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How Porn Can Negatively Impact Love and Intimacy

Countless studies consistently show that porn consumers tend to struggle in their relationships. From poorer relationship quality to an increased likelihood of cheating, research suggests that porn plays a major role in fueling unhealthy relationship dynamics.

By May 14, 2021May 28th, 2021No Comments

Despite the incredible complexity of the human brain, at least one thing is clear—as human beings, we are hardwired for connection. While the importance of love and connection has been a popular topic of study among philosophers for thousands of years, modern neuroscience confirms that we are neurobiologically wired to develop meaningful relationships with other humans. As world-renowned researcher and author Dr. Brené Brown has stated, “We are psychologically, emotionally, [and] cognitively… hardwired for connection, love, and belonging. Connection, along with love and belonging… is what gives purpose and meaning to our lives.”Brown, B. (2012). Understanding and combating shame. Daring greatly: How the courage to be vulnerable transforms the way we live, love, parent, and lead (pp. 68) Avery.COPY 

To some extent, we all share the desire to love and be loved in healthy relationships. So, how does porn fit in with our biological instinct to connect with others? The truth is—not so well.

The impact of porn on relationships

To start, dozens of studies have repeatedly shown that porn consumers tend to have lower relationship satisfaction and lower relationship quality.Wright, P. J., Tokunaga, R. S., Kraus, A., & Klann, E. (2017). Pornography consumption and satisfaction: A meta-analysis. Human Communication Research, 43(3), 315-343. doi:https://doi.org/10.1111/hcre.12108COPY Perry S. L. (2020). Pornography and Relationship Quality: Establishing the Dominant Pattern by Examining Pornography Use and 31 Measures of Relationship Quality in 30 National Surveys. Archives of sexual behavior, 49(4), 1199–1213. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-019-01616-7COPY Perry, S. (2017). Does Viewing Pornography Reduce Marital Quality Over Time? Evidence From Longitudinal Data. Archives Of Sexual Behavior, 46(2), 549-559. Doi: 10.1007/S10508-016-0770-YCOPY  Porn consumers tend to experience more negative communication with their partners, feel less dedicated to their relationships, have a more difficult  time making adjustments in their relationships, are less sexually satisfied, and commit more infidelity.Maddox, A. M., Rhoades, G. K., & Markman, H. J. (2011). Viewing sexually-explicit materials alone or together: associations with relationship quality. Archives of sexual behavior, 40(2), 441–448. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-009-9585-4COPY  Research also shows that porn consumers tend to become less committed to their partners,Minarcik, J., Wetterneck, C. T., & Short, M. B. (2016). The Effects Of Sexually Explicit Material Use On Romantic Relationship Dynamics. Journal Of Behavioral Addictions, 5(4) 700-707. Doi: 10.1556/2006.5.2016.078COPY Lambert, N. M., Negash, S., Stillman, T. F., Olmstead, S. B., & Fincham, F. D. (2012). A love that doesn't last: Pornography consumption and weakened commitment to one's romantic partner. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 31(4), 410-438. doi:10.1521/jscp.2012.31.4.410COPY  less satisfied in their relationships,Wright, P. J., Tokunaga, R. S., Kraus, A., & Klann, E. (2017). Pornography consumption and satisfaction: A meta-analysis. Human Communication Research, 43(3), 315-343. doi:https://doi.org/10.1111/hcre.12108COPY  and more accepting of cheating.Rasmussen, K. (2016). A Historical and Empirical Review of Pornography and Romantic Relationships: Implications for Family Researchers. Journal of Family Theory & Review, 8(2), 173-191. doi:https://doi.org/10.1111/jftr.12141COPY 

