Rocky Road: I hate my boyfriend’s porn addiction. Am I overreacting?
Dear Rocky Road, My long-time boyfriend really likes porn, but it makes me super uncomfortable and insecure. It’s been something we’ve fought about for years and can’t come to an agreement on it. It makes me feel like he’s cheating on me because he looking at and objectifying other women. He thinks I’m overreacting because they’re just chicks on a screen and don’t have any emotional meaning to him. We’ve been together for a long time and I trust him not to go out and cheat on me but this aspect of our relationship really troubles me. Not A Fan
It’s clear you both know how you feel about the Great Porn Debate, but I wonder if you haven’t misdiagnosed why you feel that way. It’s perfectly understandable because our brains really haven’t been wired to deal with this kind of quandary. Let me explain.
Nothing is more important to the survival of our species than sex. Because of that, evolution has wired us with a maximally potent drive to seek it out. The fuel for this drive is the neurotransmitter dopamine. Scientists have found that the only thing that gets our dopamine flowing more than the possibility of sex is the possibly of novel sex. Novel can mean a new partner, new setting, new position, whatever. The supposition is that this novelty preference compels us to keep spreading our DNA around. Naturally there are countervailing forces that provide for monogamy, lest there be no one left to raise the children produced by all this procreation. But let’s stick with the novel sex part for a moment.
I said dopamine fuels drive, but it does’t actually make it pleasurable. There’s other brain chemicals that do that. Dopamine doesn’t care if you feel like shit after you’ve indulged, it only worries about getting you to do it again. For most of our species’ existence, the check on our im-pulses was limited availability — only so many partners in your tribe, only so much bison to go around, only so many ripe figs on a tree. In fact, abundance impels us to binge to build a reserve for times of scarcity.
Separately, scientists have found that the stimuli that trigger mating behavior in every-thing from humans to fish are genetically wired. The more pronounced the stimuli, the more vig-orous the response. In experiments, scientists tried amplifying these stimuli beyond their natural thresholds — i.e. making decoy female butterflies more showy than their real-life counterparts. No surprise, males went for the grotesquely showy fakes. These turbo triggers are called super-normal stimuli, and porn is one of them. When the brain is overstimulated by supernormal stimuli, it produces new chemicals to dampen the effect, thus the hunt for novelty continues ad infinitum.
So, when your boyfriend says it’s “just chicks on a screen that don’t have any emotional meaning to him,” he’s being honest. But he’s also missing the point. Watching porn is causing his brain to calibrate itself to supernormal stimulation. By contrast, normal stimulation — you — won’t register as strongly. When you say you trust him not to go out and cheat on you, that also misses the point: in a small way, he already has. Cheaters in large part are driven by the quest for novel sexual stimuli without regard for the impact it might have on their partners. Emotional meaning is beside the point.
Please note that I’m not making moral judgements here. I’m just urging you both to take a clear look at the forces at play. If you were to tell me you found a solution you both agree on and it is to watch porn together, I would say go to town. But before you can move to a resolution, your boyfriend needs to own that his porn habit isn’t inconsequential and that your feelings of concern are legit. You, meanwhile, need to stand by your conviction. My guess is he won’t budge unless he truly recognizes the relationship is on the line.
Dear Rocky Road, My boyfriend’s mother is a HORRIBLE gift-giver. A couple of years ago she found out that my parents get a gift for him for Christmas every year and she literally went into her closet and dug out some lotion that she didn’t want and hadn’t used and gave it to me. It was obvious she did it purely out of guilt and put no thought into it. She did this again last year and I’m dreading what junk she’s going to get me this year. If she is going to be that thoughtless I would prefer that she wouldn’t because it just becomes junk that I’m going to throw away when I get home. How do I broach this subject without making things awkward between us? Not Thrilled
So my shtick is that I don’t give advice, just thoughtful observations and mild suggestions. But for this situation, get ready, I’m busting out the straight up advice. Here it is: Don’t do anything. Don’t bring it up. Accept the gifts graciously even if you have every intention of dis-posing of them expeditiously. When I was married, I once made the mistake of getting cross-wise with my mother-in-law over a choice of hers I found bothersome. It completely caught me by surprise how wounded she was by it. In fact, I don’t think she ever really got over it. In hind-sight, I cop to being wrong. I was unnecessarily harsh. When it comes to the mothers, you have to be sensitive. Once they were their sons’ everything; now you have that role. If sometimes they handle that less than gracefully, who can blame them. So long as your boyfriend knows what’s junk and what’s not, it doesn’t matter what his mom gifts.
Katie Burford has worked as a social worker, journalist, university instructor, nanny, and barista. These days, she’s a mom, professional ice cream maker, and writer. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org, @rockyroadadvice (Twitter) or Rocky Road, 1021 Main Ave, Durango, CO 81301.