I often see men in my practice who are struggling with porn addiction, that is they compulsively view pornography. This has serious impact on their marital relationship and sexual performance. As with any repeated behavior our brain develops specific neural pathways that become ingrained and are thus compulsive. We experience this as thoughts and feelings that compel us to repeat the behavior. We are “driven” by our brain to do the deed, viewing porn, drinking, smoking pot, gambling, eating, worrying, and other compulsive behaviors that control aspects of our existence.
Recently I saw a young professional, married man who struggles with compulsive porn viewing. He is an educated person who is a dedicated follower of Jesus, who we can call Matt. Anyone would recognized him as a committed believer. He has a good and supportive relationship with his wife who is engaged with him in battling his compulsion to view porn. She, who we can refer to as Sue, also is a committed believer in Jesus. Sue is emotionally mature, meaning she can manage negative emotions so that her thinking brain (the prefrontal context) does not go offline when strong emotions occur. She is able to hold an objective awareness of her experience. This is a critical skill that we all need and can develop.
One of the most helpful therapeutic interventions with compulsive thoughts and feelings is meditation. There are several forms of meditation but they all have one thing in common, they help develop objective awareness of our internal experience. I prefer Centering Prayer meditation because it has a basis in Christian Scripture and Tradition as contemplative prayer. I introduced this practice to Matt who quickly grasped its significance. The significant and powerful benefit of contemplative prayer is that it develops the skill of our “inner witness or observer”.
Matt was able to experience his compulsive, obsessive thoughts and feelings to view porn as something “other” than himself. Simply put, our essence is not our thoughts and feelings, we are not our thoughts and feelings, we could say we are spirit. That is, there is a part of us that can observe our inner, subjective experience. When Paul says in Romans 8:16 that God’s spirit testifies (agrees with) our spirit that we are His children, this personal spirit is, I believe, our “inner witness or observer”.
Matt, almost immediately experienced a new found freedom from his compulsive behavior. He quickly realized that he did not have to respond to the thought and feeling to view porn. He had freedom of choice to do something different once he knew that his identity is not determined by what he thinks and feels. This new found freedom is not like a vending machine, put in a dollar and get a candy bar, it takes consistent, persistent, practice but for Matt he has found a way forward, he does not feel trapped or enslaved to compulsive porn viewing.
Not everyone grasps as quickly the potential of meditation as Matt did, nor does everyone have a Sue in their life, or a strong faith. All of these things matter in overcoming such difficult challenges, but developing our inner witness, our spirit, recognizing and understanding that we are not defined and bound by what we think, or what we do, or what we feel, is powerful and freeing.
Common Misconceptions of Couple Therapy
Maintaining a positive, supportive relationship with one’s partner in the face of expected and unusual life stress is one of the biggest challenges many couples face. Not uncommonly, instead of pulling together to face life’s difficulties, partners become disengaged or even hostile. The person you expect to always have your back begins to feel like the enemy. And sometimes it feels like the harder you try to fix the problem, the worse things get. The good news is that a well-trained couples therapist can help most relationships that have hit a rough patch. According to recent studies, 90% of couples who see a well-trained Emotionally Focused Couples Therapist experience improvement and 70% report full repair of their relationship. But here’s the bad news: many couples that could benefit from this therapy are reluctant to get help. Unfounded beliefs and misconceptions get in the way. Here is the truth about six common misconceptions: 1. The therapist will take sides. With some therapists, this in fact may happen. But an Emotionally Focused Couples (EFT) Therapist is trained to recognize how both partners contribute to their dance of anger or disconnection. Successful therapy invariably requires each partner to understand his or her role in the couple’s distress. 2. The therapist will tell us we should break up. Again, there are probably some therapists who would make this judgment, but the role of an EFT Therapist is to help couples understand how their relationship has gone wrong and to guide them – for as long as they are willing to try – in how to repair it. The decision of whether to stay in a relationship always belongs to the couple. 3. We are too far gone; the situation is hopeless. Many couples worry that their problems have gone on so long, there is no hope of improving their relationship. But even long-standing problems can be resolved with EFT therapy. The intensity of anger also does not necessarily indicate that a relationship can’t be improved. The only clear sign that EFT therapy won’t help is if one or both partners have become so disengaged they are no longer willing to try. 4. Talking about our problems will make things worse. Many couples have experienced that their own attempts to talk about their problems have made things worse, so this concern is understandable. They may even have had previous experiences in therapy where talking did make things worse. However, an EFT Therapist is trained to create a safe space where problems can be discussed productively. In many cases, the therapist will be able to help partners see each other’s struggles in new ways that open the door to healing and reconciliation. 5. Couples therapy is a waste of time and does not work. Many therapists who see couples aren’t trained in an effective model of couples therapy, and there is probably a significant risk that these therapists will not be helpful. However, EFT has years of research demonstrating its effectiveness in helping couples improve their relationships, and follow-up studies show these improvements are long lasting. EFT is one of a handful of couples therapies designated as empirically supported by the American Psychological Association. A therapist trained in EFT is guided by a roadmap that has one of the strongest track records in helping distressed couples. 6. We (or he or she) need individual therapy first. A growing body of evidence suggests that successful couples therapy can actually reduce an individual’s symptoms of depression, anxiety, posttraumatic stress, and other psychological disorders. At the very least, a stronger, more supportive relationship will reduce the suffering both partners experience when one partner is struggling with a psychological disorder. Couples therapy may not be the only treatment needed when a partner has significant psychological symptoms, but when the relationship has suffered, it is often the best place to start. By Ruth Jampol Ph.D.|July 6th, 2015
I am repeatedly amazed by the power of adult human attachment. There is something spiritual and divine about it, the way that two human beings have this drive to be intimate, vulnerable, and dependent upon each other. We can lose sight of this in the grind of everyday life taking each other for granted. But when I sit with couples who are struggling and feel distant from each other and have maybe given up hope that there is anything left to their relationship, I see how much they both want their relationship to work. This is almost always the case. When I scratch beneath the surface, the hurt and sadness over loss of their intimate connection comes rolling out; and when their partner sees this and is moved by it, you know there is hope for this relationship. This is true for men as it is for women.
