Pornography is a pandemic sweeping our world, destroying hearts, lives, and families. The damage porn does to marriages is incalculable, as it creates unrealistic and selfish expectations for marital intimacy and leads to frustration and heartache for both spouses. Because addiction to porn, or even its frequent use, is so destructive to relationships, many wonder if it justifies divorce. They cite Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:28 as evidence that lust in the heart equals adultery. Of course, adultery is a biblical reason for divorce (verse 32); does a pornography addiction qualify as well?
The answer may be both yes and no, and we will look at both possibilities. In our world it is virtually impossible to avoid seeing sexual images. While porn use is rapidly growing among women, it is primarily the husband’s use that threatens a marriage. Sadly, most boys are first exposed to pornography at a very young age. According to research conducted by the University of Nebraska, “the average age of first exposure was 13.37 years of age with the youngest exposure as early as 5” (www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2017/08/pornography-exposure, accessed 10/6/20). The same study showed that any kind of childhood exposure to pornography directly affected later attitudes and behavior toward women.
For many husbands, pornography use is a dark secret; shame keeps it hidden, and wives don’t know. For others, the first time a wife is aware of her husband’s porn use is on the honeymoon when he asks her to do things she feels uncomfortable with. Then it all comes to light. But at what point is a wife justified in divorcing her porn-addicted husband?
There are two ways to look at this issue. The first is that, since adultery and abandonment are the only explicitly biblical grounds for divorce, porn use does not qualify. The husband is guilty of lust and self-pleasuring, but he did not physically commit sexual immorality with someone else. Many porn-addicted husbands use this reasoning to shield themselves from more severe repercussions. But as long as a husband hides behind excuses instead of seeking help to overcome the addiction, he is in danger of digging a deeper pit for himself, and the marriage will not thrive.
Even if the above reasoning is accepted, wives committed to God’s standards for marriage are not helpless. While divorce may not be an option, separation can be. Addicts of all kinds are wrapped in deep denial. They refuse to see how their addiction is harming those in their lives. Immediately upon learning of her husband’s porn use, a wife usually blames herself: “I’m not pretty enough, thin enough, fun enough, etc.” A husband’s ongoing porn addiction creates tremendous insecurity in a wife. She sees his porn use as cheating, while the husband may not. However, if he is going to overcome it, he will need her support and encouragement. A wise wife will walk with him through this, realizing his addiction has nothing to do with her value or attractiveness. And if he is willing to get help, she should seek help, too.
Most Christian therapists recommend a 30- to 60-day period of total abstinence from sex as the husband learns new ways of meeting his deep heart needs in Christ rather than through porn. The wife will need to cooperate with this as a way of helping heal what is broken in their marriage. Rather than pursue a divorce, a wife may give her husband an ultimatum: “It’s either porn, or me and the kids.” She does not have to tolerate an unrepentant addiction that is violating the sanctity of the marriage bed (Hebrews 13:4). She may choose to move out for a season, deny him sex as long as he continues with porn, or, if he refuses to stop, bring the matter before their church leadership. These are temporary measures with the goal of reuniting the couple when accountability and safeguards are in place.
But there is another way of looking at this issue, and that is to see porn use as tantamount to adultery. Some wives believe they have prayed, appealed, fought, waited, pleaded, and sought counsel until there is nothing left to do. An unrepentant husband who refuses to seek help and accountability may, in fact, be providing his wife with biblical grounds for divorce. He is no longer stumbling into lust as everyone does from time to time; he has created an immoral lifestyle. He is forcing his wife to live with an adulterous man and, in some ways, to participate in his sin. When they have sex, he is not making love to her. He is acting out his lust for other women on his wife’s body. That is mental adultery, and she can tell.
While divorce should never be the first response to marriage problems, it may be necessary when living together in peace is not possible (1 Corinthians 7:15). Jesus’ words in Matthew 19:8 may apply to unrepentant addicts who are abandoning their families in favor of a substance or behavior. To the Pharisees who questioned Him about divorce, Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning.” Addicts who refuse to change have hardened their hearts. So if a spouse can honestly say he/she did everything possible to save the marriage, but the addiction is destroying everything marriage means, then divorce may be an allowable decision.