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Trauma and recovery: 2 couples claw back from porn addiction

Published: Tuesday, July 7 2015 3:26 a.m. MDT

Couples can develop cognitive tools for the addiction and relationship tools for creating safety. (Shutterstock) Couples can develop cognitive tools for the addiction and relationship tools for creating safety. (Shutterstock)

Editor's note: The following story deals with sexually-themed subject matter that will not be appropriate for some readers. Discretion is advised.

This is part four in a four-part series. Read part one: "Ubiquitous assailant: The dangerous unasked questions surrounding pornography." Read part two: "Second-hand porn: the spreading circle of damage." Read part 3: "Why laws to fight pornography aren't being used."

The worst moment for Megan was not the initial discovery of Tom’s porn habit. That had been tough but she handled it. Fourteen years later, though, Tom was still hooked on pornography, with no end in sight.

Then Megan learned about the strip clubs.

Megan (names have been changed) had developed strong intuition about Tom’s porn use.

“I can tell,” she told Tom. “It’s your temper, short fuse, frustration level with the kids, general irritability. I know that is not your real self. When I see that, I think you are acting out.”

After that, Tom worked at controlling his temper to hide his porn binges, but no deception is perfect.

He was on a business trip in 2010 when she challenged him on the phone from their home in the Salt Lake City area, asking point-blank whether he had ever been to strip clubs. Tom had, but he hadn't visited one in six years. He confessed that he had gone more than once, but less than several and that he had quit after getting a lap dance, which he saw as a dangerous step toward further infidelity.

“That was very scary to me,” Tom says. “It became real.”

So he drew a line against strip clubs and held it. But the hotel room porn and Internet indulgence continued, as did the guilt and irritability. Still, even though the strip club indiscretion was six years old, Megan had asked the question.

"Do you really want to discuss this on the phone?" Tom answered. “I think we better do this face to face.”

“I came home from that trip, and the next day, which happened to be my birthday, we sat down,” Tom said. “The strip clubs were obviously a sucker punch for her.”

Megan was through hoping and waiting.

First discovery

Megan had discovered his porn habit two years after they got married.

Their marriage to that point had been solid — no grounds for mistrust. Then one day Megan, upon returning from a weekend trip, asked Tom what he had done while she was gone. “I totally knew he was lying,” she said. Called on it, Tom admitted that he had looked at pornography.

The habit had begun two years ealier, he explained, when he had chanced on a soft core pornographic magazine while picking up trash in the neighborhood. He snuck it home, and he had been looking at pornography ever since.

With the truth on the table, the couple talked to their Mormon bishop. He encouraged Tom to “try harder” or exercise more.

“Ecclesiastical leaders didn’t really have the tools back then," Megan said.

But Tom tried nonetheless. “They call it ‘white knuckling,’ ” Megan said. Tom would gut out his addiction for six months, or a year, then slip up again. Meanwhile, the anger and resentment built up in Megan.

“At one point, I was so angry with him that I wanted him to die,” Megan said. “I thought, please God, just take him off the face of the earth. It hurt so bad.” A natural optimist, Megan found herself at times wanting to “curl up in the closet and cry all day.”

The cycle went on for 14 years, and it hurt worse each time.

A hipper world

But did it have to?

There is a younger, hipper world out there, one steeped in Shades of Grey and Sex in the City — a world where the Huffington Post reports that sadomasochists are surprisingly well-adjusted, Oprah guests encourage wives to embrace their husband’s porn, and youngsters wear “future porn star” t-shirts.

Pamela Paul explored this world for her 2006 book, Pornified, interviewing over 100 users and their partners to uncover porn’s role in post-Internet America. Now the editor of the New York Times Review of Books, Paul found that often the woman’s answer to her partner’s porn was to join in or look the other way. Surveys show that only about 30 percent of American women view any porn use by their partner as cheating. Couldn’t Megan simply free Tom of his guilt?

Torn apart

Whether porn is objectively harmful is a question that has sharply split professional and public opinion. Even feminists are flummoxed. Widespread use among seemingly healthy people offers a patina of legitimacy, and every obscure state college seems to employ a “sexologist” who is casually confident that it’s all good.

But hard data and solid clinical research are hard to come by, and beneath the widespread acceptance of pornography are lurking questions.

The gold standard of human research is the “randomized controlled trial” that assigns untainted subjects to “treatment” groups or “control” groups. In the early 1980s Dolf Zillman and Jennings Bryant, prominent media effects researchers at the University of Alabama, conducted several such experiments to see how porn affects perceptions and preferences.

Those studies could not be repeated today — partly because human subjects committees won’t allow researchers to do potentialy harmful projects anymore, but also because it would be difficult to find a big enough control group that hasn't been exposed to porn. A 2008 study, for example, found that 86 percent of male college students had viewed pornography in the past year, and 48 percent viewed it at least weekly.

But in the early 1980s, when porn came in brown wrappers in the mail or required a trip to an adult video store, blank slate control groups could still be found.

In one study, published in 1988, Zillman and Bryant showed 160 randomly chosen subjects one hour of mainstream porn per week, stretched over six weeks, for a total of six hours. The films invovled a semblance of plot, so the actual sexual content was 4 hours and 48 minutes.

The researchers called it "massive exposure" at the time, an indication of how things have changed. Today, the American Society of Addiction Medicine marks pornography addiction at 11 hours per week.

The results of the study were striking. The treatment group expressed views markedly more hostile toward children, marriage, relationship trust and women in general, compared to a control group that watched sitcoms.

The porn group was 47 percent more tolerant of extramarital affairs, 47 percent more likely to think other people’s spouses were unfaithful, and 48 percent more inclined to take or tolerate sexual liberties in their own relationships.

