Once you have started to rebuild a foundation of trust, the next step in healing is to better understand what your partner has personally gone through as a result of the porn problem. This step involves the recover­ing porn user sharing important details about his involvement with porn as well as his recovery efforts, and the intimate partner revealing the vari­ous ways she has been affected by his porn use. When you share and try to understand each other’s experience, you can develop deeper insight and empathy that will help you both heal. The more open and honest you are in sharing your experiences and patiently listening to what your partner has to say, the more you will be able to clearly comprehend how the porn problem has led to alienation and other difficulties in your re­lationship.

Reveal more about the porn problem. The moment when a porn problem is admitted or discovered is usually highly charged and stressful for both the porn user and his partner. Because the user often feels afraid and ashamed, he may hold back from revealing important information, especially if he thinks the revelation of particular details will get him in even more trouble. At the same time, his partner may be so shocked and distressed that she may not be in the right frame of mind to ask questions or listen objectively. As a result, the moment of discovery or disclosure is not the best time for an intimate partner to understand important aspects of the porn problem, such as: where it came from, what it has involved, and how troubling it has been for the porn user.

When you have started making progress in your recovery and your intimate partner has overcome her initial distress, in-depth sharing be­comes more possible. Several months into his recovery, Logan sat down with his wife, Nancy, to describe his porn problem in greater detail. “I explained to Nancy how pornography had been a secret part of my life since I was eleven years old, how I had been masturbating to it since then mostly to relieve stress, and how I liked lesbian porn. She asked me questions and I answered them as best I could. I knew I could have lied my way through it like I’d done my whole life, but I also knew if we were going to have a chance at making it through this, I couldn’t hold back and had to tell her the truth.”

As difficult as it was for Nancy to hear Logan out, she said the expe­rience helped her. “I liked that he was honest, straightforward, and didn’t minimize what he had done throughout our marriage. If his attitude had been any different, say if he had tried to make excuses or blame me, for example, I don’t think I would have stayed married to him. I had worried that he needed porn because he didn’t find me sexually attractive. Logan reassured me that he finds me sexy and explained that his interest in porn wasn’t about me—it was like a drug addiction.”

Listening to Logan describe details about his problem helped Nancy realize that his porn use wasn’t because there was something wrong with her. She was relieved to discover that his interest and reliance on porn started long before their intimate partnership began, and therefore it became less of a personal rejection. “I realized there was no way I could have competed with Logan’s porn fantasies,” Nancy said. “He’d been using them steadily for years before we ever met!”

Learning more about the porn problem can also ultimately help di­minish an intimate partner’s unresolved feelings of anger, contempt, and disgust toward the recovering porn user. While she may still see his porn behavior as unacceptable, knowing why he had become trapped in this unhealthy behavior can help her feel empathy and compassion.

However, sharing the history and details of a porn problem is not without stress or risk. Some partners can emotionally handle a lot of information, while others are disturbed by graphic details and over­whelmed when learning the full extent of past porn use. Nonetheless, research suggests that when disclosing sexually addictive behavior in a relationship, it’s better to fully disclose everything, regardless of how ini­tially difficult it may be, than to reveal additional information in a “drip and drag” manner over time. Partially disclosing a porn problem, while intentionally hiding or lying about the rest of it, can damage a relation­ship even further because this behavior can reignite a partner’s suspi­cions and can easily intensify feelings of betrayal and distrust.

Most experts agree that an intimate partner has to know enough to make informed decisions about what she now needs from the rela­tionship and be able to be realistic in her expectations of the recovery process. Due to differences in individual circumstances, we recommend that you and your partner discuss what degree of detail you both prefer before sharing specifics about the porn problem. The intimate partner may want to write down a list of questions ahead of time, spelling out the exact things she wants to know. Many couples find it beneficial to seek the assistance of a trained therapist familiar with helping heal relation­ships affected by porn problems when taking this step.

What matters most may not be what you say, but how you say it. Healing a relationship is more likely to occur when a recovering porn user is not only honest and forthcoming, but also accepts full responsi­bility for his actions and involvement with porn. At the same time, the intimate partner should try to recognize and respect the courage it takes for the recovering porn user to be open with her and to refrain from punishing him for what he has shared.

