People who struggle with addiction and compulsions have often experienced some kind of early relational trauma: sexual abuse, neglect, physical, verbal or emotional abuse; or some unfortunate combination therein. For example, when a child desires contact touch affection holding comfort and love and these are withheld, and the child mocked or ignored then the child can feel intense shame for having the need. The pain of the neglect is overwhelming and if the experience is denied and refused articulation the shame increases and feels unbearable and so to try and regulate the shame it becomes preserved in amber and tucked away out of sight. Shame is forgotten but the pain of relational trauma continues.
With traumatic pain and its non-acknowledgment, the suppression of experiential truth causes long term damage (severe depression and/or anxiety, and in worse cases fragmentation of selfhood) and leads to denial when compulsive and harmful behaviours begin to flourish. If porn is the chosen self-medication it becomes terrifying to disavow that one activity that makes you feel whole, and soothes trauma feelings, however fleetingly.
There are clues in the early use of porn which can tell a story about our thwarted developmental needs. For instance, someone whose first use of porn triggered feelings of adoration may signal a craving for a mothers adoration which was absent for the young child. Relooking at the early attraction of porn can throw a light on the relational trauma which has occurred.
Ironically, using pornography can feel less shameful than the buried need for nurturing however the need to use pornography and hide the full extent of its use or content from partners triggers the old feelings of self hatred anger anxiety and depression leading once again to a visit to the malevolent soother. Hiding our traumatic pain from others and pretending we are coping keeps the amber topped up but traps us in arrested development and keeps us dependant and addicted. Any notable conflict, inevitable in close relationships, feeds into this dysfunctional dance.
The partner is perplexed. The addicted person “takes on” blame to maintain homeostasis (the “identified patient”) and withdraws more into the world of porn. Ironically healthy growth can de-stabilizes a system stabilized by enmeshment and blame. Such a system has a tendency to sabotage progress, which is unfamiliar and frightening.
Addiction is a disease of distraction. Compulsive use of porn keeps things stable, by providing an outlet for the addicted person while protecting the partner from looking within. In each case, something or someone “out there” is the magic bullet. One day pornography will be under control, and one day he (or she) will finally start “doing it right.” This is why I think it crucial that, when it comes time to seek help, the partner gets counselling as well; also, that use of porn is understood with compassion and in an overall relational context, in addition to the more practical “nitty-gritty” work of changing thoughts and behaviours.
Staying stuck in the entrenched patterns is the worst option, because it continues to closet and compromise and keep hidden the person’s basic human need for tenderness and unconditional love. And without those, to paraphrase the poet Adrienne Rich, we are in hell.