What to Do When Your Spouse
Has an Addiction to Pornography
Introduction: The topic of this week's column, addiction to pornography, is
very similar to alcohol addiction, a topic I covered two weeks ago. Both of them represent
a condition that makes compliance with the Policy of Joint
Agreement almost impossible. And for that reason alone, it ruins marriages.
There are as many forms of sexual addiction as there are ways to have sex. They range all
the way from masturbating to pornographic magazines and videos to breaking into
apartments and raping unsuspecting residents. But they all have one thing in common --
in each case, sex is more important than the feelings of others.
For a few years I treated some of the illegal but non-violent forms of sexual addiction, such
as peeping toms, flashers (men who exposed their genitals in public) and those who made
obscene telephone calls (several were women). It was not too difficult to prove that these
forms of sexual pleasure were inappropriate, because the victims would come forward and
have the perpetrators arrested.
But it's more difficult to demonstrate the inappropriateness of some of the private forms
of sexual addiction, such as masturbating to pornography. After all, who could possibly
be hurt by such a private and unobtrusive act? No one, if you're single. But if you're
married, your spouse could be, and usually is, very offended by such behavior.
The first letter I've chosen to post is a good representative of scores of others I've received
from women who want their husbands to stop masturbating to pornography. Then, I
follow it up with a short Q&A on a related subject, pornography as an aid to marital sex.
Dear Dr. Harley,
I am 37 years old and my husband of six years is 45. We have two preschool children.
This is my second marriage, his fourth.
Two days ago I came home to his surprise and discovered him watching a porn video. This
is something he has engaged in from time to time since before our marriage. Historically
I have encouraged him to share this facet of his sexual life with me but he has chosen not
Over the life of our marriage I have seen a steady decrease in the frequency of our sexual
activity until now when we only make love once or twice a month. His enthusiasm for sex
has decreased as well.
Although he always watches the movies in secrecy, I suspect he has been engaging in this
activity at least once a week for the past year. I have discovered him a couple of times
before and told him that it hurts my feelings for him to prefer this activity over taking an
opportunity to make love with me. He assured me that watching the movies was no big
deal to him and if it hurt my feelings he would stop, but he didn't. I have told him that I
would like to have sex more often, and am willing to do just about anything but our sex
life remains unchanged.
This last incident is "the straw that broke the camel's back" - I feel totally undesirable,
depressed, and unwilling to share myself with him sexually and emotionally. I am sure
he resents me infringing upon his "right to privacy," but it's something I cannot tolerate.
His assurance of my attractiveness and his love for me mean nothing after he does these
He put the tapes in the attic and vowed again to make a change, but I do not trust him. I
need a deeper explanation of what is going on and he cannot or will not provide one. It
hurts that he would continue to engage in an activity that hurts me and detracts from our
relationship and I can't help but wonder that if this outlet is taken away from him if he
would resort to something more devastating like having an affair or start utilizing the
Internet to meet his sexual needs.
By the way, out of curiosity I have seen some of the tapes he watches and I don't find
anything perverse or unusual about them. It just seems that he needs something other than
me. I would be most grateful for anything you could provide.
When you were first married, and before you had your children, sex was rather
uncomplicated. You had privacy and a great deal more energy. It isn't surprising that you
and your husband enjoyed a mutually enjoyable sexual relationship with each other.
But now that you have two children, sex probably requires more planning and more
energy. Your husband's use of videos is his way to have his sexual need met while
avoiding all the hassle. His strategy is somewhat effective, since it does lower his sex
drive, and it is certainly more convenient. But it is at your expense.
There are two policies that I encourage couples to follow: The Policy of Radical Honesty and the Policy of Joint Agreement (they are both described in
my Basic Concepts). If you follow them both, you can
resolve almost every marital conflict known to man. But in your husband's effort to solve
his sexual problem, he has not followed either of these rules, and that's why you are so
upset with him.
Your husband has followed the Policy of Radical Honesty to a point. He has let you know about his interest in pornographic videos, and has shared
them with you. But he has not let you know how much he uses them to fulfill his sexual
need. You would not have known about it if you had not discovered his use by coming
home unexpectedly. He has agreed not to use them in the future, but that's something he
had agreed to do several times in the past. He has placed the pornographic videos in a
convenient location -- in your attic. If he had no intention of using them again, he would
have thrown them out.
He has been dishonest with you in the past regarding these videos, and he will probably
continue to be dishonest with you. It's possible that he doesn't believe in the Policy of Radical Honesty. After four marriages, he may have
decided that honesty has done nothing but get him into trouble.
He has also violated the Policy of Joint Agreement
by watching the videos when he knows you are offended by them. From your description,
he seems to agree with the policy when you confront him -- he agrees to not watch them
in the future because it upsets you. But as soon as you leave the house, he doesn't follow
through with his agreement. It could be that he tells you whatever you want to hear so he
can get you off his back. He may not really feel that the Policy of Joint Agreement works in marriage, because
it prevents him from doing what he wants to do.
