Making it Work When We Disagree About Porn

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Reader’s Question

I have been with my girlfriend for nearly two years now, but we’re struggling over my masturbation habits. We live 2 hours apart, Skype daily, and see each other every weekend and holiday. We are both sexually satisfied and have sex most days we’re together.

Since I was old enough to, I’ve fantasized almost daily with porn or thoughts of other women. My girlfriend used to masturbate regularly before we met, but she said it never involved specific thoughts of others. However, she stopped and I didn’t. Any day that I’m not with her, I do it.

She says she doesn’t feel the need to anymore and doesn’t understand my desire to, especially while not thinking of her. I don’t think of others when with her and never choose fantasizing with porn over sex with her. I would have no problem if she did the same and I would even enjoy sharing our sexual fantasies about others. I would never cheat or go beyond what I do, but it makes her feel less important, jealous, and like I am cheating.

She worries that I would choose porn over her once we live together, that it will become something worse, and that I spend too much time with it. She doesn’t understand my point of view and I don’t like to hurt her. I think she’s the sexiest woman on Earth, but I still like porn and fantasies. How might I make this work?

Psychologist’s Reply

Numerous surveys have been consistent in revealing some broad differences between males and females when it comes to masturbation. In general, males start earlier and masturbate more frequently, and are more likely to do so while thinking of a variety of different people, including strangers. As for use of porn, the overwhelming majority is made for male consumers, both straight and gay. With that background, it’s not unusual for men and women to have differing perspectives similar to what you described. Women tend not to understand men’s fascination with it, and men tend not to understand women’s relatively lower level of interest in those things.

As you’ve discovered, there is no one thing to say or do that will resolve this difference between you once and for all. The key is to work on being able to empathize with each other, although a gut-level understanding, or “getting it,” may not occur. I encourage you to focus on what partner masturbation and porn consumption “means” in each of your perspectives. The goal is not to change each other’s opinion or behavior, but to understand each other’s perspectives well enough that each of you is less likely to interpret the other’s views through your own lenses.

So, rather than trying to convince the other that he or she is wrong (or sick, or uptight), stay focused on working to defuse the feelings of hurt and insecurity she may be experiencing and the feelings of guilt and of trying to be controlled that you may be experiencing. Neither set of feelings is good for the relationship. Ultimately, it’s not the behaviors per se (masturbating and porn use) that could undermine the relationship, but the meanings each of you attribute to those behaviors, and how each of you interprets the motives of the other, that has the potential for harm. Stay on guard to protect the closeness and intimacy the two of you share, not letting the disagreement spiral into larger meanings and deeper conflicts.

I recognize that it probably sounds as though I’m being unclear and general. I think this conflict has the potential for each of you to practice a very valuable skill that will serve your relationship well as you two encounter other issues where you fundamentally differ. There will be other issues about which the two of you genuinely will not understand how the other person can see it so differently. When these issues arise, it’s futile to try to convince the other or pressure one person to change his or her behavior. Those tactics may seem to work in the short run but can end up causing underlying resentments that undermine the relationship in a deeper, more lasting way. So, as difficult as it is, continue to process this issue between you, and practice staying focused on coming to a resolution that respects both of you. True, gut-level understanding of the other’s perspective may be unrealistic, but protecting the core of your relationship is a worthy goal.

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