August 11, 2011
Discussing Pornography with Your Future Son-in-Law
By Geoff Steurer, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist
Director, LifeSTAR of St. George, UT
I clearly remember the lunch appointment with my then future father-in-law to ask for his daughter’s hand in marriage. I was a bundle of nerves, but I loved his daughter more than I was afraid to talk with him. I had no idea what questions he might have in store for me. As the lunch progressed, our small talk turned into serious talk as he asked me questions about my career aspirations, my thoughts on parenting, and if I was an Eagle Scout.
I had only met him one previous time when I ate dinner at their house. However, I felt his love and protection for his daughter and wanted to do everything I could to win his confidence and trust. Thankfully, he gave me his full blessing and asked me only one favor: “will you please stop by her mother’s house on your way home and show her the engagement ring?” I obliged his request and spent some time with her mother before going to propose to my wife.
After nearly fifteen years of marriage, I reflect back on that interview with gratitude for his loving protection for his daughter’s emotional, financial, and relational safety. His paternal protectiveness was certainly in the best interest of his daughter and their entire family.
I have no doubt that if I were to go through that same interview today, her father would more than likely include one more line of questioning. I imagine it would sound something like this:
“Pornography is such a common struggle for so many young men these days. Naturally, I worry that this is something you have struggled with as a teenager or young adult. Will you please describe your experience with pornography and how you’ve handled it?”
Since my interview happened in 1996 when most homes were barely getting their first dial-up modems to access this new thing called the Internet, this question was never discussed in my engagement interview.
My hope is that today’s parents, especially fathers, plan to bring up this important subject when they speak with the young man who will take their daughter’s hand in marriage.
Granted, social media, texting, and cell phones, have virtually erased the parental hurdle young suitors traditionally had to jump before moving forward with a romantic engagement. However, even though the tradition of asking a father for his daughter’s hand in marriage is becoming more passé, I believe that it’s still a father’s responsibility to protect and ask questions regardless if he is formally petitioned.
And, I believe it’s equally important for fathers to prepare their own sons for potential questioning about their pornography use from a future father-in-law. Even though young people are more insulated in their telecommunication bubble, parents, especially fathers, can help build strong marriages by respectfully introducing this sensitive topic.
If there isn’t a father in the home, then I still think it’s a good idea for the mother to have this conversation with the boyfriend. As awkward as it may seem to bring up this topic, I believe it’s even more awkward to deal with the potential aftermath if this issue surfaces later in marriage.
Please note that if you are personally struggling with an unresolved pornography problem, it will make it difficult, if not impossible, to counsel a future son-in-law about your concerns. You will feel like a phony and will either avoid the conversation all together, or minimize the seriousness of it as a way to protect yourself from the reality of your own struggles. If you have struggled with pornography and haven’t completely healed it, make sure that you’re actively working the same recovery process you would expect from this young man.
When considering how to begin this conversation, it’s helpful to view this as something more than a “yes” or “no” question. I believe it’s safe to assume that the young man has already been exposed to pornography. One recent study showed that 86% of college-aged men had viewed online pornography in the past year. Forty-eight percent of those same men viewed it weekly.[i] Even though he may not be currently viewing pornography, it’s likely he’s been exposed to it somewhere in his past.
I also recognize that a young man could lie to his future father-in-law and deny that he’s ever seen pornography. Obviously, there is no way to prevent someone from lying (unless, perhaps, you’re Robert DeNiro and have access to a lie-detector in your basement a la “Meet the Parents”).
In reality, it will simply require a good, honest conversation about his experiences with pornography. What should you ask? What should you look for? Here are a few questions you can ask along with some warning signs that might indicate that the young man either has or will have a significant problem with pornography in the future:
¨ Tell me about your experience with pornography over your lifetime.
¨ Is there a history of pornography use in your immediate or extended family?
¨ How do you define pornography?
¨ How have you healed from the impact of pornography on your life?
¨ Who helped you overcome your problems with pornography?
¨ How do you currently protect yourself from pornography?
¨ Have you ever wanted to stop viewing pornography, but couldn’t?
¨ He admits that he used to look at pornography, but says that he stopped doing it, but fails to explain how he was able to stop.
¨ He claims he overcame the problem on his own without any help from others.
