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Perspective: Husband on porn, wife on Prozac

Secret pornography use has an impact on marriages, even when not spoken about openly

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Zoë Petersen, Deseret News

Austin felt bad again. Every time he turned to pornography, it left him hollowed out and sad.    

But he didn’t know how to talk about it with Carrie. It devastated his wife the first time she found out, and whenever he or she would bring it up in a glancing way, it seemed to make things worse. 

So he’s been keeping things to himself and doing his best to be available to his family. Austin rationalizes his secrecy by telling himself, “what she doesn’t know won’t hurt her,” even though the problem is becoming increasingly unmanageable — crescendoing since his first exposure in his youth.  

No matter what he does to “protect her feelings,” he notices in the days that follow there is a pattern. His wife is hit with a wave of painful emotion despite his efforts to keep his acting out a secret. Even though she isn’t fully aware of what’s happening, her body, heart and spirit seem to sense the truth. Her gut knows. 

Busy raising three young children, Carrie struggles to pay attention to anything extra, let alone vague gut jabs. Yet in quiet moments, she dreads what this dissonance could mean or reveal (again). So, she soldiers on. As her depression gets worse, she puts on a brave face and doesn’t tell anyone except her family physician.

Medication may soften the corners of her depression, but it can’t and won’t resolve it without deeper attention to the associated trauma. Carrie’s depression is a natural response to a larger problem. 

Austin simultaneously spirals into hopelessness, along with a strong desire to withdraw from everything. Distorted thoughts get amplified in this relative isolation: “Why can’t I stop this? What is wrong with me? No one would love me if they knew.” But he always reassures himself, “Tomorrow I will stop.”

But that doesn’t happen. The pattern continues, despite growing negative consequences for himself and his family. Austin even notices his children having nightmares on the evenings he acts out. Yet his secretiveness confuses more than just his spouse — it creates fertile ground for toxic accusations to take hold: “Carrie’s so depressed all the time. Maybe we’re just wrong for each other?” He forgets that Carrie was happy and outgoing prior to discovering his pornography use. 

In this isolated state of rumination, should we be surprised that despair keeps escalating for both of them? (a composite of experiences we have observed). 

She feels crazy. He feels out of control. Both feel scared and stuck.

Worsening the downward spiral

And they are stuck. Not just in behavioral patterns, but in relational, spiritual and psychological ones too. The insidious cycle can take on a life of its own without a closer examination of various parts that might be involved — unresolved trauma, developmental immaturity, isolation, denial, minimization, poor communication and hyper-autonomy. 

Despite these overlapping challenges, healing is possible. We’ve seen it. 

But first thing’s first: No matter what challenges their marriage is facing, Carrie is not responsible for Austin’s pornography use. He brought this compulsive behavior into the marriage and has continued turning to this as his drug of choice. Yet rather than take responsibility, Austin has tragically begun to blame Carrie for his choices. 

Compounding the situation, Austin has heard from a well-intentioned faith leader recently that pornography is “rarely addictive.” Friends have also insisted pornography use is “normal” and that he should feel less shame about it. So, why does Carrie get so upset about it and make a big deal out of it?

Austin has concluded he wouldn’t “need” to turn to pornography if Carrie appreciated him more. Sadly, he’s become blind to how his own behavior is making him increasingly hard to live with, as he’s become narcissistic and even abusive at times. 

Sadly, the risk of this couple separating or divorcing is mounting quickly. Several studies over the last 20 years have shown a strong correlation between both compulsive and noncompulsive pornography use and heightened risk of divorce. 

Recognizing the true scope

Carrie and Austin are far from alone, and compulsive sexual behavior disorder, which can include compulsive pornography use, is anything but rare. In 2018, The Journal of the American Medical Association published a study entitled, “Prevalence of Distress Associated With Difficulty Controlling Sexual Urges, Feelings, and Behaviors in the United States.” This study draws upon the National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior, the nation’s largest nationally representative survey of its kind. Based on 2,325 adults between the ages of 18 and 50 who were randomly sampled from all 50 states, researchers found that approximately 8.6% of adults (10% of men and 7% of women) met the criteria for clinical levels of distress and/or impairment. In light of current U.S. population figures, this means approximately 22.2 million American adults deal with a clinical issue, reflecting a prevalence rate of 1 in 11.6 adults. 

