This may come as a surprise, but one of the top issues couples come to therapy is because the wife has discovered her husband’s porn habit, and is devastated, alarmed and/or disgusted. She can’t understand why her man is not completely satisfied sexually with their relationship, and needs to find arousal elsewhere. And frankly, neither does he.
Most of the problem lies in the widespread misunderstanding of men’s sexuality. Men and women are for the most part living in vastly different erotic worlds, almost as if their erotic self speaks a different language. A woman often wants to hear her husband tell her she’s beautiful. She wants him to take her, take all of her. She needs to feel his desire for her, to hear him say, “You’re my one and only.” Her sexuality is aroused by romance, fed by romantic movies and books. It is relational, and thrives on connection.
Men also seek connection and adoration, but have different language for it. Men can be romantic, but they feel most connected with their partner through sex, and much more through their genitals than do women. When a man says take all of me, take me all the way inside you, or swallow me, he is saying that he wants to deeply feel that connection, to feel how much his manliness is desired. He wants to feel adored, and may need to hear from his partner how big or buff he is in her eyes, not necessarily how sweet or romantic he is.
This dynamic often works well within a relationship, so why then have men pursued porn since the beginning of time? Why in all likelihood have they done so since they were young and will do until they die? And how are they able to so successfully compartmentalize their love of porn, and still love their wife and the sex they enjoy together?
It’s because the porn isn’t about relationship, not about his wife or partner. It is about the freedom to be self-centered, to not have to negotiate the tricky pathways of relationship, to not feel vulnerable or unsure about what he is doing.
Let me explain: Porn never says no. No negotiation is needed. A partner may say no, or may want him to stop or start, or do something differently. Porn never does. It is not relational, and not meant to be. It is anonymous and even generous in some ways, like a good mother, giving unconditionally. The object of desire is always right there when you need her, no strings, no chance for rejection, no need to consider what the partner likes or doesn’t like. Porn offers an escape from such responsibility. It allows for complete self-centeredness.
That her man needs to gratify himself with images and fantasies that have nothing to do with her is threatening to his wife, withering even. It brings up all of her own issues around body image, betrayal, self-esteem, and so on. She takes his impersonal act personally. Why do you need to see that? Why aren’t you doing that with me? Am I that unattractive? She feels competitive, but this is not a competition. What she doesn’t understand is that porn and his feelings for her are apples and oranges, and that it detracts nothing from their relationship. It is neither about the marriage, nor her. Watching porn is such a self-centered activity that he may very well not want to put her in that position, not want to put her into the role of sexual object. Viewed this way, one might even think of it as a considerate, loving thing to exclude her from sexual practices that he believes would offend her.
An example: A couple came to me when the wife found her husband’s trove of porn that featured women with tiny, tiny waists. When they first married, her waist was also tiny, but given childbirth, aging, and menopause, it no longer was. Still, before she found his porn they were having better sex than the day they first began. He loved and still desired her. Her reaction to finding the porn, however, was to stop having sex with him and label him a sex addict.
For his part, he was deeply ashamed. He didn’t know why he had always been attracted to women with tiny waists. When we began exploring this, he remembered that he had first become aroused watching his sister play with Barbie dolls, the ultimate icons of the tiny waist. It was an erotic imprint that had nothing to with his wife. Whomever he married, he still would have liked women with tiny waists. His relationship with is wife was the most important thing in his life, but he needed to maintain this small corner in his psyche for this fantasy. Everyone has peak erotic interests, core erotic themes, most of which can be tracked to childhood. The psychologist Jack Morin wrote The Erotic Mind in the ’90s, a groundbreaking work that explored in depth how everyone has something, a fantasy that intensifies their passion and helps them come to climax, and how we use unresolved issues from our early lives to do this.
When all this became clear to both husband and wife, the pornography ceased to be an issue. He continued to watch porn with women who had tiny waists and it no longer upset her. In addition to uncovering the mystery of the husband’s fantasies, we worked on the issues that his porn brought up for his wife. The ordeal strengthened their marriage. If, however, she had gone down the path of demanding that he stop watching porn or she would leave him (which happens all too often), making this about the porn rather than the underlying issues, they would have missed any opportunity for understanding and resolution. The husband, not wanting to destroy the marriage, would have tried and failed to expunge his fantasies, and most likely been caught lying again about his porn habit. For you see, even after erotic secrets such as these get out in the open, the sexual interest remains.
Here’s another example: Wayne was CEO of a large company—a stressful position that involved managing many employees. He was a devoted husband and highly responsible man. His wife, Lori, discovered him watching kinky porn—dominatrixes in black leather commanding, gagging, binding and spanking men slaves, belittling them when they failed to precisely follow her instructions, rewarding them when they did. She was appalled to discover that her strong man, this successful leader and father, would harbor such fantasies. He had never suggested to her that they enact such scenes in their sexual lives.
Again, rather than focusing on his porn habit, we explored his childhood. One of four siblings, he’d been brought up in a family that had been erratically managed by a self-absorbed, negligent parent who didn't keep careful track of her children. Early in life, he’d begun to eroticize women who behaved in the opposite way, women who would tell him what to do. This became his core sexual script. In his fantasies, women took charge while he could enjoy being submissive and taking orders. In this fantasy, Wayne unconsciously created the “good parent” who punished when he was bad and rewarded when he was good—something he hadn’t had from his parents. My task, then, was to help Wayne and Lori discover how to absorb this new information, define limits with each other, find a way that trust could be restored, and a way they could grow together as a result of the experience. Most often, this kind of exploration opens new feelings of understanding and compassion for each other.
Of course, women often have their own set of secret fantasies, which I may address in further blogs, but for now, probably the most important thing for women to realize about their partner’s porn is, “It’s not about you!”