Pornography is an avoidance issue. There are some who believe that using pornography is about sex. I have had clients tell me over the years that, ‘I used to use porn, but that was just because we weren’t having sex. It was just a sex thing’. Many clients believe that this is the case. It is important to note that this simply is not true.
Pornography use releases dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is designed to feel good and help reward us for certain behaviors. Riding a bike, looking at a sunset, getting a good grade, eating good food – are all among the things that might release dopamine. Masturbation and orgasm release dopamine as well. When you use pornography, which is usually accompanied by masturbation and orgasm, you release more dopamine that your body is designed to take and it feels really good. People often use pornography when they are sad, tired, hungry, bored, etc… When these two things are paired, for example – being bored and then feeling better through dopamine through pornography use, an attachment is made. In the future, your body remembers that it can not feel bored if it uses pornography and gets dopamine. This then happens again and again and an addiction to avoiding boredom (or insert another uncomfortable emotion) is born.
Even if pornography use seems to be paired with not getting sex from your spouse, its still more about the loneliness you feel because of a lack of sex than the actual sex. You use because you are lonely, not because you are undersexed.
In therapy, a counselor who understands these principles will help you to build your emotional muscles so that you are not avoiding uncomfortable emotions. Rather, they will help you embrace them.
Anger is a secondary emotion. A secondary emotion is one that covers up what you are really feeling. For example, if you are feeling hurt because of a recent break up with a significant other, it’s easy to also feel angry. Anger, a secondary emotion, comes along and covers up that hurt, the primary emotion. This often happens because when you are breaking up with a significant other there is a part of you that is afraid of being hurt more than you already have. So instead of going to them and telling them, ‘I’m really hurt and sad that we are breaking up’, you might get angry and post something mean about them on social media, or talk badly about them to your friends. This is in an effort to protect yourself from getting hurt more than you have been. If I share my hurt with them they could hurt me even more because I am vulnerable. So, you are acting angry, but what you are really feeling is hurt. The trick is to notice when you are angry and ask yourself, ‘What am I really feeling?’. Because it’s not anger. Then you will be able to find out what is really going on, emotionally (which can be very different from what you are thinking). Knowing what you are feeling allows you to deal with the pain instead of pushing it down or aside and having it blow up later in an unhealthy manner. Pick up the hurt and feel it. Then you will be able to do something with it that is healthy.
When it comes to your relationship problems, early intervention is best – however, intervention at any point can still be helpful. Many couples come to therapy years after they probably needed to in the first place. I find that when couples wait it is more difficult to make changes and a lot of damage is done or at least unhealthy patterns already set. I often hear from each spouse that they have been struggling for decades. We work in therapy to undo patterns and habits that have been formed over long periods of time. It is possible to change the ways that couples interact. The sad thing about it is that they have lost a lot of time and also grieve for what could have been if they had sought help earlier. Some souses wait until their partner is ready to go to counseling. This can often be difficult as well because it keeps the willing spouse out of getting help they need – at least individually. My suggestion in this case, when one spouse is willing and the other is not, is for the willing partner to start their own therapy and hopefully the other will join. At least one partner is getting help. Eventually, the other might join. No need to wait, however, to start getting the help you need.
Triston Morgan is a couples counselor in Orem, Utah. He is a PhD, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and has been helping couples heal for close to two decades.
I use Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy in my practice. This is a technique most commonly associated, and developed by, Susan Johnson. One of the things I love most about this approach is that it is here-and-now focused. We deal with what is coming up in the moment. It is geared towards helping couples have successful, even though sometimes painful, experiences in therapy rather than simply teaching them a set of principles to try out at home. As a couple’s counselor, I work to develop couple’s ability to communicate on a deeper and genuine level. Some couples, for example, will say to me, “I’m mad that he keeps putting me off for work”. Using the EFT approach, I will help them recognize that there is more than just being mad at play in this situation. There is, perhaps, hurt or betrayal. Its difficult for couples to share the latter because of how vulnerable it makes them. In a situation where they are already being hurt, it’s difficult to open up and talk about the their emotions because they could be hurt even more. Rather, its seemingly easier, and with an illusion of protection, they will talk to their spouse through anger. Getting down to the hurt and what is really going on is crucial. Creating emotional safety in the relationship is important as it allows each partner to be vulnerable and exposed emotionally. It takes more than simple validation and reflecting. This is something a couple’s counselor can help you with.
Written by Triston Morgan PhD, LMFT
Couples Counselor in Orem, Utah
Anxiety is a problem most of us face at some point or another. It isn’t a question of ‘if’ we will experience it, but ‘when’. Anxiety comes in many forms. It can be difficult to cope with when it is severe and difficult to detect when it is mild. There is a situation when anxiety is actually covering up, and is a reaction to, other emotions. Let’s talk about how and when that is the case. There are primary emotions and secondary emotions. Primary emotions are our natural emotions to a situation. For example, feeling sad when you get a divorce is a primary emotion. In this example, you might also feel other emotions such as hurt, fear, confusion, betrayal, desperation, abandonment, despair, hopelessness, overwhelmed, etc. When these other emotions, in addition to feeling sad, become too much, a secondary emotion can come in to take the role of blanketing them so that you distance yourself or numb yourself from them. It covers them up so that you don’t see them and seemingly don’t have to deal with them. Anger is a good example of a secondary emotion. Anxiety, at times, can be, but isn’t necessarily always, a secondary emotion as well. When you are feeling all of those things, anxiety can come and make you buzz so you don’t feel them. In this case, it is secondary to what is actually going on. The trick, then, is to ask yourself, ‘what am I really feeling’ and recognize, feel and cope with your primary emotions. Dealing with anxiety alone won’t be enough as it isn’t the root of what is going on.
