How Porn Affects Relationships (7 Science-Backed Ways)

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Since the proliferation of personal mobile devices and especially since the stay-at-home orders of the Covid-19 pandemic, porn use is at an all-time high.

So it’s natural to wonder about the effects of porn on relationships

Our understanding of how porn affects relationships evolves continuously with new studies, and as perceptions about porn change over time. 

For this article, we pulled together the latest research and insights to explain 7 ways porn affects relationships: 

  1. Porn affects expectations & understanding of sex’s purpose
  2. Porn decreases relationship satisfaction 
  3. Porn increases sexual aggression & violence 
  4. Porn decreases sex drive & interest in sex with partner 
  5. Porn serves as a cause for relationship conflict 
  6. Porn reduces trust or “secure attachment”
  7. Porn increases likelihood of divorce or breakup 

At the end of the article, we also address potential positive effects of porn and provide tips for healing any relationship damage done.

Before we dive in, are you looking to block porn from your relationship for good? Canopy blocks porn in real-time across all your devices. It even removes inappropriate content from unexpected places—like Twitter, Reddit, or a women’s lingerie website.

7 Negative Impacts of Porn on Relationships

1. It changes expectations around sex

Why is porn bad for relationships? We start with perception. 

Frequent use of pornography shifts the focus of sexual activity towards attaining sexual gratification rather than experiencing elevated emotions such as love, intimacy, and trust.

If you ask Google why sex is important in relationships, the results mention emotional connection, increased intimacy, or bonding.

We also know that oxycontin is released during sex, the hormone associated with “positive social functioning […] associated with bonding, trust, and loyalty” (This is what happens to your brain after sex, Business Insider). 

Sex within committed relationships and “porn sex” are often directly contradictory for that reason.

For most couples, sex builds things like emotional bonds and intimacy. For most porn videos, sex is depicted with aggression, violence, or some type of novelty (Fritz et al., 2020, Bridges et al., 2010, Park et al., 2016).

This is why the discussion of the effects of porn on relationships should start here: perceptions and understanding about the purpose of sex is inherently formed through viewing porn.

Some more studies found:

  • “The more pornography a man watches, the more likely he was to use it during sex, request particular pornographic sex acts of his partner, deliberately conjure images of pornography during sex to maintain arousal, and have concerns over his own sexual performance and body image” (Sun et al., 2016).  
  • Unhealthy relationships were often characterized by a pressure “to make or imitate porn” (Rothman et al., 2015).

Key read: How to Quit Porn (11 Research-Backed Methods)

2. It leads to lower relationship satisfaction

So is it true that porn ruins relationships?

Many researchers have studied this question over the years with mixed results. 

  • Among 30 national surveys on relationships and porn, when there was an association between relationship quality and porn, it was “nearly always a signal of poorer relationship quality” (Perry, 2020). 
  • For men who view porn there is “negative interpersonal satisfaction” (Wright et al., 2017). 
  • Couples who never watched porn had higher rates of relationship satisfaction than couples who looked at porn alone, and similar rates of relationship satisfaction as those who watched it together. But couples who never watched porn also experienced less infidelity than couples who watched porn together (Maddox et al., 2012).

For studies that delved into the actual factors relating to relationship satisfaction, 

It’s difficult to measure the causality of the effects of porn on relationships. Taking this into account, a 2021 study tested a conceptual model. In the study they looked at a sequence in which:

  • Consistent arousal to specific pornographic depictions leading to 
  • Porn users to a comparison to their own sex life and preference for porn and masturbation, leading to 
  • Less satisfaction with sex with their partner and with their relationship in general. 

The study found support for this conceptual model for both men and women. (Wright et al., April 2021). 

3. It increases sexual aggression & violence 

It’s a fact that a lot of, if not most porn, contains aggression or violence. A 2021 study found that when first-time visitors go to porn sites, about 1 out of every 8 titles describes an act of sexual violence (Vera-Gray et al., 2021). 

