“All men look at porn, and all women need to get over it.” — Dan Savage, sex columnist

“It is not OK behavior. It is a perverse and ridiculous intrusion into your relationship. It is an insult, it is disloyal and it is cheating.” — Dr. Phil

Russell Collins

Russell Collins

“I was devastated.” Barbara is a dark-haired and fragile-featured woman, sunk deep into the cushions on a chair in my office. Eight years and two children into a marriage she had often described as “magical,” and two years since I had seen her last, Barbara had come in to talk about her sense of being overwhelmed by a million responsibilities in life. But now, in the middle of her story — almost in midsentence — she breaks out in a sob, then sits silent for a moment. We’re both a little stunned.

“OK, there’s something else,” she says, and begins pouring out a story. A couple of months ago, she had gotten up early to check the weather on the computer and found a porn site open. Since her kids were too young to even reach the keyboard, Barbara realized that it was her husband visiting the site, probably late at night. Upset, she poked around for a few minutes and realized that he had been surfing and searching the Web for porn for several weeks, often late at night, while she was asleep.

“Our sex life is good. At least compared to what I hear about from my friends. I thought we were in good shape there.” Both Barbara and her husband, Jasper, were tenured professors, and had arranged their academic schedules to give them time with each other and time with the kids. “Idyllic” was the word she kept coming back to describing the marriage. And “devastated” to describe her feeling on discovering the porn.

Despite her education and liberal views about almost everything else, Barbara was traumatized to discover that her husband could want or need any sexual activity or outlet outside the marriage. “I felt humiliated. And alone,” she said. “And betrayed.”

This was the response that Jasper gave her when she asked him about the Internet site. “Betrayed? First of all, everybody does it. Second, I’ve never — would never — betray you, and looking at pictures on the Internet doesn’t change that. That’s just crazy.”

Jasper was right about a couple of things. While it’s an overstatement to say that “everybody” looks at porn on the Internet, a lot of people do. Business Insider, an influential business blog, estimates that 40 million Americans are regular visitors to these Web sites, and about a third of those are women. That’s about 1 in 10 of us, which makes it a pretty mainstream activity. And, while it’s not the final word, Merriam-Webster defines adultery as “voluntary sexual intercourse between a married man and someone other than his wife or between a married woman and someone other than her husband.” Jasper’s activities on the Internet wouldn’t qualify under that definition.

But does it matter what the dictionary says? Or what everybody else is doing? Or that Jasper didn’t feel like he was betraying Barbara as he was surfing the Internet for porn? In at least one important way, it doesn’t matter at all.

“What do you think? Am I right to be upset? Or do I just file this under a ‘boys will be boys’ kind of thing? I really don’t want to act crazy about this, and hurt our family.” This was Barbara’s way of asking the question, “Do I have right to be hurt?”

But if one thing is clear from the past three decades of research on how emotions operate, it’s this: They arise spontaneously in response to events in our world, not because we have a right to feel them. We’re just not in control of them that way. Barbara is torn between her deep feelings of betrayal and a more liberal perspective that says, “What’s the big deal?” She wants to do the right thing for the family, to avoid conflict and be fair to her husband. “But still,” Barbara adds, “it hurts.” While her head wants to follow Savage’s guidance and get over it, in other words, her heart was tuned in to Dr. Phil.

Relationship researchers Susan Johnson, Judy Makinen and John Millikin have an answer for Barbara’s dilemma. They call her experience an “attachment injury,” which means an event that strikes a blow at the attachment or connection between partners. The defining feature of an attachment injury is the painful interpretation it generates: “The concept of attachment injury does not focus so much on the content of the event as the attachment significance of such an event,” Johnson writes in the Journal of Marital and Family Therapy.

She tells a story of a woman left out of a family photo at a particularly vulnerable time, and another of a woman whose husband rode in the front seat of the cab instead of in the back with her as they sped to the hospital to deliver a baby. Most of us might check the “get over it” box if we were asked to score these incidents on a survey. But for the women involved, they were catastrophic.

During an attachment injury, one partner asks, “Is he there for me?” or “Can I count on her in times of need?” If the answer comes back no, it reverberates throughout the entire relational system, affecting the memories, expectations and moment-to-moment understanding of what’s going on between them. This can override myriad positive and loving moments, establishing a negative context for everything in the relationship going forward, as if an emotional warning label were stamped on each moment of possible connection or intimacy: “Watch out. Danger ahead.”

Attachment injuries may be made even more damaging by the diverging interpretations of the partners. Often — and understandably — partners wonder what they have done to cause such hurt. But that just deepens the trauma and makes recovery a longer and more difficult road. When the injuring spouse denies, dismisses or minimizes the injury, as Jasper did to Barb, the suffering is compounded and carried forward with each new interaction.

Looking at Internet porn from the perspective of attachment theory, we get a picture of Barbara’s suffering that makes sense. As she sat at the computer and discovered Jasper’s activities, she had the horrifying recognition (however momentary) that Jasper had deserted her while she slept. “I didn’t matter to him. I was … an irrelevance,” was how she phrased it. But that was just the beginning.

As she tried to talk about it with him, Jasper went on the defensive, taking the Savage line: All men do it, and it’s normal; you’re being irrational. But now it was worse: Not only had he done it, Barbara felt, he didn’t care enough to even apologize or understand or acknowledge her pain. As the insult took on ever-greater significance to her, Jasper became ever-more cavalier: What’s the big deal? Like a debate between an uncompromising Savage and an immovable Dr. Phil, the conflict spiraled upward and onward, tearing at the fabric of the relationship.

With 40 million Americans involved, Internet porn attracts a lot of very public attention from every quarter: economists, religious figures, psychologists, political commentators, educators and, of course, sex columnists — all have something to say on the subject. And not just because these arguments draw a crowd; the debaters have a stake in the outcome, whether it’s in public policy or the marketplace or in the culture.

But for couples, and for professionals who work with them, the passionate pros and cons of the Internet porn controversy can be a dangerous distraction. The heart of the matter for couples is not cultural or political, it’s emotional. What pain is inflicted? What damage is done to the bonds of intimacy and affection? And (most importantly) what new levels of connection and understanding can be reached as couples struggle to find the common ground?

The puzzling problem of Internet pornography is a long way from being solved — plenty of shouting and screaming ahead. One approach to this argument — the approach taken by Savage and Dr. Phil — yields clear answers, confident sound bites and lots of conflict. This works in the media — everyone loves a good fight — but not so well within the reality of a relationship.

Here, the truth is a moving target, because its part of the ebb and flow of being connected. In that domain, the puzzle is an emotional one, not one of lofty principles, and the key is not-hard-edged clarity, but compassion, understanding, honesty and — most often — hard work.

— Russell Collins, Psy.D., is a Santa Barbara psychotherapist and divorce mediator. Click here for more information.