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The Science of Betrayal: The Emotional Trauma of Having a Porn-Addicted Partner

By February 28, 2017 December 6th, 2018 No Comments
Portions of this article were originally published on Huffington Post by Catherine Etherington. It has been edited for content and clarity.

Internet pornography and its effects are a pretty hot topic right now with the debate raging over whether internet porn can lead to addiction or not. There are some big voices in the debate with a recent article from Pamela Anderson and the “dirty little secret” of Terry Crews. Organizations like Fight the New Drug post up hundreds of photos a month of people ‘repping the movement’, wearing t-shirts emblazoned with the message porn kills love. It seems that everyone is talking about this issue and they all have their own opinions about the suitability of porn use in the 21st Century.

But there is another side to this story, one that gains little attention but causes great damage. Consider the fact, if you will, that for every porn-addicted husband or boyfriend, there is a wife or girlfriend living with the consequences of this reality. For every secret viewer of porn sites, there is often a devastated and betrayed partner nearby.

Let me be clear at this point. If a couple make a choice to allow pornography into their relationship, that is their choice and their prerogative and I bear no judgement upon them. Let me also be clear that I understand that there are female problematic porn users and that there are male partners to those relationships who are facing the same issue. What I am discussing here is a wife’s perspective, because I am a wife.

When I got married, I made vows and I meant them. When I got married my husband made the same vows, I expected him to mean them too. Call me romantic, but when I heard ‘forsaking all others’, I thought that meant all others, even those on a screen. So, when I discovered my husband’s secret sexual life, a few years into our marriage, I was deeply affected by his betrayal of those vows. I believed in the sanctity of marriage and I thought I had a pure and sacred marriage – I was wrong.

Let me reiterate at this point. This is not about you and your perception of marriage (I can almost hear the cries of ‘loosen up!’, ‘it’s no big deal’), this is about the literally hundred of women populating online support groups, 12 step recovery groups and offices of therapists and coaches all around the world who are sharing the same, well documented symptoms of betrayal trauma.

Related: Giving Help To Women Betrayed By Their Partner’s Porn Addiction

The Oxford Dictionary defines trauma as ‘A deeply distressing or disturbing experience’ and ‘Emotional shock following a stressful event or a physical injury, which may lead to long term neurosis’ and, based on my experience and that of hundreds more, I would say that is a pretty accurate (if very limited) description of how it felt to discover my husband’s secret ‘sex’ life.

Let me honor my husband here by telling you that for our whole five years of marriage, he has been addressing his issues (even before I found out) and seeking freedom from sexual acting out. This is not the story for so many women who discover this addiction long after its beginnings in ‘harmless’ online pornography. Sometimes that is at the stage of actual emotional and physical affairs, sometimes prostitutes and in the very worst cases, in illegal and dangerous sexual behaviors and exposure. You see addiction is an escalating condition which, left untreated gets worse, never better and you can read hundreds of accounts of men seeking out more risky and unsavory scenes and behaviors, just to get the same ‘high’ that they used to get from regular porn.

The initial response to discovery or disclosure of a husband’s acting out is likely to be one of shock, disbelief and even denial (by the way, the likelihood of the wife finding out is way greater than that of the husband confessing it, though that does happen). Unsurprisingly, women raised in a porn culture where softcore images and partial nudity are used to sell everything from plane tickets to soft drinks are prone to question themselves when they feel so deeply hurt by the feelings of betrayal. The reality of his deception, lies and misrepresenting who he is, is crushing and literally calls into question all that she thought she knew, about him, about ‘us’ and about who she is. The questions flood in: What else is he lying about? Has he cheated on me? Would he? What will happen next? Can I trust him? I didn’t even know, are my instincts all wrong? And then as they start to research and find all the facts and figures: Are all men like this? Is there more? Is he into anything illegal? Can I trust him with my children?!

For most women in a significant relationship with a porn/sex addict or user, this is just the beginning of a long process of understanding and coming to terms with the reality of their marriage or relationship. There will be many more emotions–anger, confusion, despair, grief and fear to name but a few–and many more sleepless nights and tearful conversations.

Betrayal trauma is no joke. It’s a real thing, with very real consequences for women (and men) affected by it. If not addressed it can and does turn into Post Traumatic Stress and then PTSD.

Related: How Porn Hurts Your Partner

But there is hope for these women. There is a light at the end of what feels like a very dark tunnel. Women are finding within them an impressive strength and resolve to move through and eventually beyond the devastation of betrayal trauma, whatever choices their partners make along the way. With the help of specially trained professionals, who understand this unique form of hurt and grief, they are finding themselves coming out stronger than before.

Catherine Etherington is a certified Professional Life Coach and wife of a recovering porn/sex addict. She is committed to helping other women get the help they need.

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It’s a fact: porn hurts partners

This is just one example of the effects that porn can have on our emotional and mental health, not to mention our most important relationships. The ways porn can affect the viewer are well-documented; scientific research demonstrates its neurological, societal, and relational impact. Beyond its impact on the viewer, however, we find that their loved ones are often damaged as well.

In 2005, Dr. Kevin Skinner co-authored an assessment called “Trauma Inventory for Partners of Sex Addicts” (TIPSA). This assessment has given psychologists a glimpse into what partners of sex addicts, including porn addicts, actually endure. This assessment, along with other studies, has shown that many of these individuals experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress. Symptoms include indescribable fear, reliving the experience (such as the moment the partner was caught in the act), having negative self-cognition (if I were only sexier he/she would not do this), and increased emotional arousal (anxiety, yelling, sleep problems from racing thoughts, suicidal thoughts). Many partners isolate themselves, feeling alone in their struggle.[1]

In his assessment, Dr. Skinner found that the partners experienced a very real emotional trauma, bringing with it severe stress, anxiety, depression, fear, and flashbacks. They felt isolated and unattractive. In short, they experienced a version of PTSD.

The role that porn plays in this emotional trauma cannot be understated. Porn can be damaging to all parties that are involved in it; be it the viewer or their loved ones. It is linked to higher rates of divorce, an increased tendency of insecurity (among men and women), and a greater likelihood to engage in sexual violence. To put it simply, porn kills love.

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Get Help – For Partners

If your partner is struggling with porn, you are not alone—know that there is hope, and there is help. As you navigate this difficult situation, there are supportive communities and resources available to you. Below, we’ve got a non-exhaustive list of several resources for those experiencing betrayal trauma. Because this isn’t a complete resource list, feel free to look for more betrayal trauma resources that are catered to your specific needs and/or location. Note that while both men and women can experience betrayal trauma, some of the resources are gender-specific. Please also note that while some of the resources below are religiously affiliated, Fight the New Drug is not.

Betrayal Trauma Recovery

Recover

Bloom

Addo Recovery

Get Involved

Raise awareness on the fact that porn kills love. SHARE this article to spread this message to those who need it and offer hope.

Citations

[1] Skinner, Kevin B. “The Lasting Effects of Sexual Betrayal.” Psychology Today. Web. 13 Aug 2015. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/inside-porn-addiction/201508/the-lasting-effects-sexual-betrayal

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