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Articles by David H Jacobs Ph.D

Inwardness, Marital Discord, and Porn

A positive, nurturing, etc. upbringing psychologically prepares a person to successfully meet the challenges that inevitably arise in an intimate relationship. I say inevitable because there will always be some friction at times between two people, no matter how well suited they are for each other. The other person in a relationship is another person, with his/her own needs, values, perspective, trigger points, moods, idiosyncrasies, foibles, quirks, blind spots, and so on. No one’s needs, wants, etc. are fulfilled 100% of the time by one’s partner or spouse. Thus all relationships are challenging in certain ways and degree. People with a positive, nurturing background can accept this and deal realistically with relationship conflict, disappointment, and frustration when they arise. They are able to do this partly intuitively and partly by getting to know their spouse or partner as a unique individual. They are able to learn from experience and adapt. They also are able to select a person as spouse or partner that actually suits them. By contrast, a person who has been psychologically harmed by his/her upbringing will have significant difficulty selecting a suitable partner in the first place and will frequently find the challenges of intimate relating and repairing relationship disruptions beyond what they are capable of doing. This brings me to men ultimatumed by their wives into treatment for making a habit of watching porn.

Virtually no one I have seen regarding a habit of watching porn has come on his own initiative. The usual scenario is being ultimatumed by his wife after his wife has discovered his porn watching habit. Even men who know their way around a computer appear to be unable to or indifferent about covering their tracks, it seems. This is interesting. But the observation I want to get to right away is that the men who are sent to me by hurt and angry wives have marital grievances they have given up trying to resolve. More to the point, they find themselves helpless and powerless in the relationship regarding their grievances. Their grievances are no longer a topic of discussion in the relationship, if they ever were. Instead, they find opportunities to watch porn, secretly and alone.

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that a habit of watching porn has taken the place of endeavoring to be intimate and to repair relationship conflicts. It could be said it is a retreat from the challenges of intimacy and relationship maintenance and repair. But I think the habit developed because a tendency or penchant for inwardness already existed’”a legacy of their psychological developmental background in their family of origin.

Inwardness is a penchant to prefer non-social stimulation and gratification. It develops growing up because the degree of threat, fear, anxiety, etc. accompanying actual social interactions and relations in the family outweighs gratifications. Thus a person becomes vulnerable to preferring non-social activities and to retreat from social activities and relations in the face of relational difficulties. Such a person longs for and fantasizes about self-sufficiency as much as or more than real social relationships. A person with a penchant for inwardness/self-sufficiency may retreat from the challenges of intimacy when the going gets rough to sources of non-relational gratification while nominally remaining in the relationship and going through many of the motions. Thus habits like secret porn watching, secret drinking, and so on.

I emphasize that many of the men I see regarding a habit of watching porn feel defeated and frustrated in their relationship. A habit of watching porn is a retreat, a fallback position, a giving in to their penchant for inwardness, and probably too a de facto expression of (secret) hostility because they know their wives will feel rejected and wounded by the fact that they have made watching porn a habit when their wives eventually discover their habit (they have been sent to me because they failed to cover their tracks).

A word here on the advisability of marital counseling, considering that I am opining that marital conflict, discord, disappointment, etc. is usually part of the big picture of a habit of watching porn. My view is that marital counseling will not upgrade either member’s ability to take care of him/herself in an intimate relationship’”to be more considerate, empathic, generous, more able to balance self-assertion with generosity and compromise, more able to tolerate frustration and disappointment, etc. It is one thing for a couple to more or less do as instructed when sitting in the marriage counselor’s office, quite something else to maintain the format and spirit of the session at home when feeling stung, wounded, enraged, etc. At home you are left to your own devices. You cannot evade or work around yourself at home. This is why I have concluded that the realistic and responsible thing to do for a couple with serious marital difficulties is for each member to engage in personal work in individual psychotherapy. The fault in a nutshell is not the other person in the relationship; the fault lies in one’s own emotional and relationship difficulties. When one’s own psychological and relational difficulties improve, the marital relationship naturally improves. The place to upgrade one’s own psychological and relational abilities is in individual psychotherapy. I will repeat for the sake of anyone reading this blog and hoping to gather information about how to proceed regarding a marital crisis that it is a fundamental error to think the fault lies in the other person and he or she needs to get fixed. We must all deal with relationship difficulties on our own in vivo. When your own foibles and so on are less severe you will have a better instinct for how to conduct yourself in your relationship (this includes deciding if you should be in this relationship).

Wives feel, understandably, that a secret habit of watching porn drains interest, energy, and feeling away from the marital relationship. Even if a wife does not feel that watching porn is de facto infidelity, she does feel hurt and betrayed that sexual interest and energy has turned away from her to something else. Few rejections hurt as much as sexual rejection. But I don’t intend to defuse the thesis proposed above: relationship discord does NOT indicate that the other is at fault and needs to be fixed. The care, maintenance, repair, etc. of your relationship cannot be someone else’s responsibility. If your relationship is sick you cannot just diagnose the problem as someone else’s (terms I hear all the time) narcissism, addiction, borderline personality disorder, etc. You can only work on you. If you do and your partner does not, working on you will better enable you to decide what to do.

I think it is reasonable to say that most people find sexuality intrinsically interesting. I have yet to talk to a man that was not exposed to porn at some point growing up. I could also make the observation that explicit sexuality has been colonized by giant commercial interests in a manner I would not have believed possible in American society when I was a young man (seen a movie or a music video lately?). That said, a habit of secret, solitary porn watching in marriage still requires explanation. The internet of course makes it possible, but the fact that it is possible to make a habit of secret, solitary porn watching does not explain why a specific individual has retreated from intimacy and emotional closeness in marriage in favor of watching porn. I emphasize I am talking about a strong habit of watching porn that drains interest, time, and energy, including sexual energy, away from the marital relationship. The easy accessibility of porn on the internet no more explains an addiction-like habit than the easy accessibility of alcohol explains ruinous, self-destructive drinking or the abundant availability of books explains a strong preference for reading over sociability. In all cases individual psychology must be addressed. Excesses do not explain themselves (particularly ruinous, self-defeating and self-harming excesses).

Marital discord, frustration, and unhappiness set the stage for some people to develop solitary habits aimed at self-gratification and self-soothing. I think a preexisting penchant for inwardness makes a person especially vulnerable to developing self-gratifying, non-social, non-relational habits. Such a penchant has developmental roots, which usually implicates actual conditions growing up in the family of origin. As adults in marriage, some men ‘find themselves’ is a situation of powerlessness and helplessness vis a vis their wives reminiscent of their experience as a child growing up in their family. Although their actual spouse cannot simply be removed from the equation, pre-existing vulnerabilities and tendencies play an important role. Pre-existing vulnerabilities and tendencies act to make life drearily repetitive over long periods of time. This is enshrined in the idiomatic slogan ‘Wherever you go there you are.’ It’s often easily recognizable in others. When the subject is our own difficulties, it is extraordinarily difficult to perceive the tangled web we weave. Couples tend to see each others flaws far more clearly than their own. This makes finger-pointing the main activity in couples counseling sessions. Not beneficial. What is fruitful is looking at yourself, but it can’t be done alone any more than you can see your own face without an external aid. Many people of course do not want to look at themselves. I am very sympathetic. In a previous blog I opined it is more difficult to be a client in psychotherapy than it is to be the psychotherapist. I mean emotionally difficult (being a therapist is difficult in a number of ways). But deeply entrenched and trouble-causing personality traits do not seem to reform themselves over time, despite the misery they cause. This is why psychotherapy exists.

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