Debbie: Forgiveness and Moving On (from porn)

I recently found out that my fiancé has had a history of viewing pornography since he was 13. We have had many conversations about the topic, and he truly feels that he has overcome it through confession and prayer. He does not believe that he had a very big problem with pornography. In the most recent past, it seems to have been an "every once in a while" thing, though it was more frequent early on. It has been about 5 months since he was last tempted and gave into it.

I just found out about everything in the last couple of weeks. He really feels at peace and that it is not something that will tempt him in the future, especially since he has seen my reaction of disappointment and sadness to his history. I do trust him and feel confident in his ability to avoid temptation in the future. 

I have been having trouble forgiving him, though. I constantly think about the effects it may have had on our relationship while dating, and how it may alter his expectations for intimacy in marriage. I feel like I have been lied to and cheated. I was naive in always thinking that he was too strong or too morally correct to even be tempted by pornography. I have trouble looking at him the same now. I second guess things I say to him, because in my mind he is not as perfect as everyone, including myself, always thought of him. I love him and want to move past this, but how can I move toward acceptance and forgiveness so that we can move on and I am not consumed by these thoughts? Debbie

Debbie, 

With your indulgence, I will get to your question of 'Forgiveness and moving on' in a bit.  First, I'd like to address some issues around porn and why ‘forgiveness and moving on’ may be difficult for you.

Consider this: does your brain really believe that your fiancé has 'moved on' from porn (a pernicious form of infidelity)?  THIS is an interesting and difficult question.  I wish to make clear from the start that I choose to believe your fiancé is a sincere and good-hearted man.  My professional (and personal) experience, however, warns me that his answers 'every once in a while' and 'about 5 months since he was last tempted' sound very similar to denial-based comments I hear virtually every week in my office.

'Denial' is not a conscious mechanism, it is a function of addiction.  Here's what denial looks like: 1) we almost never remember accurately the actual number of times we've indulged; 2) we almost never remember accurately the last time we acted out; 3) we always believe we are more capable at eradicating it than we actually are.  I'll add later what to do about this but if your brain has trouble really believing that your fiancé has totally 'moved on', it is not unwarranted fear.

I am not accusing your fiancé, but I have counseled many men who have confessed sexual sin on hundreds of occasions.  I am reminded of two popular and prolific Catholic authors/speakers on this topic: 1) Scott Hahn who once stated that his experience told him that about 25% of the men in the pews suffer with sexual sin, and; 2) Jeff Cavins, who in referencing Scott's speech stated that his experience tells him that Scott's number was probably about ½ of the real number; my personal experience makes me wonder if even that high percentage is enough.

A 2016 survey of a large Catholic HS shows that ~90% of the boys viewed porn with most of that number viewing multiple times per week.  This is a pernicious problem but I don't particularly blame the boys.  I do, however, hold the young men accountable to do whatever is necessary to prevent this scourge from negatively impacting themselves and others.

You state that you often think of the effects the past porn use may have on your relationship and you are wise to do so.  What might his brain be dealing with?  I don't want to get caught up too deeply in the weeds, but studies show that the earlier the use, the more traumatic its effects tend to be; some men need counseling to overcome these effects of early sexual trauma.  A 2011 study showed the frequency of viewing pornography was correlated with lower satisfaction level in both sex and relationships.  Various other studies have shown similar data; moreover, porn isn't just something on a screen, it causes real chemical activity in our brains (because the object we view is really in our mind).  A company called Covenant Eyes publishes lots of data you might find interesting; here’s a link to their 2018 report on pornography statistics: https://www.covenanteyes.com/e-books.

What I hope I’ve given you with the above information is a clear-eyed look at how pornography could affect your life.  This does not indict your fiancé, it will only impact him negatively if he chooses to not look at it with a clear understanding of the power pornography has to kill the soul (and relationships).  Christian author Bill Perkins said: “If you think you can’t fall into sexual sin, then you’re godlier than David, stronger than Samson, and wiser than Solomon.”  Think of that, Solomon, Samson and David, slaves to their own sexuality; and none of those three had to deal with the ubiquitous porn on the internet.

Let me change course now, because if understood well and acted upon with diligence, the two of you can create a great life together.  The first piece of good news is that, usually, when the porn use is from the distant path, the effects do fade.  To be more specific, if the last porn (or more generally, sexual fantasy) is one or two years ago, the odds of relationship success go up significantly.

I know many men (including this writer) who have previously been enslaved by pornography and ubiquitous fantasy who are doing quite nicely in their relationships now that they have embraced porn/sex addiction recovery.  Likewise, I know many women who are proud of their men who have embraced this recovery.  These men and their relationships are likely better off than most other relationships who have never dealt with the topic of sexual lust in any proactive way.  To be clear, I use the word addiction in this paragraph not to frighten you, but as a way to view this scourge with clear eyes.

To get practical, here are some steps I ask you to take.

  1. In life, in your marriage, with your kids, on every electronic device (phone, watches, computers, tablets, etc.) in every Christian home, please be sure to properly install pornography (think pics, chat, videos, etc.) accountability and/or blocking software.  Covenant Eyes has been around for a while and has a good product, however, other programs such as that found at https://www.accountable2you.com/ have been reported to me as good products for this purpose.
  2. Be willing to ask.  Here are three questions I urge you to ask whenever you choose (once every week or so).
    1.  When was the last time you viewed sexually inappropriate images?
    2.  When was the last time you masturbated?
    3.  When was the last time you fantasized about anyone sexually?
    If your fiancé responds non-defensively then he is probably a keeper.  Most men will embrace the idea that protecting you from this sin will promote your relationship.
  3. If this turns out to be more of an issue than you first suspected, but he is willing to protect his prospective family then he should:
    1) check in your diocese to see if there is a program which deals specifically with the issues of pornography and masturbation., or;
    2) there is a program called ‘fortify’ which is an online community complete with many videos, online mentoring and online accountability, or;
    3) check my web site; www.recoveringhearts.com.  I can help you assess and perhaps put you on the right path.

I said I would deal with ‘forgiveness and moving on’; I will now.  Your fiancé (without intended malice) dismissed your pain.  By telling you that he ‘has overcome it’, that usage was ‘every once in a while’, and that the last time was ‘about five months ago’, he totally dismissed your fear and your pain.  I realize that many, many people would have responded just as your fiancé did but that doesn’t change the fact that he ignored your pain while absolving himself.  This is a classic mistake made by men (and women) when a misdeed is discovered; basically, it is a holdover response from childhood.  That behavior says ‘Please forget about my failure’ while it completely ignores your injury.  I’m not saying that what he said is not true, I’m merely saying that his response was all about him and not about your pain.

You have been injured by him but because you love him, he is exactly the person who is most able to help you heal from your pain of infidelity.  Sue Johnson, with Kenneth  Sanderfer, have created a wonderful book entitled ‘Created for Connection’.  I recommend the book to you specifically for the chapter entitled ‘Conversation 5: Forgiving Injuries’.  Get yourself a copy of the book and read that chapter, preferably aloud, with your fiancé.  When your mind truly believes that he ‘gets’ the pain this has caused, you will feel free of the pain and you will come to believe that you have a partner who will protect you.  BTW: reading the rest of the book (hopefully together) will, additionally, be helpful to your relationship.

I hope this helps, please let me know if you have further questions.

Ron Kaufmann, MA, CO LPC #11336, EMDR Certified Therapist
National Certified Counselor #267299
AASAT Certified Sexual Recovery Therapist