Many studies over the years have found online porn to often contain aggression or violence (5 Studies that Show How Often Porn Normalizes Violence Against Women, Fight The New Drug ). What does this have to do with relationships and porn? When one or both partners are habitually looking at pornography, there is an increase in sexual aggression or violence:

  • Lifetime pornography use and greater use of porn led to increased engagement in “sexual behaviors sometimes described as rough” and “dominant behaviors” in sex (Herbenick, 2020).
  • Porn consumption increases physical and verbal sexual aggression (Wright et al., 2015).
  • The use of porn increases sexual choking (Wright et al., October 2021).
  • More porn use increases the likelihood of “sexually dominant behaviors, distancing them from their partners, and reducing their sense of sexual satisfaction.” (Wright et al., March 2021).

4. It lowers sex drive & interest in sex

Porn can shape sexual appetites, encouraging the desire for more aggressive sex. It’s also possible for porn to lower sex drive or decrease interest in sex with a partner: 

  • Increased porn use leads to less sexual desire— “Of those who consumed Internet pornography more than once a week, 16% reported low sexual desire, compared with 0% in non-consumers (and 6% for those who consumed less than once a week)” (Park et al., 2016).
  • People were less likely to use porn the day after they had sex and heterosexual men in relationships were less likely to have sex with their partner if they watched porn that day (Vaillancourt-Morel et al., 2020).
  • Among compulsive pornography users who experience low sexual desire during sex, quitting porn for an extended period of time can result in successful partnered sex (Bronner & Ben-Zion, 2015).

However, some studies find no impact on sex drive or even increased sex drive. While causality is tough to measure, one study found that “guilt associated with pornography consumption negatively predicted sexual desire for one’s partner,” (Bennett et al., 2019).

5. Cause for relationship conflict 

The reality is that few couples are truly on the same page about porn, and it’s often undiscussed. Whether it’s the actual use of porn or feelings about porn, discordant views are common (Carroll & Willoughby, 2017). This causes conflict which alone can be why porn is bad for relationships.

Some studies find:

  • Porn use can undermine trust in a relationship and fuel couple conflict (Carroll et al., 2017)
  • Respondents who weren’t on the same page about using porn alone had more inhibited sexual communication and lower closeness than respondents on the same page about using porn alone (Kohut et al., 2018)
  • When one partner uses porn alone and the other partner uses little to no porn alone, the porn use was “negatively associated with their own relationship and sexual satisfaction” (Kohut et al., 2021).
  • Greater differences in opinion on porn exist between partners was related to less relationship satisfaction, less stability, less positive communication, and more relational aggression (Willoughby et al., 2015).

The breakdown in numbers points to a likelihood that porn does or will create relationship conflict: 

  • “Anywhere between one-third to one-half of both men and women in our sample expressing disapproval of pornography depending on which value question is examined”
  • Nearly ⅓ of engaged and married women reported that they view pornography as a form of “marital infidelity,” 
  • and a sizeable portion of men and women (between 35% and 52%) agree that pornography “objectifies and degrades” (Carroll & Willoughby, 2017)

6. Reducing trust or “secure attachment”:

In a similar vein to causing conflict, porn can be a source of distrust or lying in relationships. This is because partners do not tend to discuss or have an accurate gauge on their partner’s porn viewing habits:

  • 37% of men reported more pornography use than their partner believed was occurring
  • Specifically, in casually dating relationships, 43% of male respondents used porn every day or every other day and their partner had no knowledge of this (Carroll & Willoughby, 2017)

In an explanation of the research above, writers from IFS explain why this presents problems for couples:

“One of the vital elements of relational well-being is secure attachment, or a partner’s ability to view the relationship as safe and dependable. Besides being a matter of relationship ethics, keeping intimate information and behavior from one’s romantic partner, especially when it touches upon the sexual realm, can erode relationship trust and couple intimacy, jeopardizing secure attachment” (The Truth Hurts Less: Pornography Use Disclosure vs. Deception, IFS).

