What to do when a partner discloses they have a problem with online pornography

When a partner unexpectedly discloses to you that they may have a hidden problem with online pornography, it can be difficult to know what, or the right, thing to do next.

What can I do when my partner tells me they have a problem with pornography?

This is called a partner disclosure, while usually upsetting and distressing for unprepared partners, a disclosure retains a degree of connection and integrity within the relationship. For many, talking about a personal and private porn habit can be a difficult and awkward conversation to start, so it’s not unusual to just avoid the topic altogether.

“Partners that choose to make a disclosure about problematic porn use are generally psychologically ready for openness, support and intervention – they are reaching out to you for help.”

Don’t panic

If your partner discloses that they have a problem with online pornography – don’t panic. The fact that they came to you about the problem is a positive sign and a really big deal for them. The priority should be getting the support and intervention both you and your partner needs right now to address, understand and overcome the problem.  

A discovery, on the other hand is when there has been no discussion or disclosure from a partner about any use of pornography and a discovery is made by you. Whether by accident, incident or intuition, discoveries can be intensely stressful and traumatic for partners. Hidden or secretive pornography use can create complex dilemmas and problems for otherwise committed couples.

If you would like to understand more about the potential impact of hidden porn use, read my article Two Harmful Results of Hidden Porn Use.

It’s not just the pornography content that is the problem here of course. Both a disclosure and discovery can bring to light some unexpected fundamental flaws in a relationship associated with trust, openness, honesty, safety and security. Once there is a realisation of deception or dishonestly by a loving partner, feelings of anger and betrayal could surge – so hold tight. The process of working through a discovery together will not be the same as a disclosure.  

Preference versus problem

Hidden pornography use is not the same as problematic pornography use or online pornography addiction. Many people make a conscious choice not to talk about their use of pornography to a partner which may in-time result in a discovery. Some times a disclosure finally comes after multiple discoveries and this is when couples end up in therapy together.

The antidote to avoid the dilemma of a disclosure or a discovery of porn use is continuous communication and openness about sex and sexuality including exploring feelings, beliefs, desires and attitudes towards sex throughout your relationship.

Acknowledge that they are reaching out for help

Partners that choose to make a disclosure about problematic porn use are generally psychologically ready for openness, support and intervention. They are reaching out to you for help and might be at rock bottom. They often prepare mentally for some time, or with a therapist, how best to approach the situation and bring it to light, thus displaying their desire and readiness for change.

Talk about the signs and symptoms

The signs of an invisible addiction may already be presenting in your relationship and interfering with your romantic attachment and intimacy. Often partners intuitively know that all is not right but are unable to pinpoint any specific problem.

Ultimately, its crucial to understand that no one intentionally or consciously develops a dependency or addiction in the first place. Focusing on establishing mental health and well-being is paramount when this type of circumstance arises.

Be compassionate

Taking a compassionate approach towards your partners problem, challenging as that may be if you are hurting too, will be beneficial for you both in the long run. That does not mean your thoughts and feelings don’t matter right now – it means you can both feel and separate your feelings towards your partner and their problem and tend to both.

You both deserve support and healing, but you may not be the best people to do that for each other once this breaks. The time will come to work through any relationship concerns once your partner is overcoming their problem. Remember to also treat yourself with compassion and release yourself of any blame for your partners problem.

Understand more about the problem

Following the initial partner disclosure, the first step is to make a mutual agreement to sit down together in a safe environment to understand and discuss, in detail, the nature of the problem and the many behaviours and symptoms associated with the problem.

Online pornography problems can and does extend into other behaviours including unwanted sexual behaviours, mental health problems and psychosexual concerns. Even the most popular mainstream adult websites host more than video content and ‘just pornography’, so it’s important to explore and understand the full nature, source and extent of the problem.  

Consider a disclosure process

Called a disclosure process, this can be a sensitive, and often difficult process for everyone involved, but understanding the nature of the problem is an important next step for everyone. A disclosure process also helps partners experiencing betrayal to come to terms with and familiarize themselves with an issue they did not even know existed. Working through a disclosure may be the first opportunity your partner has had to speak about their pornography problem. It is very possible they themselves do not understand fully the nature of the problem or what steps to take next.  

The information explored and questions discussed during the disclosure process will provide answers, context, clarity, and factual information about the nature and extent of the problem to help normalise it in some way.  If left unaddressed or dismissed, online pornography addiction will likely progress and result ultimately in the deterioration of your relationship.

Couples who have a strong bond will be able to get through this disclosure process intact. If this feels too much for you right now that’s okay too, make a suggestion for your partner to work through a full disclosure with a therapist. Then when you feel ready, or strong enough, revisit the concept together.

Separate the problem from the relationship

Couples can respectfully discuss the hidden nature of sexual acting and the problem so that they can together set clearer boundaries and ground rules for moving forward. Online pornography addiction is your partners problem to resolve, it subsequently causes relationship problems which can be addressed together. By separating the problem from the relationship it will feel more manageable. This will be an important aspect of restoring trust in the relationship and taking the healing process for everyone involved to the next level.

“The antidote to avoid the dilemma of a disclosure or a discovery of porn use is continuous communication and openness about sex and sexuality including exploring feelings, beliefs, desires and attitudes towards sex throughout your relationship.”

Watch out for red flags

Your partner’s resistance, or eagerness, to work through their problem will be the primary deciding factor in how you support them and proceed with the relationship. If your partner happens to shut down and does not wish to work with you through a disclosure or any discussion, you may inevitably find yourself in a gridlock situation and unable to move forward together.

Minimising and dismissing the problem may be a sign of denial or shame associated with the behaviour.  Both responses signify a lack of empathy and compassion towards the impact on you and the relationship. The biggest red flag however to watch out for is acknowledging a problem but not seeking any help and being told they have ‘stopped’ and trying to put the problem behind you both. Recovery and healing does not work that way.

Make a solid plan to get support

Dependencies, process addictions and problematic porn use does not magically stop overnight. It takes behavioural changes, lifestyle changes, cognitive changes and will require some form of a recovery path that takes time. An influential factor in recovery will be getting the support of a professional therapist to lead the way and develop self-awareness.

Make a solid plan together to get support in the short term either through individual therapy, couples therapy or learning more about how to overcome problems with pornography. You might like to read my recent article ‘13 Self-help Tools For Overcoming Pornography Addiction‘. If you would like help, support or guidance or to book an online therapy session get in-touch with me on www.orlaghreid.com

Orlagh Reid Psychotherapy

Orlagh Reid

Orlagh Reid is an IACP accredited Counsellor & Psychotherapist, Addiction Counsellor, Gottman Couples Therapist and Fertility Counsellor in private practice based in Co. Kildare, Ireland and worldwide online via DOXY. She specialises in addiction, recovery, well-being and clinical sexology. To find out more or to book an online consultation visit www.orlaghreid.com

Orlagh Reid Psychotherapy MIACP Therapy Ireland

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