By Sam and Beth Meier
Note: This article is part of the USCCB "Clean Heart" series and is a companion resource to the USCCB formal statement Create in Me a Clean Heart: A Pastoral Response to Pornography; a printed pamphlet version of this article and others may be purchased at the USCCB online store.
Sam's Perspective—One Week Before Marriage
One week before our wedding, I walked into a convenience store telling myself it was the last time I would ever use porn. I had been using porn since junior high but thought I wouldn't "need" it after getting married. After all, my bride Beth was gorgeous, smart, athletic, cared about her faith, and was my best friend.
Sadly, the first several years of our marriage were filled with heartache, loneliness, and broken trust due to my use of pornography. We reached out for help to multiple counselors and priests, but there were not many people who knew how to help us in the early 2000s. By God's grace, we found one of the best counseling centers in the United States for people struggling with pornography use. We received several years of marriage counseling, attended many support groups, and rebuilt trust and intimacy in our marriage. For the first time in my life, I found hope, healing, and sobriety, and our marriage began to heal.
I am now a marriage counselor who specializes in treating pornography addiction. I have met with many good Catholics, both individuals and couples, who are breaking free from porn. In this article, Beth and I will share practical ideas and resources that have helped us and other couples heal from porn use and have thriving marriages.
Many Good People Struggle
One of the biggest lies that Satan has led many Catholic couples to believe is that they are alone in their struggles with pornography. People may be surprised to learn that many good Catholics and Christians are struggling with this issue. A Barna Survey on US porn use indicated that 37 percent of Christian men and 7 percent of Christian women used porn several times a week or more, and 64 percent of Christian men and 15 percent of Christian women used porn once a month or more.1 Indeed, as a couple, we have met many good men, women, teachers, clergy, youth ministers, and others who have struggled with pornography.
Brain Science of Pornography
It is important for people to understand that porn impairs the brain, whether it is used sporadically or multiple times per week. As the bishops state in Create in Me a Clean Heart, "Viewing pornography, usually combined with masturbation, directly affects the brain's reward pathways and has been noted to have a similar effect on the brain as cocaine does on a person with a drug addiction or as alcohol on a person with an alcohol addiction" (p. 15). Pornography is never harmless.
Porn Decreases Sexual Satisfaction and Increases Infidelity
A common myth about pornography is that it enhances marital intimacy. This is not true. Instead, research indicates that exposure to pornography decreases sexual satisfaction in relationships for both men and women.2 Numerous physicians have reported that pornography increases rates of erectile dysfunction, even for young men in their 20s and 30s.3 Research indicates that married men who use pornography are more likely to have affairs, are less attracted to their wives, and are less interested in sexual intimacy with their wives.4 Research also indicates that women who use pornography are more negative about their bodies and have less sex in their marriage.5
Using or creating pornography within marriage is always wrong and can never be justified. —Create in Me a Clean Heart, p. 17
In his counseling ministry, Sam has worked with couples who watched pornography together at one point in their marriage, but after a while, the wives felt used and exploited. Finding out about the pornography industry's strong connection to human trafficking and violence against women6 was an important turning point for these couples in their healing journey because it showed them the far-reaching impact of pornography.
Pornography's Other Impacts on Marriage
Pornography can impact marriages with financial effects, broken trust, and risks of separation and divorce. We have met multiple couples who dealt with job loss due to a spouse using porn at work. Sadly, we have met many couples who did not protect their children from pornography, sometimes because of struggles or deception in their marriage about pornography. Pornography breaks trust and increases the risk of separation and divorce. During a national conference of divorce attorneys, just over half of the lawyers indicated that Internet pornography had played a significant role in divorces they had handled during the last year.7
Spousal Support and Betrayal
Being married to someone who struggles with pornography takes a toll spiritually, emotionally, physically, and psychologically. It is important for spouses to know that they are not the reason their husband or wife seeks out porn, contrary to what they may be told; it is impossible for spouses to compete with fantasy. Spouses can suffer from symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder when they discover their spouse's pornography addiction and can feel a tremendous sense of betrayal.8 In cases of pornography addiction, when one spouse's behavior seriously disrupts the family's life, the other spouse is often the one who primarily takes care of the children, the finances, and the upkeep of the home, and maintains the perception that things are okay with family and friends.
