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Why Boundaries in Porn Recovery Are Challenging

Last Updated: March 6, 2023

“To the extent that we can’t control something we don’t like, we fear it.” – John Z., Grace in Addiction

Early recovery is monumentally difficult. Not only are porn addicts trying to achieve sobriety, but they and their spouses also contend with holding their marriages together. A significant challenge arrives when spouses present boundaries, and it follows a predictable path. I present the porn addict as a man and the spouse as a woman in this article, but the roles can certainly be reversed. The porn addict may be the wife.

Spouses establish boundaries so they can restore a sense of relational safety from the betrayal trauma. They are usually presented as a list of directions or restrictions. Do only this. Don’t do that. Spouses use boundaries for safety; porn addicts use control.

We fear the things we can’t control.

Porn addicts have a problem with boundaries. If he accepts a boundary, it means he is no longer in total control of his life. Why is this important? Control is how he has perpetuated the addiction, managed his internal anxiousness, negative cognition, or dysregulation, and pacified deep emotional wounds. It’s a poor substitute for managing daily stressors in a healthy way, but it may be the only way he knows.

A good example is if he has an extreme reaction when something (an outlying event) doesn’t go according to his plan. The outlier represents a loss of control. Since control is how he manages his internal state, the outlier threatens his primary, or only, support system for emotional regulation. His reaction is due to fear for his emotional security. That reaction is often anger.

Anger covers fear and shame.

Porn addicts often respond with anger when presented with a boundary because it represents a loss of control. As John Z. would say, he fears it. Anger is a numbing emotion. It protects people from emotions they don’t want to feel. It also guards those wounds buried deep inside.

Spouses don’t take well to anger as a response to their boundary safety net. The boundary is intended to make her feel safe, but her basic need for safety has been rejected. A stalemate ensues until a resolution is found.

Let’s follow the attempted path of safety resolution so far…

1. Spouse discovers the porn addiction.

2. Spouse presents boundaries to keep herself relationally safe.

3. Addict perceives boundaries as a loss of control.

4. Addict fears the loss as emotionally unsafe.

5. Addict covers the fear with anger.

6. Spouse feels rejected.

7. Stalemate ensues and healing stalls.

Both the addict and spouse desire safety.

Notice the process has a safety net gained by one and lost by another. The failure lies in the perception that safety is transferred from the porn addict to the spouse. It may come as a surprise that a porn addict desires safety, too—protection from the exposure of his emotional insecurities. To prevent a stalemate, he must allow her to gain a sense of safety without believing he must sacrifice his own.

Porn addicts use control as self-protection. Addiction is the way an addict copes with negative cognition (his negative core belief system). It serves a purpose despite being incredibly destructive—it protects him from emotional dysregulation. Any loss of control risks a shift in his homeostasis. He resists boundaries because they supplant his preferred means of protection (control). Boundaries are perceived as being unsafe, or less safe, to a porn addict because they leave him compromised.

Ending the boundary stalemate.

The stalemate can be broken if he sees that emotional receptivity is necessary for a healthy relationship. The human experience rests on our ability to be vulnerable with others. It’s called intimacy. Since porn addicts avoid unguarded emotions, intimacy is an undeveloped and undesired skill.

In his book Out of the Shadows, Dr. Patrick Carnes talks about the four core beliefs of porn addicts, one of which is that their needs are never going to be met if they must depend on others. That need, in this case, is emotional security. If the porn addict can find a way to be marginally vulnerable, he will learn intimacy and begin repairing his relationship. That way is found by yielding a measure of risk to his spouse. It can begin by respecting a boundary which, in turn, provides her relational safety as well.

Working toward relational repair.

Respecting a boundary requires a porn addict to challenge that negative core belief of dependence that Dr. Carnes stated. He will struggle with ambivalence since the boundaries are not on his own terms. He will contemplate surrendering his own perceived emotional security for an unknown (but real) relational safety managed by someone else. That’s a wide chasm for him to cross. It’s sobriety work.

To the porn addict, this venture can feel terrifying when he believes that he can’t trust others for his needs. “Transferring” his safety to his spouse’s responsibility goes against his instincts and experience. Yet learning to surrender and trust his spouse for his needs is necessary for his recovery.

Let me repeat that. Her boundaries are necessary for the porn addict’s recovery.

Something he perceives as a threat to his safety is paradoxically the very thing he needs to recover from his addiction. Boundaries force him to challenge a negative core belief that has sustained his addiction. The compulsiveness will wane as he develops a new belief that she can be trusted with his emotional needs. So, he should lean in, embrace the boundaries, and confront his fear. Boundaries are as much for him as they are for her.

  1. Beth

    This is very helpful. However my question is what kind of boundaries should this wife be setting?

  2. DrGlen

    Very good commentary on Carnes’ thesis. In my work with affair recovery … especially affairs that are discovered (different from affairs that are confessed) this same dynamic is at work. Early developmental Intimacy woundedness gets “played out” on the landscape of couple sexuality in the form of boundary blurring.
    “Relationship Control” using anger expressions show up everywhere in the perpetrator’s interactions. Risking to “intimately trust”another (as in choosing vulnerability) creates a relational numbness “sheathing” that is extremely challenging to crack open.
    The betrayed victim needs to be supported at every turn to SET & MAINTAIN new interpersonal boundaries if the relationship is to survive the trauma of a discovered affair!

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