Finding a Different Approach
My wife and I were recently asked to be guests on a podcast called Together to talk about how we’re navigating and dealing with pornography as a couple.
This interview was one of the scariest things I’ve done. I was terrified what people would think and say about me when they learned that pornography is something that has been a part of my life for years. I was scared of what my parents and my in-laws would think. I was terrified of the thought that people would criticize or attack my wife.
The list goes on and on.
You can hear the fear in my voice during the interview. (At one point, the interviewer, Erik, even stopped me to comment on how he could hear the stress and anxiety coming through in my voice. This part didn’t make it into the final episode.)
One of the sources of my fear comes from the fact that we’ve decided to take a different approach to dealing with pornography than many other religious couples.
You see, my wife and I have chosen to not let shame undermine our marriage. We have committed to support each other through our struggles and shortcomings. We’ve promised to try to respond to the hurtful things we do to each other with compassion and kindness.
We created a strategy to help us navigate the complex issue of pornography. It is centered around openness, honest communication, and empathy.
I’ve committed to talk to my wife if I ever feel the inclination to look at pornography. The goal is to help me retrain my brain to not allow space for the secrets or judgment that create shame. It’s to remind me that my wife is always here, and always loves me, even when it’s hard.
Strengthening Marriage Through Our Struggles
For many people, responding to pornography with compassion is counterintuitive. It’s almost like the compassion is synonymous with permission. (It’s not.) Instead, the instinct is to lash out, to punish, and to shame pornography and the people who consume it.
This approach doesn’t work for my wife and me. It breeds more secrecy and less honesty. It doesn’t make us love each other more. It just makes us angry and paranoid. It doesn’t help us grow, unify us, or make us want to be better. It just leaves us feeling upset and alone.
Instead, we choose to treat pornography just like any other struggle in our relationship. We talk about it like we talk about our finances or the occasional bout of anxiety. We check in with each other, we create agreements, we hold each other accountable, and we extend empathy and compassion if one of us drops the ball or screws up.
As we’ve removed the accusations, the guilt, the punishment, and the shame from our relationship, we’ve seen some extraordinary results. We’ve grown closer together as a couple. Our trust and commitment to each other has expanded.
And, speaking for myself, I’ve realized that I can be an extraordinary husband—I can be attentive, I can serve, I can be kind and understanding, I can be affectionate, I can be honest and transparent, and I can be loved all while experiencing the occasional personal struggle.
My wife told me the other day, “I never wanted pornography to be a part of my marriage . . . but I’m so grateful we’ve been able to work through this together. It’s brought us so much closer.”
Why I'm Sharing My Story: Two Lessons
The reason I share all of this with you right now—despite the voices in my head telling me I shouldn’t because you might judge me, condemn me or criticize me, or worse, my wife—is that I don’t want you to suffer in the way that I and so many others have suffered.
There are two important things I hope you take away from my story.
Here’s the first lesson: The shame that accompanies pornography is often far more damaging than the pornography itself.
As shame researcher, Brené Brown says, “Shame needs three things to survive: A secret, silence, and judgment.”
Shame is the voice in your head that says, “You’re a horrible person. You’re not worthy of love. Nobody will ever want you after what you did.”
People ensnared by shame often use the very thing that causes their shame to escape the negative feelings that accompany it. For example, “I look at pornography to escape my problems, then I feel terrible. So I look at pornography to escape feeling terrible. Then I feel more terrible, so I look at more pornography.”
Few things are worse than being caught in this downward spiral.
The black hole of shame pushes people to isolate themselves. It leads to anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, loneliness, and an all-around crappy life.
The way to break through the shame is to get rid of what it thrives on—the secrets, the silence, and the judgment.
Here’s the second lesson: The way you choose to respond to someone who looks at pornography will have a huge impact on your relationship with them, and their relationship with themselves.
When you respond to someone who is already wrapped up in the secrecy, silence, and judgment with anger, vitriol, and malice, the first thing they think is “I should have kept this a better secret.”
It makes the shame worse, and it lowers the likelihood that they’ll be honest with you about difficult things in the future.
I’m so grateful for a wife who has helped me remove the burden of nearly two decades of shame that I’d been carrying around with me. I’m grateful she sees me for the man I am and for the man I strive to become. I’m grateful she does not define my worth by my weaknesses.
Her compassion, her willingness to seek understanding, her patience, and her constant desire to improve inspires me to try to be the best husband in the world for her every single day.
You can have an incredible marriage and still experience struggles—even pornography.
My hope is that our experience will help more people have open, honest conversations about something that feels scary… like, Voldemort-level scary. We realize that our approach may not work for everyone and that not everyone’s experience will look like ours. You can absolutely create your own approach that does work for you.
I hope this article will inspire you to address the topic of pornography in a way you may not have considered in the past. That some way, somehow, we can help you experience a little more empathy, kindness, and love in your marriage and a lot less shame.
Lead image from Wikimedia Commons
Nate Bagley writes about marriage and relationships on his site First 7 Years and podcasts over at The Loveumentary.
Learn more about pornography and how you can support those struggling with it with these products:
Learn how to better understand what you or loved ones are experiencing in the struggle against pornography with Understanding Pornography and Sexual Addiction. This book provides deep insights as well as ways parents, leaders, and loved ones can support those experiencing sexual tempations or addictions.
Confronting Pornography is a collection of chapters and essays from professional counselors and Church leaders, as well as from people who have overcome the addiction. This book is designed to offer help to those individuals caught in pornography's clutches and hope to all those who love them.
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