Dear Roe, I am a 45- year- old woman. I am married. I have four children aged 10 to 15. I am menopausal. I haven’t had sex in a long time. I discovered my husband was using porn several years ago which has had a detrimental effect on our marriage. No one knows about this. We are friends but intimacy is fraught with upset, so we just avoid it. I’m fed up and don’t want to spend the rest of our lives like this. How can I forgive him and can our relationship ever recover after all this trauma and time? You used the word “trauma”, and I take that seriously, and am sorry for how difficult this has been for you. So when I tell you that some of these issues have been of your making, I say it not to shame or blame you, but to let you know that you have agency. You have control. You can undo some of this damage and pain – but only if you are prepared to do the work, both on yourself and your own thoughts and actions, and on your relationship with your husband.
You don’t indicate whether your relationship became sexless before or after you discovered that your husband was watching pornography, and in some ways it does not matter. Trying to ban your husband from watching pornography was never going to work, and to recover from this, you’re going to need to work on respecting his right to sexual desire.
When sex or relationships occur between two or more people, rules regarding fidelity and sexual activity must be established and followed for the emotional, physical and sexual well- being of everyone involved.
But when it comes to individual fantasy and masturbation, which is one individual exploring and enjoying their sexual selves on their own, no one else gets to set the terms of that ( barring necessary laws around images such as paedophilia).
If your partner’s sexual habits are negatively impacting on you in a tangible way, of course there can be conversations about that. If your partnered sex is negatively affected, these issues need to be addressed. If their pornography is constantly visible when you don’t want to see it, or if they are masturbating in front of you without your consent, that constitutes sexually abusive behaviour.
But if your husband is merely enjoying adult pornography and masturbation in private, as a huge majority of adults do ( not just men, women too), demanding that he does not is an attempt to shame and control his personal, individual sexual expression, and that’s not okay.
As a human being, he has desires and a sexual drive that exist independent of you, and he is allowed to enjoy that. I would say the exact same thing if he was protesting your use of sex toys, erotica or fantasy.
If your husband agreed not to watch pornography and did, that breach of trust could be hurtful. He should not have agreed. But you should not have asked.
You may personally have issues with pornography, and I understand that. Don’t watch it. You may also have concerns about the type of pornography your husband is consuming, and you can talk about how he can watch pornography in a critically engaged and ethical way. I would recommend reading The Feminist Porn Book by Tristan Taormino to explore how pornography can be produced and consumed ethically – and how it can be a healthy part of masturbation and indeed relationships. This may help you to think about pornography from a different perspective. But you don’t get to outright ban him from a very normal part of adult life and sexual exploration.
And you can’t have a healthy sexual relationship with someone while hating their personal sexual desire or expression. Read some sex- positive literature to help you explore why your husband’s masturbation and use of pornography hurts you so deeply. This isn’t just about his actions, it’s about your emotional response to them, and you need to understand those reactions fully to communicate them and address them.
Which brings us on to the lack of sex in your marriage. Most long- term relationships go through periods without sex. But during these periods, it is vital to keep communicating about how your relationship is being affected, and how you will be dealing with it, together. How will you stay emotionally and physically connected? Are there some sexual activities you can still enjoy together? How can you respect each other’s sexual desire, or lack thereof?
By not speaking about the lack of sex in your marriage, and by shaming your husband’s personal sexual explorations, you have essentially communicated that you expect both of you to not be sexual, together and individually – indefinitely. This isn’t tenable.
You and your husband need to have a frank, open conversation about your sexual needs, how you both can feel respected and how you can emotionally reconnect.
Avoidance is not an option. Avoidance increases distance and heightens problems. I would recommend couples counselling to help you navigate the difficult conversations ahead. But they are necessary.
At the other side of these conversations lies the chance for reconciliation, fulfilment, respect – and a relationship where you understand each other more. You both need to reach for this, and work to try pull yourselves across the chasm. I hope you can.
You and your husband need to have a frank, open conversation about your sexual needs, how you both can feel respected and how you can emotionally reconnect
We are friends but intimacy is fraught with upset, so we just avoid it.” “ ■