Humans are relational beings. People need other people. We are hardwired to connect and we best flourish in enduring and nurturing relationships. [1] Within our social needs for connection and belonging, most people also desire romantic intimacy, too. In fact, most human beings love romance. So, it should come as no surprise that we get stoked about anything that can possibly improve romantic relationships.

So, what about porn? Have you ever heard someone say that porn can help improve romantic relationships? Or that porn is a great way to heat up a relationship and increase the bond between partners? The argument often goes something like this, “Pornography may not give you real sex, but porn can make your experience with real sex better—and that is good for a romantic relationship.”

Is that true?

Let’s take a look at what the research has to say about that. The answer actually looks different depending on whether we look at short-term or long-term results.

Short-Term, Self-Reported Results

It’s an attractive idea, and not difficult to understand why people may believe that porn can benefit couples.

On the surface, porn might seem to provide an immediate spark for excitement and novelty…at least at first. That is exactly what studies presumably showing the “positive effects of porn” on relationships are measuring—initial, surface, self-reported “positives” for relationships. For instance, one recent study found that couples who watch porn together report being more “sexually satisfied” than those who don’t watch XXX videos—emphasizing, as we just mentioned, the “novelty and excitement” that porn can seem to spark in a couple’s sex life. [2]

The other key factor is the length of the relationship. Many studies reporting the perceived positive effects of porn for couples have studied participants who are in early dating relationships. As the length and seriousness of the relationship go up, so do the negative effects of porn consumption for many couples.

Long-term, Observational Results

But, the thing is, we don’t always see the clearest possible results of what’s actually happening until we follow something over time. For example, look at eating and exercising patterns. People can be pretty happy about eating junk food in the moment, even for a short period of time. But, in time the overall effects of an unhealthy eating habit start to emerge and the long-term effects become more clear.

And what happens to the romance of couples who consume porn long-term? The long-term studies paint a very different picture. The preponderance of evidence from a dozen or more in-depth, longer-term studies consistently show porn consumption lowering relationship satisfaction, emotional closeness, and sexual satisfaction. [3] That doesn’t sound great, does it? Here are some examples from different research teams:

A 2012 study by Amanda Maddox and her team concluded that individuals who never viewed sexually-explicit material reported higher relationship quality (on every measure) compared with those who viewed the same explicit material on their own. [4]

A new study published in 2017 examined the impact of couples where one partner consumes more porn than the other—which is a pretty common pattern. The researchers concluded that “greater discrepancies between partners in pornography use were related to less relationship satisfaction, less stability, less positive communication, and more relational aggression”. [5]

In one of the few longitudinal studies to follow married couples for several years, researchers found that that porn consumption, particularly when viewed frequently by husbands, harms relationship satisfaction and quality. The researchers concluded:

“In general, married persons who more frequently viewed pornography in 2006 reported significantly lower levels of marital quality in 2012, net of controls for earlier marital quality and relevant correlates. Pornography’s effect was not simply a proxy for dissatisfaction with sex life or marital decision-making in 2006. In terms of substantive influence, the frequency of pornography use in 2006 was the second strongest predictor of marital quality in 2012”. [6]

This is pretty much how the longer-term, more in-depth studies turn out. In fact, we know of no study (outside of the short-term, self-report studies) that has demonstrated a positive effect of individual consumption of porn for relationship functioning in general or for men’s views of their partners.

Not surprising, right? It’s hard to imagine a person anywhere who felt more committed, more in love and more excited about his or her partner after consuming porn.

The bottom line is that whether or not porn “helps a relationship” depends on what you mean by “help.”

Are we talking about the short-term excitement? If so, then it should not be a surprise that some individuals or couples report feeling “arousal” or “novelty” in consuming porn together—as that is the exact template the porn industry uses to create their product. But, what does it mean for a relationship when a couple has to find their sexual excitement outside of their relationship with each other? What does it mean when your partner needs to look at someone else to get excited about being intimate with you? What does it mean when you need to look at someone else to get excited about being intimate with your partner? There are many ways to keep up the excitement in a couple’s physical relationship without having to bring explicit images of strangers on a screen having sex.

Or when we say “help a relationship” are we talking about longer-term, deep relationship satisfaction and stability? Almost no one reports porn helping that. Real relationships are made up of real people who are attracted to each other in authentic and genuine ways. And making that last for a lifetime means being attracted to each other as whole, three-dimensional people. It’s more than just being an imagined fantasy or trying to imitate the completely exaggerated and airbrushed world of scripted and edited porn sex.

So it’s up to you: what kind of relationship do you want to have? What kind of “stronger relationship” are you looking for? Depending on how you answer these questions, you may end up concluding very different things about porn—and its potential impact on you and the relationship you are in now, or want to have in the future.

Citations
[1] Cassidy, J., & Shaver, P. R. Eds. (2002). Handbook Of Attachment: Theory, Research, And Clinical Applications. Rough Guides.
[2] Frederick, D. A., Lever, J., Gillespie, B. J., & Garcia, J. R. (2017). What Keeps Passion Alive? Sexual Satisfaction Is Associated With Sexual Communication, Mood Setting, Sexual Variety, Oral Sex, Orgasm, And Sex Frequency In A National U.S. Study. The Journal Of Sex Research, 54(2), 186-201. Doi:10.1080/00224499.2015.1137854
[3] Wilson, G. (2013). Studies Linking Porn Use Or Porn/Sex Addiction To Sexual Dysfunctions, Lower Arousal, And Lower Sexual & Relationship Satisfaction; Retrieved From https://www.yourbrainonporn.com/studies-reported-relationships-between-porn-use-or-porn-addictionsex-addiction-and-sexual
[4] Maddox, A. M., Rhoades, G. K., & Markman, H. J. (2011). Viewing Sexually-Explicit Materials Alone or Together: Associations with Relationship Quality. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 40(2), 441–448. http://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-009-9585-4
[5] Willoughby, B. J., Carroll, J. S., Busby, D. M., & Brown, C. (2016). Differences in pornography use among couples: Associations with satisfaction, stability, and relationship processes. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 45, 145-148, doi: 10.1007/s10508-015-0562-9
[6] Perry, S. L. (2017). Does viewing pornography reduce marital quality over time? Evidence from longitudinal data. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 46(2), 549-559. doi:https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-016-0770-y

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