This hope stays alive like a dormant seed waiting to sprout even in the most arid and hostile conditions of betrayal and abandonment. This deep longing and need for relational connection is able to look past obvious failings when there is visceral evidence of facial expressions and body language that says, “You affect me, I am moved by your pain, or your joy,” or any other genuine emotional expression of “I need you and I love you”.
Our capacity to forgive and reconcile and reunite is astonishing and miraculous. What a glorious creation we are!
When To Seriously Consider Couples Counseling
Most couples wait too long to come in for counseling. In fact, some research indicates that it takes an average of five years after problems with the relationship begin before a couple will seek help. Here are some significant warning signs. Any one of these indicates a relationship that is heading for trouble.
1. Is there a disagreement or conflict that you can't seem to resolve?
2. Do you find that you and your spouse have the same fight over and over again?
3. Is there a subject or difference of opinion that sparks a fight or cold silence so you avoid it.?
4. Are you unable to express to your partner vulnerable feelings like hurt, sadness or fear?
5. Does your partner mostly see your irritation and frustration when you are really feeling sad, lonely, or afraid?
6. Are you experiencing a distance between you and your mate that you can't seem to close?
7. Are you unable to discuss difficult subjects like sex or money without worrying that it might start a fight?
8. Do you find it difficult to express to your partner that something they did or said hurt you in a manner that your partner is able to hear and receive?
9. Do you feel alone in the relationship?
10. Do you feel the need to control the relationship in order to avoid negative feelings like fear or anger?
(This list is an amended and rewritten version of one by Sarah McConnell on the Couple Zone Website.)
While it is never too late to get help, the longer you wait the farther apart you grow!
Antidote for Sexual Brokenness
I listened to a sermon last night at Crossroads Christian Church about sexual brokenness. They had a 25 yr old guest speaker Tony Anderson whose organization Unearthed (http://www.unearthedpictures.org/) is dedicated to addressing the denigration of women by sexual exploitation, including sex trafficking of young girls and boys. He creates videos chronicling sex trafficking and other examples of the sexual exploitation of women and children. You can find examples of this sex industry in every major city in the US. It inflicts horrendous violence and unspeakable evil on a most vulnerable population.
In his presentation he focused on pornography as a root cause of creating an appetite, primarily in men, for using women and children as sex “slaves”. One might wonder why Crossroads had this sermon; not to many, if any, of the men who were in the audience are likely solicitors of sex slaves. But they are likely viewers of pornography. In fact it is estimated that 80% of men have recently viewed pornography in some form. So the seed is being sown and it is becoming, if not already is, an epidemic.
What struck me as I listened is the question of what makes the viewing of pornography so prevalent today? Is it just the easy availability of porn on the internet or are there other forces at work? Watching pornography and using it for sexual stimulation to masturbate is probably something most men(and an increasing number of women) have done at one time or another. Using pornographic material for sexual stimulation is a solitary endeavor; you do not need someone else to experience an orgasm. The important thing to know about an orgasm is that it releases the hormone oxytocin that helps release neurotransmitters that produce the feeling of pleasure and well being associated with an orgasm. Individuals that habitually masturbate are seeking to experience this state again and again and viewing porn helps make that happen.
What makes it a way of life for some and not for others? It seems to me that the ones that find their way out of making it a habit have found a better, more satisfying alternative. That alternative is experiencing a committed, connected relationship to another human being and to God who loves them and they love in return. Every male who struggles with pornography that I have seen in my counseling practice has problems with their human and spiritual relationships. None of them have experienced a satisfying, connected, or attached and secure relationship, They feel to one degree or another disconnected and alone in this world.
It is intriguing that oxytocin is also called the “cuddle” or bonding hormone. Recent neurological studies have documented that oxytocin is released when we are with those who love us and care for us. We experience a similar feeling of pleasure and well being. It seems plausible then, that secure attachment works as a protective antidote against becoming dependent on pornography and masturbation. We are going to seek relief when we feel alone and disconnected and viewing pornography and masturbating is a quick and easy way to achieve it. What we need to do, and I think what we must do, is seek love.
I believe that what is at the root of this epidemic of sexual brokenness and exploitation, and for that matter any other form of violence, is the absence of love. We must be lovers of others and recipients of love. How safe and secure do you feel in your intimate relationships? How well loved do your children feel? Do they feel safe and secure with you? How about your spouse;do they feel loved, safe and secure? Do you know, not just think, that God loves you? Do you know that you are loved and are you willing to love others? This, and only this, will turn the tide of an epidemic that is threatening to destroy the fabric of our civil society.