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There was never a question about what I would be doing on weekends during college: it was a given that I’d be hanging out with my long-term boyfriend.

Our personalities complemented each other’s well; we went to church together; in a lot of ways, we brought out the best in each other. We each had our academic and extracurricular interests, but we also had common goals for the years after school. To both his friends and mine, our relationship looked perfect.

So it felt impossible to share the struggle we endured for years with physical intimacy. We knew that, largely because of our Christian faith, we wanted to wait until marriage to have sex. What wasn’t as clear was how much other stuff we were going to do until then.

We’d gotten into a routine of making out when we were alone together, and that had begun to progress. Every time, I was a mess of emotions afterward. To physically express my affection to someone I loved felt natural. What I saw on TV and in the movies and what I knew other people were doing suggested that even more was permissible.

But I wasn’t happy. Something felt off, and I couldn’t put my finger on it.

Seeking Help

My boyfriend and I spent a lot of time talking about how I felt stuck in a rut. Neither of us wanted to end our relationship, but we both felt like we were doing some kind of damage.

We weren’t having sex, so it wasn’t that bad, right? We didn’t know how to break the cycle; we weren’t even sure if we needed to. Where would we draw the line? Was it possible to go backwards? Would that cause some other kind of damage to our relationship?

Individually we sought counsel from trusted advisors to understand where to draw the line between what was okay and what wasn’t. Someone told my boyfriend we shouldn’t do anything we wouldn’t do in front of our mothers. That seemed a tall order, but we tried. And failed. And tried and failed.

As repetitive and fruitless as it seemed, we continued to talk about the issue, and I began to see that he and I were experiencing our intimacy in different ways. While it took me awhile to feel turned on when we were together, arousal was more immediate for him. And even while we were clearly attracted to each other, my boyfriend rarely told me I was beautiful. I told myself it was silly to want a man to affirm my physical appearance, especially one whom I trusted and loved so much, and who, in every other way, showed me how deeply he cared for me. And if he wanted to kiss me, he must think I was pretty, right?

It felt like we were fighting different battles.

A Deeper Battle

We knew we wanted to change, but we couldn’t figure out how to make it happen. Amid these struggles, something bigger came to light.

Because of our school schedules we’d been apart for longer than we ever had been before. When we were back together, we started to fall into our usual pattern. My boyfriend stopped and told me had to tell me something.

He’d been struggling with pornography and masturbation for longer than we’d been together. He and a friend had stumbled on a website when they were twelve, and it had been an issue for him ever since.

He’d chosen to tell me at this point because he’d finally started to have success in changing his habits. He asked for my help in holding him accountable.

Not having experienced the same struggle myself, all I saw in that moment was his repentance and desire to change. It was easy for me to forgive him and agree to help him however I could. What an amazing guy, I thought. He wants a better life for us both, and he’s fighting for it.

But after that moment, I began to appreciate the effects pornography had on our relationship. This was part of why my boyfriend had trouble expressing his honest feeling that I was beautiful. This was part of why our physical intimacy continued to push the limits. This was part of why we struggled to draw a line between okay and not okay.

I went through the emotions you’d expect: anger, questions about my own worth, doubts and fears about what this long-kept secret meant for our future. Could I trust him going forward?

Still, the more we understood about each other and what we were up against, the more progress we made toward our goal of scaling back our physical relationship. We needed to acknowledge what we were up against to be able to stand up to it. And I needed to acknowledge those emotions to myself and to him in order for our lines of communication to remain open and effective.

Even before he’d told me, my boyfriend had found other men who were trying to stop these habits, and he was making progress in living a purer life. He asked me to help him by each week simply asking him, “How’s it going?” so that he had added accountability in me. Most of the time his answer was encouraging. Sometimes it wasn’t, and it was in those times that we both saw that the idea that using porn “doesn’t hurt anyone” is a big, fat lie.

We recommitted ourselves to not doing anything we wouldn’t do in front of our mothers. In all the free time we now had, we tried more things outside of hanging out in a room alone. We learned about different cuisines. We spent more time with friends and each other’s families. It may sound simple, but we played card and board games. We felt lighter, freer, because we weren’t spending so much time behind closed doors. We grew closer because we were spending more time talking and, frankly, less time making out.

Stronger Together

We have no doubt that scaling back our physical intimacy then is a huge factor in how fulfilling our marriage is today.

We’d never heard of anyone making this seemingly backward move in their relationship; we’d never seen it on TV or in the movies; we didn’t know if it was possible. And yet, it may have been the single greatest thing we did for our marriage while we were dating.

I’d been right when I was stuck in that rut: there was potential for more happiness and greater connection in our relationship. As good as it was in a lot of other ways, when we named boundaries and respected them, we grew stronger as a couple.

It seems contradictory, but saying “no” to being physically intimate meant we said “yes” to deeper emotional intimacy. We were denying ourselves a momentary pleasure for the good of the other, and ultimately, for the good of our family down the road. I see now why in the majority of divorces, pornography use by one or both partners plays some role.

There had been something concealed between us, and that secret necessarily meant we weren’t able to give as much of ourselves mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. Once the air was clear and we were totally honest with each other in this matter, we were freer to do so in other matters—the good, the bad, the ugly. After experiencing this, we could talk about anything. We laughed more. We trusted each other more.

In the media, too often we see couples jump right to sex and treat pornography like it’s no big deal. I’m here to say not every relationship looks like that. You can reclaim joy and peace by honoring your body, your mind, and your partner, and strengthen your relationship for the long-term. We’re living proof.