I Can’t Date Until I Kick My Porn Habit!

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I Can't Date Until I Kick My Porn Habit!

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Estimated reading time: 15 minutes

Hi Doc,

I know you’ve dealt with similar topics before, but I think this may be a slightly different twist on things.

I’ve always had difficulties with dating, to the point where I haven’t been on a date in quite a few years. For all intents and purposes, there’s no reason why I can’t date, as I’m a well put together guy with enough going for him, and I get reminded of this by others on a regular basis. However, despite being quite social, I don’t have a large circle of friends, I struggle to meet new people when I do go out, and I don’t use dating apps, so it’s fair to say that a contributing factor is a lack of opportunity.

Regardless, one thing I do know that is holding me back, to some degree, is pornography.

You see, since my early twenties I’ve been trying to stop watching porn. I don’t categorise my relationship with porn as an “addiction”, but through self-reflection and therapy, it is very obvious to me that my usage is triggered when I am in emotional pain. I’m acutely aware that both my parents have their own unhealthy coping mechanisms, so it’s reasonable to assume I’ve followed in their footsteps and found something to cope with the trauma of my youth, and with present day stresses.

Since beginning my journey, I’ve definitely cut down on my usage. I can go weeks, or even a month, without watching pornography, but eventually I’ll find myself in a brief period of relapse. While I don’t subscribe to the beliefs of communities such as NoFap, I must admit that I find myself feeling a lot better when I refrain from the activity, including that my interactions with people tend more enjoyable, as if they’re more drawn to my presence. On the flip side, when I do “relapse”, there’s a period of time where I feel disappointed, lethargic, and can struggle a bit to get the ball rolling again, and that can include not wanting to go out and socialise. The most important aspect though, has been that I become more in tune with my emotions, which consequently enables me to work on healing trauma.

The fact that I’m still struggling to stop, ten years later, has meant that in more recent years it has become a thing that occupies my thoughts a ton. It’s fair to say there’s an element of shame involved. There’s times when I think to myself how much of my life I’ve “wasted” by not recovering. Furthermore, to compound the emotional pain and lack of companionship, and despite knowing it’s all fake, I can’t help but feel envious about all these people who (seemingly) have an endless supply of others wanting to have sex with them. This is despite me reading up on all the bad things about the industry, knowing it’s a fantasy.

Ultimately, there’s a part of me that’s convinced myself that I can’t date until I stop completely from using porn. Despite knowing that alcoholics, drug addicts and even sex addicts can find partners, I’ve yet somehow convinced myself that, without being fully recovered, there’s no way in hell I should put myself out there (not that I really have opportunity, but I digress…). The moment I relapse, I feel like I’m back at day one, and I’ve got to reach a mythical “Day X” before I’m “worthy”. The irony is, the few times that I did date when I was younger, it was during a time when I was not in recovery.

So my question is – how do I approach this?

Bang Bro

Ok, so let’s get a couple of things out of the way right at the top. First, I’m generally pro porn and very pro-masturbation. Second, porn addiction isn’t A Thing. It’s not in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders nor does it match the actual medical definition of addiction. Groups like AASECT have found that porn and sex addiction are more about people’s religious beliefs and relationship to sex than about addiction and for that matter, the idea that porn use causes things like “dopamine resistance” is bad science when there’s any science at all. If you want to know more, I’ll refer you to Dr. Justin Lehmiller’s work on the subject.

Now that’s not to say that people don’t often have problematic relationships with porn… but in those instances, porn use is almost always a form of self-medicating for other issues – the way that people with untreated ADHD or depression will often turn to drugs or alcohol.

In your case… well, if I’m being honest, I think this is very much the case. I think this is far more about using porn as a distraction and feelings of shame for using porn in the first place. And to be perfectly frank, I think your using terms of addiction (such as “in recovery”) are ultimately contributing to the shame rather than helping. All this does is reinforce the idea that you’re doing something dirty and wrong, instead of just beating your meat and enjoying a fantasy with your orgasm.

Those feelings of shame and self-recrimination are going to be a driving force for why you briefly feel better when you’re refraining from it, and also why you feel awful when you start watching porn again. It’s a little like Dumbo’s magic feather. You have a mental association between your using porn and being a loser, so when you take a break from it, you feel better about yourself. Those good feelings change your basic attitude when interacting with other people, which changes both your behavior (you feel better about yourself, so you’re warmer, more confident, friendlier), but also how you view the interaction. Because you feel good about yourself and have a more positive attitude, you also view the interactions themselves more positively. You interpret their behavior and responses in a more positive light, you assume a better outcome based on those interpretations and so on.

Meanwhile, when you start using porn again, you feel awful about yourself and those negative emotions and associations come back. That, in turn, changes your overall attitude and outlook; you feel like a loser, so you assume that people can see the loserdom hanging around you like an aura or a fart in church. You get depressed because you’ve “failed” or “relapsed” and so you have less energy, less drive and less incentive to go out and try to socialize.

