faculty member at the University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration, Trinity International University and Argosy University. He teaches the full spectrum of psychology courses on site and online and has developed over 30 online courses for various academic institutions and businesses.
Sexual addiction, also known as sexual compulsivity, hypersexuality and hypersexual disorder, is a preoccupation with sexual fantasy and activity that lasts six months or longer and leads to problems for the addict. Sex addiction is not an official diagnosis in the American Psychiatric Association (APA)’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), but other professional organizations, including the American Society for Addiction Medicine, do acknowledge and accept behavioral addictions, of which sex addiction is one. Generally speaking, three main factors are taken into account when diagnosing sexual addiction:
- Preoccupation to the point of obsession with sexual fantasies and behavior. Sex addicts spend hours, sometimes even days, fantasizing about sex, planning for sex, pursuing sex and engaging in sex. Their decision-making revolves around sex, including their choices in clothing, where they exercise, the car they drive and maybe even the career path they choose.
- Loss of control over sexual fantasies and behaviors. Sex addicts often try to quit or cut back on their behavior or fantasies, without success. They promise themselves and others that they will change, but without outside intervention (typically some form of therapy and/or 12-step support), they nearly always fail in these efforts — usually repeatedly.
- Negative consequences directly related to sexual behavior. Sex addicts eventually experience many of the same adverse consequences that alcoholics, drug addicts, compulsive gamblers, compulsive spenders and other addicts deal with.
In short, sexual addiction is an ongoing, out-of-control pattern of compulsive sexual fantasies and behaviors that causes serious problems in the addict’s life.
If you’re concerned that you or someone you love may have a problem with sexual addiction, it may be time to talk to a certified sex addiction treatment specialist who can evaluate symptoms and make a diagnosis and/or to check out 12-step sexual addiction recovery groups. Whether you’ve just noticed a problem or you’ve seen it get worse over a long period of time, it’s important to know that there are a variety of treatment options and resources available that can help.
Triggers are catalysts that create a need/desire to act out sexually. Most often, triggers are some sort of “pain agent.” Pain agents include both emotional and physical discomfort, either short- or long-term. Depression, anxiety, loneliness, boredom, stress, shame, anger and any other form of emotional or psychological (or even physical) discomfort can easily trigger an addict’s desire to escape, avoid and dissociate. Positive agents can also serve as triggers. So if a sex addict gets fired from his or her job, he or she will want to act out sexually; and if that same addict gets a great new job, he or she will want act out sexually. If triggers are not dealt with in a healthy way (dissipated via a healthy, non-addictive coping mechanism like talking to supportive friends, family members or a therapist), then the addictive cycle inevitably progresses.
Triggers: What to Look For
Generally speaking, triggers for porn addiction fall into two main categories – internal and external.
- Internal triggers for porn addiction typically involve emotional (or sometimes physical) discomfort. In other words, depression, shame, anxiety, anger, fear, guilt, remorse, boredom and/or any other uncomfortable emotion can trigger a desire to look at porn.
- External triggers for porn addiction typically involve people, places, things and/or events. For instance, if/when a sex addict sees a sexy coworker or a lingerie catalog (or anything else that reminds the addict of sex), he or she might also feel a desire to look at porn.
Sometimes triggers for porn addiction are both internal and external at the same time. In other words, a porn addict might have a tough day at work (an external trigger) that causes feelings of shame (an internal trigger), with both triggers creating a desire to look at porn. And this double whammy can easily be exacerbated by other triggers, such as noticing a sexy billboard on the way home.
A few of the more common internal triggers for porn addiction are:
- Sadness, grief and/or depression
- Feeling unloved and/or unwanted
- Feeling unappreciated
A few of the more common external triggers for porn addiction are:
- Travel (especially solo travel)
- Ended relationships
- Unstructured time alone
- Negative experiences (of any type)
- Positive experiences (of any type)
- Unexpected life changes (of any type)
- Substance use or abuse
- Unexpected exposure to sexual stimuli (driving past a strip club, seeing a sexy magazine at the newsstand, encountering an attractive person, etc.)
- Financial problems
- Family issues
So triggers are tricky little things. And, unfortunately, they are pretty much unavoidable. This is true for all addicts, not just porn addicts. Alcoholics can be triggered when they drive past the local bar. Drug addicts can be triggered when they watch TV crime dramas where drugs are part of the plot. Gambling addicts can be triggered when they see a deck of cards or a set of dice. And addicts of all types – including porn addicts – can be triggered simply because they must deal with the roller-coaster of life and the emotions it induces. In short, triggers are everywhere, and there is not much that porn addicts can do about that fact beyond learning to recognize when they’ve been triggered and ways to intervene when that occurs.