When Your Spouse or Loved One May Be Struggling with Too Much Pornography: Some Facts

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Pornography addiction: complicated subject

Facts: Pornography causes problems socially and individually; pornography cuts against Christian (and most religious) teaching; pornography is demeaning; pornography victimizes women or whoever is depicted. Pornography might properly be described as unfit for consumption…by anyone.

Might the title of this blog be “When Your Wife Is a Pornography Addict?” or “When Your Husband Is a Pornography Addict”?

But there are no statistics on this. Using one spouse as the definitively identified patient is not fair.

Thus, when women obsessively read 50 Shades of Grey or too many romance novels, does this mean a boyfriend or husband ought unilaterally declare his partner to be some sort of addict, thus absolving himself of all responsibility for the behavior?

Professionally speaking, there is no such thing as a pornography addict.

There exists, however, an excessive use of pornography that can endanger any marriage or family. Unfortunately, it is a difficult, elusive thing to assess and treat. Thus, it is best that one tries looking at the issue as objectively as possible without assigning blame.

Unlike depression, schizophrenia, or bipolar disorder, sexual addiction or pornography addiction is not a professional diagnosis—it is not so classified in the 2014 Diagnostic and Statistical Manual Fifth Edition (DSM-5) of the American Psychiatric Association. The psychiatrists (who are physicians, unlike psychologists, social workers, or counselors), have a deep knowledge of the human body, and they simply could not agree on this diagnostic term.

If medical professionals have not yet determined an answer to the question whether or not pornography or sexual addiction can be described or even exists, in order to recommend an effective treatment, how can a spouse (or anyone) determine whether his or her partner is an addict?

The answer: One cannot make this judgment about another individual.

By unilaterally “diagnosing” someone a sex or pornography addict, one is implying many things that may not be true. Especially troubling are those who see pornography addiction as some portal to problems like alcohol abuse. To repeat: There is no scientific evidence to back this. (Do we make broad generalizations about cultures or racial groups? This is called profiling, and this is exactly what is being done when one labels another person a pornography addict.)

Following are nine points to bear in mind for anyone in the pornography struggle:

(1) A psychiatrist who is Board Certified in Addiction Medicine may be the best first stop: for a diagnosis and treatment plan. These psychiatrists have an additional residency and know about the peer-reviewed and scientific approaches to addictions involving alcohol, gambling, or drugs, and they would be aware of similarities, or dissimilarities, between a person’s (excessive?) use of pornography and other addictions. It is quite possible that pornography has taken over a person’s life, and that treatment and sexual sobriety are necessary. The best way to approach this is through a medical professional who understands addictions and their effect on mind and body.

(2) Masters-level (or doctoral) practitioners who have CSAT certification may also be a good front line of help. However, in general they lack the wide expertise of an Addictions Medicine psychiatrist and may end up referring a person to one of these: worse, not referring.

(3) It is important always to look for untreated depression in any addiction; this is one thing an Addictions Medicine physician might look for. Some of the antidepressants used may have a side effect of lowering the sexual drive, and this may be significant when there is excessive use of pornography.

(4) Other medical or psychiatric problems might be related to excessive use of or exposure to pornography, even something as seemingly improbable as a tumor. Developing dementia may be another illness the physician looks for.

(5) There are three or four “S groups” that are self-help groups for “sexual addiction.” One of these follows Catholic teaching and defines sexual sobriety as including no masturbation. The other groups often permit the individual to set his or her own goal. It should be noted that the group Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous is seeing increasing numbers of women join its ranks. This is a spousal problem, not one exclusively with husband or wife. There may be a helpful S-Anon group nearby.

(6) There is a lack of scientific evidence about whether or not these groups are effective. Many people say that they have been helped, but it is unknown how many people drop out after deciding the group is ineffective. Therefore, it may not be appropriate to label someone as “treatment resistant” if they do not find one of these things helpful.

(7) First Things has run a number of insightful articles over the years that highlight Catholic teaching from two millennia. One example of this is the article “Pornography and Acedia: A Spiritual Analysis and Remedy for Lust of the Eyes”.

(8) The books by Dr. Patrick Carnes have a face validity recognized by many people, and there is anecdotal evidence that some are helped by his ideas. Again, there is no body of peer-reviewed evidence showing that the approach is effective.

(9) In contrast to the many 28-day inpatient programs for alcohol, drug, or gambling problems, there are few to date devoted to excessive sexual behaviors, even at some of the best treatment centers. Does this (surely) indicate the difficulty of treating this problem?

It may be very difficult to confront a spouse. It is difficult to come up with a list of “How-to-Do’s.” Complex questions and problems involving psychological functioning, spirituality, ethics, morality, and medicine may be among the most complicated topics that spouses/partners, doctors, and therapists confront.

One simple first step may be to think of St. Peter and company on the stormy Sea of Galilee, praying for calm and safety. This kind of intervention may be required with respect to such a difficult problem…taken with a dose of humility.

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