Fulfilling relationships

Fulfilling relationships

Rela­tion­ships are cen­tral to human well­be­ing, flour­ish­ing and mean­ing across the life­course94, and every­thing we have explored so far is rel­e­vant to them. Here we con­sid­er rela­tion­ships direct­ly, ask­ing what are their ingre­di­ents that sat­is­fy, vitalise, and con­tribute to mutu­al thriv­ing and growth? And what does this mean for our under­stand­ing of pornography’s impact? Whilst the focus here is on roman­tic rela­tion­ships, much of what is dis­cussed is also rel­e­vant to friend­ships and, albeit to a less­er degree, oth­er close relationships. 

Research indi­cates that var­i­ous rela­tion­al qual­i­ties and approach­es towards one anoth­er con­tribute to, or indeed con­sti­tute, sat­is­fy­ing roman­tic rela­tion­ships. These include inti­ma­cy, trust, kind­ness, auton­o­my, open com­mu­ni­ca­tion, empa­thy, and secu­ri­ty95. Sim­i­lar qual­i­ties appear to com­prise sat­is­fy­ing friend­ships96. Clear­ly rela­tion­ships are com­plex and mul­ti­di­men­sion­al, and the ele­ments on this list all inter­re­late with one anoth­er and oth­ers besides. Notwith­stand­ing this com­plex­i­ty, let’s briefly explore five par­tic­u­lar­ly fun­da­men­tal ele­ments: authen­tic­i­ty & auton­o­my; emo­tion­al reliance & vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty; care & valu­ing; trust; and warmth.

Authenticity and autonomy

When peo­ple are authen­tic and autonomous in rela­tion­ship with one anoth­er, they are each ful­ly endors­ing their involve­ment in the rela­tion­ship, they seek the rela­tion­ship for itself (ver­sus as a means to an end), and they expe­ri­ence and enjoy both them­selves and the oth­er being them­selves (ver­sus play­ing a part or need­ing to hide core parts of them­selves). Each per­son holds the knowl­edge: I want to be in this rela­tion­ship, and so do they; I can be myself and so can they; I accept them for who they are, and they accept me. We might think of this as a tri­ad of self-deter­mi­na­tion (per­son­al auton­o­my), authen­tic­i­ty and sup­port of the oth­er person’s auton­o­my – the lat­ter refer­ring to valu­ing and respect­ing the other’s per­spec­tive, feel­ings, goals and the like, and sup­port­ing them to act freely. Numer­ous stud­ies have explored these ways of being in rela­tion­ships and find them close­ly linked to rela­tion­al sat­is­fac­tion and secu­ri­ty, as well as per­son­al pos­i­tives’ such as vital­i­ty, life sat­is­fac­tion, and self-esteem97.

Emotional reliance and vulnerability

When those we are in rela­tion­ship with sup­port our auton­o­my and our com­pe­tence (i.e. believ­ing in and encour­ag­ing our abil­i­ties), we are more like­ly to rely on them for emo­tion­al sup­port – turn­ing to them for help with dif­fi­cult feel­ings such as frus­tra­tion, sad­ness or con­fu­sion, or appre­ci­at­ing pos­i­tives with them like hap­pi­ness, pride or grat­i­tude. This emo­tion­al reliance is also asso­ci­at­ed with vital­i­ty, life sat­is­fac­tion, self-esteem as well as few­er feel­ings of anx­i­ety or depres­sion98. When we share our emo­tions like this we feel we are being true to our­selves. It is often a form of vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty, defined here as reveal­ing to anoth­er parts of our­selves that we feel some fear or self-con­scious­ness about. At its heart, vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty is expo­sure to the pos­si­bil­i­ty of being attacked or harmed; the para­dox being that when we choose to place our­selves in this posi­tion with some­one we trust and that trust is vin­di­cat­ed by their accep­tance and val­i­da­tion, there can be a rich­ness of human inti­ma­cy, love and expe­ri­ence that is oth­er­wise inac­ces­si­ble. Fol­low­ing exten­sive research and the­o­ris­ing, Pro­fes­sor Brene Brown names vul­ner­a­bilty the birth­place of con­nec­tion and the path to the feel­ing of wor­thi­ness’99. In con­trast, research finds that when peo­ple con­ceal parts of them­selves from their part­ner, they feel less con­nec­tion and more con­flict with their part­ner, and both par­ties feel less sat­is­fied with the rela­tion­ship and com­mit­ted to it100.