It’s not because of the porn, it’s because of your feelings about yourself and your relationship to porn. It could be literally anything else pleasurable that you see as not being “good” – sugar, junk food, sodas, alcohol, weed… literally anything that you would see as a vice. If it wasn’t porn, it could just as easily have been a Snickers bar.

But here’s the ironic thing: that feeling of shame and self-recrimination is also precisely why you keep going back to your problematic porn use. The fact of the matter is that you can’t shame yourself into improvement. Because you have this negative association with porn and jerking it to porn, it becomes a sort of self-flagellation. Because you see it as shameful and that it makes you a loser, when you do have a moment where you fall back into old habits, you have the voice in your head saying “fuck it, this is what you deserve. Get back to it gooner, you’ll never do any better than this, you miserable piece of shit.” And because you have been using porn to self-medicate and cope with negative emotions… well, that surge of negative emotions means that it becomes a self-perpetuating cycle.

And here’s the thing: you’re not going back to porn because you’re a loser and because you’re weak, or because you have a dependency on porn. You’re going back to it because it’s very hard to break patterns that involve dopamine rewards. Your brain likes the dopamine hit it gets from the activity and when you’re trying to break that habit, your brain will fight against it. When you’re trying to force yourself to quit cold-turkey (again), you’ll reach a point where your brain will throw what’s called an “extinction burst” at you. This is a sudden, massive craving for whatever you’ve been denying yourself. It’s why people who, for example, are trying to kick diet sodas will be doing great for a couple weeks and then BAM! They’re guzzling down a Super Big Gulp of Diet Coke like they’ve been in the desert for weeks.  

This is why it’s not just about porn – it’s literally anything that creates dopamine in the brain. It’s why people have difficulty when they want to quit playing Candy Crush or Animal Crossing, even when it’s stopped being fun for them.

If you want things to change for the better, then there are two things that you need to do.

The first is that you need to start changing your relationship to porn and the way you see it. You need to start letting go of the idea that porn use is inherently shameful instead of just being something that humans have done for pretty much all of existence. The reason why porn works is because seeing and hearing other people copulate triggers an arousal response. It’s extensively well documented in humans and in bonobos – two of the three species that mate outside of estrus; porn is just a layer of abstraction to the process. When we lived more communally or just had less privacy (and attendant modesty issues), we’d hear other people banging and get turned on. Porn is just a layer of abstraction. And that abstraction has been with us literally since the Stone Age. As soon as proto-hominids grasped the concept of abstract representation, we were scrawling dicks and boobs on walls, making statues of naked people and big ol’ phalluses out of just about anything that could be easily shaped and we haven’t stopped since.

Now don’t get me wrong: if you want to stop using porn – or just use it less – I’m all in favor. But you need to recognize that it’s the emotional association of Porn Use = Loser that’s ultimately tripping you up. If you start seeing it less as a moral hazard and more as just a habit that you’re trying to be more mindful of, you’ll have an easier time. Part of what would help is making a point of using your imagination more when you masturbate instead of firing up PornHub or dipping into your hard drive – breaking the association between porn > arousal > masturbation > orgasm.

Similarly, it’s important to remember that the people acting in porn are doing just that: acting. They’re no more dealing with “thousands of people who want to have sex with them” than Vin Diesel is fighting terrorists with gravity-defying cars or Ewan McGregor is leading an order of psychic monks with laser swords. The difference here is that one feels like something you should be able to accomplish, so it hits different.

The second thing you need to do is to start actually dealing with those negative emotions you’re trying to cope with. The thing about coping mechanisms is that they don’t actually fix anything; they just distract or numb you. You need to address the actual underlying causes. You’ve trained yourself to deal with those feelings with porn. Now it’s time to start training yourself to handle those feelings in ways that actually makes things better. This may mean going back to therapy. It may mean using some self-directed CBT exercises. It may mean learning better mechanisms for handling the stress or the feelings and channeling them in more productive directions.

And while we’re at it? Start putting in actual effort to meeting people. If you’re as social as you say, then it really is time to start living your life and making new friends and potential dates, instead of hiding behind a smokescreen of shame. You don’t need to be at “Day X”. That’s a day that will never come because this is about shame and self-esteem, not kicking porn. What you need to do is just resolve to go out and meet people, not worry about how many days it’s been since you checked out Sweetie Fox.

It’s up to you. You just have to decide to do it.

Good luck.   


Dear Dr. NerdLove:

Some detail – I (30, F) work a very physically and mentally rigorous job, that recently got three times MORE rigorous.

Our production manager was, long story short, a bully. He was having an affair with another coworker. That coworker was recently fired for logging hours she didn’t work. Her firing pissed off the production manager and he quit on the spot two weeks ago.

To give you a better idea of how this fucked us, the production manager had his position for 10 years. There were many responsibilities he had, that he was secretive about and taught nobody.

