Pornography, the brain and bondingWritten by Nick Stumbo
What's inside this article
I loved science as a kid. Each discovery of how the world worked brought so much joy. The human brain was, and still is, especially fascinating to me. Looking back, I wish someone had explained the biological influence of pornography on my brain when I was younger.
Don’t worry. This article is not technical or, well, brainy. I’m not a scientist. I’m a pastor who struggled with pornography for a long time and found help, healing and freedom. In the process, I fell in love with science all over again because it reveals how God designed the brain for lifelong monogamy.
God created the brain to bond deeply, intimately and sexually with one person: a spouse. We know this is true biblically, but brain science actually proves this truth through biology.
At the moment of sexual climax with a spouse, the human brain releases powerful chemicals that wash over it and reinforce the thought, “I belong with this person.” When this same pattern is repeated in an exclusive relationship, the bond becomes cemented and enhanced. Picture a pathway becoming a road and, ultimately, a superhighway. The brain actually begins to need less of the same stimulus to achieve the same experience. Additionally, these chemicals leave us with a deep, abiding sense of satisfaction.
However, the process is not foolproof. When you invite in other images or other partners, the brain becomes confused. The chemical process doesn’t fully differentiate between your spouse and a fake partner on a screen. Your brain attempts to bond you to an image, or even to the repeated behaviour of “solo sex.” However you’re left dissatisfied because the mix of brain chemicals from pornographic sex doesn’t lead to the same emotional satisfaction that is designed for a marriage relationship. And like a piece of construction paper glued to other sheets of paper and then torn apart, you become a hodgepodge of misplaced emotions, connections and frustrated desires.
The brain’s bonding process can either work for us or against us. When we ignore God’s plan, we experience a decrease in satisfaction and an increase in sexual appetite. Conversely, when we follow the divine design of a monogamous relationship, we experience increased satisfaction with less of a felt “need” to pursue outside sexual experiences. God created our brain to connect with only one spouse – where aging and the natural changes to our youthfulness won’t detract from our sexual experience because of the powerful bond.
The great cultural lie
I was fooled. Our culture tells us, “It’s just porn. It’s no big deal. I’m physically committed to my spouse, and that’s what matters.” But with every diversion from God’s plan, a little more of our mind, and our souls, bonds to something apart from our spouse.
After a year addressing my pornography struggles and walking through a recovery process, my wife and I found a new level of health in our marriage. My wife became pregnant with our fourth child, and I realized how much my brain had rewired itself. Though my wife gained the expected pregnancy weight, she had never looked more beautiful to me. I was more attracted to her than I had been during the previous pregnancies. My brain had reorganized itself to find beauty in the way God had intended, not in mere physical appearance but in the heart, mind and soul of my wife.
There is no comprehensive definition of beauty. “In the eye of the beholder” is a true statement and begs the question: What are you setting before your eyes? Because what we see informs our definition of beauty and promotes our physical responses, including sexual attraction.
If our minds are filled with a constant stream of Hollywood starlets, viral celebrities or the latest lingerie models, is it any wonder that we no longer have the vision to see the beauty God has created all around? If our thoughts are continually fuelled by unrealistic romance stories and “perfect” bodies in magazines, should we be surprised if our real spouse seems less appealing? The brain can be fooled into wanting more of a bad thing. And the unhealthy desire delivers…but only for a minute. Pornography is synthetic and leads to greater levels of mental, sexual and relational disintegration.
Rewiring the brain
If your brain has become bonded to pornography, there is still great hope. The brain has a remarkable ability to change. My story proves this is true. The mind can be transformed, but it takes time. Lasting change requires two to five years of intentional work to renew and reformat the circuitry. But positive effects can be experienced much sooner.
How do we rewire the brain? Below are five key actions that helped me:
- Make every effort to stop all behaviours that could lead to inappropriate bonding.
- Repent of anything you have bonded to and surrender it to Jesus. Ask him to free you from its addictive hold.
- Develop skills and habits of relational intimacy with your spouse. As you connect more regularly on an emotional and spiritual level, sexual intimacy is the natural result. In a healthy relationship, physical intimacy follows emotional connection.
- Make eye contact with your spouse frequently – even during sex. Retrain your brain that this person is the only one for you.
- Seek professional counselling, which includes joining a pornography addiction recovery group. This kind of long-term change is almost impossible to make alone. We need helpers and friends who understand the unique struggles and can walk with us through this transformation.
My church upbringing taught me that sex outside of marriage was wrong and viewing pornography was bad. But the reasons were never explained. When we understand why they’re wrong, then we’re able to train and teach one another the truth of how our brains really work. We’re free to enjoy God’s design and trust that it’s not only right but also far better than we imagine. With this as our starting point, our motive shifts from simply avoiding bad things to experiencing all that God has for us.
Connect with a counsellor
A variety of issues can fuel habitual pornography use. Understanding the deeper needs of individuals affected by this common problem is important. Reach out to well-trained helpers, and if you are a married couple, do so together. Change is possible! We can guide you as you seek a referral and take your first steps toward recovery. You can contact us Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. PT at 1.800.661.9800.
Nick Stumbo is the executive director of Pure Desire Ministries.
© 2018 Nick Stumbo. All rights reserved. Used with permission. Originally published at FocusOnTheFamily.com.
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