Care and valuing

Ryan and Deci note that the very con­cept of love implies a kind of car­ing that is both unselfish and yet ful­ly self-endorsed’101. When peo­ple love they are car­ing about some­one intrin­si­cal­ly – they hold these car­ing feel­ings and actions as their own, and they are pri­mar­i­ly focussed on the oth­er person’s needs and well­be­ing. And here lies a fur­ther para­dox – that when we will­ing­ly care about oth­ers, when we love and give to them, we so often sat­is­fy our own core needs that would be impos­si­ble to meet through a direct focus on self. And if we try to love’ sim­ply for self-ful­fil­ment, this stops being love’ and ben­e­fits to both par­ties dimin­ish. When we give we receive, but it is impos­si­ble to give to receive: the gift has gone.

Var­i­ous stud­ies speak to the impor­tance of this voli­tion­al care (that we term love)102. An over-arch­ing meta-analy­sis of 100 stud­ies con­duct­ed by Bon­nie Le and col­leagues found that the moti­va­tion to care for oth­ers was asso­ci­at­ed with greater rela­tion­ship well­be­ing both for one­self and for one’s rela­tion­ship part­ners (whether friend, roman­tic part­ner, par­ent or child)103. But this moti­va­tion was only linked to per­son­al well­be­ing for one­self and part­ner when it was held with a sense of agency, and inter­est­ing­ly, also care for one­self (chim­ing with our dis­cus­sion of self-embrace above). In rela­tion­ships where peo­ple intrin­si­cal­ly care for each oth­er like this, there is a sense in which the rela­tion­ship and the oth­er per­son become parts of one­self104.


Inter­wo­ven with every­thing explored so far is trust – at its heart this being the sense that the oth­er per­son is who they say they are, and that they have your best inter­ests at heart. This is a basis for secu­ri­ty, com­mit­ment and invest­ment in the rela­tion­ship. Unsur­pris­ing­ly research finds this rela­tion­al qual­i­ty is also close­ly linked to rela­tion­ship sat­is­fac­tion105. It is of course impor­tant that this trust is deserved and well-placed. And if it is found not to be, feel­ings of betray­al can be excep­tion­al­ly hard to bear.


A final qual­i­ty wor­thy of men­tion is warmth: those feel­ings and behav­iours of affec­tion that con­vey the sense of being loved, val­ued and in con­nec­tion. This would seem a pri­ma­ry (and pri­mal) means of con­vey­ing the authen­tic­i­ty of our feel­ings, our intrin­sic care for anoth­er106. With­out it people’s actions risk being per­ceived as instru­men­tal and less agen­tic or human. On a relat­ed note, diverse stud­ies and psy­cho­log­i­cal the­o­ries have delin­eat­ed our need for a sense of close­ness and con­nec­tion in rela­tion­ships beyond their abil­i­ty to ful­fil oth­er needs, (such as to be respect­ed, or have our thoughts and feel­ings val­ued)107.

If we summed this all up in sim­ple terms, one of the rich­est realms of human expe­ri­ence involves rela­tion­ships in which peo­ple love with their true selves’ and are loved for being their true self. It is impor­tant to note that such rela­tion­ships are on a con­tin­u­um of depth and vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty, and that even rela­tion­ships that are casu­al, of short dura­tion, or that sit with­in roles (for exam­ple, work col­leagues) can still involve this mutu­al intrin­sic valu­ing and enjoy­ment of one another.

Pornography and human relationships

When Porn­hub asserts that its users can get every­thing they need with­out all the real world trou­bles’ and rhetor­i­cal­ly asks who needs an IRL (in real life) part­ner when you have POV (point of view) Porn­hub videos on your side?’, it per­fect­ly cap­tures the industry’s igno­rance, dis­re­gard, and under­min­ing of human rela­tion­ships – in par­tic­u­lar those that are roman­tic and sexual. 

