When Lou was confronted about his use of Internet pornography, his excuse was that he was tired of the “vanilla” sex he was having with his wife, Roberta.  He claimed he needed more excitement in the bedroom.  This left Roberta feeling both angry and sad.  She felt as if Lou was blaming her for his pornography use.  She also felt inadequate as a wife, as if she wasn’t enough for Lou.  Deep down she wanted to please Lou, but was unwilling to engage in the kind of sex he was viewing on the Internet.  To her that kind of sex was degrading.

Understanding the Real Need

I have heard similar stories from many of the couples I’ve worked with.  There is this belief that because a spouse is viewing Internet porn, the problem must be about sex.  So, they believe the answer is to have more sex and/or to try new and more thrilling sexual activities.  This almost always leads to great disappointment.  The truth is that the problem usually has nothing to do with sex.  It’s really about intimacy.

I always get a little angry when I hear people talk about “intimacy,” especially in the media.  What they are really referring to is sex.  Let’s be clear: sex is not intimacy.  Intimacy is the deep emotional connection between two people.  They know each other thoroughly.  They know they are unconditionally loved by each other.  They can talk about anything and feel safe.  Sex is but one expression of intimacy found in a marriage.

Where Things Go Wrong

Dr. Patrick Carnes believes that sexual addiction is often the result of a courtship disorder.  In the development of a healthy relationship, the couple first gets to know each other emotionally and intellectually as persons.  Here is where healthy love and intimacy can develop.  This can lead a couple to make a lifetime commitment to each other in marriage.  At this point they are able to enjoy a healthy sex life as an expression of their love and intimacy.  Their sexual relationship can strengthen their love and intimacy in return.

In today’s world, people often become sexual before healthy love and intimacy is established.  This can lead them to judge the quality of their relationships based on their sexual activity.  Thus, when a person feels lonely or unfulfilled in in his/her relationship, they may feel that the solution is to intensify their sex life.  They believe if sex occurs more frequently and is more exciting it will restore their relationship.  When this doesn’t work, or if their spouse is unwilling to comply with this request, a person might turn to pornography where he can have as much (cyber)sex as he wants and in extremely thrilling ways.

Ultimately, this way of viewing relationships and sexuality only leads to great disappointment.  The person using pornography is never really fulfilled.  There is always the search for the next big thrill.  Subconsciously there is the hope that porn will fulfill the deep need for intimacy.  However, the intimacy promised by pornography is an illusion.  It is never real.  Only through a healthy relationship with a real person can that need be fulfilled in a healthy way.  Think of it this way.  The sex one encounters in porn is like lighting a match.  It flares up brightly for a few seconds and then it burns out.  While it might be exciting at first, it never lasts.  The sex in a healthy relationship is like building a slow-burning fire in a fireplace.  It might not appear too exciting, but it is truly satisfying.   This comes from having a firm foundation of intimacy in the relationship.

Finding True Excitement

This is not to say that sex in a healthy marriage can’t be exciting.  It can, and it’s the healthy intimacy in the marriage that makes the sex exciting.  Each time a couple engages in the sexual act, it brings them closer together physically, emotionally and spiritually.  It renews their wedding vows.  As a unitive act that can be open to new life, it also connects them to God.  This is an experience that makes even the most “vanilla” sex exciting.  Healthy intimacy in a marriage also fosters healthy communication and respect for one another.  With this the couple can be open to exploring new ways of being sexual and feel safe.  This will further enhance the couple’s intimacy and sex life.

Understanding the real need helped Lou and Roberta heal their marriage.  In addition to avoiding all pornography, Lou worked with a therapist to understand why it was difficult for him to experience intimacy.  The roots of this problem went back to his childhood.  Roberta also had difficulty with intimacy, which made her somewhat adverse to sex.  She could also trace this intimacy wound back to her childhood.  Individually Lou and Roberta worked on healing their intimacy wounds from childhood.  As a couple, they worked on fostering deeper intimacy in their marriage.  This led to greater feelings of love and respect for one another.  They felt more deeply connected.  This also improved their sex life.  Both were finally experiencing true fulfillment in their marriage physically, emotionally, spiritually, and sexually.

  • Wayne Topp

    “As a unitive act that can be open to new life, it also connects them to God.” I found this an interesting phrase. As the Church is very clear about not using contraception (and for many good and well defended reasons), this phraseology seems to hint at something I’m sure was not meant by the author. It is my understanding that the Church expects all marital acts to be open to the creation of new life (thus, no barriers between the husband and wife), though it is, of course, not required to have sex during the fertile part of the woman’s cycle when conception is most likely. I’m certain that is what the author meant, but I guess I want it to be clear. As always, the nuance of the Church is difficult to convey with few words.

    Additionally, I wanted to push back on another point the author makes: “Each time a couple engages in the sexual act, it brings them closer together physically, emotionally and spiritually.” I know of many couples whose wives believe that in order to “keep the husband happy” they need to engage in sex as often as he wants during the infertile periods of her cycle. These are good couples who are practicing NFP! I think you make it clear in the rest of the article that this mentality is destructive and will not fix intimacy, but the sentence I just quoted should have a qualifier in it, such as: “When true intimacy is present, each time a couple engages in the sexual act…” It seems to me that while it is true that intimacy fosters healthy communication and respect, the reverse must also be true and perhaps it should start there (thus the need for the courtship phase).

  • Bd Konkinx

    “Courtship disorder” This is a perfect phrase! We as a society place to much value on “dating” and not enough on “courting”. My wife and I “courted”, we got to know one another, we shopped for her family with her siblings, we ate dinner with extended family . Sure we went on dates, the movies, nature walks, holy hours, confession (yes we generally started our dates by going to confession) etc, but it never “got to far” . We saved sex for marriage, we were both virgins when we got married, we have been married for 14 years and have 10 children and just recently found out we are pregnant . God has blessed us abundantly! We built a strong foundation by “courting”. We need to bring this moral back. Great article!