"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."
I remember the first time I looked at pornography. I was 11 years old. It had just registered in my brain that the women in the lingerie section of the Sears catalog from the Sunday paper were sexy.
Referring to a Sears catalog as pornography might make you laugh or roll your eyes—and to be honest, I feel the same way now—but to 11-year-old me it definitely felt like pornography.
I remember sneaking the catalog up to my room and rifling through the pages. I was so paranoid I’d get caught that I was literally trembling with apprehension.
As I stared at the pages, I felt an intoxicating flood of contradicting emotions. There was curiosity, pleasure, embarrassment, guilt, and shame. Lots of shame.
I felt like I needed to hide my new discovery from the world. If anyone found out, what would they think of me?
The Dangers of Shame
As I grew up and went through the scouting and Young Men’s programs, I was taught to honor the priesthood. I was taught to love and respect women, to remain worthy to attend the temple, and to be trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind ... all of those things.
I was taught that pornography was addictive, destructive, cancerous smut that would tear apart my marriage and destroy me from the inside out if I looked at it.
I am the oldest child in my family and was often asked to be a leader in church and at school. I was told my peers and my siblings were looking up to me and counting on me to set a good example, even when I didn’t think anyone was watching.
I felt a huge amount of pressure to not let anyone down. Not my parents. Not my siblings. Not my leaders or teachers or friends. Especially not God. I couldn’t make a mistake or experience anything resembling weakness or sin, or I would be letting everyone down.
Just writing that last paragraph makes me shake my head. That’s a lot of pressure and expectation for a 12-year-old kid to carry around with him!
As I grew up, I continued to wrestle with the struggles of life that you probably faced as well. Stress, depression, loneliness, rejection, and personal insecurities showed up all over the place ... growing up is hard.
As I got into my late teens and early 20s, I found that looking at pornography could provide a temporary escape from my pains and problems. From time to time I’d use it to check out of life for a few minutes, to secretly and selfishly indulge a fantasy or curiosity.
Immediately, crushing shame would follow. If I knew this was wrong, why would I do it? If my parents found out, what would they think? Would my religious leaders be upset and invoke the judgments of God? Would the women in my life look at me in disgust and revulsion? Would anyone ever want to date me, let alone marry me? Would God ever forgive me for toying with one of the most severe of sins?
I didn’t know the answer to these questions, and I didn’t want to find out.
I was terrified that they all might be true.
I’d go for months or even years without looking at porn, then one day I’d slip up. I’d cave to the pressure or temptation. It seemed like every time I did this, the shame would double in magnitude.
This shame began to destroy my life. I heard stories of women who divorced their husbands the moment they found out he looked at pornography. I heard women say, “I will never date or marry someone who looks at pornography.” I even heard prophets say it was better to die than to sacrifice my virtue.
I’m confident I sabotaged more than one relationship because of the thought, “If she really knew who I was, she would never want to be with me.”
I distanced myself from friends, family, and the Church. I figured it would be better to lose these relationships than for them to see me as a fraud or a liar or as yet another horrible, dishonorable man who looks at pornography.
Marriage and Confiding in Others
At some point it became too much for me. I couldn’t deal with the shame anymore. I reached out to a few close friends. It turns out they had experienced similar challenges.
I felt an inkling of hope.
I began to establish an inner circle of safe people I could talk to about my personal struggles with pornography and with life in general.
I went to therapy. I wrote about my experiences. I interviewed professionals about it on my podcast.
The more I talked about it, the less alone I felt. Even though most people were uncomfortable talking about pornography, I could tell when they did, they felt a little better. A little less afraid.
The shame started to lessen.
I got curious.
I began to do research and educate myself. I learned more about the nuances of pornography, the way our brain responds to it, and how our sexuality develops. I pulled information from a variety of sources with differing opinions including general conference talks, the website Fight the New Drug, books like His Porn, Her Pain by Marty Klein, and even attending day-long seminars with experts like David Ley, Emily Nagoski, and Tina Schermer Sellers.
Eventually, I met my wife. I was honest with her about my struggles with crushing shame. I told her that I experienced the most shame around my past experiences with pornography.
Somehow, despite all of my fears that she would reject me, she was compassionate and understanding. She responded with love and a promise to support me no matter what.
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.
▶You may also like: Ask a Latter-day Saint therapist: I can’t stop looking at pornography
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.
Nate Bagley writes about marriage and relationships on his site Growth Marriage.