Learning that a spouse has been secretly using pornography is devastating. After the initial panic, almost every surprised spouse arrives at the same question: How did I not realize this was going on?
As a counselor to families affected by pornography addiction, I’ve seen hundreds of Christian couples face this crisis. Almost all people who are addicted to pornography began using pornography before marriage. Few of the spouses knew their husband or wife had a past history of pornography use, and those who did know were told it was no longer an issue.
Knowing someone else’s heart completely is impossible, but in almost every case there were red flags the fiances would have likely seen if they’d known what to look for. Here are some common warning signs:
If your boyfriend or girlfriend is a Christian and surprises you by initiating sexual contact early in the relationship or pushes further than you want to go, don’t ignore the alarm bells in your head. Christians who use pornography will have a stark contrast between their public and private behaviors.
The person you’re dating should share the general type and extent of his or her sexual experience, including the extent and general course of his or her history with pornography. While divulging the names of past partners is generally not productive and detailing the encounters is never appropriate, being transparent about the number of partners and whether your boyfriend or girlfriend is still in contact with any of them is important. The person you’re dating should also disclose any recent or habitual use of pornography.
Does your boyfriend or girlfriend tell off-color jokes, use vulgar language or embarrass you in social situations? Does he or she talk about sex in a way that makes you uncomfortable? Do you get the sense that he cleans up his language around you? Even Christians sometimes excuse locker-room talk as an inevitable rite of passage, but those comments reveal a person’s views of sex — and of the opposite sex. Ungodly speech is usually just the tip of the iceberg. This behavior is one of the most consistent indicators among porn addicts.
Addiction skews personality development. While the following behaviors don’t point specifically to sex addiction, addicted individuals of all types can exhibit signs such as:
Rather than arguing about whether a movie or TV show is right or wrong, a healthy, mature Christian will ask, “Does it glorify God?” Television rated for its sexually provocative content, such as “Game of Thrones,” and explicit books or movies, such as 50 Shades of Grey, have no place in the life of a Christ-follower. Reading sexually themed novels and comics is a gateway activity into porn addiction. Their use often indicates the person’s private media consumption goes even further into sexually explicit content.
Having more than one chemical or behavioral addiction at the same time is common. Compulsive use of social media, sugar, gaming, food, caffeine, adrenaline-based activities and pornography are all indicative of a compulsive personality.
Each generation blurs social media boundaries a bit further, but there are still standards a person of integrity won’t cross. If the person you’re dating asks for explicit photos or videos of you, even if he or she claims it’s to help avoid using “real” porn, he or she is already separating sexual behavior from an intimate relationship with you and with God.
Another warning sign is “grooming” behaviors on social media in which someone attempts to lure people into sexual talk or sexting. If your fiance sends friend requests to strangers based solely on their photos, that’s a red flag as is his or her not sharing phone or computer pass codes with you.
This category is different from the rest of the list because it describes experiences that predispose people to addictions in general. With education, counsel and support, recovery from trauma is not only possible, but it can form the context for a beautiful testimony of redemption. But when trauma is denied, suppressed or minimized, the victim is vulnerable to a host of problems. Trauma survivors are more susceptible to depression and anxiety — and more likely to medicate their pain with addictive behaviors. Trauma includes obvious things like sexual molestation or physical harm, but it isn’t limited to abuse. Childhood traumas might include:
Obviously, a spectrum of responses would be expected among those exposed to trauma. Plenty of children from broken or abusive homes grow up to have healthy relationships, and not everyone who is exposed to pornography becomes addicted to it. But if your boyfriend or girlfriend does have some of the warning signs on the preceding list, their past traumas may provide important context as to why they are especially susceptible to sex addiction.
Rob Jackson is a marriage and family counselor. He is also a contributing writer to The Complete Guide to the First Five Years of Marriage.