Pornography is defined as printed or visual material containing the explicit description or display of sexual organs or activity that is intended to stimulate erotic rather than emotional feelings. When pornography is introduced into an intimate relationship without mutual consent, it can actually become very emotional in a deeply damaging way. Carol White understands the negative impacts of pornography addiction firsthand.
“I am very open about my story,” she said. “My father had a pornography addiction, and I married a man who had a problem with pornography addiction, so I’ve had the effects of pornography in my life through most of my life.”
Throughout many years of their marriage, Carol’s husband Shawn, minimized his pornography addiction, rationalizing his behavior and even blaming his wife.
“I would find little things wrong with my wife that weren’t necessarily true,” he said, “And I would make up things to justify why I was doing it, which meant, ‘She was mean to me’ or ‘She didn’t do this right or that right,’ which was a behavior trying to justify why I was looking at it or why I felt like, you know, I couldn’t be with her as much. And so you’re using all these self-justification behaviors, which you’d lose respect for your wife, and it’s terrible.”
Carol acknowledges that an addiction to pornography can also be painful for an addict. Her father went to his grave with his addiction, and her husband struggled for decades.
“A lot of men don’t want to be where they’re at with their pornography addiction,” Carol said. “My father told my mother that he wished he would have been able to overcome it.”
For Carol and Shawn, a pivotal moment came in their marriage when Shawn’s addiction resulted in major depression and suicidal ideation. Shawn was hospitalized, and Carol made a heart-wrenching decision to separate. Together, they discuss how the story unfolded, ultimately resulting in hope and healing.
“Sometimes in relationships, there are some hard things that have to occur to help change the experience,” Carol said. “And what happened for me was I felt very strongly that I needed to leave in order for him to wake up and see. I was fortunate enough to have a husband who cared more about his marriage than he cared about the addiction and was willing to make the changes that he needed to make. What happened for me was I kind of went through a journey or experience where I came to understand that I had to work on me first and heal myself. With all the background that I had, I sometimes felt abused by my husband. He didn’t feel he was doing that, and I don’t feel that was his intention, but I didn’t know how to say no to certain things. And so I felt that I was being forced into something I didn’t really want. I feel that there’s been a lot of shame involved with pornography and sexual intimacy to the point that we can’t heal it until people quit hiding. A lot of times when I was doing things trying to fix my husband, I was actually making the problem worse.”
“When Carol agreed to finally start talking with me again after a couple months, it was like, ‘I’m going to hope that I can get my family back. I’m gonna continue with the program,’” Shawn said. “And then at that point, you know, we struggled and we had to work a lot on our communication skills with therapists and stuff to try to get to a point where we trusted each other again. But then there was a point where it was still really hard fighting against it and stuff and my wife came to me and said, ‘Shawn, look. I don’t want to be the enemy here. When you come to me and you’re facing a challenge, I want you to be open.’ And when she said, ‘You can be open with me and trust me and we’re going to fight this together,’ I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh!’ Everything changed, and it was like I wasn’t alone anymore.”
Cristine Price, a licensed mental health counselor, provides an interesting perspective on relationships between men and women whose marriages are threatened by pornography addiction. Her insight reinforces a defining moment in Carol’s life.
“On one side of it, you’ve got too much,” Christine said. “You’ve got people who are very self-centered, very focused on their own needs and have this agenda that typically serves themselves. And then on the other side of that, you have, a lot of times, a partner - it’s interesting. There’s a magnetic attraction, I think, with someone who represents the opposite side of that, and so they tend to play the role of serving, of giving, of taking extra responsibility and over-empathizing in many cases to this other partner.
“It creates a very dysfunctional balance, and the only way to really start changing that is determining which side of that teeter-totter a person may be on and starting to balance their own personal needs, their own mindset about what is reasonable. I work with so many women that feel guilty about voicing their own needs. That’s just as difficult, I believe, as the other side of it because it becomes so engrained. Sometimes you’ll see a pendulum, and I encourage women to go ahead and move through the pendulum if that’s what it takes so that they can end up in a balance.
“A lot of that is addressing issues of codependency and of also looking at history because typically I will find that those traits have been there since childhood. The solution is tracing it back and healing all the way through.”
“I had an experience one night where I was listening to some tapes,” Carol said, “and one of them was by a man and one of them was by a woman, and the tape by the woman was talking about developing the feminine part of a woman, and she talked about dancing, about taking baths, and doing things that pertained to your body to learn to love your body and to look in the mirror and to express love for yourself, and I put that tape down and I said, ‘I don’t like this.’
“I went to bed that night thinking about that and in the middle of the night, I woke up with a thought, and the thought was, ‘You cannot be complete and whole with who you are until you develop your feminine side, and that is developing those qualities and traits and accepting yourself as a woman.’
“That was kind of a big wakeup call for me because I didn’t realize that I wasn’t comfortable in my body.”
As Carol’s self-image improved and Shawn addressed his addiction, their marriage improved dramatically. Now, they share what they’ve learned with other couples, hosting webinars and marriage repair retreats. Their business is called Stillwater Experiences.
“There was such a change in our relationship,” Shawn said. “You see your wife with different eyes, and you value how much they care for you, and there’s such a deeper respect and so much more trust, and it takes away the noise that’s in your mind. You can focus on things that work better. You kind of even enjoy your whole life and everything around you so much more when this noise is gone because that noise is you trying to figure out a lie to cover things up. You’re always living a lie. The peace that you have after that once you come together is tremendous.”
“I have a passion for saving marriages and helping families, and my goal at this point is to help strengthen marriages and families and show them that this addiction can be overcome,” Carol said. “Families and marriages can be saved, and there is hope and there is healing.”
Cristine agrees with Carol, and she emphasizes that the solution, both for pornography addicts and for their spouses, comes from within.
“The power to change your life is within reach, and it is because it’s within yourself. It’s that process of going within where we find our power,” Cristine said.
Reflecting on her own personal growth and the strides she and Shawn have made in their marriage, Carol shares a poignant concluding message.
“For my own story,” she said, “I was in those shoes of feeling alone and feeling that things were hopeless. It took me thirty-some years to get to where I’m at now, but I know without a doubt we can all be healed, and we can find our value and our purpose. I’d just say, “Don’t give up. Don’t give in to the belief that you’re not of value because you’re of greater value than you’ll ever imagine.’”
***This segment is part of an ongoing original Utah Public Radio series "Objectified: More Than A Body." Support for the program comes from the Utah Women's Giving Circle, a grassroots community with everyday philanthropists raising the questions and raising the funds to empower Utah women and girls. Information here. To learn more about the Objectified radio series, visit here.