Pornography and Marital Conflict

 The Perils of Porn

Porn is increasingly understood from the vantage point of neuroscience as a “supernormal stimulus.” Nobel-Prize winning scientist Nikko Tinbergen defines a supernormal stimulus as a category of stimulus that produces a much greater response than was evolutionarily intended.

The appearance of a new supernormal stimulus crowds out the attention available to the evolutionarily appropriate stimuli. At an alarming rate, pornography addicts prefer pixels to partners. New research indicates that ordinary partner sex is often of less interest for regular pornography users. Study after study now suggests that frequent use of pornography by one partner results in the couple to having far less partner sex, which steadily erodes marital satisfaction.

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Pornography Impact On Partner Intimacy

As a couples therapist, it’s porn’s burgeoning marginalization of partner intimacy that keeps showing up in my clinical office. And frankly, frequent porn use is a growing complaint… mostly from wives and girlfriends of the viewers.

Sexual intimacy for married or committed couples is relational in nature. But masturbating to porn is not.

Another problem with the solitary aspect of porn use concerns the locus of control.  Porn users control the erotic landscape. They can change imaginary partners, sets, and settings, intensity, their point of view, etc., etc. The porn user is no longer invested in a relational sharing of the sexual experience or its outcomes.

An unrealistic expectation arises that sexual experience will always be under the porn users direction. The marginalization of relational awareness also leads to unrealistic expectations when pornography users do engage in partner sex. For example, we know that genital engorgement leads to a desire for sex 59% of the time for males, but only 10% of the time in females. In other words, when most of your sex comes from masturbating to pornography, you think that when you’re ready for intercourse, your partner also should be ready. With this less than romantic stance, relational attunement suffers significantly.

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Perhaps the most disturbing finding from the neuroscience of porn is that chronic porn use can be a stubbornly entrenched behavioral addiction, similar to gambling or compulsive eating. Porn-induced erectile dysfunction, social isolation, anxiety, and depression are but a few of the emerging symptoms of frequent porn use currently being researched.

Porn is a Trust-Buster

New research also suggests that chronic use of pornography steadily erodes relational trust, and a can be a “gateway behavior” to other forms of extra-marital sexual behavior which might contribute to a spiraling sexual addiction.

A 2007 study suggests that supernormal sexual stimulation can interfere with human pair bonding.  In this study, men who were exposed to many images of sexy females rated their life partners lower not only on attractiveness but also on intelligence and warmth! Also, after the experience of viewing pornography, viewers reported overall decreased satisfaction with their mate across a wide range of metrics.

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Porn and Couples Therapy

Couples therapists are dealing with a growing collapse of marital satisfaction correlated with a rise in chronic and clandestine internet porn usage. The neuroscience of pornography and its impact on marriage and committed relationships is an emerging area of clinical research.

There is a lot we still do not know. I will continue to write on this topic as research studies are released. One of the problems in conducting studies is that it is virtually impossible to find men who have not experienced internet pornography. My good friend, Yana Tallon-Hicks, in her recent Ted Talk, calls porn our “new sex educator.”

The nature of neuro-plasticity, and what we already know about addiction science, suggests that the chronic use of internet porn will be a common problem for couples therapists for many years to come.

Dolf Zillman and Jennings Bryant, “Pornography’s Impact on Sexual Satisfaction,” Journal of Applied Social Psychology 18/5: 438-453, doi:10.1111/j.1559-1816.1988.tb00027.x.

 

About the Author Daniel Dashnaw

Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist. He currently sees couples at Couples Therapy Inc. using EFT, Gottman Method, and the Developmental Model.

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