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  • Suzanne B. Phillips, Psy.D., ABPP

What If You Find Your Partner Using Porn?

Discovering a spouse’s porn use can be a challenge and an emotional opportunity.

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  • The discovery of porn in a committed relationship can be a crisis of exposure and trust.

  • Using certain guidelines, a couple can address the meaning of porn use in terms of mutual trust and desire.

  • If the porn use is excessive, professional help can be a valuable asset for repair.

Porn is defined as the depiction of erotic behavior intended to cause sexual excitement and accessed through adult and sexually oriented online sites, DVDs, chat rooms, etc. The use of porn may be a passing curiosity, a source of sexual stimulation, or excessive and problematic to many aspects of a person's life.


For partners who are married or in committed relationships, the secret continual use of pornography is complicated, as it can ultimately impact both partners and pose a risk to their relationship.


Discovering Your Partner’s Secret Use

When a partner walks in on the other viewing porn that is quickly shut off or discovers charges for porn on a credit card, there is often an initial shock followed by a mix of feelings including anger, distrust, rejection, and betrayal.

  • Some partners feel hit in the gut. “How could he do this?"

  • Some become frightened, “Who is she talking to?”

  • Some are afraid to say anything and collude with the silence that surrounds the secret.

  • For others, the feelings spill out in anger.

“If you want that, you don’t want me.”


“Is this why you act like I am invisible?”


Whether or not there is protest, many partners take the other’s secret use of porn as an indictment of their inadequacy—a feeling that disqualifies their desire and in a vicious cycle often results in less intimacy and often the partner’s continued use of porn.

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Whether they are comfortable or not with porn, many partners experience the “cover-up” of porn use as a rupture of trust and an assault to mutual desire.


Sometimes the preface to learning about a male partner’s use of porn is his avoidance of sex because of difficulty with arousal or sustaining an erection with a real partner.


Having the Secret Exposed

Given the denial that fuels the secret use of pornography, it is not surprising that many partners will at first negate the other’s confrontation of their secret—even in the face of the evidence.


“How dare you check my computer!”


“I knew you would be too uptight to understand.”


“ I am having problems—that’s the reason.”


Whether or not initially denied, many partners who value their relationship, feel guilt, shame, and lowered self-esteem when their secret is exposed.


Essentially, both partners are in crisis.


What Do You Do in the Face of the Discovery of Porn Use?

Like any challenge, a couple that believes they have a relationship worth saving or improving can repair the breach of sexual secrets.


To do so, both partners need the courage to address the meaning, use, and impact of porn with openness and mutual consideration of their sexual connection.


It happens, for example, that a period in which one partner stops being interested in sex or both lose sight of their sexual bond, may be the impetus for one of the partners (usually the male) to turn to porn as a sexual outlet. The real issue was not discussed or resolved.

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Couple Guidelines


1. Talking so the other will listen—listening so the other will talk.
  • Whether your partner is very upset and apologetic about their porn use or quiet and avoidant, try to calmly talk and listen together.

  • Rather than judging or condemning, try to be curious.

  • The expectation that partners who feel betrayed, judged, and angry can just talk this out in one sitting is unrealistic, but you can start anywhere.

  • Consider reflecting on the state of your relationship: Was it intimate and fulfilling?

  • Consider sharing (even writing) your answers to questions like: Do we both want a sexual relationship? What do we each think about porn? Why is it being used? How does using it affect our sexual and intimate relating?

2. Access Information

Information often helps move people from a state of helplessness and confusion to a feeling of control. Understanding more about the reason for, the types, and the use of pornography may offer a blueprint for collaboration and repair.


It’s worth knowing that:

  • The American Psychological Association considers the compelling use of porn that disrupts a person’s functioning and relationships to be in the category of sexual pathology or maladaptive sexual behaviors.

  • Not everyone viewing porn uses it to excess or has a problem with it.

  • Research does show that when men regularly used porn, they tended to report lower levels of sexual intimacy in their real-life relationships. When women used porn, intimacy increased.

Consistent with this, in a study of newlyweds followed for three years, there was a negative reciprocal relationship for men between relationship adjustment, sexual satisfaction, and porn use. For men, the more porn use, the more negative relationship adjustment and more sexual dissatisfaction. Women’s porn use did not result in negative relationship adjustment or decreased sexual satisfaction.


Researchers hypothesize that the male’s porn use is more disruptive to the relationship than the female’s use because his use is driven by solitary stimulation. Her use is more often with the expectation of viewing porn that involves couples and is related back to sex with her partner.

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In his book, Your Brain on Porn, Gary Wilson addresses the physical difficulty many men eventually face when the use of porn has become so linked to arousal that it interferes with the ability to be aroused by a partner.


He underscores that what makes porn so compelling is that It offers the brain and body nonstop novelty and taps into the dopamine reward system. Over time, it can make the ability to be aroused or to sustain an erection with a partner very difficult.


In clinical work, I have found that when a man can share this problem with a spouse, she feels less rejected and more eager to work together to rekindle the bond.


Often partners can seek information individually and as a couple for overall help with their sexual relating. There is also information and online help for the impact of excessive porn use.


3. Develop and Try Couple Solutions
  • For something to change in the life of an individual and the relationship he/she shares, there has to be a plan.

  • For many partners, healing from the rupture of discovering porn use may invite seeing and desiring each other in a new way.

  • Mutuality is key. No one wants to dread having sex with their partner, or feel they are competing with a computer screen.

  • Checking in with each other on what is working can be a wonderful insider connection.

  • Talking and texting more, being affectionate, adding humor, dropping expectations, finding paths of unexpected reconnection are valuable steps to romantic renewal.

  • For some couples, the joint agreement to occasionally use porn alone or together might be possible and enjoyable.

  • For other couples reigniting their relationship may be all that they need and want.

  • Change happens in steps—a commitment to reconnect with love rather than a magical expectation of bliss is a first step.

When a relationship has been disrupted, the way back to each other is a new way forward.


Suzanne B. Phillips, Psy.D., ABPP - website - book

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