How Do You Know If Your Husband Has a Porn Problem?

Mark B. Kastleman, BCC, BCPC

As I reflect on my own addiction past, and my work over the last 20 years with men all over the world, many pornography users want to overcome their destructive behaviors and be open and honest with their spouse. At the same time, he fears one thing above all else: discovery! He believes that if those he loves find out about his pornography problem, his life is over—his reputation, marriage relationship, children’s respect, position in his church—all gone! This is why most pornography users keep their addiction a secret at all costs; they initially deny that they have a problem and go to elaborate ends to hide their condition. Under these circumstances, it's extremely difficult for a spouse to figure out what is going on, to discover the whole truth.

Clues That Your Husband May Be Using Porn:

Usually the spouse’s intuition tells her that “something is wrong,” even though she can’t put her finger on it. Some of the signs a pornography user may display include:

  1. He demonstrates a loss of interest in sexual relations with his spouse, or on the opposite extreme, an insatiable appetite for sex.

  2. He seems emotionally disconnected during sex, focusing narrowly on the physical act with little or no meaningful interaction or communication. Sex becomes rigid, cold, rushed and detached. He begins making unusual or perverted sexual requests. He demands sex when and where he wants it. He has mood swings before or after sex.

  3. His non-sexual intimacy in the marriage diminishes: talking, embracing, kissing, joint recreation and hobbies, shared prayer and spiritual discussions, etc.

  4. He becomes increasingly more tolerant of sexual content on TV, in movies, magazines, conversation and humor. He’s easily distracted and may stare at women in public. He pays more attention to sexualized magazine covers in the grocery store, catalogues in the mail, etc.

  5. He secretly gets up at night to watch TV or surf the Internet. He locks his bedroom or office door when surfing the Internet.

  6. He shirks his responsibilities: household projects, time with children, etc., and fails to keep commitments, habitually arrives late for appointments and is increasingly unreliable.

  7. He spends more and more time alone: late hours at the office, up late on the Internet, withdraws from family, social activities, church involvement, etc.

  8. He seems as if he’s on an emotional rollercoaster. He’s moody, irritable, short-tempered, and unpredictable—you never know what mood he’ll be in.

  9. He undergoes a diminishing interest in spiritual things: going to church, reading scripture, saying prayers. He may continue going through the motions, but you can tell there is something missing.

  10. He isolates himself and is increasingly absent without any reasonable explanation or with some elaborate or lame excuse.

  11. He does not want to socialize with others, especially those who might intimidate him or hold him accountable.

  12. He is increasingly dishonest (even with little things that seem inconsequential).

  13. He has trouble focusing—he is “physically present” but his mind is somewhere else.

  14. There are unexplained expenditures in his bank statement or explanations for spending that don’t make sense or “ring true.”

 

An Addict's "Secrecy" Makes it Difficult to Be Sure

While the 14 signs indicate that there may very well be a pornography problem, an addict’s secrecy makes it difficult to be sure. In his landmark book, Contrary to Love: Healing the Sexual Addict, Dr. Patrick Carnes talks about how the addict lives in a world of secrecy:

The addictive system uses secrecy as a shield, and as such it becomes a source of power. The addiction thrives on secrecy because the addict can often avoid public consequences and family confrontations. However, the sense of being alone with the secret increases the addict’s despair. . . . Therapists often work with clients a long time without seeing the shadow of addiction. The therapist ends up feeling frustrated about spending so many hours working on the present auxiliary problems, marital issues for example, without ever reaching the real source of the turmoil. To the addict’s family and close friends, something appears to be wrong—that faint, wavering shadow of the addiction—but often they cannot tell what that something is.

 As a [pornography] addict, Frank told his therapy group that his addictive life was virtually undetectable because, feeling so ashamed, he worked hard to appear normal, pursuing activities in church leadership that made him seem normal and upright. Ironically, he was serving on an anti-pornography committee the same day he lied to a prostitute about his name and occupation so she wouldn’t know who he was.

