ST. FRANCIS — Given the prevalence of pornography – a multi-billion dollar business by all estimates – it is no surprise the epidemic, as mental health professionals and religious leaders have termed it, has a negative impact on marriages.
One place its impact is seen is in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee’s marriage tribunal where petitions for nullity of marriages are processed.
“From what I know and from what we’ve talked about as a staff, easily in the last five to seven years, it’s increased at least by 25 percent, if not a third, that there’s some mention of an issue with pornography somewhere in that case,” said Zabrina Decker, chancellor of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee’s marriage tribunal and office for ecclesiastical processes.
Loss of spouse
She said the stories petitioners for annulments share regarding the impact of pornography on their marriages are “all across the board.”
“There is no common denominator other than, ‘I lost my spouse to pornography,’” she said. “How that manifests itself is very different in these relationships, but they know they lost their spouse to an addiction to pornography.”
Sometimes petitioners knew their spouses were using pornography, but weren’t – initially – concerned.
“They’ll tell us, ‘I was aware that he/she did some pornography but it was never anything that would hurt our relationship or hinder our relationship,’” Decker said. “Maybe they’ll even say it helped the sexual relationship in the beginning. Sometimes you might hear that.”
Then use turns to addiction.
“Like with any addiction – and porn is being shown to be just like any other addiction – the more it’s viewed, the more you need, and the more you want. And the more lurid it becomes – it starts to take the place of healthy relationships ,” she said.[su_pullquote align=”right”]See related stories:
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Throughout the 21 years he has been in practice, Tim Shininger, a licensed clinical social worker and licensed marriage and family therapist, has seen pornography become an issue for individuals and couples.
“I’ve seen a prevalence – much more so in the last 10 years – where people are talking more openly about it,” he said. “Couples are coming in and more readily say, ‘This is the issue that’s going on.’”
However, it’s not always couples coming to get help. Because something has happened at home, or because it’s a recurrent problem, the user will come to see Shininger at his Port Washington practice.
Spouse can feel betrayed
“I hear, ‘My spouse has encouraged me to come in and talk about this and figure out how to better deal with it,’” he said. “There are certainly a lot of times when it’s still, ‘This was recently discovered; my spouse really feels betrayed that this is going on.’”
Sometimes it is the wife – 80 percent of men have been exposed to or have looked at pornography, according to Shininger – seeking help.
“The wife has been hurt and can’t get her husband to come in, so she’s coming in to talk about, ‘What do I do about this? How do I deal with this?’” he said.
The counsel Shininger provides depends on the situation and the individuals involved.
“When they find out their husband is doing it, first they want to know if this is really a significant problem for him, and because of the shame (in admitting use) is he really being honest and open with me,” he said. “So it tears at the trust in a marriage; it’s, one, trying to help her on one hand be compassionate to her husband’s struggle. That can be difficult if he’s not willing to acknowledge it as a problem and not willing to get help.”
Shininger might also advise the wife to maintain a conversation with her husband about his pornography use.
“Talk with him about limits, about openness, about honesty, having him understand why this is so painful for her, how it really damages the authentic marital sexual love,” he said. “Sometimes it’s educating her about that as well as how to educate him if he’s refusing to come in.”
Even if a husband is unwilling to go for counseling, Shininger encourages the wife to seek it for herself.
“Part of that might be to work at trying to keep a conversation, a dialogue, with her husband about it,” he said. “If he’s saying, ‘This is not a problem; it’s not a big deal,’ for her to educate herself on being able to explain why it is so hurtful to her.”
Yet, there are no guarantees.
“Hopefully, there’s enough love between them – even if he doesn’t get it, doesn’t see that it’s damaging – if she can explain that to him, if he cares and has an interest in her that will help him be understanding, he’ll consider, ‘OK, maybe I do need to do something about this. This is not good for our marriage,’” Shininger said.