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What does recovery from porn look like in a marriage?

On Mondays in April we’re talking about porn in marriage, and how to defeat it. We’ve looked at the effects of porn; at four things you must do if your husband uses porn; at women porn users.

This week we’re going to continue our post on how to handle a spouse’s porn use with tackling recovery from porn. So, to start, here’s a typical question that comes in everyday to the blog: 

When I got married I was so excited to explore sex with my husband…to find that he wasn’t. He pushed me away when I would offer myself to him time and time again. I bought the sexy outfits, I planned dates, the sexy coupon books. I tried everything.

Fast forward about a year and a half and a child later…he sits me down and tells me he has a problem with porn and has for a long time.

4 years later and I’m still so hurt…I don’t want to initiate because I hate what being rejected feels like and it seems like if it’s not on his time the point is moot so I just stopped even though before I was fun and vivacious…now I just feel distraught. I have never once turned him away when he wants or needs sex. But, I’m struggling with these feelings. I want our marriage to be more. We have a good sex life but honestly I had no idea he was watching porn to begin with and I looked on his phone from time to time for that kind of stuff and never found it. I love him but it’s hard to trust him. Because this is not ever the person I wanted to be. I also asked him to tell me what it was that he was watching and he refuses to tell me and told me that it’s stupid that I even asked. I really need some sound advice. I feel disregarded, lied to, left out (if that makes sense) and honestly…manipulated. I heard you talk about replacing pornography with something and I feel like he’s done it….but with video games which is honestly just as heartbreaking as the pornography. It still puts me last. I feel like I’ve tried it all…but I want to hear your suggestions. Maybe I haven’t.

He told her about the porn use, but it doesn’t sound as if they’ve put anything in place to make sure it doesn’t happen again or to give her confidence. But more importantly, they’ve never addressed the deep issues that porn use causes.

Unfortunately, many people try to rush recovery, because they’re so desperate to know that their marriage is going to be okay. And so they often avoid the very necessary steps that will actually lead to recovery. Other people just don’t realize what those steps are. 

So I’d like to spell out what I see as the four stages of recovery from porn, and what to look for before you move on to the next stage.

And, again, remembering that not all porn users are male, I’m going to try to use the word “spouse” for porn user, rather than “husband”. In some cases, I’ll be talking specifically about men, but as much as possible, we’ll keep this gender neutral, because women can struggle with porn, too!

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Recovery from Porn Stage 1: Confronting the Crisis

My post on 4 things you must do when your husband uses porn addresses this first stage of recovery. For a longer look, please read that post! But to summarize, quickly, here goes:

When an alcoholic decides to get clean, what’s the first thing that has to happen? The house has to be purged of alcohol. And, ideally, the alcoholic joins a recovery group or gets some accountability.

None of this cures the alcoholism. It simply gets the person on an even keel again so that the deeper issues can be dealt with.

In the same way, you can’t start a recovery from porn until you put everything on reset. The porn user need to be in a place where the temptation has been removed as much as possible, and where they have support to quit.

The first stage, then, is dealing with access to porn. Ideally, filters like Covenant Eyes should be put on all computers and devices at home (and you can get Covenant Eyes for 30 days free using my coupon code TLHV!). Covenant Eyes also has a wide variety of really helpful blog posts, online communities, and ebooks that can help in the journey.

Passwords to phones and computers should be shared, so that the spouse does not have to worry about what’s going on behind his or her back.

And then the porn user should identify accountability partners or should seek out recovery groups to join.

Find freedom from porn!

Live porn free - 4 Stages of Porn Recovery: What Porn Recovery in Marriage Looks Like

Your marriage, and your thought life, do not need to be held captive to pornography.

There is freedom. 

Beat porn–together!

What this stage should look like:

Ideally, this does not need to take a lot of time, and can be done immediately.

When to move to the next porn recovery stage:

If the porn user doesn’t want to do these things, then the porn user doesn’t really want to stop the porn. They’re not sorry they used porn; they’re sorry they got caught. Until the porn user is serious about ending the porn use, nothing can be rebuilt. If the porn user resists these steps, then recovery from porn won’t happen, and the marriage will be in serious trouble. Once the porn user does these things, though, you can move immediately to stage 2.

