How Porn Affects Relationships: The Research & The Myths

Contributing Sex & Relationships Editor By Kelly Gonsalves
Contributing Sex & Relationships Editor
Kelly Gonsalves is a sex educator, relationship coach, and journalist. She received her journalism degree from Northwestern University, and her writings on sex, relationships, identity, and wellness have appeared at The Cut, Vice, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and elsewhere.
Expert review by Kristie Overstreet, Ph.D., LPCC, LMHC, CST
Clinical Sexologist & Psychotherapist
Kristie Overstreet, Ph.D., LPCC, LMHC, CST, is a clinical sexologist and psychotherapist with 12 years of clinical experience. She is a licensed counselor in California, Florida, Georgia, and Louisiana. She is also a certified sex therapist, certified addiction professional, and president of the Therapy Department, a private practice in Orange County that provides counseling services throughout the United States.
Intimate Couple In Their Bedroom

Maybe you've just learned your partner watches porn, and now you're upset and wondering how to deal with it. Or maybe you're the one watching porn, and you're wondering if watching porn in a relationship is unhealthy. Here's what scientific research and sex therapists tell us about how porn affects relationships and why people watch porn when they're in happy relationships.

Is porn bad for relationships?

Porn is not necessarily bad for relationships. It can be bad for some people and for some couples, depending on how it's used and how each person feels about porn use. Watching ethically produced porn (and masturbating to it) can be a healthy, harm-free part of a person's sex life, whether they're single or in a relationship. In the context of a monogamous relationship, however, you're dealing with two people who may have different views about porn and different opinions about what's appropriate behavior in a relationship, and that can sometimes cause tension.

"Porn is neither good nor bad," Janet Brito, Ph.D., LCSW, a licensed psychologist and AASECT-certified sex therapist, confirms to mbg. "However, if it's causing emotional distress for you or your relationship, interfering with your daily functioning, then it is a good idea to examine your relationship to porn and what function it serves for you."

Many people in relationships watch porn regularly without any negative effects on their relationship. A 2013 study found 71% of men and 56% of women think it's acceptable to watch porn in a relationship, including watching by yourself, in certain circumstances. A 2015 survey found 76% of women don't think watching porn affects their relationships at all, though another study found some women tend to be less happy with their relationship and have lower self-esteem when they think their partner watches too much porn. At the end of the day, it all depends on the particular individuals in the relationship and how they're using porn.

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How porn affects relationships.

There's conflicting research on how porn affects relationships. Some studies show watching a lot of porn is associated with less happy relationships and worse sex between couples, whereas other studies have found positive effects of watching porn in relationships. 

Research on porn and relationship satisfaction.

Many studies have found that watching porn is linked to lower relationship satisfaction. "This might relate to one of the parties using porn to avoid connecting with their [significant other] or as an escape versus connecting with their partner," Brito says. "It is difficult to say if porn is the culprit for an unhappy relationship or if it has to do with lack of skills in relating to each other, managing conflict, and knowing how to emotionally regulate each other."

For example, a 2016 study on people in relationships found watching porn by yourself is associated with less relationship satisfaction, less intimacy, and less commitment. But couples where partners watch porn together actually had similar levels of relationship satisfaction, intimacy, and commitment as couples where neither partner watches porn.

Importantly, although many studies have linked porn use with relationship unhappiness, there's yet to be conclusive evidence that watching porn causes relationship unhappiness. In other words, it's possible that people who are unhappier in their relationships and their sex lives just tend to watch more porn.

One 2018 study checked in with couples every four years between 2006 and 2014 and found relationships where one person began watching porn between the first and second wave were nearly twice as likely to get divorced. That makes for some scary headlines, but note that the rate of divorce jumped from 6% among porn-free couples to just 11% among couples where one person started watching porn. And interestingly, porn didn't affect all couples equally—those who watched two to three times a month were most likely to separate, but people who watched once a day were actually less likely to get divorced than people who never watched porn. The study also didn't solve our chicken-or-egg problem: Does porn use contribute to an unhappy marriage, or does an unhappy marriage contribute to porn use?

