Relationship Connection: Discussing Pornography with Your Future Son-in-Law

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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 altogether, 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 à 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:

Discussion Points:

¨     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?

Red Flags:

¨     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 hard core 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.

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  • Todd August 17, 2011 at 8:15 pm

    This is ridiculous, only a religious fanatic could possibly think this way.

  • Joe August 17, 2011 at 9:21 pm

    I would also ask the son-in-law what his strategy will be if after a few years of marriage he finds himself in a low to no sex marriage. His wife no longer has a desire to have sex and any initiation on his part is rejected.

  • elliemae August 17, 2011 at 11:58 pm

    A bit obsessed with porn, are we?

    Unless someone discusses a porn addiction with you or you suspect that he/she might have an addiction and you honestly want to help, it’s none of your business whether or not someone views porn.

    It’s certainly no more a future father-in-law’s place to have this discussion with his future son-in-law than it would be for a future in-law to accompany a daughter-in-law to be to the OB/GYN to assure her virginity.

  • jayson August 18, 2011 at 4:11 am

    Please just bring us unbiased news, enough of this other garbage. Every situation is different for every person, yet you post these pieces like they are gospel. Enough already!

  • Shawn August 18, 2011 at 7:23 am

    Seriously? ‘Sir, I’d like to marry your daughter.’ ‘Well that is great news son – so…how do you like your porn?’ Really? I’d see this as a potential deal breaker – I’d be afraid of coming over to watch the game or some family get-together and having to discuss her fathers porn fetish. Disturbing to say the least. Can we get back to the news and leave the ‘creepy old man’ section behind for a bit?

  • Aaron August 18, 2011 at 3:19 pm

    1 – a: a report of recent events
    b: previously unknown information
    c: something having a specified influence or effect
    2 – a: material reported in a newspaper or news periodical or on a newscast
    b: matter that is newsworthy

    Pornography is news.
    It is an addictive behavior that is ruining marriages and most who view pornography did know that it was wrong the first time they viewed it, and have talked themselves into making it an accepted habit. Obviously there are a few that are trying to bash this NEWSWORTHY article, I can only guess why.
    I am grateful for this news article since it has reminded me of my responsibility as a father, and a husband, Yes, one who had a problem in my past with Pornography.

  • Lewd Dobbs August 18, 2011 at 8:05 pm

    I wanna ask my future son-in-law about ponzi schemes, internet fraud, gambling, and other illegal acts. I wont ask him about porn, he might want to borrow my collection.

    I think this quack is just trying to push his porn rehab business.

  • Gwen August 18, 2011 at 8:46 pm

    I went through his past articles, and this author writes about pornography a lot. It must be on his mind constantly. There were probably a dozen porn-related articles in his list of past works. I get the impression that he’s struggling with keeping that porn obsession at bay and looks to writing these pieces as a way of making himself feel better about it.
    Trust me man, nobody gives pornography the kind of thought you do.
    They way he writes about this imaginary exchange between a man and his future son-in-law makes me think the author is dreaming about having this conversation in the future so he can relive his hardcore porn obsession with someone without having to break the taboos he’s trying so hard to enforce with these articles.

  • Penny August 18, 2011 at 11:11 pm

    I so much appreciate Aarons comments. The norm is for people is to push these kind of subjects under the rug and then wonder why there are so many sexual crimes. People need to be educated that these problems are a reality and the more information we have the better able we are to help people with a problem. Kudos to Aaron for his honesty. For the rest of you who commented negetively, I feel sorry for you because you are the one who perpetuate the problem.

  • Larry September 2, 2011 at 3:58 pm

    Some ideas are really, really, bad. This is one of them. This is totally inappropriate. if you want to go down this road, the future son in law should ask his prospective father-in-law if he has a thing for little boys. The son in law should want to protect his future children from a pedophile.

  • Not a Mormon September 2, 2011 at 10:18 pm

    I can’t believe I missed this gem!

    Where did the st george news find this guy?!? This is hilarious. What stodgy old coot thinks its his business to discuss this topic with another adult male wanting to marry an adult female? Just because you’re a father doesn’t give you the right or the responsibility to delve into your adult children’s personal lives, no matter what your intentions are.
    Thanks for commenting on this Larry and bringing it up to the front.
    Freaking religious whackos. Live your faith privately, by example, and don’t force it on others unless they come to you!

  • Jon September 3, 2011 at 4:16 am

    I was conversing with an individual that works at the Southwest Center, and she told me that the biggest addiction among southern Utah residents (next to drug addiction) was sex/pornography addiction. Now granted, this was hearsay, but to be honest I don’t find it very hard to believe. It seems like it’s something that COUNTLESS individuals both men and women deal with on a daily basis, and the addiction like any other drug addiction becomes erratic and effects their own relationships, marriages, and sex life with their partners. I applaud Geoff for his series on this issue facing our society.

  • elliemae September 3, 2011 at 4:58 pm

    Really – some low-paid person who works at southwest center said something and you believed it? I was conversing with someone in line in the grocery store who said that the biggest addiction problem, after drug addiction, was alcohol… followed by cigarettes… and after that, the biggest addiction problem is people who are addicted to believing everything they’re told. I keep checking back to see the comments here because this site isn’t news, isn’t worthy of reading on a regular basis, and I’m never disappointed.

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