But there's another explanation for all of this. It could be that he is addicted to
If you have found that your husband follows the Policy of Radical Honesty and the Policy of Joint Agreement
in every area of his life except sex, he probably has a sexual addiction. A test of this
premise is to simply ask him how he feels about these two rules. If he knows that he
should be completely honest with you, and wants to consider your feelings in every
decision he makes, then he could have an addiction that overrides his willingness to follow
these rules. In other words, he can't use the rules to guide his sexual conduct because he
Quite frankly, if he doesn't believe in either the Policy of Radical Honesty or the Policy of Joint Agreement, there
is no point in discovering whether or not his problem is addiction. If he will not be honest
or take your feelings into account, your marriage will end up being his fourth in a long list
of marriages. In that case, your only hope of saving your marriage is trying to convince
him that both rules are essential to your future as husband and wife.
But I will assume that your husband really does want to be honest with you, and he does
want to take your feelings into account when he makes decisions. He knows that his
behavior upsets you, and wants to stop doing it, but can't, regardless of how unhappy it
makes you feel. In other words, I will assume he is a sexual addict.
Let me review your situation once more, and consider some of your alternative solutions.
Your husband probably masturbates a lot more than you think. It may be several times
a week. That would account for his decreasing sexual interest in you. If he were not to
masturbate at all, I'm certain he would want to have sex with you more often. But he has
become so addicted to pornographic videos, that he can't resist them. And he uses them
whenever he gets a chance.
You are considering the possibility of trying to adjust to it because, if you don't, he may
choose something even worse, like infidelity or cybersex.
And you also offer to do "just about anything" to motivate him to have sex exclusively with
you. That probably means that you might be willing to engage in sex acts with him that
would be unpleasant for you just to have him all to yourself.
Neither of those two alternatives will work. The alternative of adjustment won't work
because his masturbating to videos has always upset you, and will continue to upset you.
Do you really think that eventually you will get used to it? The truth is, you will continue
to be upset until so many love units are withdrawn that you will not love him any more.
It's already happening to you. You admit that you no longer feel like sharing yourself with
him emotionally or physically. That's just the beginning.
Regarding your second alternative, giving him whatever he wants whenever he has sex
with you, that won't work either. His sexual activity with you must meet your standards
of enjoyment, or you won't want to make love to him for long. Suppose he confesses to
you that the only way he could have enjoyable sex with you is anal penetration. If you're
like most women, you'd regret the day you took him away from his videos.
The only reasonable solution to your problem is for your husband to abandon his offensive
use of videos and any other forms of sex apart from you, and have sex with you in ways
that are fulfilling for both of you.
The procedure to overcome an addiction begins when access to the addictive material
becomes inaccessible. Those addicted to alcohol must be completely separated from
alcohol. They must get it out of their houses, and they must avoid situations where
alcoholic beverage is present. Sometimes they need to be hospitalized for a few weeks to
be sure they are not tempted to drink.
The same principle applies to sexual addiction. All of his pornographic videos and any
other sexual material he uses when he masturbates should be destroyed. While it's
possible for him to purchase more, at least it would prevent renewal of his habit during
a momentary lapse.
If your husband were to avoid masturbation for a week, he would find his normal sex
drive returning and he would be more sexually attracted to you. The longer he would
avoid the pornographic videos and any other sexual material, and limit all of his sexual
options to having sex with you, the more your sexual relationship would return to the way it was when
you were first married.
But it won't be easy for him to give up his tapes or whatever else he uses for sexual release.
Over the years, his methods of self-arousal have probably become very sophisticated and
work extremely well -- much better, in fact, than his sex with you.
Like any other addiction, at first, he will crave what he has left behind. He will go through
the same withdrawal that alcoholics experience. He may become depressed and
frustrated, and it will be quite an adjustment for both of you. But if he can do it, if he can
stop having sex in any context that does not include you, he will eventually find complete
sexual fulfillment in his relationship with you.
Don't forget that the way you make love together should be with your enthusiastic
agreement. If he says that you must make love to him in a way that upsets you, or is at all
uncomfortable, he's back to his sexual addiction again -- where having sex is more
important to him than your feelings.
Sex should be exclusively reserved for the marital relationship for quite a few reasons. For
one thing, sex is one of the easiest ways to deposit love units in marriage. To waste it's
pleasure apart from each other is to miss an opportunity to build romantic love.
But another important reason to make sex exclusive is that when one spouse has sex
outside of marriage, the other spouse is usually offended. And as you've seen, it isn't just
your husband's sex with other women that would offend you. You are offended whenever
he has sex that doesn't include you.
Your reaction is quite normal -- it's appropriate for you to want your husband's exclusive
sexual interest. I encourage you to take the steps I recommend to resolve this conflict with
your husband because once it's resolved, you will have learned the lessons that will make
this marriage your best and last.