Meanwhile, partners of porn consumers also report negative effects, such as lower self-esteem, worse relationship quality, and less sexual satisfaction.Stewart, D. N., & Szymanski, D. M. (2012). Young adult women’s reports of their male romantic partner’s pornography use as a correlate of their self-esteem, relationship quality, and sexual satisfaction. Sex Roles: A Journal of Research, 67(5-6), 257-271. doi:10.1007/s11199-012-0164-0COPY  Research also suggests that porn consumption can undermine trust in a relationship and fuel couple conflict.Carroll, J. S., Busby, D. M., Willoughby, B. J., & Brown, C. C. (2017). The porn gap: Differences in men's and women's pornography patterns in couple relationships.16(2), 146-163. doi:10.1080/15332691.2016.1238796COPY  Obviously, relationship problems like these are not new and are not solely caused by porn. Yet, research shows that porn can play a substantial role in fueling these issues—and that’s not something that should be ignored.Maddox, A. M., Rhoades, G. K., & Markman, H. J. (2011). Viewing Sexually-Explicit Materials Alone Or Together: Associations With Relationship Quality. Archives Of Sexual Behavior, 40(2), 441-448. Doi:10.1007/S10508-009-9585-4COPY Perry S. L. (2020). Pornography and Relationship Quality: Establishing the Dominant Pattern by Examining Pornography Use and 31 Measures of Relationship Quality in 30 National Surveys. Archives of sexual behavior, 49(4), 1199–1213. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-019-01616-7COPY Rasmussen, K. (2016). A historical and empirical review of pornography and romantic relationships: Implications for family researchers. Journal of Family Theory & Review, 8(2), 173-191. doi:https://doi.org/10.1111/jftr.12141COPY 

Related: How Porn Can Hurt a Consumer’s Partner

With less trust, poorer communication, and less relationship satisfaction—all of which are important pillars of healthy relationships—it becomes clear why many porn consumers tend to struggle in their relationships. In fact, research also shows that porn can negatively impact whether or not couples stay together. Reports consistently show that porn consumers are twice as likely to later report experiencing a divorce or breakup—even after controlling for marital happiness, sexual satisfaction, and other relevant factors.Perry, S. L. (2018). Pornography use and marital separation: Evidence from two-wave panel data. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 47(6), 1869-1880. doi:10.1007/s10508-017-1080-8COPY Perry, S. L., & Davis, J. T. (2017). Are pornography users more likely to experience a romantic breakup? Evidence from longitudinal data. Sexuality & Culture, 21(4), 1157-1176. doi:10.1007/s12119-017-9444-8COPY Perry, S. L., & Schleifer, C. (2018). Till porn do us part? A longitudinal examination of pornography use and divorce. 55(3), 284-296. doi:10.1080/00224499.2017.1317709COPY 

One study, for example, tracked couples over a six-year period to see what factors influenced the quality of their marriage and their satisfaction with their sex lives. The researchers found that of all the factors considered, porn consumption was the second strongest indicator that a marriage would suffer.Perry, S. (2017). Does Viewing Pornography Reduce Marital Quality Over Time? Evidence From Longitudinal Data. Archives Of Sexual Behavior, 46(2), 549-559. Doi: 10.1007/S10508-016-0770-YCOPY  Not only that, but the marriages that were harmed the most were those of individuals who viewed porn the most.Perry, S. (2017). Does Viewing Pornography Reduce Marital Quality Over Time? Evidence From Longitudinal Data. Archives Of Sexual Behavior, 46(2), 549-559. Doi: 10.1007/S10508-016-0770-YCOPY 

According to another study, individuals who watched porn alone reported twice the rate of cheating on their partner in comparison to couples who didn’t watch porn at all. And interestingly enough, individuals who viewed porn alone and with their partners reported three times the rate of cheating.Maddox, A. M., Rhoades, G. K., & Markman, H. J. (2011). Viewing Sexually-Explicit Materials Alone Or Together: Associations With Relationship Quality. Archives Of Sexual Behavior, 40(2), 441-448. Doi:10.1007/S10508-009-9585-4COPY  Ultimately, the research showed that those who never viewed pornography reported higher relationship quality—on every measure—than those who viewed pornography alone.Maddox, A. M., Rhoades, G. K., & Markman, H. J. (2011). Viewing Sexually-Explicit Materials Alone Or Together: Associations With Relationship Quality. Archives Of Sexual Behavior, 40(2), 441-448. Doi:10.1007/S10508-009-9585-4COPY 

