Over the years, numerous studies have examined the link between porn use and heterosexual marital happiness, with most of this research revealing a negative association. In general, these studies tell us that if one partner is looking at porn, marital satisfaction (happiness within the relationship, sexual gratification within the relationship, contentment with marital decision making, etc.) tends to be lower than with a non-porn-using relationship control group. That said, not every study has produced the same results, and some research has found that if it’s the woman rather than the man who is looking at porn, marital satisfaction either stays the same or increases.
Unfortunately, these studies all have significant limitations. For starters, they’ve examined relatively homogenous groups – typically college undergraduates and graduate students, the most readily available survey population, and usually from a single university. Thus, the findings cannot easily be extended to the general population. Especially as most married couples are not college students. Moreover, these studies have looked at their limited population samples at a single moment in time, the moment of the actual research, rather than tracking couples over time to see longer-term effects.
Recently, Samuel Perry and Joshua Davis from the University of Oklahoma’s Sociology Department sought to alleviate these shortcomings using data collected in two waves of the Portraits of American Life Study (PALS), an age and ethnographically representative survey asking questions about social networks, moral attitudes, politics, relationships, religion, and specific recreational behaviors (including the use of porn). In particular, Perry and Davis pulled information provided by married people from the 2006 and 2012 PALS surveys, including responses to questions about porn use and relationship satisfaction. (Their research looked only at legally married couples, so the findings should not be extended beyond this group.)
- Regarding porn use, all study participants were asked, “In the past 12 months, how often have you viewed pornographic materials?” Responses ranged from “1 = once per day or more” to “8 = never.”
- Regarding marital satisfaction, married study participants were asked, “All things considered, how would you consider your marriage relationship?” Responses ranged from “1 = completely unhappy” to “7 = completely happy.” Participants were also asked how satisfied they were with the love and affection they received from their spouse, and their decision-making as a couple, with similar (though not identical) response scales.
Perry and Davis first replicated the results of earlier studies, comparing 2006 responses to other 2006 responses and finding that, at that particular moment in time, increased porn use was correlated with decreased marital satisfaction. Put very simply, in marriages where one or both of the partners used porn, overall relationship satisfaction tended to be lower. Then Perry and Davis moved on to the real question they hoped to answer: What are the long-term effects of porn on marital happiness? For this they needed to incorporate the 2012 results. And their findings were pretty much as they expected. In short, they found that porn use, over time, is correlated with decreasing marital satisfaction. Moreover, they found that the link is significantly stronger with male porn use than female porn use.
Perry and Davis state that the discrepancy between genders may be the result of men engaging in a form of “social learning” or “scripting” when they look at porn. Basically, they suggest that male porn users gradually start to compare their real world relationship to the idealized bodies and hypersexual activity they view on the internet, eventually finding their real world partner and sexual activity lacking. Thus, both the men and their partners report decreased marital satisfaction.
This may in fact be the case, though it seems to me that other factors may be in play. For one thing, men and women generally have very different opinions on what constitutes infidelity – a topic I have written about at length in my book, Out of the Doghouse: A Step-by-Step Relationship-Saving Guide for Men Caught Cheating, and in numerous articles posted online. Thus, a man might view his wife’s porn use as hot and a great way to spice things up, while a woman might view her husband’s porn use as cheating and a betrayal of trust. This would certainly explain the differing effects of a husband’s versus a wife’s porn use on marital satisfaction.
Importantly, Perry and Davis found that the strongest decline in marital satisfaction was at the highest level of porn viewing (one or more times per day). They astutely state that use at this level could be indicative of an addiction – a thought that is very much in line with my almost three decades of experience as a relationship and sexual disorders treatment specialist. In particular, this idea aligns with what I’ve witnessed over the course of the last decade, a timeframe in which digital pornography has become more accessible, less expensive, and more socially acceptable. In my opinion, it is this continually increasing ubiquity, affordability, and acceptability that makes compulsive porn use, often for multiple hours daily, not just possible but surprisingly common.
Generally, what happens with heavy porn use, especially addictive porn use, is that porn becomes progressively more important in the user’s life, with other aspects of healthy living and healthy relationship slowly pushed to the side. (This also occurs with addictive drinking, drug use, gambling, spending, video gaming, etc.) Even long-term relationships take a back seat. As such, a marriage can suffer over time on multiple levels. At the very least, there are nearly always secrets and lies about porn use (and perhaps other extracurricular sexual activities). And this creates emotional and sometimes even physical distance between the partners, not to mention a loss of relationship trust. Thus, marital satisfaction takes a nosedive.
So how bad is this? Can cheating with porn lead to divorce? And, if so, how likely is it?
According to Perry and Davis, porn use almost doubles the likelihood of getting divorced in the next four years, increasing the probability from 6 percent to 11 percent. And the effects of porn use are even more significant for marriages that start out as “very happy.” In fact, Perry and Davis say that among people who self-describe as very happy in their marriages when initially surveyed, starting porn use prior to the next survey quadrupled the likelihood of divorce within the next four years, from 3 percent to 12 percent.
Whatever the reasons, it is clear that porn use, especially male porn use, can be, for some married couples, profoundly detrimental to the relationship both in-the-moment, as previous research has generally indicated, and long-term. That said, I think it would be unwise to apply these findings to every relationship. All people and all relationships are unique. What is problematic for one couple may not be for another, and vice versa.
At the end of the day I am certain of this: Relationship trust is far more important to the long-term success of a marriage than porn use (or any other sexual behavior). If a couple can communicate openly and can mutually agree upon the sexual and emotional boundaries that work in their relationship (regardless of how others do things), they will likely report a high degree of both trust and satisfaction – as long as their agreed upon boundaries are upheld and secrets are not being kept. For some marriages, this might mean no porn at all; for other marriages, limited porn use might be OK; for other couples, porn use might not be an issue at all.