independent

Friday 18 April 2014

Is porn destroying your relationship?

Compulsive viewing can – and does – lead to long-term couples separating

WHEN I began my work as a professional dealing with the challenges thrown up by human sexuality, there was an ongoing debate about the role of pornography in aggression. Since then that debate has moved on to a new level, as pornography of every hue has become easy to access, inexpensive, and can be sourced privately and anonymously.

At present, pornography is the single most commonly searched subject on the internet, suggesting that it has a significant presence in many Irish homes. The current debate focuses on whether or not it is a harmless play thing, and if it has a detrimental impact on viewers and their relationships.

Much of the current debate about pornography focuses on the impact that it has on children and young adults, and rightly so. However, that debate should not distract from considering the negative impact that freely available pornography is having on some adults – on their personal, social and intimate lives.

The reality of compulsive pornography viewing is that it can, and does, lead to long-term couples separating. Additionally, a proportion of young men struggle to establish intimate relationships because of the use of pornography.

Like it or loathe it, pornography is a major force today – a force that is shaping our understanding and expression of sexuality, and bringing a whole new and challenging dimension to relationships.

Pornography simply does not feature in the lives of many people. They may have tried it, or been exposed to it, and found it degrading for the actors involved, or perhaps they found that it offered little interest or satisfaction.

But for others, pornography provides immediate sexual pleasure, and they may use it to spice up their sexual activities, either alone or within a relationship.

They may use it to extend their sexual knowledge, or as a way of managing emotional upset or distress. The reality is that for increasing numbers, pornography is exciting and deeply satisfying.

There is a commonly shared anecdote about a group of Canadian researchers who tried to identify adult males who had never viewed pornography. Having done all they could, they failed to find any and were eventually forced to throw in the towel.

Humorous as this may sound, the sad fact is that for some, the use of pornography can quickly evolve into a deeply harmful and alienating force. It can impact on the user's daily living, on their emotional well-being, and on their ability to engage in relationships.

Patrick Carnes, a leading clinician and author on sexual behaviours in the US, has written extensively about his work with people with compulsive sexual behaviour. He describes research involving over 9,000 people who use the internet for sexual purposes, which suggests that the majority of those who use the internet for sexual behaviours (84pc) can be described as recreational users.

They access pornographic material out of curiosity, and do not typically show any associated relationship or sexual difficulties.

He describes two further groups who may be more significantly impacted by their behaviour. Approximately 6pc of users are at risk of developing problematic use of pornography online.

A further 10pc are described as sexually compulsive users, with associated personal and interpersonal difficulties. This research was conducted in 2001 and, given the rapid progress in recent years towards 24/7 access to high-speed internet, it is reasonable to assume that this pattern of pornography use has persisted hand in hand with an increase in the volume of pornography users.

The good news from this research is that the majority of users of internet pornography typically do so without observable consequences. It is reassuring to know that users of pornography online generally have the personal and emotional resources to contain their use of pornography and to maintain a focus on their real relationships in the real world.

However, 16pc of users are at risk of developing significant difficulties in their emotional, sexual or interpersonal lives, or have already done so. Research reports consistently bear out that the vast majority of that 16pc are male.

This level of problematic use is alarming, given the suffering and distress that this can bring to the life of the user, and to their partners and families. Unfortunately, I meet this suffering increasingly in my work with people for whom pornography and online sexual behaviour has caused heart-breaking difficulty for them and their partners.

When viewing pornography becomes a compulsive behaviour it impacts on sexuality at its core, because the user forms a physical and emotional relationship with pornography. While this might seem like an odd concept, it is something that happens for many of those who present with difficulties with pornography.

Something that may have begun casually as a bit of fun, or as a welcome escape from the stresses and strains of life, can quickly become time-, energy- and emotion-consuming.

In short, pornography becomes a friend, emotional support, and sexual partner for the user. As a result, pornography is given endless time, emotional energy, and commitment.

The user becomes infatuated with pornography, as if falling in love for the first time with another person – except this infatuation carries with it a parallel experience of guilt and shame. Rather than shouting about his new love from the rooftops, the at-risk user must hide his behaviour and withdraw into a secretive and avoidant world.

This can push real relationships into second place, making intimacy and interpersonal sharing difficult and strained.

The partners of those who use pornography are likely to have a variety of views and attitudes towards it.

They may turn a blind eye to it, and view it as something that 'everyone does'. Some engage in viewing pornography with their partner as part of their sex lives.

However, where pornography use is excessive, partners may begin to develop a sense that all is not well in their relationship as they recognise that their loved one has become unexplainably irritable, secretive or withdrawn. They may even feel that their partner has left the relationship at an emotional level. When compulsive use of pornography is disclosed, partners are often thrown into shock and turmoil, and they question the fundamentals of their relationship.

Issues relating to trust, loyalty, honesty and intimacy are highlighted, creating a crisis point for relationships. Such crisis points are typically deeply challenging for everyone, and require third-party support from a wise friend or from a knowledgeable therapist or clinician.

So, how do you know if your use of pornography is beginning to become a negative force in your life? What are the key tell-tale signs of compulsive and problematic pornography use?

1 Red-eye syndrome. Are you spending more and more time viewing pornography, often only intending to 'have a quick look'? Hours can pass quickly, with people reporting staying up into the morning hours to view pornography. Have you been tired and drained the day after viewing pornography?

2 Becoming preoccupied. You know you are being drawn into an unhealthy relationship with pornography when you begin to think about pornography more and more, or when you find yourself checking your phone or tablet while with people or doing other things. If so, pornography is absorbing your attention and energy, and you probably have an unhealthy relationship with it.

3 Failure to stop. You have vowed that you will stop or cut down on your use of pornography, only to find that you tell yourself things like, "I'm not doing anyone any harm", "I'll just have one more look".

4 Personal cost. If a partner, family or friends have expressed concern about your use of pornography, it is impacting on your relationships. Your behaviour may be hurting those around you, and your response may be that they are making too much of it.

5 Problems with sex. Perhaps you notice that you are losing interest in, and are avoiding, sexual contact with a partner and prefer pornography. Do you notice that you are drawn to risky sexual behaviours, or that you have difficulty with arousal in sexual contact with another person? If this is so, then pornography has likely begun to affect your sexuality.

6 Social/professional cost. Often viewing pornography excessively can impact on the quality of general relationships and/or work commitments. If your use of pornography has impacted on the quality of time you spend with your friends or employers in any way, you are using it in a damaging way.

When anyone realises that they have a difficulty of any kind, it is normal to feel overwhelmed and powerless. Regrettably, many are unsuccessful in managing their compulsive use of pornography alone, leading to increasing hopelessness and despair.

To really address this problem, it is crucial to tell someone about the difficulty – be that a friend you trust, your GP, or a therapist. Structuring your life so that it is free of pornography will be central to establishing healthy sexuality, as will having someone with whom you can be honest and accountable about your life.

It will be important to make a renewed commitment to all aspects of your life – to your relationships, your health (emotional and physical), your leisure and your work.

A clinician with experience in working with sexual difficulties can support you in formulating a plan for how you can establish more healthy sexuality.

In this, you can begin to (re)establish a positive and healthy view of yourself, of your sexuality and of your relationships, enabling you to manage your interest in and attraction to pornography.

Fergal Rooney is a senior counselling psychologist and co-ordinator of psychological services for healthy relationships and sexuality at Saint John of God Hospital, Stillorgan, Co Dublin. The service will run an evening workshop on building positive relationships on November 19. Phone: 01 2771440.

Irish Independent

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