Saturday, December 29, 2012

My boyfriend secretly binges on porn. Should I bring it up?

Here’s a dialogue I had recently by email:

Kimberly: My boyfriend and I are in our second year of living together. I noticed when we first started dating he liked porn. Now it’s getting worse. He treats me like gold, so I don't want to bring anything up. What do I do?

Dr. C: What concerns you about it?

K: It’s getting expensive: he spends about $100 a week. And he’ll watch two or three movies in one sitting. He calls me to see where I am before he starts the next one to make sure I won’t come home while he's online. I know because I have the log on and see the times. It didn't bother me when it was every now and then, but now its every day. I’m afraid it will lead to other things. If I bring it up, it will push him away.

C: I see. Well, your concerns are legitimate. Here’s how I see it: consider this your chance to see if the relationship can handle legitimate concerns. If it can, the connection you already have will deepen and strengthen and become more secure and close. If not, do you really want to be with someone who won’t take your feelings seriously and address them together with you as a couple? How good a relationship is it, really, if he uses the fact that you brought up genuine concerns as a reason to distance himself from you? I realize everyone's ideals and preferences are different, but that sounds like a recipe for long-term @#!*% to me.

K: So what should I do?

C: If it were me, I would bring up my concern and hope that it reveals my partner  to be considerate of me and my feelings. If he is, I would rejoice that the relationship is as good as my instincts told me it was. We would then be on a path to deeper connection. If he can’t tolerate it, I would mourn the loss—but be thrilled that I found out now instead of burying my head in the sand because I didn't want to test it and find out.

K: Thanks

C: You're welcome. I hope it goes well. Please let me know what you decide to do and how it goes. Many women share your dilemma and will benefit from hearing how you sort it out and the path you decide to take--and how that goes. I'm glad you reached out.

K: Because I’m in a situation where I really love him and financial issues are a big factor, I may let it ride until I’m done with school. This is not the first time I've had a partner who's done this. I know from experience how it will end if I bring it up. So for now, until I can get a grip on my emotions, I will keep calm. Men will always look at porn. I broke a trust by snooping. If he wanted to end the relationship I think he would be distant rather than trying to please me all the time. So for now I’ll leave it. If I do decide to leave I wouldn't want him to know it was over this, I would want it to be on my terms.

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Okay Readers, I'm usually the one trying to offer help, but I need your help here. Please help me understand! I can't fathom how Kimberly could have arrived at this point. And not just her: how could our culture have devolved to where women find acceptable such a life situation and relationship M.O.? I know from the email I get that many do settle for it, or at least think they should because their friends and their experience tell them it's as good as things get with a guy.

They don't want to be nags; closed-minded, uptight prudes. So they try to go along. But deep down the whole thing sits uneasy with them. Late at night in weak moments they type google searches like "boyfriend looks at porn” or “Why can’t men ever get enough porn?” and end up at my blog. Then they ask—tentative, almost apologetically, “Why does it bug me? It shouldn't, right? After all, it’s just porn. I would hate to set things back by bringing it up.”

Since starting this blog, I've been blown away by how many women Kimberly’s age feel more hesitant and unsure about initiating emotional intimacy than men of my generation were about initiating physical intimacy. We were indoctrinated that sharing emotions is just as important for a woman as physical affection is to a man. We became convinced that to expect the one without being willing to give the other in return was selfish and sexist.

As one who bought into this way of thinking and spent years trying to put it into practice, I have to confess that my emotional connection with my wife Jenny is now as fulfilling and important to me as our physical relationship (not to downplay the physical!). So I have to wonder how we've gotten to the point where a woman can be two years into a relationship, which has been sexual from the start, and yet feels like trying to get to "first base" with him emotionally would turn him off and scare him away. And she doesn't want to do that because she does truly love him. What about expecting to be loved in return?

Is this the kind of relationship we want our little girls to feel obligated to put up with when they’re older? He gets to share his bodily fluids, but sharing your concerns is too much? Come on! Can’t we recommend as a general rule: never open your legs and let in a man's penis who won't open his heart and let in your feelings?

Sorry, if I'm sounding harsh it's only because I think that too many women--and their men for that matter!--are missing out on so much potential joy. It breaks my heart. Do I sound old-fashioned when I talk about relationships as a source of joy? I must admit, I do sometimes wonder what happened to the world I thought I knew. It makes me livid at our pornified, hypersexualized culture for doing this to women like Kimberly and their men.

To me this seems like the new sexism, where women squelch their own voices, sparing their men the job.

How do you see it?

Friday, December 14, 2012

See Through Your Cravings

The craving state is the linchpin of addiction. The draw of sexual acting out spikes and the reasons to avoid it fade. The very essence of the craving state leaves us vulnerable because we no longer have our wits about us; our usual capacity to think and solve problems is compromised.

Relapse is one sure way out of the craving state. We give in to the urge and indulge ourselves. Then reality very quickly snaps back into view. Regret and shame flood in. 

Resistance of urges, on the other hand, seems to only leave the craving state intact. The draw remains and continues to pull at us. I've often heard from clients that the didn't act on impulse, but rather felt worn down by craving and eventually gave in because they wanted out of the torture, they just couldn't take anymore the harassment--and eventually the torture--of the temptations that pounded away at their consciousness.

Rather than fighting or giving in to urges, try working with the craving state differently. Try this Lifespan Integration booster technique and see if it helps:

1. Identify what you feel physiologically and where you feel it in your body when you crave. You can certainly do this on the fly when you are actively craving. However, it works best to do a little preparation by focusing on what craving feels like to you when you're not feeling it spontaneously. Attend to the bodily sensations in a curious way. Notice the details: are the feelings diffuse or localized? What happens to the sensations as you attend to them over time?

