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The Science Behind Why a Partner’s Porn Habit Hurts, and What You Can Do to Heal

By December 5, 2018 February 20th, 2020 No Comments

FTND note: We continually encourage couples to make decisions about their relationship that’s best for them. Sometimes, that choice is to go their separate ways, and sometimes, that mutual choice is to stay and support each other through the struggles porn brings. It all depends on the couple, and we respect the decisions people make for themselves. There’s no “correct” answer, every relationship is different.

“Am I crazy?”

“Why am I not good enough?”

“Can I ever trust them again?”

These are all questions frequently asked by partners of people who are struggling with porn. While a great deal of information and help exists for those suffering from porn compulsion or obsession with porn, partners are often left feeling alone but with equally real wounds of their own.

Though psychology once followed a model of codependency for partners of those struggling with porn, more and more psychologists are coming to realize that partners are most often not codependent but are suffering from real trauma of their own as a result of their partner’s issue. This is called betrayal trauma.

The symptoms

The American Psychological Association defines trauma as “an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, assault or natural disaster. Immediately after the event, shock and denial are typical. Longer term reactions include unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships and even physical symptoms like headaches or nausea.” [1]

Related: The Male Perspective: My Girlfriend Is Watching Porn Behind My Back

Discovering a partner’s porn habit can truly be a traumatic event. Partners of porn consumers often feel that their lives have been turned upside down—they realize their partner has a secret world where he or she seeks sexual satisfaction and emotional gratification outside of the relationship. They may feel betrayed, they may do not know who to trust anymore, and they may even feel unsafe.

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 (thoughts like, “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. [2]

You are not alone

Let’s be clear. Science has shown that this trauma is normal. If you’re dealing with symptoms like this in the wake of discovering a partner’s porn problem, you are not alone. Confusion, anger, anxiety, racing thoughts, crying, feelings of helplessness, loss of interest in things you used to enjoy—they are all normal for individuals in a situation like this. You are not going crazy. You have been traumatized.

Related: It’s Okay To Not Be Okay: What Partners Of Porn Consumers Want You To Know

When a person is experiencing betrayal trauma, their body enters into “fight, flight, or freeze” mode. In his course entitled “Healing from Betrayal Trauma” with Bloom, an online support for women, Dr. Skinner presents a description of what one woman suffered when she first discovered her husband’s struggle with pornography. She wrote:

“First time: I was alone. I went downstairs and curled up on a couch. I felt like a huge part of me had died. I waited there nearly fainting from shock and agony until my husband came home. I felt paralyzed. I felt like I had been shot in the chest and stomach—true physical, unbelievable pain. Nausea, racing heart. I didn’t know what to think—confusion, bewilderment.”

Sound familiar? This is by no means an extreme or ridiculous reaction. Says Dr. Skinner, “This is a normal response of fight, flight, freeze, which is what we do when we feel threatened. And if we stay in those, we’re most likely to get PTSD symptoms.”

To learn more about why porn is hurtful in relationships, watch episode two, “The Heart,” of our three-part documentary series, Brain, Heart, World. You’ll dive into the science and personal stories that explain why porn drives a serious wedge in between partners in a relationship, and what you can do to fight for your love and heal from the hurt.

There Is Hope

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 is a non-exhaustive list of several resources for those experiencing hurt because of their partner’s porn consumption. Note that this isn’t a complete resource list.

Disclaimer: For those who may find themselves involved in this sensitive situation, their responses can differ. This is why resources need to fit the specific needs of whoever is seeking them. Some of these resources are gender-specific, others are religiously-affiliated, others use a variety of approaches. Fight the New Drug is a non-religious and non-legislative awareness and education organization hoping to provide access to resources that are helpful to those who need support. Including this list of recommendations does not constitute an endorsement by Fight the New Drug.

Recover

Bloom

Addo Recovery

Citations

[1] http://www.apa.org/topics/trauma/
[2] 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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