Here we join up a few of the dots. Main­stream online porn encour­ages its view­ers to see oth­ers in terms of appear­ance and func­tion – more like objects — by pre­sent­ing peo­ple in this way on screen. This works against peo­ple look­ing for and valu­ing each oth­er’s inner selves. Porn tells peo­ple that a cer­tain set of looks and per­for­mances are desir­able, but when peo­ple buy into this notion and focus on their achieve­ment, they are demot­ing both their own and their partner’s inner selves. In this way con­nec­tion is com­pro­mised, and the poten­tial for vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty is lost. Vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty may be expe­ri­enced as unsafe, giv­en the threat of being val­ued accord­ing to porn’s scripts – a per­son reveals them­selves only to find them­selves not being seen:; for their part­ner they are just a play­er in a finite game. Antic­i­pa­to­ry shame and feel­ings of insignif­i­cance guard peo­ple against such sit­u­a­tions, and instead sex and the wider rela­tion­ship may be approached with self-suf­fi­cien­cy and undue atten­tion to appear­ances and roles. 

Main­stream online porn tells its view­ers to focus on num­ber one’ and that oth­ers are toys, but the rich­est rela­tion­ships are those where peo­ple intrin­si­cal­ly val­ue and care about you, me, we’, not pri­mar­i­ly me’. Fur­ther­more if some­one watch­es main­stream online porn, they are on some lev­el buy­ing into its val­ues, which can under­mine their part­ner’s trust.

Paul Wright and Robert Toku­na­ga recent­ly con­duct­ed a meta-analy­sis of 15 research stud­ies and found that women’s per­cep­tions of their male partner’s pornog­ra­phy use was asso­ci­at­ed with sig­nif­i­cant­ly less sat­is­fac­tion with the rela­tion­ship, their sex life, and their body108. In qual­i­ta­tive stud­ies, many women gave voice to this dam­age, describ­ing feel­ings of betray­al, reduced respect for their part­ner, and feel­ing less val­ued and inad­e­quate. Oth­ers will not explic­it­ly know that their part­ner con­sumes porn but may still expe­ri­ence it’s impact on reduced inti­ma­cy, respect and love with­out know­ing why. At the extreme end, pornog­ra­phy can exac­er­bate and be used as a tool in abu­sive rela­tion­ships, for exam­ple, by mod­el­ling and nor­mal­is­ing humil­i­at­ing lan­guage and acts which are then used in the abuse 109.

It was a deci­sion to do some­thing that took him away from me and from our relationship’

I thought I wasn’t attractive’

I don’t trust him… with my most inti­mate thoughts’

My self-esteem is dam­aged beyond belief’

I start­ed doubt­ing myself. I start­ed doubt­ing my self-worth’

My first boyfriend used to watch a lot of porn… it made me feel quite insecure’

I find it degrad­ing to think that he’s turned on by those women more’

Women and girls talk­ing about the impact of their male partner’s porn use, inter­viewed in a range of research stud­ies110

Of course when rela­tion­ships are dam­aged, they are dam­aged for both par­ties. Both peo­ple are los­ing out on enjoy­ing the rich­ness of con­nec­tive, emo­tion­al­ly sup­port­ive, valu­ing and trust­ing rela­tion­ships. And research con­firms porn’s impact on the rela­tion­al sat­is­fac­tion and qual­i­ty of its users, not just their part­ners. For exam­ple, a lon­gi­tu­di­nal study of new­ly wed cou­ples by Lin­da Muuss­es and her col­leagues, found that hus­bands’ porn use was linked over time to their per­cep­tion of their rela­tion­ship being poor­er qual­i­ty111. Cross-sec­tion­al stud­ies also find an asso­ci­a­tion between men’s porn use and reduced rela­tion­al sat­is­fac­tion, a rela­tion­ship linked to both gen­der roles and objec­ti­fi­ca­tion of their part­ners112. Con­firm­ing and extend­ing these find­ings, in a recent meta-analy­sis of over twen­ty stud­ies, Paul Wright and his col­leagues found pornog­ra­phy con­sump­tion was asso­ci­at­ed with low­er rela­tion­al sat­is­fac­tion across var­i­ous types of research study and dif­fer­ent pop­u­la­tions113.

