Few things shatter a marriage like a spouse’s use of pornography, and whether disclosed or discovered, the loss of trust and emotional pain that generally follows for a betrayed spouse is devastating. It leaves them feeling hurt, frustrated, angry and questioning their value in the marriage. They frequently experience a loss of self, develop bodily insecurities, and wonder whether their partner is thinking of the pornographic content they’ve viewed when they have sex.
They also question whether their spouse is continuing to hide or lie about any further use, because their sense of trust and security in the relationship has been lost. All of these variables lead to considerable distress for non-using partners, and setting clear boundaries with their spouse is an important part of creating the space needed to heal and effectively deal with that stress.
When a husband or wife is in this emotional state, their natural inclination may be to perpetually question their spouse and talk with them for hours as part of obtaining needed answers and restoring some sense of internal equilibrium. This approach is understandable, however it can further strain the relational bonds between the couple if maintained over time. Married couples who find they are caught in these painful cycles can greatly benefit from seeking the guidance and support of a trusted counselor, pastor or mentor experienced in helping spouses navigate the harmful marital and emotional effects of pornography.
Emotional Boundary 1: It’s important for betrayed spouses to realize that conversations with their husband or wife won’t necessarily stop them from viewing porn or propel them to obtain help in addressing a potential sex addiction. They may cause them to stop for a short period of time, but the reality is that true freedom from pornography will ultimately be found when they have decided to address the underlying factors driving their usage patterns.
Emotional Boundary 2: When a betrayed spouse comes to the realization they cannot control their partner’s behavior or recovery, it enables them to focus on healing and seeking support for themselves. This is a crucial and empowering step, because it allows them to take responsibility for the one thing they do have control over, becoming emotionally healthy. My experience is that spouses who readily seek the support of trusted others feel less alone, and break free of the embarrassment and isolation that can so easily take over from a spouse’s use of pornography.
Furthermore, husbands and wives who care for themselves in this manner, can more readily reclaim their sense of self, set needed boundaries in the marriage, and make decisions related to their spouse from a place of empowerment versus fear or desperation. I can easily tell when this change takes place in my clinical work with betrayed spouses. They are visibly more confident and able to assert what they need from their partner in order for the marriage to move forward.
It’s hard to overstate the negative toll a spouse’s use of pornography has on the sexual dynamic in a marriage. Oftentimes, the betrayed partner develops insecurities about their body and questions whether their husband or wife still finds them sexually attractive. They compare their body to the people found in the images or video content their partner was viewing, which only adds to their insecurity and anguish. This is on top of wondering whether their spouse is emotionally or mentally present when they are having sex or thinking about sexual images of someone else.
Sexual Boundary 1: These significant factors are indicators of deep emotional pain and trauma, and as a result, many betrayed spouses are not willing to simply resume having sex in the marriage until key parameters are set and followed. For some husbands and wives, they need time away sexually from their spouse to reset and process what they are feeling emotionally and evaluate the relationship as a whole. For others, they need to know their partner has proactively taken steps to address their use of pornography (e.g., seeking counseling, attending Celebrate Recovery, talking with their pastor, etc.) before they feel safe and emotionally available to engage sexually with them.
Setting these boundaries is important because it prevents a violation of self, which can easily occur if they acquiesce to pressures from their spouse to have sex before they are ready. It is also important for them to maintain these boundaries in spite of pressures from well intended others (i.e., friends, family, etc.), who may try to guilt them into having sex with their spouse, for example, by saying that denying them sex will only increase their desire to view porn. First, that is a false assumption, and second, turning away from these external pressures, and setting and abiding by the boundaries needed to heal, is wise and a sign of a differentiated self.
Sexual Boundary 2: You do not have to act like a porn star when having sex with your spouse. If they want you to try a sexual position or act that resembles what they saw in pornography, and you are not comfortable doing so, assert yourself by saying, “No, that is not something I am willing to try,” or “I will not allow you to treat me that way.” This boundary stems from a place of self-respect, and requires them to respect your body. Some spouses I work with frustratingly report having to set this boundary multiple times before their partner responds.
This boundary is important for another reason. It challenges the sexual status quo being set by the pornography industry, which is not only vile, it is purposefully degrading to men and women. The pornography of today commonly portrays scenes of men ejaculating in women’s faces, verbally abusing them, and gagging them with their penis to make them throw up or worse. Scenes where women treat men in a similar manner are also common. These disrespectful acts never have to be tolerated in a marriage. That being said, define your sexual boundaries with your spouse, hold to them and demand to be treated with respect.
The Road Ahead Is Not Meant to be Traveled Alone
The road ahead for betrayed spouses is rarely easy. However, their emotional and sexual boundaries will ultimately help them to care for themselves, command the respect of their spouse and require them to take responsibility for their actions. Moreover, this road isn’t meant to be traveled alone. I realize that many individuals reading this article may be deeply hurt and embarrassed by their spouse’s use of pornography, but I have found that silence and isolation are rarely helpful. Though reaching out may feel intimidating, the benefits of having the courage to do so far outweighs the cost of trying to heal and face the tremendous impact pornography has on a marriage alone.
Eric Gomez is a Marriage & Family Therapist specializing in building families, strengthening marriages and addressing the personal, relational, and cultural harms of pornography. He received his graduate degree in Marriage & Family Therapy from Seattle Pacific University and his undergraduate degree in Psychology from New Mexico State University.