7. Higher likelihood of breakup or divorce 

In years of data, the hypothesis that porn use incurs a higher rate of separation through divorce or breakup has been accepted in multiple studies:

  • Between two surveys administered years apart, people who began watching porn were twice as likely to get divorced by the second survey. Married women who stopped using pornography between two surveys administered were less likely to get divorced than counterparts who continued porn use (Perry & Shleifer, 2017).
  • Increase in porn viewing corresponded with a romantic breakup in the following six years for men (Perry & Davis, 2017).
  • Controlling for marital happiness and sex life satisfaction, greater porn use in the first survey predicted marital separation in the following six years (Perry, 2018).

This is not an exhaustive list of the effects of porn on relationships. If you’re still wondering why porn is bad for relationships, there are many resources like Fight the New Drug and Your Brain on Porn which discuss the relevant research on why porn can be detrimental. The biggest area of interest for these and other resources is porn addiction and relationships. 

Worried about porn addiction or the effects of porn on relationships in your life? Try a month without it. Block porn with Canopy here.

Positive Impacts of Porn on Relationships

Many suggest that porn can actually have a positive impact on relationships. Most proponents of this argue that watching porn together can be beneficial, and that porn at least has no negative impact on relationships. 

Perhaps in a relationship in which both people were completely on board with porn use, used it together, and considered sex in the most liberal or free sort of way, this might be true. 

But the reality is that disparate porn use is extremely common, and so is a lack of open communication about it. 

Among those who say they “never” watch porn, one study found it’s:

  • 60% of seriously dating women vs. 25% of seriously dating men, 
  • 61% of engaged women vs. 38% of engaged men, 
  • 65% of married women vs. 37% married men (Carroll & Willoughby, 2017). 

The same study found that knowledge about the other person’s porn use, specifically women of their male partner, was equally as disparate. And using porn alone is much more common for couples than watching together. 

At all levels of commitment, men are four times likelier to report “always” using porn alone, about half of all men (Carroll & Willoughby, 2017). 

The reasons why porn ruins relationships or why porn is bad for relationships are backed by research in many instances, as presented in the list above. But they also seem obvious: if one partner is looking at other people naked or engaging in sex acts, and achieving sexual completion while doing so, there is ample room for: 

  • Porn to change attitudes or appetites toward sex 
  • Porn to create conflict among partners, or
  • Porn to create a lack of trust or intimacy 

3 Steps to Healing Your Relationship 

When porn ruins relationships, healing is required to move forward. Healing comes in the form of rebuilding trust. Here’s five steps to healing your relationship by rebuilding trust: 

1. Acknowledging wrongdoing & establishing forgiveness 

Many consider watching porn as a form of infidelity. Any type of infidelity or broken trust requires an acknowledgement from the guilty party that they have done something to damage the relationship. If there is to be healing, the other partner must forgive.

2. Setting in place a plan of action & accountability 

Putting together a plan of action allows for actual change to occur. This would include boundaries and expectations for both partners, specifically the partner who struggles with porn. 

Installing a porn blocker app like Canopy—which prevents porn or explicit images from even coming onto a phone or computer screen and allows for partner accountability— is another good part of an action plan. 

3. Patience & connection building

Getting a relationship back on track after porn addiction or problematic porn use requires patience on the part of both partners. A real effort to reconnect (which could be part of an action plan) is also important if the relationship is to flourish in the future. 

