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I Think My Partner is Looking at Porn After Promising Not to—What Do I Do?

By May 17, 2019 No Comments
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I Think My Partner is Looking At Porn After Promising Not To—What Do I Do?

By Jay Stringer, a licensed mental health counselor in Seattle, WA

Although consuming porn is overwhelmingly common, most couples are completely unprepared when it comes to navigating through the debris it leaves behind. Whether porn is contributing to a problem in your relationship now or you suspect it could in the future, having intentional conversations with your partner now can save you both seasons of heartache going forward.

Here are three themes you can discuss together (or explore on your own) to set your relational life up for growth: betrayal trauma, hiding, and holistic growth.

1) Betrayal Trauma.

Trust is the foundation of love and when it is violated, something core to who you are is wounded. Whereas scars reveal external wounds, heartache reveals relational wounds. A partner’s deceit with pornography disfigures the very part of us that longs to give and receive love. This wounding is called betrayal trauma.

When you are wounded (or fear being wounded) in a relationship, your brain is masterful in doing at least one of three things in response: fight, flight, or freeze. This is why your instinctual response to discovering your partner’s pornography consumption might lead you to want to rage at them (fight), leave them forever as if they are the scum of the earth (flight), or feel completely paralyzed about what to do next (freeze).

These three responses are like a smoke detector going off in your emotional house. Their job is to alert you to the possibility of danger. The problem most betrayed partners face at this juncture is where to find calm. Most couples can only effectively find emotional regulation from relational distress with their partner. This works, until your partner inevitably lets you down. The crisis before you is certainly pornography-related, but it’s also asking you to develop an inner life capable of attending to the relational wounds you are experiencing.

Related: 10 Reasons Why You Should (Not) Be Cool With Your Partner Watching Porn

Clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine and acclaimed author Dan Siegel offers a simple and eloquent phrase for people who find themselves in distress. Siegel says we need to “name it to tame it.” When we identify and name our heartache, our emotional life is soothed. This is a counterintuitive approach to how most of us address betrayal; we naturally want the external world to change (especially our partner!) when we’re undergoing something difficult. What we truly need when betrayal strikes, however, is to extend kindness to the pain within.

Kindness grows self-compassion, but its secret weapon is to equip you to engage your partner with discernment. When you can regulate your emotional pain, it allows you to change your response from a trauma response, “What’s wrong with you? You are so disturbed! How could you do this to me?” to a mature response, “I’m heartbroken and angry that you continue to do something that hurts both of us. I need some time to reflect and talk with friends about what I really want and what to do next.”

Fight, flight, or freeze help us survive, but kindness helps us thrive by inviting us to discern what we really want and how we can best and most productively respond to our partner.

Key question to consider: When I am experiencing pain from something you (the partner) have caused, how will I find calm?

Conversation Blueprint

2) Hiding.

In relationships, we need to learn how to be an astute (not hypervigilant) observer of hiding. Hiding might look like a partner choosing to be vague about their internet patterns, redirecting the conversation when asked a direct question about their pornography use, or having passwords on their devices that they make sure you will never learn. When they have nowhere else to hide, they either disclose the truth or they unleash blame.

When you engage your partner’s hiding, be on high alert for blame. While no one likes to feel like they are under surveillance, those who consume porn habitually, but secretly, can be crafty at trying to convince you that their irritability and anger is exclusively a response to your insecurity and invasion.

RelatedCan Porn Improve An Intimate Relationship?

For example, if you ask your partner about their pornography use and thirty seconds later you notice the conversation redirected to your character flaws, do whatever you need to do to reestablish firm ground. A partner committed to denial will pull you into murky waters where your discernment and confidence dissolve. If you sense this, it’s a great time to take a walk, call a friend, or if you are in a relationship where you feel it would be safe and productive to do so, share your experience with them.

Talking with your partner about the interplay of hiding and blaming serves a two-fold purpose. One, it helps reduce gaslighting (when your partner manipulates you to question your reality) and secondly, it invites your partner to greater integrity.

For example, if you are suspicious about your partner using porn you might hear them respond, “Why are you always so nosy? If you weren’t so insecure, you wouldn’t be asking these questions.” They are attempting to evade reality by asking you to question yours. To maneuver through this, try redirecting them to their two-choice dilemma: will they honestly answer the question or evade it?

