Pornography's Impact on Married Love
Most Catholic men know it is wrong. Deep down, they know that when they use pornography, they are yielding to their lustful desires and they are sliding into sin. But many of these men, even some of the most well-intentioned of them, have managed to convince themselves that if there is any harm in the use of pornography, that harm is minimal and that it is, at most, only harming themselves. Because the use of pornography is so often a hidden behavior, they tend to think of it as an individual sin, one that is private and whose consequences are personal. But the fact of the matter is that participating in pornography is anything but private and personal. Even if done alone, it is a communal sin, and worse yet, it is a sin against the most intimate of communal partners one's spouse.
A good example of the communal nature of this sin can be captured in the marriage of a close friend of mine. Todd had dated many women as a young man and when he was 24 he began to date the love of his life. He and that woman who had captured his heart, Kristi, have now been married for almost 18 years.
One night as Todd and I were talking, I commented to him how impressed I was that he and Kristi had remained so close over all these years. I told him that I was especially impressed by the fact that he still admired Kristi physically. Whether I saw the two of them together or whether Todd was simply talking about Kristi when she wasn't there, it was obvious that she was still "very hot" in his eyes.
I was taken aback by Todd's response. The first thing he said was (and this part wasn't all that surprising): "I think we had better grab a couple more beers before we start talking about this one." At that point Todd proceeded to tell me the story behind the fact that he really did find his wife very attractive.
"About 10 years ago I was on a family vacation with Kristi and our children and a song came on the radio. The words of the song went something like this: "Yes, my darling, you look wonderful tonight." And as I looked over at Kristi, I realized that I would have a difficult time singing these words to her this woman who had been so beautiful, so alluring, had now become physically boring and unattractive."
At this point, Todd stopped to gather himself. It was clear that this was not an easy thing for him to talk about. He proceeded to tell me how after that day in the car, he began to think seriously about why he no longer found Kristi as beautiful as he once did. Had she really changed all that much? And he had to admit to himself that, no, she was still a very attractive woman.
The marital ravages of pornography
I will never forget what Todd told me next. He said, "John, when I was a young man, I had dabbled in some pornography, but I stopped when I started dating Kristi she didn't like it, and besides, I didn't need it. But after we had been married a few years, I ended up going back to the pornography.
"It started one night when I was up late working on the computer and I stumbled across a website. Well, to make a long story short, I started to use pornography more and more often. I guess deep down I knew it wasn't right, but I kept telling myself that it wasn't hurting anyone, at least no one but maybe me.
"And then it happened. One night a couple weeks after our family vacation, Kristi found me at the computer with the pornography. To say she was upset would be putting it mildly let's just say we did not sleep in the same room for several nights . . . Kristi informed me that I could sleep with my computer! Well, I had a lot of time to reflect on what was happening to my marriage. I started to think seriously about how the love, respect, and desire I had felt for Kristi was slipping away."
Pornography and married love: What the research has to say
Todd and I talked for a long time that night, and as we talked, I made it clear to him that what had happened to his affection for Kristi was not unusual or surprising it's going to happen in those marriages where men use pornography. What Todd was finding out the hard way (through personal experience) has been verified in numerous research studies when men expose themselves to physically attractive pornographic women, they begin to find their partners less beautiful and they slowly become less satisfied with them.
This particular avenue of research began back in the late 1970s, and it initially consisted of studies in which men were shown pictures and movies of beautiful women and were then asked to judge the attractiveness of other women. What the researchers found was that after viewing these beautiful women, the men's judgments of the attractiveness of other women were more negative. This was termed "the contrast effect" in contrast to beautiful women, other women will pale by comparison and will end up being evaluated more negatively.1
Subsequent investigations of this contrast effect have used pictures of physically attractive women as well as popular erotica. Researchers have found that after repeated exposure to such materials: men judged their wives as less satisfying, they reported that they felt less love for their wives, they rated their partners as having less sexual appeal, they reported lower commitment to their wives, and they judged their partners as less attractive and less desirable.2
A vocation to love
Todd told me that he struggled for some time with the reality of what pornography was doing to his marriage. As he put it: "I thought about it a lot. I obviously knew that Kristi didn't like it, but more importantly, I slowly came to realize that it was sucking the life (and the love) out of our marriage. I knew I needed to give it up, but whenever I tried, I found that it had more of a hold on me than I thought.