Meanwhile, other studies have actually found watching porn might improve relationships. A 2017 study found people most commonly say porn has "no negative effects" on their relationship, and people more frequently reported positive effects than negative effects. Another 2017 study found a person looking at pornographic images had no effect on how attracted they were to their partner and how in love they felt.

How couples feel about porn may play a big role in how it affects their relationship: A 2018 study found, among people who are more accepting of porn, watching a lot of porn is associated with more relationship satisfaction. But for those who are less accepting of porn, watching porn was associated with less relationship satisfaction.

Research on porn and sexual satisfaction.

A lot of research has also found a link between watching porn and less sexual satisfaction, but similarly we can't say for sure if porn makes your sex life worse or if people with a less satisfying sex life tend to gravitate toward porn. There's also an interesting gender effect here: In a 2012 study of heterosexual couples, men watching porn was linked to a lower-quality sex life for both him and his partner. But women watching porn was actually linked with a better sex life for her.

There are also studies that have found porn use to be linked with better sex for couples: A 2018 study found people were more likely to report positive effects on their sex lives than negative effects, including things like better sexual communication, more sexual experimentation, and more comfort with sex in general.

Some people believe porn "desensitizes" the brain to pleasure, such that it requires more and more intense stimuli to get sexually excited. A 2014 study found men who watch a lot of porn do tend to have less gray matter and reactivity in their striatum, a part of the brain related to our reward system. The researchers guessed this could either mean that watching porn shrinks this pleasure-related brain region—or it could just mean that having this brain configuration makes watching porn more enjoyable, which is why people who have brains like this watch porn more often.

A 2015 study actually found regular porn use was correlated with stronger sexual response in men and stronger desire for IRL sex with a partner. In a 2019 review of existing research on the subject, researchers found "little to no evidence that pornography use may induce delayed ejaculation and erectile dysfunction" and found the evidence of the connection between porn and sexual dissatisfaction to be "inconsistent." Some clinicians have found watching porn can be effective in overcoming erectile dysfunction, and many sex therapists and other sexuality professionals recommend porn as part of how to learn what turns you on.

All that said, some studies have shown that the more porn a man watches, the more likely he is to want to incorporate sex acts he sees in porn into his actual sex life with his partner. That's not always a good thing, according to Tammy Nelson, Ph.D., LPC, a licensed psychotherapist and AASECT-certified sex therapist: "It's important that porn viewers, in particular young male viewers, realize that most of the scenes in porn are exactly that—scenes. They are staged, set up, sometimes rehearsed, and at times repeated, in order to create the most visually stimulating and intense sexual charge."

She also notes that a lot of porn also suggests women with vulvas will consistently have orgasms from vaginal sex, which is not true. (Here's how to actually make a woman reach orgasm. Hint: It has almost nothing to do with penetration.) Porn shouldn't be used as a replacement for quality sex ed, which is why it's important for parents to talk to kids about sex before they find it online. Porn is a fantasy, and it should be treated as such.

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Porn, cheating, and secrecy.

Perhaps the easiest way porn can hurt your relationship is through secrecy. Keeping secrets of any kind from your partner can hurt the relationship, create a feeling of distance between you, and erode trust over time. Especially when it comes to porn, some people hide their use specifically because they believe their partner will be upset about it or because they know their partner isn't OK with it.

Some people view porn as a form of cheating or as competition to their sex life as a couple, and so discovering that your partner has been secretly watching porn behind your back can be particularly hurtful. A 2017 study of people in heterosexual relationships found the number of women who thought their partner didn't watch porn was dramatically higher than the number of men who actually reported not watching porn. An earlier study found that, for some women, this discovery can feel "traumatic."

Transparency is everything in a relationship, especially when it comes to matters of sex and intimacy. The porn isn't what's unhealthy here; it's the lack of honesty and the willingness to go behind your partner's back that hurt relationships.

Should I be upset that my partner watches porn?

There are no "shoulds" when it comes to your feelings. If you feel upset by your partner's porn use, then your feelings are valid and deserve to be addressed. That doesn't necessarily mean that your partner's porn use is bad or destructive to the relationship, but if it's a problem for you, then it's a problem for the relationship. It's worth having a conversation about what bothers you about their porn use, why they're using it, and how you as a couple can move forward in a way that feels good to both of you.