Ultimately, he was an ass, and its good he is gone. But, I was his second in command. That means, it’s my responsibility to learn all his roles – including what he didn’t teach – while ALSO fulfilling my original responsibilities.

The boss has been supportive, but I AM TIRED. I wasn’t kidding when I said this job is mentally AND physically demanding… I have gained 25 pounds of muscle over the past 3 years, and since the production manager left my physical labor has DOUBLED. I am swigging protein shakes and inhaling food like three teenagers in a suit, just to keep up.

I love the job, don’t get me wrong. I have ADHD, and no access to medication for it. The job helps me manage symptoms.

The issue is with my husband. He knows my work situation, but he doesn’t seem to understand how the exhaustion affects me, socially and sexually.

When I get home, I need relaxation and low-stimulation. A dark room, a cold blanket, maybe a cuddle. Frankly, some days, I get home, eat, and then crash and sleep for 12 to 14 hours until the next day. But husband always wants more  –  he wants to lay next to me. and then kiss me, and hug me, and then he gets horny and  –  although he doesn’t state it – he obviously hopes to escalate things. And when I tell him I’m exhausted, even though he doesn’t state it, he is obviously super disappointed.

Now, his disappointment is understandable. He needs to feel loved and cared for, to have affection and sex in the relationship  –  and some days, between me working, and then needing 12 hours of sleep, he sees me very little.

About my husband: He doesn’t work because of a physical/medical disability. While he has an active social life, and keeps himself busy otherwise with housework and hobbies, I’m sure it sucks for him that I’m either gone or sleeping.

This was an issue even before my job intensified. I have always needed a lot of sleep – 10 hours a night – ever since I was little.

I don’t want to be so tired all the time. I don’t want to neglect my marriage and have my husband feel lonely/sad. But I can’t change my body, and I can’t just not work, because I’m the breadwinner.

I’ve tried suggesting that we schedule sex in advance a couple times a week, but he seems really opposed to trying. He wants it to be spontaneous.

What do we do? How do I compromise my needs with my husband’s?

Sleepy Time T

I almost want to kick half of your letter over to Ask A Manager, because I feel like part of the problem is work itself. It sounds to me like your boss really needs to be hiring someone to help pick up the slack so that you’re not stuck trying to your former production manager’s job and your old one. If you’re going to be taking his old job, someone really should be moved into yours.

But that’s not what you asked about, you asked about how to deal with your relationship with your husband and that part is going to require having a come-to-Jesus meeting with him.

I’m entirely sympathetic to wanting to be intimate with one’s partner and feeling neglected. It’s hard, even when you know, intellectually, that it’s not anyone’s fault or a lack of love or interest but a lack of spoons. However, there’s a point where your husband isn’t doing anyone any favors by pushing and pushing and having a sad about it. Even if he’s trying to hide the fact that he has a sad.

What ultimately needs to happen is having a detailed Awkward Conversation. The points that I think you want to hit are simple: your job is incredibly physically and mentally demanding under the best of circumstances, and now you’re literally doing the job of two people. You’re coming home, exhausted and overstimulated and you barely have the energy to get undressed and actually get into bed, never mind have a spontaneous fuck sesh. While you’re entirely sympathetic to your husband’s feelings, the fact of the matter is that you have neither the energy nor the drive, and the way he has been coming at you has been making it hard to muster up the will even when you do have the energy. This is part of why scheduling sex would be a good compromise; it means that you’re able to make sure you conserve your energy andhe knows that this is time that you’ve carved out as a commitment to intimacy and connection.  

Now I understand the whole idea that spontaneous sex is better than planned… but that’s not actually the case. In fact, there’re a lot of reasons why planned sex can be better.

Consider: do you feel like going to a restaurant is less satisfying if you had reservations? Do you feel like a trip isn’t as fun because you planned it out weeks or months in advance? Or do you actually find it more enjoyable because you think about what you’re going to order, imagine the sights you’re going to see and the experiences you’re going to have?

It’s the same with scheduling sex. Yes, the “spontaneity” isn’t there… but instead what you have is the antici…

…pation. You know it’s going to happen, instead of hoping that it might happen, which means you start looking forward to it. You and your husband can even lean into it – sharing dirty texts about what you’re going to do with each other and to each other. You can tease one another by sending pics – maybe laying out the outfit or lingerie you’re going to wear or some spicy but suggestive pictures of one another.

By planning on days when you’re going to have sex, you can fold flirting into the plans, winding each other up so that when you do get together for your date night, you throw caution and clothes to the wind and dive at one another. Instead of, y’know. Hoping that the cuddle session is going to lead to more when you barely have the energy to even keep your eyes open.

So don’t just suggest planned sex dates; pitch them. Sell him on it and help him see that while it may seem less exciting, the reality is that being able to look forward to it with certainty will make it so much better than rolling the dice and taking his chances. Especially since current circumstances mean that he’d be rolling with disadvantage.

Good luck.

 

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