Key question to ask your partner: When I sense you might be hiding, how can we talk about it without you turning to blame and me helicoptering over you? (e.g., “Is it ever difficult for you to resist porn when I go out of town or hang out with other friends? I notice you seem more distant and reserved when I come back.”)

Fortify

3) Focus on holistic growth.

In my research on over 3,800 men and women, I found that a person’s pornography use was both shaped and predicted by the parts of their story that remained unaddressed. The implication is if your partner wants to outgrow their porn consumption, they need to identify and transform the unique reasons that bring them to it in the first place.

As much as we’d prefer our partners to never watch porn again, most will experience setbacks on their journey. Therefore, the primary focus should not be on perfect behavior, but their pursuit of growth throughout three areas: healing the underlying pain, building community, and discovering purpose.

Underlying Pain — The specifics of the pornography people pursue is not random. It reveals their underlying pain. For example, individuals who sought out themes of porn involving “teen,” “college,” and a petite body type had three key predictors in their story: a lack of purpose, high levels of shame, and a strict father.

As you can see, porn is alluring not just because of sexual arousal. It also gives consumers the ability to find power amidst the difficulties in their life. The river of pornography is certainly fed by the stream of erotic desire, but its main tributary is the desire for power. Pursuing the subordination of others as an acceptable option when undergoing distress will never lead to growth.

Additionally, women and men in my research who were the most significant users of pornography had sexual abuse scores that were nearly 24% higher than those individuals who did not view pornography at all. While we tend to think about someone “acting out” with porn they may, in fact, be re-enacting a harmful sexual template established in childhood. Curiosity about the origins of their pornography struggles will take someone so much further than only fighting their desire to seek it out.

Related: The Problem With Saying “Let Your Partner Watch Porn, They Can’t Help It”

Community — 59% of Individuals in my survey did not feel like they had someone to talk to (to a great or very great extent) when they were struggling with pornography use. When individuals did pursue accountability or an ally, they saw a 22% reduction in significant porn use.

When your partner remains in isolation, the voice of shame becomes a merciless narrator of their struggle. Shame tells them that something about them is unwanted or unworthy of love. In porn, people find pleasure and escape, but far more, they see further evidence that something is broken within them. Pursuing an ally or recovery community disempowers shame by inviting your partner to be known and accepted right where they are. If your partner will not be honest with themselves about their need for others, your role will quickly become to keep tabs on their behavior. You need to decide if this is the dynamic or relationship you truly desire.

Related: How Avoiding Shame Can Help With Healing From Betrayal Trauma

Finding Purpose Men are seven times more likely to pursue pornography when they lack a clear sense of purpose. The madness of pornography is that it lets a user get an immediate reward while also reinforcing their core powerlessness when they attempt to break free from it. The cycle is pernicious. A person who lacks purpose desires porn because it allows them to get what they want when they want it. But the longer they use pornography, the more it erodes their hope that they will ever find purpose in life. In finding purpose, your partner will develop a healthy level of defiance to not sabotage the best parts of their life to porn.

I mention these three areas for growth not to excuse your partner’s choices, but to invite you to see that their porn use says so much more about them than it does about you.

When you do not have a clear mental map of the “why” behind your partner’s pornography use, you will inevitably cascade into feelings of inadequacy and compare yourself to your partner’s latest fantasy. The last thing betrayal needs is self-contempt. Choose now to maintain clarity that your partner’s pornography use is largely about their unaddressed, and therefore unresolved, stories.

Key questions to ask your partner: How might your pornography use be inviting you to find healing? What is one practical way you can choose to outgrow pornography this year?

Betrayal trauma, hiding, and holistic growth are themes that every couple can and should discuss if they want to see their relationship thrive in a world where pornography has become ubiquitous.

When your relationship learns to turn toward difficult conversations rather than avoid them, you are building important muscles for the journey ahead. Couples who overcome the adversity of porn don’t delete it from their relational history, they allow it to be a roadmap for healing and growth. There is hope.

______________________________

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

If this article inspired you to have a conversation with your partner or someone else about porn, check out our step-by-step interactive conversation guide, Let’s Talk About Porn, for tips.

About the Author

Jay Stringer is a licensed mental health counselor from Seattle, WA. He is the author of Unwanted: How Sexual Brokenness Reveals Our Way to Healing and the creator of the Unwanted Sexual Behavior Self-Assessment that guides individuals to connect the dots between their story and their porn use. To learn more about Jay, visit his website: jay-stringer.com

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