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.
Many couples that come in to see me for counseling are dealing with the devastating effects of an affair or infidelity. There is a process that usually happens as things unfold. For the sake of this article, I will assume that it is the male partner who has had the affair, although this certainly is not always the case. When couples come in they are still, often, in the discovery phase. She is continuing to learn about what he has done or at the least she worries and fears that there is more than what she knows. He seems contrite and sorry to a degree and willing to go to therapy. After talking, it usually seems that there is more to it that what has been discovered or disclosed. Sometimes for women, they are having a hard time dealing with the shock and betrayal. I notice at this time that they are also dealing with fear of losing him. For some women they seem as if they are mad, hurt and afraid. That fear keeps them from really sharing their feelings about what has happened. There can be desperation at this point too. Sometimes they try to win or keep their husband because they realize that he has gone out and has been with or still is with someone else. There is an element of competition, perhaps. This can be very difficult because to her, it seems as if she isn’t able to fully embrace and share her feelings because if she did, he would get upset and leave for good. Over time, he gradually, as my experience with couples has shown, opens up more and shares more details about what he has done or is doing. As the couple works through therapy, it becomes safer to talk about these emotions and she does. For male partner, this can be surprising, and he often states that ‘I thought we were doing fine, where did this come from?’. This is because she hasn’t felt safe enough with him to share it before, but after working through some of the issue they face, she has felt more secure and stable in the relationship – so she shares more of the hurt or betrayal that she is feeling because she isn’t afraid that it will end their relationship. It’s important to understand that this is a normal part of the process of healing. A good couple’s therapist will be able to help a couple navigate the different stages of healing after an affair.
I’m currently accepting new clients in my Orem Utah counseling center office. Call me at 801-215-9581
Written by Dr Triston Morgan, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist
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.
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.
Couples often come into therapy for ‘communication problems’. As a therapist for the last decade, I have found that this means many things – depression, anxiety, affairs, pornography use, among other issues. Outside of Utah County, pornography use seems to be more acceptable, or at least, less talked about as an issue. Is use in other locations less, or merely seen differently? When I speak with couples, this is something that is very painful and difficult to understand and overcome. There is a tremendous amount of shame associated with use. As we work in counseling to overcome the addictive cycle, the spouse who is using has to learn to attach to their partner instead pornography. This attachment is key to recovery and future success in a relationship. John Bowlby, an early psychologist, helped define attachment theory over his career. He found that they attachment between a child and a parent is crucial to the child’s development. Likewise, the attachment between partners is also crucial. When couples are able to create a safe base or a safe haven, as Susan Johnson references in her Emotionally Focused Therapy work, they are able to be genuine and transparent with each other. They are able to show their imperfections to each other and be vulnerable and exposed because they know their spouse will accept and love them. This process is crucial to working with couples counseling for pornography use.
Effective pornography treatment often includes family members. As I have worked with hundreds of individuals struggling with pornography use over the years, I have found that those who have loving, supportive family members often have better outcomes. For example, couples therapy is often a good place for you to learn how to connect with others instead of checking out or numbing through pornography use. This is a difficult thing to do because your spouse is someone who has the power to reject you in a way that can really hurt. It is hard to be vulnerable in these circumstances because of this fear of being hurt or rejected. It is also difficult because you are also working to heal the pain your spouse feels because of your pornography use.
One thing that you need is someone to be a ‘real’ person to you. Pornography is a fantasy world where there are no consequences and where other people’s emotions don’t matter. This is why couples therapy is so important – your spouse becomes more real to you as you let her describe and share her pain with you. She becomes more real to you as she is someone who your actions impact. She becomes more real to you as her experience is just as important as yours. A husband can turn their wife into pornography by not letting her be real – discounting her experience and not asking to hear it. A wife, inadvertently, can turn herself into pornography for her husband by thinking that she doesn’t want to stress her husband out by telling him about her feelings and therefore doesn’t say anything even though she is hurting.
Consider the impact that working with your spouse can have on your recovery from pornography use. As difficult as it is to face these issues, it’s a crucial part of your progress.
Pornography use often leaves the user feeling empty and shameful. To deal with this shame of using in the first place, they might actually use pornography again to numb themselves. This vicious cycle is played out within minutes of each other or within days, even weeks of each other.
I am often asked by spouses of pornography users one simple and somewhat complex question, “Why can’t they just stop using?” They tell me that they know that their spouse see’s how it hurts them and how it is ruining their lives and relationships. After a husband talks about his remorse about using pornography, a wife will often follow up with, “Then just stop it”. It isn’t this simple, however. Studies have shown the impact that pornography use has on an individual’s brain chemistry. Some would say that the brain and the person become hijacked – causing them to act in ways that they wouldn’t normally act. This is the same phenomenon that would cause a grandson to steal his grandmothers wedding ring to sell for drugs. You are not yourself, seemingly. The cycle of pornography use doesn’t make sense to those who are in it and doesn’t make sense to their loved ones.