Partner coping techniques 

When a partner has a porn addiction or porn problem, it’s not just on them to figure it out and heal. You’ve likely experienced some real pain too. Some ways to cope include:

  • Figuring out how to forgive your partner 
  • Learning about porn addiction in order to understand your partner and support them
  • Joining a support group or online forum to share and hear about others’ experiences 
  • Finding friends or family in whom you can confide (that your partner will also be comfortable with)
  • Going to therapy both alone and with your partner
  • Determining how your partner can best regain your trust 
  • Considering ways or activities to reconnect and improve the relationship 

1. Seeking help

If you are struggling with porn addiction or believe your porn use is problematic or impacting your life negatively, reaching out for support has never been easier. There are many organizations that are free to join or attend meetings. Some porn addiction recovery groups/programs include:

These are secular options, but there are many religious porn recovery groups and programs to choose from if you are a religious person.

2. Block porn with Canopy 

Canopy is a porn blocking app with amazing technology that blocks porn and all explicit content from even showing up on your screen. It also prevents sexting and provides other opportunities for accountability. 

If you’re serious about quitting porn or ending unhealthy habits with explicit content of many kinds, digital parenting or accountability apps like Canopy are very effective. 

 

FAQs—Porn and Relationships

Can Porn Benefit Relationships?

Some argue porn can be good for relationships because having a shared experience with a partner leads to better sex or closeness. Others suggest that sexual exploration leads to a better sex life because people can find out what you’re interested in or fulfill sexual fantasies. 

One Huffington Post contributor argues that:

  • Sexual interest in other people is natural
  • It’s a “myth” that people should only be attracted to their partner 
  • It lessens the “need” to act out sexual desires outside of the relationship 

Research only suggests porn can benefit couples when watched together, which typically isn’t the way people watch porn.  

Is porn bad for relationships?

As stated previously, a study that covered a multitude of national studies – 30 national surveys on relationships and porn – when there was an association between relationship quality and porn, it was “nearly always a signal of poorer relationship quality” (Perry, 2020). 

Does porn ruin a relationship?

Porn can ruin relationships easily when:

  • There are discordant views on the subject,
  • There’s lying or hiding involved, or
  • There’s a desire to act out aggressive or violent sex

Should I be upset that my partner watches porn?

As this question relates to a personal and emotional response, the answer might lie with some follow-up questions:

  • Are you opposed to them watching porn? 
  • Do you share values or religious beliefs that make porn watching incompatible with how you’ve chosen to live?
  • How have you noticed it interfering with your sex life? 
  • Does it make you feel bad in any way? 
  • What kind of porn is your partner watching? 
  • How much porn does your partner watch? 
  • Is your partner addicted to porn? 
  • Has your partner lied about porn use? 

Answering these questions honestly and discussing with someone who shares your values and religious beliefs might give clarity on this issue.

What if my partner is addicted to porn?

Porn addiction and relationships is a tough subject to tackle. Addiction to porn is a very real problem because porn’s impact on the brain is similar to an addictive drug. There are also many reasons for why they might be addicted, and grace and love is necessary to understand it. 

It could be a general compulsive disorder, or continued use has hardwired his or her brain to need porn to achieve sexual release. There are many resources and organizations willing to help, and a quick Google search can connect you with professionals. 

It’s important to remember that porn addiction and relationships. You can also turn to porn blocker apps like Canopy, which can help those addicted to porn to get rid of their habit through a lack of access and a method of accountability with you.

Why do men in relationships watch porn?

It’s a commonly held belief in science, survey evidence and anecdotal evidence that men have a higher sex drive or desire for sexual release than women (Poll: American Sex Survey, ABC). For this reason, men might turn to pornography or masturbation if their partner does not want or isn’t willing to match their desire for sex. 

Still, it’s difficult often for a partner with lower sex drive to reconcile their partner’s porn use or masturbation if they feel as though their sex life is perfectly normal or happy. 

“Why do men in relationships watch porn?” is a common question asked by women, with thousands of views and responses on online forums. The answer might be:

  • I have a high sex drive and I have unmet needs, or
  • I have an addiction to sexual release while watching porn, or simply, 
  • “I like it”

If you’re in a relationship with a man who watches porn and you’re not happy about it, you should certainly discuss it

Citations and References

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