Needless to say, this is a highly sensitive topic and one that needs to be approached with great care. The aim of this article is to help people whose dating and pursuit of marriage is being impeded by an addiction to porn. This article is not discussing the rights and wrongs of porn itself. Everyone understands that pornography is a problematic area, and that even its defenders are aware of the many issues it gives raise to. Thus, the purpose here is not to preach the evils of porn, but to look at the ways that it complicates a person’s path towards forming a healthy relationship. [In a separate article, we discuss how this plays out in a marriage.]
Clearly, there are halachic and spiritual problems with pornography, and besides for the fact that this behavior contradicts those rules and values, it leads in many cases to deep internal conflicts and debilitating pangs of guilt. But we are not focusing here on that side of things. We are looking at ‘addiction’ to porn, which means, as a minimum, that the person feels a degree of compulsion. If someone dabbles in watching porn, this has its own consideration, but it is not the issue at hand.
Addiction = Loss of Control
Before going forward, it must be said that if a person’s porn addiction is severe, this is indicative of an intimacy disorder – a psychological illness that has the effect of distracting the person from meaningful interaction with a real human being to replacing it with impersonal sensual imagery. Such a form of addiction is based on neurochemical changes that occur in the brain as a result of prolonged exposure to stimulating sexual imagery. Because of its neuron-chemical basis, it is tenacious, progressive and destructive in nature. Unless this disorder is addressed and resolved, a relationship cannot move forward on a healthy footing. In short, this is a mental health issue and needs to be addressed in the manner one would approach any serious mental health malady. This kind of situation is also not the purpose of this chapter.
So, what do we address? We are dealing with someone who (hopefully) recognizes that they have lost some control on this matter and are “in too deep.” Addiction is not a “one size fits all,” whereby a person is either addicted or they are not. It is a complex phenomenon, and each person may experience it a particular way. However, there are several common denominators. An addiction has the effect that a person will continue doing it, even though it is against their own self-interest. An addiction means that the behavior in question is part of a vicious cycle, whereby the person is heading in a downward spiral.
Addiction certainly means that the person loses their clarity of thought on the matter, as part of their brain is caught up in powerful pursuit of gratification. If someone feels they can just quit and be done with it, that is not an addiction. But if a person recognizes that they are being driven by a strong urge that is difficult to resist, then this is the minimum threshold of an addiction.
Motivation to Invest the Effort
Let us examine the effects of this predicament. Someone is looking to enter into a committed long-term relationship – that is the assumed premise here. Presumably, then, this is a major priority in his life – as is the case for most people looking to pursuing such a relationship. Most people are ready to put a great deal of effort into the aspiration of marriage, as getting married and having children is a central life goal that carries great significance.
In theory, someone with a porn addiction is no different. He would also consider this a life-goal worth investing himself in achieving. That is in theory; in practice he is likely to be distracted and depleted. The problem is that the addiction is messing with his normal behavior, undermining the level focus and motivation that he would otherwise be expected to direct towards this endeavor.
Dating takes effort – often a lot of effort. Thankfully, most of us are highly motivated, so we are ready and willing to invest the effort (even if we get discouraged at times). If we are being honest, a significant part of our motivation is sexual. What is meant by that is that normally functioning human beings have an in-built desire to be sexually fulfilled, and this is a key underpinning in our push to get married. Granted that many (maybe in our circles even most) people are not focused on the sexual aspect when they are dating; they are really interested in getting to know the person. The reality is that at the level below consciousness, sexuality plays a massive role. We are innately wired that way, and for good reason.
If our sexual energies are directed towards pornography, this greatly diminishes a key part of what drives us to put our efforts into dating. We can protest all we want, that sex is not the reason we are looking to get married, but the biology is what it is. Whether we like it or not, when it comes to dating the porn addiction means we are not “firing on all cylinders.” So, it leads to a kind of lethargy that means that we are less up to the challenge of dating. Someone affected by this issue will still have many of the other motivations for marriage – and in the end, this may be sufficient to get them past the finishing line – but this will definitely undermine their focus and determination. The greater the addiction, the more impactful will be the consequences.
Another significant effect of porn addiction is the way it scrambles the brain. It is often the cause of a great deal of confusion. Physical attraction is a significant aspect of dating, but in a well-adjusted individual it is kept in its proper place. It is only one of several major aspects of our marriage decision. Even people who are starting out on dating with what could be regarded as a significant over-emphasis on appearance are likely to learn that there is a whole lot more to it. Sometimes we learn the hard way that the lack of compatibility on a multitude of issues leads to a shed load of pain. Hopefully, we do not have to go through grief to understand that someone’s appealing look cannot compensate for unsuitability.
Thankfully, we are also wired to process this and most people successfully avoid this potential pitfall. But someone with a porn addiction is likely to be far less effective at navigating this process. He is more prone to muddling things up. Instead of a healthy integration of the various consideration for marriage, the person typically shifts violently from extreme to extreme. One minute appearance is the dominant factor, influenced by images of imaginary satisfaction. The next minute the person is filled with self-revulsion at his shallow thoughts and decides that appearance cannot be a factor. This makes for a very rocky state of mind.
One final consideration for this chapter. Most people dating for marriage are conscious of the serious nature of what this is about: a lifelong commitment with all that involves, along with the likely prospect of children and all that entails. It is big. Even the most confident among us can go through a wobble during dating, when the full weight of what we are contemplating dawns upon us.
As we get closer to the commitment stage, even people with perfect mental health (if that exists) can experience a moment of crisis as they realize the significance of the situation. Even people who are in the least commitment-phobic and who have no issues with attachment (these are discussed in other articles) are able to struggle for a time with the realization about what they are about to enter into. This is without any addiction.
Now imagine he recognizes that he is quite attached to a practice that is not going to contribute positively to their marriage. Moreover, he is aware that if he did get married and his spouse were to discover his addiction that this could lead to a major marital crisis. Not only that, but she would most likely feel cheated into the marriage, and he would have to face the reality that he had not been honest all along. The person with a porn addiction is often genuinely frightened about getting into a marriage, given the heightened risks involved. So, when dating, half of him wants to get married, while the other half is secretly afraid and reticent. This puts a major downward pressure on his willingness to take the risk and plunge into marriage.
Love is an Addiction
When you take all these points together – and we have not covered everything either – it is not difficult to see how the porn addiction can be debilitating to successful dating. The problem, in essence, is that dating is designed to leave to love, which is the ultimate addiction. If you are already addicted to something else – gambling, drugs, sex, it really does not matter what – you are much less likely to have headspace for the addiction called “falling in love.”
Porn addiction, like any addiction, cannot be solved alone. Outside help is a total must. There are numerous organizations and experts that are capable of helping. As an absolutely vital first step, some with this condition needs to accept that this problem is beyond his ability to handle on his own. If nothing else, get help.
It also needs to be clear – hopefully it is already – that indulging this addiction and dating are incompatible. It has to be brought under control in order for dating to proceed. It is neither honest nor productive. The only person one may be fooling is oneself.
Finally, you do not need to be a perfect human being to get married. Addiction is not something one shakes off easily. In most instances, addiction is not something one cures; it is something one manages. What is required here are better tools for self-regulation so that this distraction does not wreak havoc in your life. Once this has been achieved, you can bounce back quite quickly and return to a sufficiently healthy state to date and get married