New research provides evidence of a negative association between pornography use and the stability of romantic relationships. The study has been published in The Journal of Sex Research .
Despite its increasing prominence, research into the effects of pornography use on romantic relationships has lagged behind the study of other factors. The authors behind the new study sought to better understand the link between pornography use and relationship satisfaction and stability, and also examine the potential influence of religiosity and perceived addiction.
“My main area of research is on healthy couple process and healthy marriage,” explained lead researcher Brian J. Willoughby, a professor at Brigham Young University and the author of “The Millennial Marriage.”
“I study what individual and couple factors contribute to trajectories into and away from healthy long-term relationships. I became interested in pornography because 1) it is an increasingly common sexual behavior that almost all people now encounter or use on a somewhat regular basis; meaning that modern couples have to navigate how to utilize pornography together and how to negotiate their individual use of pornography in the context of a relationship and 2) pornography has been shown to impact both individual well-being and couple relationship quality.”
The researchers used the online data collection firm Qualtrics to recruit a sample of 3,750 U.S. adults (71% female and 28% male) who were currently in a committed relationship. The mean age of the sample was 38 years old and the average relationship length was 8.75 years.
The participants indicated how often in the last 12 months they had viewed or used different types of pornography, reported how satisfied they were with various aspects of their relationship, and completed an assessment of relationship stability. They also completed a measure of perceived addiction to pornography (e.g. “I feel unable to stop my use of online pornography”).
Finally, the participants indicated whether spirituality was an important part of life, how often they prayed, and how important they considered their religious faith to be. The responses were averaged to create a religiosity score.
The researchers found a moderate negative association between pornography use and relationship stability. In other words, those who reported using pornography more frequently tended to also think their relationship (or marriage) might be in trouble more often, discussed ending their relationship more often, and separated and then got back together more often. In addition, perceived addiction to pornography and religiosity moderated the association between pornography use and relationship stability.
“The first main takeaway is that regardless of individual factors, pornography use tended to have a negative effect on the stability of relationships,” Willoughby told PsyPost. “One of the questions we wanted to answer was if pornography only had a negative influence for certain types of people (religious people, those who believed they were addicted), but we found negative effects regardless of these factors.”
“The second main takeaway is that these individual factors can exaggerate the negative effect of pornography use on relationship quality. If you put all of the findings together, we basically find that while pornography use has a negative impact on relationship regardless, being religious or believing you are addicted to pornography can magnify these negative associations.”
Interestingly, the researchers found no evidence that aggressive pornographic content had a greater impact than non-aggressive content.
“We looked at both mainstream pornography use and the use of more aggressive forms of pornography and surprisingly found little differences between them,” Willoughby said. “We had assumed that watching forms of pornography with aggressive depictions of sex may have a more negative influence on relationships, but this was not the case.”
There was also no direct relationship found between pornography use and relationship satisfaction, although some interactive effects were uncovered when perceived addiction and religiosity were considered. “Links between relationship satisfaction and pornography use appear to be inconsistent and heavily based on contextual factors, as demonstrated by results here and in previous studies,” the researchers wrote.
The study controlled for gender, education level, relationship length, number of biological children, and frequency of partnered sexual activity. But like all research, the study includes some caveats.
“The research was cross-sectional so we could not determine what direction the associations were,” Willoughby told PsyPost. “It’s possible that those in low quality relationships are more likely to turn to pornography as a coping mechanism. We still need a lot more research on how couples navigate and talk about pornography in their relationship to really understand how these dynamics happen.”
The study, “Context Matters: Moderating Effects in the Associations between Pornography Use, Perceived Addiction, and Relationship Well-being“, was authored by Brian J. Willoughby and Carson R. Dover