Relationships

Porn Derails Our Bonding Instinct

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Want to bond with another human being? Here are your instructions: read and reciprocate. Read a signal from them (rather than ignoring it), then reciprocate by sending a signal of your own (rather than doing your own thing, independently of what they just did). Read and reciprocate, It’s as simple as that.

Oh yeah, there is one more ingredient: repeat.

So, let’s put it all together, here goes: read, reciprocate, times ten thousand. Okay, that might take a while. But it will be worth it. Once you’ve put in the reps, you’ll have built a strong bond.

Not only did I not make these instructions up, I didn’t even need to tell them to you. We don’t learn to connect with our closest loved ones in this way, we do it instinctively. We mastered the skill in infancy and we’ve been doing it ever since.

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This judge looked an inmate square in the eyes and did something that left the entire courtroom in tears:

In 1975, developmental psychologist Ed Tronick demonstrated that even babies have mastered this dance of attachment. Watching the reciprocal responsiveness of mothers and their children, he wondered what would happen if he had mothers stare with blank faces at their infants.

To reestablish connection, the babies in Tronick’s study attempt to reengage their unresponsive mothers. They donned their cutest smiles and emitted their most engaging coos. When the blank stares persisted, the infants’ distress heightened to the point of desperation.

Take a couple of minutes to watch this video of Tronick’s little experiment. Notice what goes on inside of you as you do.

So, what does this have to do with porn?

According to pioneering human development theorist John Bowlby, this inborn attachment system does its important work of connecting us to loved ones, not just when we’re young, but all the way “from the cradle to the grave.”

In order to love and feel loved by a romantic partner, we must to go through the same process we did way back then: read, reciprocate, and repeat. And so on, ad infinitum.

Because we are drawn to our beloved, we’re willing to attune and attend to the signals they send.

Somewhere in my heart there’s a delicate magnetized arrow that orients toward my partner and any signal she’s sending. Sort of the way my two dollar compass managed to pick up the signal all the way from the North Pole when I was a Boy Scout.

As powerful and reliable as the North Pole is, my big brother pulled off a wizardly feat. He managed to reorient that arrow. He brought a magnet closer and closer to my compass until—boing!—its little foil arrow trembled in his direction.

So (ahem!), what does this have to do with porn?

We’re all grown up now, but our magnetized little foil arrows are still delicate. They don’t always necessarily orient toward our real live human attachment figure. What happens when we bring in the big neodymium magnet of porn?

Boing!

Here’s how it goes for the couples I see in my practice:

Even before she found out he was into porn, it felt to her like something had changed. He seemed…

  • distracted and calloused,
  • less empathic and patient,
  • easily irritated,
  • emotionally detached.

He’s unresponsive. The adult equivalent of that mother in the video with the still face.

What happened?

For a male, no signal packs a bigger wallop than registering that he has pleased the woman who has ignited his sexual interest.

In real life, this payoff doesn’t come without significant investment. The process requires a great deal of patience and effort and just the right touch. You gotta read and respond and repeat, read and respond and repeat. It’s no mean accomplishment.

And yet, throughout recorded history and in all of literature, music, and art, there’s more celebrating the joys of this quest than bemoaning the steepness of its slope. The arrival is sweeter for the journey, the quenching more blissful for the thirst.

Porn, so easily accessed and exquisitely pleasurable, evokes within us the positive feedback signal we naturally yearn for, but without all the hassles of a real life relationship.

So why not load up on the stuff? Then, once you’re into it, why go back to the real thing? Ever?

My clients who work hard to come back tell me why: There’s no life there. It’s all overload. No reciprocation, no interplay. It’s all boing and no quest. It’s like finding the cheat code to all your favorite video games and scoring touchdowns, home runs, and holes-in-one with each and every attempt. Feels great at first, less so over time as the brain registers that it’s devoid of meaning.

Plus, it changes you. Without the relationship grounding, we careen in a downward spiral. At a workshop I taught in Boston, one of the therapist participants quoted one of his pornography-addicted clients: “Moy Loyf is gyoin’ dyown the cryappa fyasta than I can lyowa moy styandads.”

Perhaps the most devastating effect of dosing up on porn: we lose our attunement to an actual partner and the signals they’re sending no longer capture our interest. As Gail Dines observed in her book, Pornland, porn quite effectively “trains men to become desensitized to women’s pain” (2010, 74). And, in my observation, subtler feelings as well. 

Pornography attacks the essence of healthy attachment: reciprocal responsiveness. Here’s how Naomi Wolf puts it: “Far from having to fend off porn-crazed young men, young women are worrying that as mere flesh and blood, they can scarcely get, let alone hold, their attention.”

In response to Wolf’s argument, one reader commented: “As a man, I've always disliked the fact that my sexuality made me an easy mark for manipulation. This explains part of the attraction of porn. It represents a kind of freedom which we have never had before. We can do away with our weakness…by eliminating real women from the equation and therefore the risk of being controlled and potentially humiliated.”

He would be right about how nicely eliminating one factor can change the equation, if only sex were an equation. However, if it’s not an equation, but a dynamic—a relationship—then we need to stick it out in the messier realm of reciprocal responsiveness.

See One Real Wrinkled Wife or a Harem of Airbrushed Goddesses for more on the relationship alternative to porn. To protect or revive your relationship visit Love You, Hate the Porn.