Sooner or later, a woman in a troubled relationship will begin searching for answers. She is often motivated by her own distress and by her con­cerns for the relationship. She may start reading books on relationship problems, talk with a counselor, or begin to discuss her concerns with friends. In some cases, her efforts may lead her to suspect the possibility that her partner has a problem with porn.

Debbie told us that ten years went by in her strained and sexually starved marriage before she considered porn as a possible reason for their troubles. After listening to her talk about her problems, a friend asked her if it was possible that her husband might be involved with porn. “I went home that night and confronted Roger. He went pale and broke down. He told me ‘Yes,’ he had dealt with some pornography in the past and that he wasn’t doing it anymore. And he promised not to do it again.”

Debbie was relieved to have gotten an answer to the nagging ques­tions and believed Roger when he said he’d quit. What she didn’t realize was that Roger, like many porn users, was so ashamed of and addicted to porn that he wasn’t capable of telling her the truth. Most porn users deny or minimize their porn use when they are initially asked about it. “From what Roger told me,” Debbie said, “I assumed he had just been buying a Playboy now and then. I had no clue how extensive the problem was.”

Even though Debbie confronted Roger and he was able to admit to some use, what he didn’t tell her was that he was using it every day and masturbating to it. Debbie’s lack of understanding about porn’s harmful potential coupled with Roger’s only partial honesty about his use kept her in the dark for several more years. She told us, “After that night I continued desperately trying to pull things out of him, pulling a relation­ship together, pulling a connection and it’s not there. I was at a loss as to what to do.”

Suspicion and confusion also plagued Sue, a forty-five-year-old bank teller, even though she knew firsthand that her husband, Bob, had at one time really enjoyed watching porn. For a few months early in their twenty-year marriage, they had experimented with watching porn videos together before making love. While it was exciting for a while, Sue became disenchanted with it, feeling it got in the way of them feeling emotionally close. She assumed Bob had given up porn when she did.

But last year something happened that made Sue begin to suspect that Bob had returned to using porn. “I got a phone call from some­one who said Bob owed him money for a porn video,” she said. “I was shocked. Bob laughed and told me it was a mistake, and that he’d take care of it. But a few months later I got another call from some­one saying Bob owed money for more videos. Come on. How could the same weird thing happen twice?” Sue felt increasingly distressed. When she questioned Bob he gave her vague answers that were hard to believe. “I felt like the wife of an alcoholic who smells booze on her husband’s breath, but hears him claim he’s sober,” she said. “I got really confused and didn’t know who to trust. Bob told me he hadn’t been using porn. But something inside me knew that something wasn’t right.”

Even though Sue knew that her husband’s answers to her questions didn’t make sense, she held herself back from trying to wrestle the truth out of him. “Part of me didn’t want to accept he was using porn again. It was just too horrible to think about. I let Bob make his explanations and listened to him promise it wouldn’t happen again. Deep down I didn’t want to believe that Bob was capable of lying to me. And I didn’t want to think that anything could be wrong with our relationship.”

Like Debbie and Sue, many women partners of porn users often find themselves wanting to give their husbands or boyfriends the benefit of the doubt. A woman may be desperately trying to avoid seeing her part­ner as a liar, especially someone who would intentionally and boldly lie to her. The desire to hold on to a positive image of the partner and the relationship is very common. Janet, a thirty-two-year-old bartender, said, “In spite of my boyfriend’s denials, I kept finding evidence that he might be heavily into porn—a strange e-mail account, a Playboy in his trunk, a topless female keychain. With everything I came across, I just chose to look the other way. I didn’t want to believe he would like that stuff.”

In some cases, a woman may encounter undeniable evidence of porn use that makes it obvious to her that there is a strong possibility that her boyfriend or husband is seriously involved with porn. One day Hana came home early from work and found her husband, Ricardo, sitting in the living room at the computer. “The room was dark and smelled like semen,” Hana said. “It was really obvious. There were all these wads of toilet paper in the garbage can. I couldn’t believe it and I asked him: ‘Are you jacking off to pornography? Are you watching it on the Internet?’ Ricardo just denied it over and over again. Then he refused to talk about it anymore. I was really upset. I feared he was more seriously into porn than I’d ever imagined. I let the incident pass, knowing the whole subject made him really uncomfortable.”

Many intimate partners like Debbie, Sue, Janet, and Hana, tell us that their inability to get satisfying answers to their questions leaves them feel­ing confused or even “insane.” Their instincts and perceptions tell them one thing and their partners tell them the opposite, causing increasing levels of stress and anxiety. Physical problems such as headaches and sleep disturbance are not uncommon. And due to building internal emo­tional distress, women in these situations may become more emotionally sensitive and reactive.

Looking back on this time in their lives, many women say they were unaware of what to look for in figuring out whether their partner had a serious problem with porn. The symptoms of porn problems are rarely discussed openly in our society. It has been difficult for women to get the information they need to substantiate their instincts and perceptions.

Many women tell us they wish they had paid more attention to certain changes in their partner’s behavior that they now see were pointing to the active porn problem. In particular, they would have taken more seriously the following behaviors: