3 relationship pros dish on whether watching porn can be considered cheating


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Buckle up, because I’m about to admit something I’m kind of ashamed about: I used to check the browsing history on my ex-boyfriend‘s computer. It was out of sheer curiosity, I swear—and the only thing I (continually) saw was porn. Lots of it.

I never spoke with him about my snooping habit, but in retrospect, I probably should have owned up to the secret surveillance and also communicated my feelings about what I found. One reason I didn’t? When I brought up his screen habits to friends once, they let me know they’ve experienced the same thing—meaning, my stance on the matter aside, watching some extracurricular porn did seem to be a normal thing to do within the confines of my social circle. (Side note: It seems snooping around a partner’s private property was also normal in my social circle, but that’s a whole other story.) Though we had varying opinions about what it meant in the scope of our respective relationships, we did land on one common question we weren’t sure how to answer: Is watching porn cheating?

It’s tricky to draw conclusions from the event of watching porn—especially since there’s no set-in-stone definition to explain cheating behavior. “Fighting over one person in a relationship watching porn has definitely become more and more common, because it’s a topic that falls into a gray area of relationship rules,” says Maria Sullivan, dating expert and VP of Dating.com. If the question is “is porn cheating?” first it’s necessary to define cheating in the scope of your own relationship. For example, watching porn effectively straddles a line of being aroused by someone outside the relationship and having actual sexual relations with someone else. Depending on your own definition, one of those, both of those, or neither of those situations may constitute cheating behavior.

Everyone may have their own unique view of the situation, so the most important aspect to make sure of is that you and your partner can agree on a mutual understanding of what cheating means.

How watching porn can be construed as cheating

“Typically, it’s one partner who has a regular habit of porn watching and the other who feels it’s the same as having an affair,” says sex therapist Emily Morse, PhD and host of the Sex With Emily podcast. And if that’s the case for you, it makes sense that the situation indeed feels like cheating. “Like an affair, porn is also a more intense first—it’s like a new person each time,” says clinical psychologist Susan Heitler, PhD. “Also, porn is designed to be more evocative than normal sex, so it has the same impact in terms of being a more intense sexual experience than it is with the actual spouse.”

“If porn use becomes addictive, makes it harder to get aroused or to have sex with a partner, then the porn watching behavior should certainly be moderated.” —sex therapist Emily Morse

While, again, these effects will be different for different people and couples, depending on how everyone involved feels about porn use, Dr. Heitler adds that a possible effect for a porn-watcher can sometimes be less satisfying sex with a spouse, and this, in turn, can make the spouse feel angry being left to wonder why porn is what their partner is choosing. “For the spouse, it’s very demoralizing; it can feel like they can’t match up and prevents them from wanting to connect,” she says. “For all those reasons, the impacts are actually somewhat similar to cheating.”

Regardless of your definition and understanding of cheating and what it means in your relationship, it’s definitely possible for a porn habit to veer into unhealthy territory. “If porn use becomes addictive, or makes it harder to get aroused or to have sex with a partner, then the porn watching behavior should certainly be moderated,” Dr. Morse says.

So my partner watches porn—now what?

First things first: Introspect about whether the porn habit is affecting your intimate relationship—because that’s when it becomes problematic, regardless of how you characterize porn-watching in relation to having an affair. If the situation hasn’t gotten to that extent, or one person is just bothered by it, the conflict resolution strategy (or ground rules set, so as to avoid the need for future resolution) all comes down to open and honest communication.

“It’s best to share how you’re feeling, and also allow your partner to share their reasoning behind watching it, and hopefully you can meet somewhere in the middle,” says Sullivan. And Dr. Heitler agrees. “Explain by starting with, ‘I feel… when you view porn,'” she says. “So, ‘When you watch porn, I feel second best, or I feel cheated on’—whatever your feeling is.”

If the porn-watching habit continues after having such a conversation with an agreed-upon resolution to stop, that’s when trust is put at risk, and, again, can mimic the situation of restoring the health of a relationship after an affair. In that case, Dr. Heitler suggests reevaluating the relationship as a whole.

But the tl;dr answer to “is watching porn cheating?” Put simply, it totally depends on what each couple decides as a result of communicating with one another.

Here’s how to catch a cheater in their tracks. Also, here’s what sexperts say are the most common questions they get about sex

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