One of the first and hardest things we face as the spouses of sex addicts is the struggle to understand why. Why would he hurt me this way? Why did he turn to porn when I was always there for him? Why was I not enough? Why does my spouse use pornography?
That is a complex question, but it is important to understand that your partner’s actions had nothing to do with you. This was in no way your fault; no shortcoming of yours drove your spouse to seek pleasure elsewhere; and there was nothing you should or could have done to stop it. It is not about you.
It is about evolution, social norms, and brain chemistry.
Although a surprising number of women use porn, and many become addicted, the majority of openly recovering porn addicts tend to be men. For that reason, this explanation will focus on generalizations about the male psyche, with apologies for the gender bias.
Humans rely on our vision to perceive and understand the world more than most other animals, and men are often especially visual. Their attention tends to be drawn by visual stimuli, often to a greater extent than that of most women. This tendency may be a genetic holdover from a time in humanity’s distant past when males relied heavily on sight for hunting, compared with hominid females’ slightly less critical demands on their own eyesight.
Porn offers attractive visual stimuli, with easy instant access to even more, and different, images. The variety and novelty of those images is something else men have evolved to respond to and seek. From an evolutionary standpoint, males of most species stand a better chance of passing on their genes to the next generation by seeking as many different partners as possible. Humans have evolved socially, and today we are more concerned with passing our genes on to well-adjusted offspring who are part of loving family units, but those urges are still part of the programming. The thing that separates humans from other animals is that we have the ability to control those urges, and we expect ourselves – and each other- to do so.
Unfortunately, society – mainstream society, not just the porn industry – sends the message that giving in to those urges is okay, even normal. We live in a culture that bombards us with sexual images and teaches us that seeking those images is normal, healthy, acceptable behavior. As a result, porn users believe that their habit is a normal, healthy, acceptable way to seek quick gratification, deal with boredom or loneliness, or relieve stress.
Your partner probably doesn’t understand your feelings and his or her porn use, or the impact it has on you, because he or she honestly believes that porn use is safe, that “everyone does it”, and that because it involves only words and pictures on a screen, it is not real infidelity. These assumptions are incorrect; pornography use is a form of cheating, it is not healthy, and it does have a real impact on people and relationships.
Pornography use may be unfortunately common in our culture, but that does not make it “normal,” healthy, acceptable, or harmless. Your own feelings at the moment, as well as the damage to your relationship with your spouse, give a good example of the harm pornography use can cause. Too much pornography use can also instill unrealistic standards of attractiveness and even more unrealistic standards of attractive behavior. In addition, the same factors that make porn such a compelling trap – easy access, social acceptance, visual stimuli, variety, and novelty – sometimes make it dangerously easy for a bad, harmful, unhealthy habit to turn into an addiction.
Addiction begins with a seemingly harmless click on a pornographic site while the user is bored, lonely, or possibly depressed. The instinctive appeal of varied and novel sexual images draws the user further in, and the instant access offered by the internet may generate a seeming compulsion to keep clicking and keep viewing. Even those of us who have never used porn are familiar with this stage; most internet users understand the urge to move just one more crop in FarmVille, read just one more Tweet, or click on just one more silly cat photo, until one turns into thirty and you’re late for lunch.
Pornography is more compelling, and more dangerous, than LOLcats or social media games because of the way it interacts with the brain. The chemistry and biology of addiction are not fully understood even by neuroscientists, but the simplest model is based on a a chemical in the brain called dopamine, which stimulates a feeling of pleasure or happiness. Humans evolved the dopamine system to encourage and reinforce behaviors which are beneficial to our ability to survive and pass on our genes, such as eating, socializing, and reproduction. For this reason, viewing sexual images can easily trigger the release of dopamine.t
At this point, the porn user who began because it presented an appealing stimulus in the midst of boredom or loneliness, now continues using porn because it seems to feel good. Over time, this artificial stimulation of dopamine release cause the brain to build up a tolerance for the chemical, as in any other addiction. This means that the brain needs a stronger signal to create the same pleasant feeling. In terms of pornography addiction, this causes the user to seek more porn, more hard-core porn, or other stimuli in order to get the same feeling. At this point, the pornography user has become a pornography addict.
Without serious, professional help and a dedicate effort on his or her own part, the answer to why becomes “Because I can’t.”