Recovering from Porn Stage 2: Defeating the Strongholds that Porn Brings to a Marriage

Or, really, stage 2 is all about getting your head on straight! Once steps are in place to make porn harder to access and minimize the temptation, you have to deal with harmful beliefs, that I’ll call “strongholds”, that porn use has brought to a marriage.

Stronghold #1: “Porn made me do it”

Porn use teaches the user that the way to deal with tension in their life is to orgasm. And porn teaches the user that others exist to be used and for their own benefit. In order to achieve recovery, we have to break these lies. The porn user must be made to deal with tension, and stress, and loneliness, and rejection, and boredom, and just about any negative human emotion without masturbation or pornography.

They must stop using porn as a crutch for these things. This will ideally be worked out later with a counselor, but right now, during this stage as the porn use is processed, the porn user must understand that porn and masturbation are not an acceptable way to deal with negative emotions.


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Stronghold #2: “Sex will stop the porn use”

Far too many Christian books, organizations, and websites have taught that the way to stop pornography use is for the wife to have more sex.

In Sheet Music, for instance, Kevin Leman wrote this, about a marriage where the husband struggles with porn:

The most difficult time for this man was during his wife’s period, because she was unavailable to him sexually. After about ten years, she finally realized that pleasing her husband with oral sex or a simple “hand job” did wonders to help her husband through that difficult time. She realized that faithfulness is a two-person job. That doesn’t mean a husband can escape the blame for using pornography by pointing to an uncooperative wife–we all make our own choices–but a wife can make it much easier for her husband to maintain a pure mind.

Kevin Leman

Sheet Music

This common but dangerous advice needs to be dismantled before a healthy sex life or marriage can be rebuilt. Even if husbands turned to porn originally because of sexual frustration and rejection (though let’s remember that most porn habits today pre-dated the marriage, and cannot be blamed whatsoever on wives), once you have used porn you have created a whole series of other problems. So even if a woman’s sexual refusal was an issue in the marriage (and it is not in all cases of porn use; in many cases it’s the husband saying no because his libido is being channelled towards pornography), the porn use must be dealt with before the sex life can be rebuilt.

That’s because by using porn and pairing it with masturbation, the porn user has changed the way he (or she) handles stress, and has changed how he (or she) sees sex. Sex is now about getting one’s own needs met. It has become about using and taking rather than serving. It is focused on the physical, rather than a multi-faceted intimacy that involves spiritually and emotionally “knowing” another person as well.

When we tell people that the way to defeat the temptation for porn is simply to have more sex with your wife, we don’t attack the root issue. What we say is, “it’s okay if you treat sex like you’re using someone else; just simply do it in a legal, moral way, within your marriage, rather than with pornography.” That’s not going to fix anything.

Defeating porn necessitates taking responsibility for the porn use. Faithfulness is not a two-person job. Faithfulness requires both people to do a one-person job. You are required to stay faithful, and your spouse is required to stay faithful, regardless of what the other person does. If you are not prepared to stay faithful, then you should separate or divorce. But don’t blame it on your spouse. Deal with the sin of porn use, in and of itself.

Stronghold #3: “You’re over-reacting about porn.”

To recover from porn use means accepting that you have wounded your spouse very deeply. The porn user may feel as if their porn use (or erotica use) had nothing to do with the spouse, but emotionally, the porn use still feels like a huge betrayal.

Recovery from porn use means not minimizing what you have done to your spouse. It means allowing your spouse to express their betrayal and their anger and their hurt, and giving them time to process it.


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Stronghold #4: “Our whole marriage has been one big lie”

Yes, the wounded spouse will feel betrayed, but this does not necessarily mean that your entire marriage is a lie, or that you aren’t really loved.

Humans can be both good and bad at the same time. We can be very loving, and have great intentions, and then still mess up and do something harmful. So just because someone used porn does not mean that they do not love you or that your whole marriage is invalid. It will take some time to process that, yes, but it is important to realize this before you can move on to healing. Granted, this may be true if you’re married to an abusive narcissist who has been using porn. And if that’s the case, you likely can’t recover from the porn use, because it’s based in something far deeper.