Hope for Married Couples
But there is hope! While breaking free from pornography can be difficult and takes time, it is possible. The Lord wants to heal marriages that have been harmed by one spouse's or both spouses' pornography use.
Setting clear boundaries can help people avoid pornography use. Several common boundaries include avoiding unmonitored Internet devices, image searches, lingerie ads, smartphones in the bathroom, magazine racks, going to hotel rooms alone, going to bed after your spouse, and lying or withholding information from your spouse. Many couples have found it helpful to use accountability and filtering software on smartphones, tablets, computers, etc. Filtering software blocks the majority of Internet pornography, and accountability software can send weekly email reports of Internet activity to trusted people.
Speaking of accountability, it is one of the most important factors for people to make significant progress in freedom from pornography. For men, being accountable with other trusted men is often doing them a favor, since most Catholic men need encouragement and teamwork to avoid pornography. Women, too, benefit from accountability groups of women who are striving towards purity. It can take significant courage at first to be accountable with other people, but this is one of the most effective ways to break free from pornography.
To spouses: The Church accompanies you with love and tenderness as you confront this sin and its effects on your marriage and family life. —Create in Me a Clean Heart, p. 22
Wives may not even realize that during the most intimate time with their husband, he may be dealing with thoughts and fantasies about porn. One of our counselors recommended that we should keep a small light or candles on in the room and make eye contact while making love. Our counselor also encouraged us to affirm and talk to each other while making love. These recommendations helped us to connect and bond deeply. We have also developed more emotional and spiritual intimacy in our marriage through regularly affirming each other, listening to each other, praying together, and emotionally connecting with each other.
Positive Catholic Resources About Sex and Marriage
Several years after beginning our journey toward healing our marriage, we found another great help: St. John Paul II's teaching on the theology of the body (TOB), which presents in a compelling way God's plan for sex and marriage. Instead of a negative list of rules, we learned from TOB resources that sex in marriage is meant to be sacred, holy, and even a renewal of our wedding vows!
It's hard to describe how life-changing these positive concepts from TOB were for us and how much more joy and closeness they brought to our marriage. The concept that sex is meant to be a renewal of our wedding vows has helped us view sexual intimacy as something beautiful and sacred in our marriage. We started saying a short prayer before making love, thanking God for our marriage, and asking for His help to love and respect each other. TOB resources helped Sam understand that the opposite of love is using another person, which has helped him become more selfless and respectful in our relationship.
We have found it very helpful to say a short prayer together each day asking God to bless our marriage and family. We recently started saying a decade of the Rosary with our children at bedtime along with prayer intentions. We each try to read through the daily Mass readings along with other spiritual readings each day. We have also benefitted from frequent confession, going to Mass as a family, Eucharistic adoration, listening to Catholic radio and Christian music, having spiritual directors, and being connected with Catholic men's and women's groups.
Honesty and Trust
In Sam's work as a counselor with married couples, he has heard from many wives that their husband's lies and deception about pornography use are just as painful, if not more painful, than the pornography use itself. These are delicate issues, but openness and honesty between spouses are important for true healing, especially if there has been an addiction to pornography. It can be very helpful for couples to receive support from counselors and priests to develop honesty and trust in their marriages.
Couples Counseling and Support
Married couples who are healing from pornography often need marriage counseling to rebuild trust and communication in their marriages. In addition, marriage enrichment programs or weekends for spouses who are struggling in their marriages can be a great help for spouses to learn to trust each other again and grow in authentic love.9
Freedom from Pornography Addiction
There are multiple online tests for pornography addiction including the Sexual Addiction Screening Test (SAST) and the Internet Sex Screening Test (ISST).10 Three important strategies to break free from pornography addiction include attending twelve-step groups, seeking professional counseling, and receiving marriage counseling. People who achieve long-term sobriety from porn addiction often attend weekly twelve-step meetings, call their sponsor and other group members daily, and diligently work through twelve-step recovery resources. Professional counseling is very important to address the underlying wounds of pornography and to heal marriages.