Find out more about the impact on the intimate partner. Just as the recovering porn user must be open and honest, it is also important for the intimate partner to share her feelings and concerns about the porn problem and recovery process, and be able to feel that her partner is compassionate and caring toward her and her feelings. Through verbal communication and/or letter writing, a partner can share how she feels about pornography in general and in her life; her personal history re­garding pornographic material and sexual objectification; how emotion­ally hurt she feels due to the porn problem; and, her fears and concerns about the future of their relationship.

As we’ve discussed, many intimate partners are emotionally trau­matized by the existence of the porn problem and suffer feelings of dis­belief, rejection, disappointment, and fear for a long time. Being able to express the depth of her unhappiness and concerns, and see that her partner really understands and cares, can go a long way toward reducing an intimate partner’s distress and feelings of alienation, and reassure her that she is important and loved.

The idea of revealing the full extent of her feelings and concerns about the porn problem may be frightening, however. Just like her part­ner, she may fear that “letting it all out” could cause even more problems in the relationship. But if she stays focused on stating her feelings and her experiences, while refraining from attacking and blaming the recovering porn user, chances for successful sharing are much greater. The recover­ing porn user can help the process by putting his focus on really trying to understand his partner’s experience and what it would be like to be her in the relationship. This is not a time to defend past actions, justify behavior, make demands, or criticize in any way.

Given the anxieties that a couple may have about this kind of sharing, it is a good idea to approach this process with some form of structure in place. Special couples counseling sessions focused on learning more about the intimate partner’s experience can be a good idea. In addition, some therapists suggest that the intimate partner use letter writing as a way to communicate how the porn problem has impacted her life.

Writing a letter to the recovering porn user allows the intimate part­ner time to think about what she wants to say and the way she wants to say it. If she is in counseling, she can work on and revise the letter with her therapist’s help until she feels it is ready to be shared. Some intimate partners choose to read their letter aloud, while others prefer the recov­ering porn user to read it. The benefit of revealing the impact of the porn problem in letter form is that the recovering porn user can then refer to the letter from time to time as a concrete reminder of the serious conse­quences of his behavior on his intimate partner and his continued need to stay away from porn.

A couple’s healing often takes a big leap forward when the recovering porn user is fully committed to understanding his partner’s perspective and reasons for her emotional unhappiness. “I’d always known that my wife, Iris, didn’t like porn, but I never really understood why until that evening we talked out on the back porch,” George said. “When she was growing up her father had lots of porn—calendars featuring half-naked women, stacks of books and magazines by his bedside, and porn maga­zines he insisted on keeping out in full view on a coffee table in the living room, in spite of how much she and her mom begged him to put them away. Iris hated that her father would rate the women’s bodies and make degrading, sexual comments. The pictures of the women in porn made her feel powerless, even physically sick at times. After hearing Iris de­scribe her experiences of porn in her childhood, I can see why my being into it just tore her up.”

Ed had a similar empathic reaction when his wife shared her experi­ences. “I used to think that using porn was no big deal, that it was the same as having private sexual fantasies. After reading the letter my wife wrote about how my porn use made her feel, I now realize that it was basically the same as if I had had a real-life affair, or if I’d been with a prostitute, in terms of the damage it caused her and our marriage.”

Drew found it challenging to listen when his wife, Emma, told him how disappointed she was in him when she first learned of his porn problem. “It was hard being reminded of what I had done, but it was important,” he said. “Up until she found out I was using porn, Emma thought we had a great marriage—two kids, nice jobs, and a good sex life. Finding out I had a secret life that went on for years destroyed this image. I went from being this great husband and provider to being a threat to the family. For a long time she lived in fear that if my porn prob­lem ever became known, it would ruin the children’s lives and get us run out of town. I realized her concerns were totally understandable.”

The ultimate goal of this type of in-depth sharing is not only to in­crease mutual understanding and empathy, but to start reconnecting as a couple again. “When I first learned about Logan’s porn addiction, I had a hard time imagining how we were ever going to pull together in a healthy way and make it as a couple,” Nancy said. “But now I feel we’re working as a team. We understand each other more. It’s taken a long time, but I finally ‘get it’ that his interest in porn wasn’t about me, and he finally ‘gets it’ why I was so hurt by what he did.”

As you learn to see beyond your own initial emotional reactions and develop a deeper understanding of your partner’s experience, you can move beyond feeling that one partner has been “bad” and the other “be­trayed.” You can begin to realize that porn hurt you both and that by working together you can help each other to heal.