Porn and a long-distance relationship

Hi Ron,

My fiancé and I have been in a long-distance relationship all throughout dating and our engagement. 
He has struggled since high school with pornography and masturbation and has been very honest with me about this struggle since early on in our relationship and is actively seeking to overcome it. He downloaded Covenant Eyes and hasn't viewed pornography for 9 months, although he says the temptation is still there and he is very open about sharing this with me, especially when the temptation is strong. Masturbation is a daily temptation for him, but he goes months at a time without it, most recently he went over 4 months without masturbating, but unfortunately today he gave in to the temptation and told me about it right away and went straight to confession. I know that he is actively seeking to overcome this, but there is a part of me that gets scared if it is something that will be harmful to our marriage. He knows my stance on it and understands that it is a grave sin and he has a deep desire to overcome it once and for all and I want to support him in that. There is a part of me that worries whether or not it is ok to get married while it is still a struggle. Is it still considered a serious struggle when it only happens once every few months, I understand that it is a grave sin and he does too. How can I best support him to be free from this and overcome it completely.

Thank you,
Susan

Thank you for this heartfelt question, Susan, I’m sure this is worrisome to both of you.
You and your fiancée seem to be thoughtful, faithful and moral Catholics; nonetheless, he is right to keep trying to rid himself of his behavior and you are right to be concerned. I don’t think there is cause to panic but rather, to understand why his path has been difficult and what changes to make.

For simplicity’s sake, I’ll call him Joe if that’s OK. I appreciate the fact that Joe has not masturbated in 4 months, but you state that it is a daily temptation. That tells me something is amiss; that’s not about trusting Joe nor questioning his motives, rather, I imagine Joe needs some advice (information), probably some coaching and a few good men with whom to share his burden.

Some things for both of you to consider:

a) Joe may be thinking of you, maybe even looking at a picture of you and allowing himself to fantasize sexually (not being presented as a ‘good’ alternative).
b) Joe may be allowing himself to look at non-pornographic images which, nonetheless, cause him to fantasize about sexual thoughts.
c) Joe may just be feeling a bit of morning testosterone and it may bring an image/thought to his mind.

All these situations, and more, will cause his temptation to masturbate to stay alive in his mind.  Our brain (as opposed to our mind) is amoral, it doesn’t make judgments about thoughts, nor about the chemical urges it detects or presents. In the past, Joe has indulged himself and has ‘trained’ his brain to understand what brought him pleasure and relief. Now, when he thinks some of those thoughts, his brain presents the same solution… “come on, Joe, this will take your mind off those thoughts”. Thus, masturbation becomes the elephant in the room; it becomes impossible not to think about until he gives in and then the thoughts temporarily go away only to lurk until the next time the brain once again sees this as the solution.

Here are some recommendations for Joe (and you).

  1. Don’t panic: recognize that this is a problem for two healthy young people to solve and that it has been solved many times in the past by people just like yourselves. 
  2. Recognize that Joe is not ‘bad’ nor particularly ‘sinful’, innately, but that he has trained his brain to use the masturbation chemicals to solve temporary life problems. This is a bit like me eating a chocolate bar when I’m fidgety; it’s not good for me but in that moment, it sure seems like it is.
  3. Joe must begin the process of ‘retraining’ his brain to a) reject the masturbation ‘solution’, and; b) to find new more creative solutions to those problems. 
    Make sure to check this file, ‘Recovery Basics’ which outlines a 3-layer approach to accomplishing that goal.  I also recommend a book by a friend, Dr. Doug Weiss, called ‘Sex, Men & God’ which is helpful for its explanations and for the solutions it contains.  There are many helpful books which deal with solutions to this problem, start with this one to get a very practical perspective.

You are right to be concerned, the long-term effects of continuing this habit into marriage will not be good. Masturbation will always lead to marital dissatisfaction. It will not only rob you of the power of intimacy power which sex is designed to provide, it will cause friction between you, and will also cause Joe to become more and more self-absorbed (over years) as it becomes reinforced as his solution to marital discord.

But, don’t panic: As I stated earlier, the solution is sort of like picking up your lunch pail and going to work each day. If you both approach this as the re-making of a habit, you will succeed and go on to live happy, productive, and holy lives together.

God bless and 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