For spouses who are healing from the effects of their husband's or wife's pornography addiction, professional counseling and spousal support groups are incredibly helpful. Having a safe and understanding counselor to talk with can give clarity and support during challenging times. Spousal support groups are not a place to complain about one's marriage but a safe place to learn how to get through difficult times with grace, strength, and healthy decision-making.
We hope that these resources will give encouragement and hope to other couples like us who have experienced the damaging effects of pornography. Many good Catholic couples are struggling with porn, and we pray that they will reach out for help, and someday share their stories of hope and healing! We hope that these concepts and resources will help couples not just survive in their marriage but experience more joy, lasting happiness, and real intimacy. For more resources, and to read the full text of Create in Me a Clean Heart, please visit www.usccb.org/cleanheart.
In Christ our hope,
Sam & Beth Meier
About the authors
Sam Meier, MA, LPC, works for the My House Initiative in the Archdiocese of Kansas City in KS. Beth Meier, MA, teaches 7th and 8th-grade religion.
1 Provenmen.org Pornography Addiction Survey (2014) conducted by the Barna Group. Survey results are located at http://www.provenmen.org/2014PornSurvey/.
2 Mary Eberstadt and Mary Anne Layden, The Social Costs of Pornography: A Statement of Findings and Recommendations (Witherspoon Institute: 2010), 38; and Ana J. Bridges, "Pornography's Effects on Interpersonal Relationships," in The Social Costs of Pornography: A Collection of Papers, ed. James R. Stoner, Jr. and Donna M. Hughes (Witherspoon Institute: 2010), 89-110.
3 There are multiple secular articles about "Porn-Induced Sexual Dysfunction" and "Porn-Induced ED" on PsychologyToday.com. See also Gary Wilson, Your Brain on Porn: Internet Pornography and the Emerging Science of Addiction (UK: Commonwealth, 2014), 27-36; and Belinda Luscombe, "Porn and the Threat to Virility," TIME Magazine (April 11, 2016).
4 Eberstadt and Layden, The Social Costs of Pornography; and Paul J. Wright et. al., "More than a dalliance? Pornography consumption and extramarital sex attitudes among married U.S. adults," Psychology of Popular Media Culture 3.2 (2014): 97-109.
5 J. Albright, "Sex in America online: An exploration of sex, marital status, and sexual identity in Internet sex seeking and its impacts," Journal of Sex Research 45 (2008): 175-186.
6 See Noel J. Bouché, "Exploited: Sex Trafficking, Porn Culture, and the Call to a Lifestyle of Justice" (pureHOPE: 2009); Ana J. Bridges, et. al., "Aggression and sexual behavior in best-selling pornography videos: A content analysis update," Violence Against Women 16 (October 2010): 1065-1085; and the research compiled by the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, www.EndSexualExploitation.org.
7 Jonathan Dedmon, "Is the Internet bad for your marriage? Online affairs, pornographic sites playing greater role in divorces," Press Release (2003) re: report from American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers; and Pamela Paul, "The Porn Factor," TIME Magazine (January 19, 2004).
8 Debra Laaser, Shattered Vows: Hope and Healing for Women Who Have Been Sexually Betrayed (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008); and Peter J. Kleponis, Integrity Restored: Helping Catholic Families Win the Battle Against Pornography (Steubenville, Ohio: Emmaus Road Publishing, 2014), 102-110.
9 See the For Your Marriage website for a list of marriage enrichment and support programs: http://www.foryourmarriage.org/marriage-resources/marriage-help-and-support/encouragement/ and http://www.foryourmarriage.org/marriage-resources/marriage-help-and-support/support/.
10 The SAST (Sexual Addiction Screening Test) is available at http://www.recoveryzone.com/tests/sex-addiction/SAST/index.php; the ISST (Internet Sex Screening Test) is available at http://peterkleponis.com/SelfTestForInternetPornographyAddiction.
Pornography's Effects on Marriage and Hope for Married Couples was developed as a resource and approved by Bishop Richard J. Malone, Chairman of the Committee on Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). It was authorized for publication by the undersigned.
Msgr. J. Brian Bransfield
General Secretary, USCCB
Copyright © 2016, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington, DC. All rights reserved.
For the full USCCB statement on pornography, Create in Me a Clean Heart, and additional resources, visit www.usccb.org/cleanheart.