Am I Addicted or Do I Have A Relationship Problem?
This is an important question and the answer is not an easy one.
The answer oftentimes is both.
Sometimes it’s predominantly a relationship issue.
Sometimes it’s predominantly the behavior is driving the relationship issues.
Sometimes it’s the other way around.
Let me tell you what I mean through a hypothetical situation.
Let’s say John calls and says, “Craig. How are you? Thank you for listening. I’m an addict. I’ve been struggling with porn since I was young and my wife has had enough. I want out.”
Right away I hear a clue. My wife has had enough, so clearly, he’s in a relationship. There’s a problem in that relationship. Know what he didn’t say?
He didn’t say, “Craig, this is John. I am struggling to stay in control. I’m out of control. My behavior is ruining my life.” Instead, he went very quickly to the relationship.
The next thing that I want to understand is what is the behavior that he wants to stop doing? In this case, John just wanted to stop looking at porn.
There was no infidelity.
There were no affairs.
There was no cheating.
Next step: how severe is the behavior? In this case, John watches porn maybe three times a week for 15 minutes at a time.
Is This An Addiction?
So, I challenged John around what I just heard. Because what I heard wouldn’t fall into any objective definition of addiction.
Three times a week. There’s an article out there that says masturbating cleans your prostate and you should do it three to five times a week. The American Medical Association that says masturbation is healthy. Three to five times a week is not outside of any normal curve.
And yet every place that this man called they focused on his ‘addiction.’
They say things like,
“You can’t stop doing it, can you?”
“Your wife asked you lots of times to stop doing it, right?”
“And you didn’t stop, did you?”
“Then it is an addiction.”
The problem is, it is not an addiction.
That’s amateur hour. That’s checkers!
We’re going to play chess.
I begin to invite John to think, “Okay, John, does that sound like an addiction to you? What are you watching?”
I need to make sure I’m not missing anything – Maybe he’s watching something that’s really in conflict with who he is. For example, if he was watching transgender porn yet defining himself as a heterosexual male.
What you’re watching is very important.
It was what he defined as “normal stuff.” There were no strong religious beliefs that put this into the sin category.
So, I’m pretty convinced it’s a relationship issue. You want to watch porn. You like porn and your partner doesn’t.
In this case, his partner was a feminist and was on the porn-hating side of the feminist spectrum. Feminism, just like any other school of thought, embraces lots of different voices and there is a split in the feminist community as to whether or not porn is good or bad. There are people who argue pornography is good. This is, woman, your body, your rules and taking power back. There are other women who say pornography is a product of the patriarchy and any form/expression is unhealthy. Then there are other voices in between. Very complicated issue. Anybody who tries to tell you this isn’t complicated is lying to you. It is a complicated issue. It’s a complicated issue because where this manifest itself is in the relationship.
Addiction or Relationship Issue?
Does John have an addiction?
The key question is, is his behavior a numbing, coping, and escaping strategy at the expense of healthy sexuality and a great life?
Or does John believe he has the right and wants to watch porn? Is it that sexual needs in the relationship aren’t being met and he chooses to watch porn and his wife hates it?
Is it a relationship issue or is it an addiction issue?
What do you think?
For me, this is clearly a relationship issue.
Let’s look at it from another perspective. Instead of porn or sex addiction, how about we call it intimacy disorder. This keeps the focus on the relationship.
Here’s the big controversy in even what I’m saying. I don’t want anyone to say I am blaming the partner. I am not blaming anybody. We are all responsible for our self, for our decisions, for the choices we make.
When you look at a relationship and a man is choosing to watch porn versus connect with his partner – he is consciously or subconsciously choosing – you have to ask why. Why is he doing that? If you ignore the relationship dynamic in answering that question then you’re back to playing checkers.
Steve had called me after spending at least $21,000 getting sex addiction treatment at the local place down the street.
He had also attended another inpatient facility.
Gone through years of counseling.
Steve is convinced that he’s an addict.
He calls me and tells me his frequency and severity.
Not one person ever stopped to ask him how often he was using porn.
Well, when my child died my frequency went up a little bit.
Maybe it was a few times a week.
Since then it’s been once a month, once every two weeks. It’s actually been three months since I’ve last done it. He’s calling me to get in my program. It is clearly evident in that situation that there is a profound relationship issue.
Why the Label Matters
This is why the label ‘porn addiction’ is so nefarious. Why it’s so detrimental.
Don’t get my wrong, it does have value in that it connects with the compulsive nature of this problem.
But that label creates a one-up-one-down dynamic in the relationship. The partner is up, the addict is down. All the problems are viewed through the lens of his addiction.
Take Steve who’s been doing years of addiction treatment, years of different programs to prevent him from the occasional, infrequent use of porn. He’s got a wife who’s got strong religious beliefs/convictions against it. You’ve got to respect that. That’s your wife.
He had those same beliefs. He didn’t want porn in his life either. We talk a lot about how all of our negative behavior being a function of our unmet needs.
You can’t just take the negative behavior in isolation.
Steve’s relationship was in dire straights.
Let me say it again, I am not blaming the partner.
But in every single case that I’ve worked on, regardless of how egregious the man’s behavior was, there were two people bringing their dysfunction into that relationship.
Each of them have their own root cause.
Each of them had their own origin story.
Each of them had their own problems as a child.
Each of them were managing conflict, artfully or not, healthy or not, within the relationship.
Each of them had profound needs that weren’t being met.
So guys, be John and not Steve.
Steve spent 8-10 years in the one-down position.
Life your relationship isn’t going to work, at least be happy. If you are not arm-in-arm, together, moving forward where both of your needs have value, at least be happy.
Guys often feel like everything is being viewed from that narrow lens, and that lens is too narrow, this pop culture phenomenon of porn addiction.
We get it.
But please don’t layer on top of it an 80-year-old belief system; an 80-year-old disease-based modality.
Do not diseasify your sexuality!
This compulsive problem manifests itself in a negative way. That narrow lens – porn addiction – is being brought onto a very complicated dynamic, the coupling of two complicated human beings, each with their own unmet needs, each with their own backstory, each with their own attitudes around sex.
Some guys will say, “I don’t have the courage to tell my wife that I enjoy this sexual act.” That’s precisely why it’s important to look at this problem from a perspective of an intimacy disorder – it forces you to look at the relationship.
Recognize in any relationship there will be two people bringing their own energy, some good, some bad. You’re going to get farther faster seeing this problem holistically. For those of you who aren’t porn addicts, do not just go along with that label just shut your wife up. That’s just going to create a lifetime of suffering from being in that one-down position instead of your needs being equal and recognizing the challenges in the relationship that might be influencing your decision making.
I want you to play chess. I want you to be smart. This is complicated.
This is much more complicated than a label.