"Shame" Drives the Porn Addict into Secrecy

The shadow of secrecy that engulfs the porn user stems from the extreme shame he feels. Much of this shame originates from two core beliefs: (1) “I am basically a bad and unworthy person,” and (2) “People would not accept me if they knew me as I really am (knew about my secret addiction/life).”

Pornography/sex addicts will oftentimes experience this shame as part of a cycle. In their groundbreaking book Facing Shame: Families In Recovery, Merle Fossum and Marilyn Mason describe this cycle in terms of the release phase and the control phase.

 

The Release Phase

In the release phase the addict “loses” himself to the addiction, becoming increasingly self-centered and self-indulgent. His use of pornography represents an escape from the emotional and/or psychological stressors that plague him: stress at work, problems in his marriage, health issues, financial struggles, or simply being “worn out” trying to fight his pornography temptation. In the release phase, exhausted from fighting his unwanted sexual thoughts and urges,  he reaches a point where he relinquishes control to his addiction and feels a relaxation of his conscious will—“Ahhh, finally I don’t have to deal with this any more—I don't have to engage in this constant battle! I can just give in and escape”—at last entering the acting out part of the release phase, where he fully manifests his “addict-self.”  

While experiencing this sense of temporary escape from fears, temptations, troubles and stress, at the same time the addict is aware that on a fundamental level he has violated his basic values. He has demeaned himself, which, in turn, spurs a great deal of shame. The addict then begins to rationalize and justify his behavior in order to cover the shame and reduce its intensity. He vows that he will never again fall prey to his addiction, wherein the Control Phase begins to kick in.

 

The Control Phase

During the Release Phase the addict’s life has reached a point of unmanageability. His greatest concern now is to regain control, leave the secret “addict-self” behind and revert to his “public-self.” He must never again allow his addiction to overcome him. This control will typically manifest itself in compulsive behaviors such as compulsive cleaning, rigid dieting or dietary practices. His workaholic tendencies will expand and deepen. He may also become invasive and excessive in his efforts to help others or have a need to “save” someone in a religious sense. Just as the addict experienced a total loss of control in the Release Phase, the pendulum swings to the complete opposite as he seeks to gain total control over every detail of his own life and others’ lives. This type of behavior in the Control Phase is often referred to as acting “in.”

 

Because shame is at the center of this control-release cycle, it makes the control phase more demanding, requiring the addict to become extremely rigid in order to hide his shame and his addiction. No one must ever find out about his secret. To compensate for the guilt and shame he feels from living a double life, he may seek to excel in other areas. He may strive to become the best possible father, coach, church leader, volunteer, or husband. This makes it all the more shocking for those around him when his addiction is finally exposed.

 

The addict becomes super-righteous, a super-achiever, a perfectionist who often carries to excess his control of self and others. He may take on qualities of fanaticism, espousing social, political or religious beliefs in an excessive and potentially hurtful fashion. Consequently, his personality traits become more harmful and self-defeating (there is no way he can maintain this level of intensity). The addict becomes hyper-critical of himself and others; he may appear self-righteous and overbearing. On the other end of the control spectrum, the addict may become a pleaser and placater, avoiding conflict and trying to gain the approval of others in a form of passive control.

 

His "Addiction Cycle" Becomes a Downward Spiral

Regrettably, the more intensely the addict tries to control, the more he drives himself to the “breaking point,” where he seeks self-medication and release through his addiction. Thus, the insidious cycle continues: The more self-destructively the addict releases, the deeper and more out of control grows his addiction. The more intense his addiction becomes, the more desperately he seeks control to compensate. The downward spiral of release to control and back to release continues until some catastrophe or crisis brings him to divulge his secret life and seek help.

My clients and I KNOW what it's like to be trapped in the Control and Release Cycle for years and decades. We call it, "The roller coaster ride from Hell." There IS a way out! But it takes some courage, humility and trust to get off the ride and onto the path of recovery and healing. If you're the spouse of an addict and just don't what to do in order to move forward, reach out to us. We've been where you are now and we can help. We can help him come out of secrecy and into full disclosure and a successful path forward. Even if he decides to remain in denial and secrecy, or refuses to get help, you must still take care of you! You can heal your betrayal trauma and move forward on a path of peace, fulfillment and eventual joy.