"Often, at the root is lack of communication or a dysfunctional way of communicating, which leads to isolation, relationship conflict, shame, guilt, feelings of inadequacy, and then porn. In the therapy room, when there is relational distress, porn seems more like the symptom of something greater," Brito explains.

Nelson adds, "There may be room for porn in a healthy relationship. When both partners understand that porn isn't necessarily real life and that what they are watching doesn't have to be repeated exactly in bed. Good porn—what I define as videos that show all those involved having orgasms for real and consensually—can be used in a mutually satisfying erotic life for both partners."

But if that's not your cup of tea, that's OK too. Some people have strong negative feelings about the idea of their partner watching porn. If that's the case for you, talk to your partner about it. If you can't come to an agreement about it, it can be helpful to work with a sex therapist or sex educator who can help you navigate the conversation and come to a workable solution.

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Why people in relationships watch porn.

Some people in relationships might watch porn because they're not satisfied with their current sex life or are unhappy in their relationship. Or it could be something completely unrelated to that. Many people watch porn simply to relax, release stress, and get some physical pleasure without having to bother their partner. "Engaging in solo play is healthy (and normal!) even when you're in a partnered relationship," sexologist and certified sex coach Gigi Engle writes at mbg. "Solo play is its own self-care activity, not a replacement for partnered experiences."

How can you tell the difference between healthy porn use and the kind of porn use that signals something's wrong with the relationship?

"Healthy porn use doesn't interfere in our work or relationship life," AASECT-certified sex therapist Jessa Zimmerman, M.A., tells mbg. "It's an exploration of our eroticism and our arousal, and it contributes to our exploration of pleasure. It's understood to be fantasy, not reality, so it doesn't define what we expect in our sex life with partners. It leaves us feeling fine about ourselves and our sexuality, not ashamed. It's a pleasant excursion, alone or with a partner."

If you're watching porn because you're feeling disconnected from your partner, that's worth a conversation with them. If your partner is watching porn and you're worried, just ask them about it—it might have nothing to do with you, or it might be a sign that it's a good time for you to reinvest in your sex life as a couple.

Nelson adds that watching porn together as a couple can be a great way to get some new sexual energy into the relationship. "Watching porn together can be a way for couples to discover and explore new sexual fantasies together," she says. "It can help couples communicate about what they like and what they don't. It can open a dialogue to help discuss sex and increase the connection in a relationship."

How to deal with your partner watching porn.

If you're upset that your partner is watching porn, talk to them about it. Suffering in silence will only make matters worse. Brito recommends approaching the conversation while still expressing care for your partner and their needs. "Create a safe space to have a caring conversation. Reframe the challenge in terms of unmet emotional needs, and without having the need to attack or shame," she says. "Express your concerns, wants, and needs."

Ask yourself and discuss with your partner:

  • What bothers you about your partner watching porn?
  • How does it make you feel about yourself? About the relationship?
  • Why is your partner watching porn?
  • How's your shared sex life going? Could it be better?
  • How can both partners' needs be met with the most compassion? 

"Agree to create an agreement that is fair and includes both of your wants and needs," Brito says. "If you get stuck finding some common ground, seek professional help from a therapist that specializes in human sexuality." The AASECT directory offers a list of reputable sexuality professionals.

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What if my partner is addicted to porn?

There isn't enough empirical evidence to support the concept of "porn addiction" or "sex addiction," according to AASECT, the leading body governing sex therapists and other sexuality professionals. Be wary of providers who actively assert the existence of porn addiction.

"I don't think 'addiction' is helpful terminology for people who are concerned about their porn consumption," Zimmerman adds. "But people can feel their viewing is out of control and isn't feeling good to them, perhaps resulting in negative consequences in their life. ...and they can work toward other strategies to manage their stress or explore their sexuality. The problem isn't the porn, per se, but the way it's being used and the consequences it's having."

If you're worried about the reasons your partner is using pornography, a reputable sex therapist can work with you both toward healthier porn consumption or other productive habits.

The bottom line.

Watching porn isn't necessarily good or bad for relationships. It all comes down to the way people are using it, how they and their partners feel about porn, and how they're communicating and navigating any discomfort around it. In general, if both partners feel fine about watching porn and it's not getting in the way of your normal lives, then porn is nothing to worry about.

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