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Does Watching Porn Cause Divorce? It’s Complicated

Pornography probably won't threaten your marriage, as long as it's not a new interest.

Couples who start watching porn after getting married are twice as likely to divorce, according to a new study. At the same time, the results suggest that couples who watch porn together stay together. So it’s less about what you’re watching, and more about whether you’re hiding it from your spouse.

“Viewing pornography, under certain social conditions, may have negative effects on marital stability,” said coauthor on the study Samuel Perry of the University of Oklahoma, in a statement.

READ MORE: The Fatherly Guide to Porn

This isn’t the first study to suggest that porn may not be great for your marriage. There’s evidence, for instance, that watching porn increases the risk of infidelity, which is a leading cause of divorce. But the problem with many of these studies is that they only examine solo pornography use. Meanwhile, other research has shown that, when couples watch porn together, they experience greater relationship satisfaction. And a growing body of more nuanced work has found that how porn affects your marriage has less to do with porn that it does with the state of your relationship to begin with. A lot of it seems to come down to marriage quality (are you happy?), the consumer’s connection to the material (are you familiar with a porn star’s Amazon wishlist?), and finances (are you spending money you don’t have on porn?).

Adding to the nuance is this new study, which examines what happens to a relationship when people who did not previously watch porn start doing so after they get married. For the study, Perry and colleagues analyzed the responses of 2,120 married adults from three separate waves of the General Social Survey — a dataset that tracks (among other things) porn consumption and marital status. The researchers focused on people who did not watch porn at first, but reported watching pornography in a later wave of the study. They found that 11 percent of people who started watching porn between the first and second waves were divorced by the second wave — about twice as many divorces compared to those whose porn habits stayed the same. Surprisingly, this effect was strongest among young, non-religious couples, who initially reported the highest levels of marital happiness. Women started watching porn were particularly vulnerable to this risk (16 percent divorced by the second wave). Conversely, when women stopped watching porn, their risk of divorce plummeted over time.

 

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“Pornography use — perhaps if it’s discovered by one’s spouse unexpectedly — could rock an otherwise happy marriage to the point of divorce,” Perry said. “But it doesn’t seem to make an unhappy marriage any worse than it already is.”

Perry and his team noted that the findings were limited. The survey is self-reported, and it’s possible that some participants who claimed to have never watched porn before in the first wave had indeed done so. It’s also possible that the effect works in the opposite direction—perhaps men and women start watching porn when they sense that their marriage is nearing its end for other reasons. For these and several other reasons, Perry and his team cannot say definitively whether starting to watch porn in moderation while already married increases the risk of divorce. And if you were watching porn prior to getting married, or occasionally watch it together, you’re probably safe.

“We have no desire to push a ‘ban pornography’ agenda on the grounds that it can be harmful to marriages,” Perry said. “We think information is helpful, and Americans should be aware of the potential consequences of pornography under certain circumstances.”