What this stage should look like:

You’ll be doing a lot of processing of hurt and taking responsibility for sin. At this stage, the goal is not to rebuild the marriage. The goal is not to restart sex. The goal is to get you on a mental even keel where you are believing the right things about sex and your marriage, so that you can start trying to put the relationship back together. It may be useful to go through this stage with a licensed counselor, both individually and together.

When should you move on to the next porn recovery stage?

When the porn user admits full responsibility for the porn use, without placing the blame on anyone else; when the porn user is not minimizing the emotional effects on the spouse; and when the wounded spouse is able to accept that the porn use does not define the marriage.

If the porn use DOES define the marriage, and if the porn use is part of a pattern of narcissistic behaviour, or if the porn use involves things like child porn, then rebuilding trust or the rebuilding the marriage is likely not on the table.

Recovering from Porn Stage 3: Rebuilding Trust

Once you’ve build accountability and worked through the mental roadblocks for a healthy marriage, it’s time to start rebuilding the marriage.

Emotional connection is the most fundamental thing that has been broken. This must be rebuilt before sex can be addressed, because porn has already distorted how the porn user sees sex. The wounded spouse must feel loved and must feel able to trust before the sex life is restored, or else sex may feel cheap, and may further wound the couple.

Every relationship is different, but at this stage, it will be useful to:

  • Talk about your emotional needs and how each of you feels loved. Practice meeting those emotional needs (and you can sign up for my free emotional needs exercise below!)
  • Make a game plan for how to handle stress and distance in your marriage. Will you plan more times to connect daily? Can you have a weekly at-home date night?
  • Discuss the sources of stress on your marriage. Is one of you working harder than the other and feeling overburdened? Can you even the load?
  • Address emotional issues that may have contributed to the porn use, such as feeling rejected or in a sexual drought (at this stage it’s okay to address this; just don’t do it earlier)

Ideally, too, you should do this with a licensed counselor.

Individual emotional growth is also important for rebuilding trust, and during this stage the porn user ideally will also work through with a counselor or with a group the underlying shame, depression, or other issues that made porn so enticing, and develop a game plan for dealing with those issues outside of using pornography. Often spouses do replace one addiction with another (like our letter writer with regards to video game addiction). This can be dealt with here as well.

The spouse may also benefit from betrayal trauma therapy, depending on the severity of the porn use.

When you’re ready to move to the next stage:

This one’s hard to say! Some couples, if recovery is going well, may be able to rebuild sex almost simultaneously with rebuilding the marriage. Some will need a lot more time for faithfulness to be proven over time, and for healing to occur. But remember that, however long you spend exclusively in this stage, you’ll never be able to rebuild sex properly without solid emotional connection first.

Recovering from Porn Stage 4: Rebuilding Sex

You need to have a foundation of trust, tenderness, and faithfulness for sex to be built, because sex was previously predicated on using someone, rather than on giving and serving mutually. If you’ve rebuilt trust, and you’re starting to feel close again, then it’s time to rebuild your sex life!

I wrote a plan for rebuilding sex in The Good Girl’s Guide to Great Sex, but the big key thing is learning to associate sex with intimacy rather than with dominating someone. Sex is about saying, “I want YOU”, not “I want sex.” There’s a big difference!

Channelling the porn user’s desire towards the spouse rather than towards porn can be a long process. Rediscovering intimate sex after porn is often a very difficult and windy road–but you can do it!

First, you have to give your spouse the freedom to be honest with you. If you want to rebuild intimacy, your spouse needs to be free to tell you when sex is not working. Because pornography rewires the brain so that what’s arousing is an image rather than a person, many men actually experience impotence without external stimulation (the images they’re used to seeing). So many men, in order to have sex with their wives, start imagining and fantasizing about those images. Many women, too, often fantasize in order to orgasm, and without running through porn in their head, they can’t get aroused.

Many porn users, then, are scared that they’ll never be able to function properly sexually without the porn.