"But I knew what I needed to do and I was determined to do it. I ended up going to confession and the priest was so understanding and supportive that I ended up seeing him on a regular basis. As it turns out, his ongoing direction and encouragement were invaluable. At his suggestion, I placed a copy of the Memorare up in the corner of the computer screen. I began to pray and to fast that I could give up the pornography, and more regularly than ever before I began to participate in the sacrament of reconciliation and to receive the Eucharist (several times a week). And, you know, I haven't used pornography now for over five years. It took a while, but that affection for Kristi slowly returned and now it is better than ever. She is one beautiful and sexy woman. She's the only one I need and she's the only one I want."
A trespass against love
A few years ago I was giving a talk in a parish in Minneapolis and during the talk a woman in the audience asked a very personal question. She said: "My husband uses pornography on a regular basis and over the past couple of years he has started to criticize my appearance and he has become more and more dissatisfied with our sex life. Is it possible that these things are related to his use of pornography?"
As this woman spoke, two things occurred to me. First, it was obvious that there was nothing wrong with her appearance by any objective standard, she was an attractive woman. Secondly, I was struck by the fact that she must have been quite desperate; after all, she had asked such a personal question in a large room full of people.
And as I walked away that night, I found myself reflecting on the reality of pornography. I thought about its trespass against the sixth commandment, but even more, I thought about its trespass against love. The promise that was given on the wedding day "I will love you and honor you all the days of my life" is betrayed every time pornography is entertained by a married man or a married woman. It is anything but an individual sin, and its consequences are anything but private. Is it any wonder that marriage and family counselors are more and more frequently finding themselves working with marriages that have been riddled by the use of pornography?
- Kenrick, D. T., & Gutierres, S. E. (1980). Contrast effects and judgments of physical attractiveness: When beauty becomes a social problem. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 38, 131-140.
- Melamed, L., & Moss, M. K. (1975). The effect of context on ratings of attractiveness of photographs. Journal of Psychology, 90, 129-136.
- Bergner, R. M., & Bridges, A. J. (2002). The significance of heavy pornography involvement for romantic partners: Research and clinical implications. Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy, 28, 193-206.
- Gutierres, S. E., Kenrick, D. T., & Partch, J. J. (1999). Beauty, dominance, and the mating game: Contrast effects in self-assessment reflect gender differences. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 25, 1126-1134.
- Kenrick, D. T., Gutierres, S. E., & Goldberg, L. L. (1989). Influence of popular erotica on judgments of strangers and mates. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 25, 159-167.
- Kenrick, D. T., Neuberg, S. L., Zierk, K. L., & Krones, J. M. (1994). Evolution and social cognition: Contrast effects as a function of sex, dominance, and physical attractiveness. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 20, 210-217.
- Malamuth, N. M. (1984). Aggression against women: Cultural and individual causes. In N. M. Malamuth & E. Donnerstein (Eds.), Pornography and sexual aggression (pp. 19-52). Orlando, FL: Academic Press.
- Schneider, J. P. (2000). Effects of cybersex addiction on the family. Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity, 7, 31-58.
- Weaver, J. B., Masland, J. L., & Zillman, D. (1984). Effect of erotica on young men's aesthetic perception of their female sexual partners. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 58, 929-930.
- Zillman, D., & Bryant, J. (1988). Effects of prolonged consumption of pornography on family values. Journal of Family Issues, 9, 518-544.
- Zillman, D., & Bryant, J. (1988). Pornography's impact on sexual satisfaction. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 18, 438-453.
Dr. John Buri is a professor at the University of St. Thomas in Saint Paul, Minnesota, where he has been teaching in the Psychology Department for over 30 years. For the past several years, Dr. Buri has been active in archdiocesan marriage preparation in the Twin Cities. Portions of this article have come from his recently published book How To Love Your Wife. Dr. Buri has been married for 34 years and he and his wife have six children.
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