Sixty percent of the sitcom control group saw marriage as a vital institution, against just 39 percent of the porn group. The porn group was 41 percent less likely to want their own biological children. And women in the porn group were 65 percent less likely to want a daughter, a finding that caught the researchers completely off guard.

Why the dramatic attitude shifts? Porn’s message is that “sexual pleasures can be experienced without freedom-curtailing emotional involvement or commitment,” Zillman and Bryant wrote. These attitudes, they suggested, “could undermine the values necessary to form enduring relationships in which sexuality, and possibly reproduction, are central.”

In a related experiment, replicated at least once, the porn-exposed group was asked to assign a prison sentence to a fictional rape convict. Both men and women in the porn group offered prison terms half as long as those chosen by their respective control groups. For whatever reason, rape was viewed less harshly after exposure to porn.

Tom had never seen this line of research, but he was not surprised. When he was using porn, Tom felt at odds with himself, torn apart, as if the person he meant to be was incompatible with the one he was becoming. Psycholgists call such stress “cognitive dissonance.”

Mood swings

Elsewhere in the Salt Lake area, another couple, Jill and Paul, was going through a dissonance similar to Megan and Tom’s in many respects.

Jill had always known that Paul had issues with intimacy. Paul’s mom had died when he was 12, and his dad was distant and cold. “The only time we spoke of my mother’s death was when he woke me and told me that she had died at the hospital that night,” Paul said. “He never spoke of it again.”

Paul had become addicted to porn about the time his mother died. Porn became his crutch, his medicine, his comfort. After marrying Jill when they were both 24, Paul continued using porn, hiding it.

“I always knew something was wrong,” Jill explained, “but I also knew what he had been through. I attributed his erratic behavior to that trauma and thought if I hung in there it would get better.”

A total stranger

It didn’t. Before Paul reached rock bottom, he had begun intermittently trolling online “hookup sites” and meeting up with real women. He did this every few years. He would then recoil and the cycle would repeat. Porn and infidelity blended seamlessly for Paul. The same tastes, the same websites, the same people.

Jill found a conversation on his computer with one of his liaisons one day. She hadn’t even been looking. But there it was. “I felt like I had been living with a total stranger," she said, "after all those years, I suddenly realized I had no idea who this person was or what he was doing."

They sought out a marriage counselor. After a few months, they quit. “There was the illusion that we had made progress,” Jill said.

The meltdown came two years later, in 2007. Oddly enough, it wasn’t porn that directly sparked it. It was their 24th wedding anniversary, which Paul neglected on the same day that he bought a farewell present for a departing female associate. What he didn’t know was that for Jill this anniversary was a mental milestone: her parents had divorced after 24 years of difficult marriage.

The fight that night was epic. Both awoke the next morning assuming the marriage was over. But Paul by now had formed a pretty good notion that he was an porn addict, and the first therapist he spoke with recommended a porn-addiction support group.

Group therapy

That’s how both couples ended up at Lifestar, a Utah-based sex-addiction recovery program with a national reach. The program is roughly akin to the 12-step program developed by Alcoholics Anonymous, but with key differences tailored to porn addiction.

Megan went into the group therapy thinking she was doing it for Tom, but she soon found that she needed it for herself. The women in her group formed a strong bond, she said, and they still get together once a month for lunch.

There were bumps and pain along the way, and without the group the jolts are much harder, Jill said. “When you think you are not going to make it, or you think you are not making progress, that group is there and they can see differently.”

In the group they learned about addiction, pain, coping with pain, healing the wounds and filling the empty spaces of both partners.

“It isn’t at its core really about sex,” Jill said.

Cognitive tools

The couples developed cognitive tools for the addiction and relationship tools for creating safety. “I need to be able to express fears without evoking anger,” Megan said, “and he has to be able to ’fess up to a slip without provoking backlash.”

They learned about triggers. “With heroin, you have to find a drug dealer. Alcohol, you have to find an outlet,” Paul said, “But here, there are triggers everywhere. Billboards, magazines — everywhere.”

They learned about boundaries. Now when Tom he enters a hotel room, the first thing he does is unhook the TV and hide the remote. He never watches TV in hotels. As for the computer, he never surfs now. He uses the computer only for specific purposes.

There's been three years of sobriety for Tom. It’s been five years for Paul. He and Jill have had a few rocky moments, including one spat that separated them for two months. But the lapses faded, and the recovery has been strong.

Both men have to watch triggers and maintain boundaries, but both feel that it is not all that different, in the end, from the need to control other appetites or passions that damage health or relationships.

Better people

Megan knew Tom was healing when the tension disappeared. “It was such a gradual thing that I didn’t realize how bad it was until he was back to who he once was,” she said.

“Not only is he the man I married again, but he’s also stronger than he ever was when we first met,” Megan said. The patience and even temper are back, she said, and “he is actually a better communicator than he was before.”

“The two things that did it were Lifestar and an understanding of Jesus Christ,” Megan said. Paul and Jill also turned to faith to push them through, becoming highly active in their community Christian church. Paul is now studying to become a lay minister.

Megan says she has gained compassion for people who struggle with depression. “I have now had a taste of darkness like I never want to taste again,” she said.

Both couples have since been active in sharing their experiences with other groups, other couples seeking healing, and both the women feel that they have changed for the better through the trial.

Neither woman puts a happy face on their experience, but both honestly seem to believe that they are better people for it.

“I would not go back to who I was before this experience with my husband, because I’m a better and stronger person,” Megan said.

“I reached a point in the program where I was thankful my husband had this addiction,” Jill said, “because otherwise how would I have learned so much about myself?”

Eric Schulzke writes on national politics for the Deseret News. He can be contacted at eschulzke@desnews.com.

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