Counterfeit intimacy

The reality is, most young people are getting at least some of their education about sex from porn.Rothman, E. F., Kaczmarsky, C., Burke, N., Jansen, E., & Baughman, A. (2015). 'Without Porn … I Wouldn't Know Half the Things I Know Now': A Qualitative Study of Pornography Use Among a Sample of Urban, Low-Income, Black and Hispanic Youth. Journal of sex research, 52(7), 736–746. https://doi.org/10.1080/00224499.2014.960908COPY  That can become incredibly problematic in sexual relationships, given that porn can warp expectations about sex, bodies, and relationships.Koletić G. (2017). Longitudinal associations between the use of sexually explicit material and adolescents' attitudes and behaviors: A narrative review of studies. Journal of adolescence, 57, 119–133. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.adolescence.2017.04.006COPY Tylka, T. L. (2015). No harm in looking, right? Men’s pornography consumption, body image, and well-being. Psychology of Men & Masculinity, 16(1), 97-107. doi:10.1037/a0035774COPY  In fact, one survey found that 53% of boys and 39% of girls reported believing that pornography was a realistic depiction of sex, and 44% of boys who consumed porn reported that it gave them ideas about the type of sex they wanted to try.Martellozzo, E., Monaghan, A., Adler, J.R., Davidson, J., Leyva, R., & Horvath, M.A.H. (2016). 'I wasn’t sure it was normal to watch it'. London: NSPCC. Retrieved from https://learning.nspcc.org.uk/research-resources/2016/i-wasn-t-sure-it-was-normal-to-watch-itCOPY  That’s especially concerning, considering that porn is wildly unrealistic and often promotes toxic tropes, including rape, incest, sexual violence, sexism, racism, etc.

Related: How Porn Can Distort Consumers’ Understanding Of Healthy Sex

In porn, it’s all about the viewer. In porn, finding a “partner” is effortless. The performers are seemingly always ready, willing, and longing for your attention. This partner has nothing else to do with their time but wait for you. They’re young, attractive, sexually adventurous, and anxious to please. This partner will never age, never get bored or annoyed, never have an “off” day or need a listening ear. And if this porn partner ever fails to keep you entertained, they can be exchanged with a single click.

The problem is that internet pornography has a number of unique properties that make it very different from real-life relationships with real-life people. Features of porn such as limitless novelty, on-demand accessibility, and easy escalation to more extreme material can condition someone’s expectations for sex to aspects of pornography consumption that do not readily translate to real-life partners. As this happens, real-life sex may not register as meeting expectations for a regular porn consumer, and arousal and satisfaction can decline.Park, B. Y., Wilson, G., Berger, J., Christman, M., Reina, B., Bishop, F., Klam, W. P., & Doan, A. P. (2016). Is Internet Pornography Causing Sexual Dysfunctions? A Review with Clinical Reports. Behavioral sciences (Basel, Switzerland), 6(3), 17. https://doi.org/10.3390/bs6030017COPY 

Related: How Porn Can Harm Consumers’ Sex Lives

Pornography concealment

Another key way porn can harm couple relationships is that many consumers conceal from their partner how much and what types of porn they are viewing. According to a 2017 study, the number of women who reported that their male partner didn’t watch porn was significantly higher than the number of men who reported no porn consumption.Carroll, J. S., Busby, D. M., Willoughby, B. J., & Brown, C. C. (2017). The porn gap: Differences in men's and women's pornography patterns in couple relationships. Journal of Couple & Relationship Therapy, 16(2), 146–163. https://doi.org/10.1080/15332691.2016.1238796COPY 

Using a large national sample, the study found that only 4% of women who were casually dating men reported that their partner regularly consumed porn, when in reality, 50% of the men who were casually dating reported that they regularly consumed porn. In fact, in this study none of the casually dating women—zero—reported that their partner consumed pornography daily or every other day, but 43% of casually dating men in the study reported this level of heavy porn consumption. In more committed relationships, only 46% of women accurately reported how much their partner consumed porn with nearly 40% of men reporting more consumption than she believed was occurring.Carroll, J. S., Busby, D. M., Willoughby, B. J., & Brown, C. C. (2017). The porn gap: Differences in men's and women's pornography patterns in couple relationships. Journal of Couple & Relationship Therapy, 16(2), 146–163. https://doi.org/10.1080/15332691.2016.1238796COPY 