Fight the New Drug is an organization who educates the public on the harmful effects of pornography. You will find a lot of good resources to understand this addiction. Strangely enough, it is somewhat a controversial addition. It is not included in the DSM-V (the big book of mental health disorders decided on by experts throughout the country). Educate yourself so that you can make a little more sense of it. A good counselor will also be able to help you understand the nature of this addiction as they work with you and your loved one. As a therapist in Provo Utah, I often see clients in these situations. I have several colleagues at the Center for Couples and Families that are experts in this area of treatment as well.
Secrets fuel addiction. As I’ve mentioned before in previous posts, addictions, such as pornography addictions, are a shame based experience. This means that when someone uses pornography they feel as if they are a bad person, rather than feeling that they are a good person despite making a mistake. When someone feels shame, they often compartmentalize what they have done – they hid it and separate it from who they think they really are, or, think that that mistake totally defines who they really are.
This is where secrets come into play. Over time, a man (or woman – I’ve worked with both in therapy for pornography issues) who has been using pornography and feeling shame because of it will gather many secrets. He won’t want to tell anyone what he is doing, or won’t want to tell them all that he is doing. He might only present the best parts of himself or just tell enough about his mistakes to others to appease them or to feel like he is being open. But, in fact, he is keeping secrets. These secrets start to bury him and make him feel more shame. They take effort to maintain and keep hidden. They cause him stress and to feel disconnected from others. All of these things can lead to more addictive acting out.
Being transparent is key. This, in part, is why in the 12-step model of recovery (for alcohol, sexual addiction or substance addiction) addicts are asked to write a fearless moral inventory and to share it. Being open with others can feel uncomfortable and embarrassing. Many would say, “It’s in the past – let it stay there” or, “I don’t want to hurt her, so I’m not going to tell her about it”. These mindsets only make things worse for someone using pornography and their spouse/family. Telling others and being transparent is on the path towards recovery.
Pornography counseling offers a venue to be transparent and honest with yourself and with your loved ones. A good therapist will help you through this process in a way that might be painful, but certainly not shameful.
Family therapy is an effective way to deal with problems regarding adolescents, parenting, addiction, depression, anxiety and much more. When a mother and father bring in their 15-year-old son because he is drinking, using drugs, has a bad attitude, is failing out of school and is involved in risky behavior – I ask the parents to participate in counseling with him to be a part of the solution. The relationship between mom and dad, the relationship between mom and son and the relationship between dad and son matter in regard to this young man’s healthy life style choices. As a therapist of adolescents for over a decade now, I have found that more often than not, when success happens for adolescents in therapy it is accompanied with a mom and dad who are involved and willing.
Most adolescents don’t want to do counseling. They often make excuses and say that they don’t want to follow the rules and that f their parents loved them that they wouldn’t give them a curfew. The ironic thing is that children push back against boundaries and rules, but thrive within them. They need them to feel safe and loved. They often test the boundaries to see if mom and dad are there and if they care. Its hard to tell, however, because they say that they don’t want their parents to tell them what to do.
One of the developmental tasks of adolescence is to learn how to become your own individual while still remaining a part of a group (i.e., a family, church or school). It often feels like trying to mix oil and water for teenagers in this position. Learning that they don’t have to do the opposite of what their parents say in order to be independent or their own individual is key. Rather, following the family rules and making choices on their own that are complimentary help them develop their sense of being their own person.
One of the developmental tasks of parenthood is learning how to parent a child differently as they grow. Parenting a 5 year old is different than parenting a 15 year old. I see, however, many parents not making this transition and feeling stuck with their adolescent. They hover over their teenager, for example, in an effort to not let them make mistakes. Its ok for teenagers to make mistakes. Parents don’t have to (and can’t!) protect them from all of life misfortunes. Teenagers need space to make mistakes and have an open relationship with their parents to talk about them.
So, if you are a parent struggling with a teenager remember that changing your parenting style to match their age matters. Engaging in therapy, when needed, can help you and your child become healthy and happy.
Couples counseling, if done right, is ‘husband friendly’. Most couples come into therapy because the wife seeks help, sets up an appointment and convinces her husband to go with her. He often feels as if he is forced into the session and as if he is the bad guy. He might think that the therapist is going to be on his wife’s side and that together, his wife and the therapist, are going to tell him what he needs to change.
Effective couples counseling couldn’t be further from this scenario. In couple’s therapy, a therapist will see the problem as something the husband and wife can fight together. The problem isn’t the wife and it’s not the husband – it’s the way that they have been going about their relationship. This is something the couple can work on changing without blaming each other. Couples often fall into the trap of thinking that their spouse is to blame for their relationship issues. They believe that if their spouse would just stop (fill in the blank) that they would be happy and have no problems. Thinking this way leads to frustration and disappointment. It takes courage and honesty to look at yourself and what you can change to make your marriage work.
In couples therapy a seasoned therapist will ask questions about the couple’s relationship patterns, not about who’s fault it is that they are there. They will talk about how they are talking with each other, what they are talking about, what they are not talking about, etc. Understanding these relationship patterns is one of the first steps to effective counseling. As soon as the coupe can get on the same team to fight against these unhealthy patterns that they have slipped into as a partnership, then they can work on identifying their underlying emotional needs and potential injuries. This is where great work happens as partners identify and express their emotional need and positions in a way that invites healing, connection and safety.