¨ He’s not said anything to his girlfriend/fiancé about his history or current problems with pornography.
¨ He is vague about how he keeps himself from viewing pornography.
¨ He admits he used to have a problem with it, but doesn’t define what exactly that problem was. He appears defensive and doesn’t want to discuss it.
¨ He insists that he’s never even seen pornography and appears “too perfect” in his responses. Recognize that even though he may not have seen hardcore pornography, we live in a culture saturated with pornographic images. If he acts like he doesn’t notice or isn’t affected by those, you need to be concerned. Every man should acknowledge the occasional pull from images that are designed to draw our attention and entice us.
In my experience, a man who has healed from a pornography problem isn’t afraid to talk honestly about it with those who need to know. He is remorseful about the impact on himself and others. He recognizes his need for ongoing healing and recovery. He understands that he’s going to have this vulnerability for the rest of his life and he accepts the need to always be on guard with his thoughts and actions. Most importantly, he is fiercely protective of the feelings and emotions of his romantic partner and how this issue might concern her.
Remember your purpose in asking these questions. You’re there to offer a layer of protection for your daughter and family. If there are any questions or concerns about the young man’s involvement in pornography, it’s better to encourage these to be addressed now instead of later.
You don’t need to be an expert on treating pornography issues to be helpful and protective. There are ample resources available to help him overcome this problem. Make it clear, however, that if he doesn’t get help for this problem, it will have a significant impact on the way he views and treats his future wife.
I strongly recommend postponing the engagement for at least one year to allow him adequate time to build a strong recovery. This may seem extreme, but please recognize that it often takes least two to three times that long for trust to be restored in a marriage that has been betrayed by pornography. It’s better to make sure that he’s serious about getting well before committing to something as far-reaching as starting a marriage and family.
Unfortunately, it’s common practice to push the couple quickly toward marriage hoping that will solve the pornography problem. In reality, marriage only adds more pressure and secrecy to an existing pornography problem and ultimately makes the problem worse. Pornography problems aren’t about sex, and, therefore, aren’t solved through sex. The roots of pornography addiction are complex and intertwined with emotions, beliefs, relationships, physiology, and family patterns. It’s important to respect and honor the complexity of this problem, recognizing that it was formed slowly over time and will heal slowly over time.
Furthermore, Dr. Patrick Carnes, a pioneer in addiction treatment, noted that it’s common for individuals in recovery from pornography and sexual addiction to be at risk for relapse at the six-month and twelve-month marks. Learning to live without the addiction takes time and practice. A healthy recovery should include sobriety from the acting out behaviors, a new view of healthy sexuality, a different view on pornography, and a healthy relationship with themselves. Too many men “white-knuckle” their way through recovery for a year or two and then fall back into old patterns, as they failed to do any substantial internal work on their problem.
If a boyfriend shows that he’s willing to attend group support meetings, meet with a professional trained in treating pornography and sexual addiction, meet regularly with his ecclesiastical leader, read recovery books, and make other important lifestyle changes in the areas of emotional regulation, spirituality, physical self-care, and relationships, then it’s pretty safe to say that he’s going to protect his future marriage and family from the influence of pornography. Every marriage deserves to have these minimum requirements firmly in place.
If the boyfriend insists he doesn’t have a pornography problem, it’s always a good idea to set the stage for future conversations. You might say something like, “I’m grateful that you’re not currently struggling with pornography problems right now. I do know, however, that this is something that is so pervasive and easy to fall into. If you ever find yourself stuck in the trap of pornography use, will you please come to me as a support and a resource? I will be here for you and your family if something like this ever happens. Please don’t hide out in fear. I’ll be here to help you and your family.”
If you’re not a formal interviewer and don’t feel comfortable addressing this with your daughter’s boyfriend, I challenge you to make an exception for this one critical conversation. Pornography problems cause tremendous suffering in relationships and can be potentially avoided and healed when early action is taken.
The saying is true that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Just start the conversation. Follow your intuition and do your best to treat the topic with a serious tone so he understands your true intentions. Even if you’re not sure what to say, your love and concern for your family will shine through and offer protection for the next generation.
Thanks to Dr. Jill Manning, Jody Steurer, and Jeff Ford for their helpful input on this article.