Does that sound like something that is “rare”?  For context, the Rare Diseases Act of the 2002 U.S. Congress defines rare disease as “any disease or condition that affects fewer than 200,000 people in the United States,” or in other words, 1 in 1,500 people. 

This is why honesty about the scope of this problem is so important — both collectively, and individually. According to experts in the recovery field, Austin needs to be willing to demonstrate rigorous honesty with those around him in order to heal.

This needs to be done with sensitivity, since messy sharing can be overwhelming for a relationship. With qualified support, disclosures can be done in a structured and therapeutic way. Being fully honest will help strengthen the “brakes” of his brain and help him forge more authentic connections with others, which will help him stay not only sober, but emotionally and spiritually well.

But Austin’s is not the only problem needing attention. Betrayal trauma associated with secretive sexual behavior is real and serious. A 2006 study revealed that 70% of those who had experienced sexual betrayal in their relationship met the criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder, with 48% experiencing moderate to severe symptoms, and 72% facing a severe level of impairment in their lives. Additionally, a 2016 study of 8,669 sexually betrayed partners confirmed that Internet pornography was the No. 1 way in which significant others are betrayed. Betrayal trauma is also associated with more physical illness, anxiety, dissociation and depression than other kinds of trauma involving little to no betrayal. 

Even so, Carrie will likely face more misunderstanding when she reaches out for help than those who have dealt with violent crime or natural disasters. Some betrayed individuals themselves shy away from professional support believing “he is the one who needs help!” Yet Carrie is not merely a “tool” in Austin’s recovery and has her own healing that needs direct attention. If we view betrayal trauma as an injury versus an illness, it is easier to comprehend why a betrayed individual deserves and needs help. If Carrie was a passenger in a serious car accident, her need for qualified care would exist even though she didn’t cause the accident.

For his own part, Austin will need to embark on a deeper journey than just “stopping this habit” — looking at the broader picture of his life and being willing to rework his relationship to many things, including sexuality and spirituality. He must also confront the fact that repairing his relationship and healing his brain won’t happen until he learns the necessary tools to stop consuming pornography and to make Carrie his primary relationship. Learning about his triggers and other influences tied to his compulsive cycle is what qualified supports and a 12-step program can help him appreciate. Since a significant percentage of those dealing with compulsive sexual behavior disorder also suffer from at least one other mental health condition, it can be critical to get proper assessment and support for these issues.

As Austin makes progress, it will be helpful for Carrie to establish emotional, physical, sexual and spiritual safety by setting effective boundaries. She simultaneously needs to take excellent care of herself, and identify manageable action steps with the assistance of her own supportive network, including possible individual therapy, group therapy and betrayal-trauma-focused 12-step meetings. Research has shown that connection with others is consistently a key contributor to healing from betrayal trauma. 

No doubt, both of them could greatly benefit from professional help, especially if that help is qualified to treat the underlying issues driving the compulsive sexual behavior and betrayal trauma

If Austin and Carrie choose to get help, they may initially feel overwhelmed by what that will entail. But as they move forward in recovery and healing, they can take heart that it will open up an infinitely better quality of life, marital relationship, and family culture than what they have previously been able to achieve on their own. 

As one of our colleagues in recovery, Vinny B., likes to say, “if people knew how great recovery was, they’d put on their track shoes and race to get there.” 

Is it time for you or someone you love to put on those track shoes, too?

Jacob Hess received his doctorate in clinical-community psychology. His recent book with Carrie Skarda, Kyle Anderson, and Ty Mansfield, is “The Power of Stillness: Mindful Living for Latter-day Saints.”

Jill Manning is a licensed marital and family therapist and certified clinical partner specialist in Colorado who specializes in supporting individuals who have been sexually betrayed through infidelity or compulsive sexual behavior. She is a former Social Science Fellow at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., and while in this role testified before a U.S. Senate subcommittee about the harms of pornography on the family.