Pornography is often mistaken as a ‘sex addiction’. Some have said to me that, ‘If me and my wife just had sex more, pornography wouldn’t be an issue’. This is a myth and false. It has less to do with frequency of intercourse and more to do with the emotions behind so many things. Pornography temporarily numbs someone from feeling uncomfortable emotions. It keeps them from feeling what is really going on in their life. It helps them avoid. For example, feeling rejected, alone and unseen is uncomfortable. Most people don’t want to feel these types of emotion’s so they try to avoid them. They might recognize that those emotions are present, but their main goal then becomes to get rid of them without first picking them up and experiencing them. The only way to do this is to numb yourself. You can’t move something that you first don’t have. You have to pick up the emotion if you are going to do something with it. That act is counterintuitive and difficult. Pornography is one way that people avoid feeling what is right there in their lives. It numbs them from feeling rejected, alone or unseen. But those emotions don’t go away, however. They get buried and still influence us. Learning to feel uncomfortable emotions and increasing your emotional capacity is part of the solution to addiction to pornography. Simply stopping using pornography isn’t enough to maintain a healthier lifestyle. Moving pornography out of the way only serves as a move towards creating more space to feel your emotions and therefore increase your emotional capacity.
I once had a client who told me that they had done everything, but that they still struggled with pornography use. They described how they had been to counseling, gone to 12-step meetings, talked with their church leaders and even friends and family. He described feeling completely stuck and lost at how to fix what he thought was a big problem in his life. When I asked him about what else he was involved in he didn’t say much. I asked if he were dating anyone or involved in sports or anything fun at school. He wasn’t. It seemed that he was putting his life on hold until he got rid of pornography. After speaking to him more it looked like he didn’t not feel worthy to enjoy anything because of the shame he felt because of his use.
At this point we had a lot of work to do. What I said to him next surprised him – I told him that I want him to do more of what he loves in life. I explored with him what he would be doing if he felt worthy to be happy and do fun things. I encouraged him to do these things whether he felt worthy or not. It was a difficult shift for him because he had bought into the traditional method of behavior change – which is to withhold something or to punish someone into changing. This doesn’t work.
As he started to engage in life he felt strange and as if he were saying that he was ok with his pornography use. I told him that he can still hate his pornography use, but that he still deserved to be happy. This gave him freedom to enjoy things again. Eventually, after a lot of hard work, he started to realize that his life did not have to be defined by his pornography use – that he could still enjoy life and be happy while trying to let go of something he didn’t want.
Many clients get to this point, but not without help.
After a decade and a half of doing couples therapy, I have found some common themes that are worth sharing. First, couples that seem to do well in treatment and in their relationship are committed to the relationship. This means that they are invested and locked-in (self-imposed). Second, they are humble. This means they are willing to learn and be taught. We can’t expect to know everything about our spouse’s needs. The minute we believe that we do, we put ourselves in a position to get stuck in our marriage.
I once worked with a couple who were going through trust issues. There had been pornography use and an affair. They seemed to struggle finding a way to trust each other and repair the damage that had done. As they embraced humility, however, over time they found the connection and healing they were looking for. It took the husband admitting that he had a problem to pornography and seeing how he had hurt his wife. This is difficult to do and a necessary step in the process. It also took humility for the wife to want to try again with her husband. She had to learn a new way of connecting with him so that he felt taken care of as well.
Someone once told me that when they finally got rid of pornography in their life, that they would ‘miss it’. This is common for those struggling with this problem. The reason that this is is because you form an attachment with pornography. It is there for you when you are struggling with stress or problems in your relationships. It is there when you are bored or lonely. It gives you a powerful reinforcer when you use it. However, the aftermath of shame is so powerful ,that you are often left thinking – why did I do this again. I promised that I would never do it after the last time. This shame often leads you to use again, ironically.
Overcoming pornography isn’t something that you can do alone. Many individuals will go through a cycle of using and then making a firm determination to ‘never do it again’. Unfortunately, this isn’t enough and many people become frustrated because of this seemingly never-ending pattern. Its important to include family members, friends support groups and professionals into your recovery so that you have the tools and support necessary to deal with this powerful behavior.
Every now and then, most of us feel down or blue – this is different than depression. Situational sadness comes and goes with whatever is getting us down. For example, if you don’t get recognized for something you worked hard at, you will probably feel sad. After time, your sadness will start to disappear. It isn’t as sad over time. This is situational. Depression, on the other hand, seems to last beyond these events. Even when something potentially sad has come and gone and if there is seemingly no reason to feel sad, you still might feel sad. This can especially be true in the winter. The days are shorter and colder. This causes most of us to stop moving as much, and to stay inside. We then lack exercise and sun light. On top of that, with the Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s, we tend to eat food that isn’t as healthy. We eat more sugar. This all contributes to feeling sad when we don’t seem to have anything to be sad about. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is what happens to many people during the winter months. Most people don’t realize they have this type of problem, they just think that they are down or blue. It is more than just having the ‘winter blues’. It impedes you in your daily life and interferes with your functioning. Recognizing that you have SAD will help you know what to do to overcome and let go of it. Some of the symptoms include: feeling sad, losing interest once enjoyed, change in appetite, change in sleep (usually sleeping more), loss of energy, restless activity, feeling worthless or guilty, trouble making decisions, and thoughts of suicide or death. If you think you might have this type of depression talk with a therapist today.