2. As you stay focused on those feelings in your body, let go of the current situation or craving. Stay with the feelings in your body, but let your mind float back in time--maybe even way back. Notice when else you've felt those feelings in your body. What memories go with those bodily sensations? Quite often what arises for my clients is a past experience that played a formative role in their addiction. I call this a "hook experience."

These hook experiences can be divided into two types: those which trigger "euphoric recall" and those which trigger "deliverance recall." To illustrate euphoric recall: one client remembered finding a discarded pornographic magazine lying in field as he walked home from school and being very intrigued. As he viewed the magazine, curiosity gave way to euphoria. It was like a whole new exciting aspect of life was opening up to him. Deliverance recall is different but just as powerful. Another client recalled finally leaving on a family vacation that he'd been eagerly anticipating, only to discover that his parents fought the entire drive to the lake just as they did at home. When they arrived at the condo he locked himself in the bathroom and collapsed to the floor in despair. After laying there for minute, he started touching his genitals and felt his disappointment about his family situation fade as he began to lose himself in the pleasure of sexual stimulation.

3. Design a brief message you might give a young person you care about who was right now in the very situation you found yourself at the time of the hook experience. For instance, you might say: "That might seem great because it feels so good, but you'll want to be careful in how much you pursue it. You don't want it to take over your life. If you let your fascination with sex get out of balance it can interfere with your focus on other good goals and get in the way of relationships. It can even hook you on fake fantasy sex and interfere with fully enjoying sex with your real future partner." Or perhaps, "This may seem now like the best way to escape bad feelings, but I've learned over time that it's better to face feelings and deal with problems head on."

4. Create a timeline by identifying 8-10 events that have happened since that hook experience. These will provide you with some chronological handles for your younger, more vulnerable self to hold onto as he or she climbs out of the outdated mindset and into present day reality.

Some clients find it odd or hokey, like it's a figment of pop psychology, to think about their craving state as coming from a younger self. That is the way we frame it to help the right brain grasp what we're doing as we go through the process of this exercise, but it can be explained differently to the left brain: We've long known that consciousness is not the continuous flow of one stream, but is actually made up of frequently shifting "ego state"s that enhance our functioning by taking over to handle the various kinds of situations and experiences we face in everyday life. Most of these ego states are adaptive and we don't give them a second thought. Others come into being as we face extreme situations or experiences, like our hook experiences. These ego states and the thinking and behavior they generate may make sense to some degree at the time they are adapted, but life moves on and evolves and becomes more complex. It's not very adaptive or productive when we unintentionally--and often even unconsciously--shift back into old ego states that are characterized by overly simplified perspectives (such as "Sex is the most important thing in life!") and behavioral imperatives (such as "Don't ever pass up the opportunity for sexual excitement.")

5. Practice the booster technique quite a few times when you're not in a craving state to prepare yourself to use it in the heat of the moment. This is best done with the help of a therapist who has been trained in the therapy technique called Lifespan Integration. Take yourself back to the hook experience by recalling an incident during which sex was euphoric or offered deliverance from distress. Mentally put yourself there, back in time, in that experience. Notice what you feel in your body and exactly where you feel those sensations. Now, bring your present-day, adult self into that scene. Imagine taking your younger self away from where he or she was and to a safe place like a peaceful beach or a mountain grove. In a compassionate way, deliver the message you've designed. Tell your younger self that he (or she) is a good person and you know he's not trying to mess up his life, but you have a different perspective, adopted over time and with maturity, that you want to share with him. Then tell him gently but firmly that time has moved on and that hook experience IS OVER, and IS NOT HAPPENING ANYMORE. Prove this to him by showing him pictures of the scenes on your timeline. Show him all 8 or 10 scenes in chronological order. Then imagine bringing him into your home as it is now. Tell him he lives here now with you, and he's not back there anymore going through that hook experience. Notice what he wants to do here and now if he's no longer stuck back then and there. Often clients see their younger self truly enjoying being a kid again without the worries he took on at such a young age. Or they see their younger self enjoying genuine childlike spontaneous pursuits rather than getting hooked on porn or masturbation at such a young age. Their is a recovery, retrieval, or return to developmental needs and pursuits that were short-circuited by too early or too intense sexualization.

These repetitions are the process of Lifespan Integration therapy and, as I said, they are best done with the aid of a therapist trained to conduct this technique. However, some of the best therapy can occur outside formal sessions in the heat of the craving moment. That's why I call this next step a booster technique:

6. When you find you're suffering cravings, do a simplified version of step 5 above. Feel what's going on in your body. See if it matches what you felt back in the hook experience you identified. Perhaps the feelings in the body when you're craving go with a different hook experience or don't link up with a particular hook experience. Either way, sense that it may be your younger self, a less informed and mature part of you, that is experiencing this craving. Bring your present day self into the scene and let that younger self know you're here for him. Offer a message of encouragement, gentle correction of perspective, or reassurance that he'll be okay even if he doesn't pursue sex right now. Then show him a few (perhaps 3-5) of the events from the timeline in chronological order to prove to him that time has passed. Let him know he is in the present, with you here and now and these days you've learned to think better of it when you're tempted to pursue sex in that way.

As always, I respectfully request that you let me know how it goes if you give this technique a try.

Thanks and keep up the great work!