Relationship experts have long recognized that relationships last when partners develop a secure attachment with each other, where each partner trusts that the other will be physically and emotionally responsive to his or her needs. It’s understandable, then, that any behaviors that have the potential to disrupt or erode this trust can have a negative impact on couple communication, intimacy, and satisfaction. Scholars and therapists have noted that partner differences in pornography consumption and pornography concealment may influence the partners’ sense of trustworthiness and security in the relationship.Carroll, J. S., Busby, D. M., Willoughby, B. J., & Brown, C. C. (2017). The porn gap: Differences in men's and women's pornography patterns in couple relationships. Journal of Couple & Relationship Therapy, 16(2), 146–163. https://doi.org/10.1080/15332691.2016.1238796COPY 

When someone hides their porn habit from their partners, it can not only hurt their relationship, but can also leave the consumer feeling lonely and more vulnerable to depression, poor self-esteem, and anxiety. Plus, when romantic partners keep secrets from each other, their trust in each other erodes and their confidence in their relationships starts to decrease.

Related: How Porn Can Impact Mental Health and Fuel Loneliness

Which came first?

But is this just a “chicken and egg” scenario? Is porn really damaging to relationships, or do people turn to porn because they’re in relationships that are already suffering?

Probably both, according to Dr. Samuel Perry, a sociologist at the University of Oklahoma who’s been studying porn’s effects on relationships for years. Dr. Perry also explains, however, that “the few studies we do have that use experimental or longitudinal data find that there does seem to be a directional ‘effect’ of pornography use on relationship outcomes, particularly for men.”ElHage, A. (2017). Pornography use and relationship quality: An interview with samuel perry (part 1). Retrieved from https://ifstudies.org/blog/pornography-use-and-relationship-quality-an-interview-with-samuel-perry-part-1COPY  That means, these findings aren’t just correlational—they’re showing that pornography can directly affect relationships in negative ways.

Whether porn is the original culprit of a couple’s relationship problems, or whether it becomes a coping mechanism for existing problems, many couples find themselves caught in an unhealthy cycle of porn and relationship issues, each fueling the other.

Related: How Porn Can Become an Escalating Behavior

A growing concern

As we’ve discussed, research suggests that there are a number of ways that porn can negatively impact romantic relationships. As the evidence of porn’s potential harms continues to pile up, many leading therapists and relationship experts have started to express concerns about the impacts of pornography on relationships.

In fact, world-renowned relationship experts, Doctors John and Julie Gottman wrote an open letter through the Gottman Institute to express their concerns. Here’s some of what they had to say:

“Research on the effects of pornography use, especially one person frequently viewing pornographic images online, shows that pornography can hurt a couple’s relationship…

… There are many other factors about porn use that can threaten a relationship’s intimacy. First, intimacy for couples is a source of connection and communication between two people. But when one person becomes accustomed to masturbating to porn, they are actually turning away from intimate interaction. Second, when watching pornography the user is in total control of the sexual experience, in contrast to normal sex in which people are sharing control with the partner…

… Worse still, many porn sites include violence toward women, the antithesis of intimate connection…. Pornography can also lead to a decrease in relationship trust and a higher likelihood of affairs outside the relationship. Many porn sites now offer an escalation of sexual activity beyond simply viewing porn that includes actually having sex with other individuals.

… In summary, we are led to unconditionally conclude that for many reasons, pornography poses a serious threat to couple intimacy and relationship harmony. This moment calls for public discussion, and we want our readers around the world to understand what is at stake.”

-Drs. John and Julie Gottman, The Gottman Institute, April 5, 2016Gottman, J., & Gottman, J. (April 5, 2016). An open letter on porn. Retrieved from https://www.gottman.com/blog/an-open-letter-on-porn/COPY 

On the surface, porn may seem harmless, or may even seem like a good way to learn more about sex. Maybe a committed relationship seems far away in the future, or you feel confident that a little porn won’t harm your relationships. But the research is clear—porn can have devastating impacts on relationships, both sexually and emotionally. There is no substitute for real connection, and porn isn’t worth risking that.

Need help?

For those reading this who feel they are struggling with pornography, you are not alone. Check out Fortify, a science-based recovery platform dedicated to helping you find lasting freedom from pornography. Fortify now offers a free experience for both teens and adults. Connect with others, learn about your compulsive behavior, and track your recovery journey. There is hope—sign up today.

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