So make a plan that you want to help your spouse get reacquainted with true intimacy. Spend some time, perhaps a week or so or however long it takes, not actually making love. Lie naked together and get used to touching each other again. Look into each other’s eyes. Let him experience the erotic nature of just being so close to someone he loves. Take baths together. Explore each other, and take things very slowly so that your spouse can slowly become aroused just by being with you. If you try to go too fast, you can push your spouse into fantasy again in order to “complete the deed”. Instead, spend some time letting your spouse discover that he or she can become aroused once again by being with you. But this is much easier if there’s no pressure, and if you spend a lot of time just being together naked, talking, kissing, and exploring.

Usually when wives especially think of rebuilding sex lives we think that we have to somehow compete with pornography. We want to be so arousing that he won’t need it anymore, and so we go the lingerie route, or we decide to try new things. That actually feeds into his addiction, because what he really needs is to experience the sexual high that comes from relational and spiritual intimacy, and not just from visual arousal or fantasy. It’s not that you can never wear lingerie again; it’s just that in the initial recovery period, the aim is not to be “porn lite” in your marriage; it’s to help him channel his sexual energy in a different direction: towards you. If you try to just act out pornography, you actually encourage him to keep those fantasies in his head alive, and you do nothing to retrain his brain.


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So there you go–my four-point plan for recovery from porn.

In reading all of your comments over the last few years, the biggest mistakes that I’ve seen is that people haven’t fully done stage 1 or stage 2, but they rush to the final stages before any kind of foundation has been built. That won’t work.

So work through these stages properly. They’ll take a different amount of time for each couple, depending on the extent of the porn problem, the state of the marriage, and other individual issues. That’s why walking through this with a third party can be so beneficial.

But give it the time it deserves!

I want to end with a story that was left in our survey by a woman working on porn recovery, to give you all some hope:

A friend showed my husband online porn when he was 14. He was hooked. He told his parents, who only said, “Don’t do that,” and it was never brought up again. He struggled secretly for years. 

On our wedding night, I was prepared for the typical virgin male problem–finishing way too soon. It was the opposite. He could not orgasm. For almost 16 years of marriage, sex lasted foreeeeever. This is not actually a good thing. I dreaded sex more and more every time. I had no idea what was actually wrong, and he was in denial. 

Not that long ago, one of our elders mentioned porn during his sermon; it wasn’t even the main subject. Something about the way he talked about it was like lightning had struck. He’d always known it was wrong, but he was convicted that he needed to come clean with me, with our pastor, and take concrete steps to stop. The fact that he confessed voluntarily without excuses or downplaying anything went a long way toward healing. He did everything I asked of him. He meets with the elder who preached the sermon every week. We have become much more intentional about talking to each other. I’m really reserved by nature, so this is difficult for me, but I ask difficult questions I’m not sure I want answered, and he answers them, and it gets a little easier every time. Even now, when I become suspicious, he doesn’t become angry. He accepts that this is the consequence of lying for so long. He has not gone back to it since. 

I believe 100% that his repentance is real. My heart breaks for that 14 year-old boy who never had a chance to learn about sex and sexuality in a healthy way, for how miserably his parents failed him. Yes, he chose to sin and continue sinning, but it is, in my opinion, much different from men who embrace porn as a great thing that wives need to get over, or who only confess when they’re caught. His entire personality has changed for the better as well. He’s become less intensely introverted; he does hard things without being nagged; he spends time with the kids, and not just because he knows he has to. Our sex life is much, much different now. I’m still getting over the knee-jerk dread reaction, and he is still somewhat plagued by anxiety, but we have a lot more fun now. I’m sad for all the wasted time, but I’m so grateful that God convicted him of his sin and has worked such a change in him. 

I have seen God restore so many marriages of porn.
There is hope!
What Porn Recovery Should Look Like - 4 Stages of Porn Recovery: What Porn Recovery in Marriage Looks Like

And now I’d love to hear your stories of recovery from porn. What did it look like? Or if you’re still walking through it, what does it look like now? Let’s talk in the comments!

SheilaSidebarAboutMe - 4 Stages of Porn Recovery: What Porn Recovery in Marriage Looks Like Sheila Wray Gregoire has been married for 27 years and happily married for 22! She loves traveling around North America with her hubby in their RV, giving her signature "Girl Talk" about sex and marriage. And she's written 8 books. About sex and marriage. See a theme here? Plus she knits. Even in line at the grocery store.
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