It is appar­ent from research that there are gen­der dynam­ics to the effects of porn on roman­tic rela­tion­ships: those that are het­ero­sex­u­al and involve the male view­ing it are the most adverse­ly affect­ed. Var­i­ous fac­tors like­ly account for this, includ­ing porn’s par­tic­u­lar emphases on male sex­u­al enti­tle­ment and pre­rog­a­tive, and female objec­ti­fi­ca­tion and den­i­gra­tion, all set with­in a wider con­ducive cul­tur­al context.

Rela­tion­ships may be com­pro­mised by porn to the point of break­down. In a lon­gi­tu­di­nal study com­ple­ment­ing oth­er research, Samuel Per­ry and Cyrus Schleifer found that the prob­a­bil­i­ty of divorce rough­ly dou­bled for both mar­ried men and women who began porn use between sur­vey waves114. An over-arch­ing theme here is iso­la­tion – both through rela­tion­ships becom­ing less con­nec­tive and through them dis­solv­ing. Going fur­ther, iso­la­tion arguably also results from porn lead­ing peo­ple to be less inter­est­ed in rela­tion­ships in the first place. As explored, porn pro­motes a mod­el of the world in which peo­ple are atom­ised and human con­nec­tion ren­dered obso­lete. Many accept porn’s invi­ta­tion to meet their needs’ and may feel that it has115, often times not real­is­ing that it may in fact be plac­ing the sat­is­fac­tion of their deep­est needs out of reach116.

As all rela­tion­ships are enriched by mutu­al enjoy­ment and respect of each other’s inner selves, they can all be impact­ed by porn. Whilst most ado­les­cents will not be in seri­ous roman­tic rela­tion­ships, their rela­tion­ships with their friends and peers can be detri­men­tal­ly affect­ed117. Fur­ther­more porn’s edu­ca­tion in imper­son­al sex, objec­ti­fi­ca­tion, and gen­der roles dur­ing such a for­ma­tive peri­od of devel­op­ment sets up a sig­nif­i­cant risk to future rela­tion­ships. Ado­les­cence is a sen­si­tive peri­od in which sex­u­al scripts, and mod­els of self, oth­ers and rela­tion­ships are read­i­ly laid down or inter­nalised118.

Robert Jensen, a promi­nent pornog­ra­phy researcher, described pornog­ra­phy as what the end of the world looks like’119. It’s nature and effects can cer­tain­ly seem dystopi­an, oper­at­ing like a silent par­a­site, set­ting in motion mil­lions of every­day tragedies. Return­ing full cir­cle to our analy­sis of its busi­ness mod­el, this is part­ly done by its com­pro­mise of our agency – the thing that is per­haps most cen­tral to the human con­di­tion, explored next.

  • Numerous research literatures attest to their importance, including those flowing from attachment theory and self-determination theory for example see: Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2017b). Relationships Motivation Theory: The self in close relationships. Chapter 12 in Self-determination theory: Basic psychological needs in motivation, development, and wellness. Guilford Publications.

    See also those concerned with the impacts of loneliness and poor relationships for example: Hawkley, L. C., & Cacioppo, J. T. (2010). Loneliness matters: A theoretical and empirical review of consequences and mechanisms. Annals of behavioral medicine, 40(2), 218-227. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12160-010-9210-8

  • Hassebrauck, M., & Fehr, B. (2002). Dimensions of relationship quality. Personal relationships, 9(3), 253-270.

    Anderson, T. L., & Emmers-Sommer, T. M. (2006). Predictors of relationship satisfaction in online romantic relationships. Communication Studies, 57(2), 153-172.

    Kimmes, J. G., Edwards, A. B., Wetchler, J. L., & Bercik, J. (2014). Self and other ratings of dyadic empathy as predictors of relationship satisfaction. The American Journal of Family Therapy, 42(5), 426-437.

    Mead, N. L. (2005). Personality predictors of relationship satisfaction among engaged and married couples: An analysis of actor and partner effects.

    Sened, H., Lavidor, M., Lazarus, G., Bar-Kalifa, E., Rafaeli, E., & Ickes, W. (2017). Empathic accuracy and relationship satisfaction: A meta-analytic review. Journal of Family Psychology, 31(6), 742–752. https://doi.org/10.1037/fam0000320

    Szymanski, D. M., Feltman, C. E., & Dunn, T. L. (2015). Male partners’ perceived pornography use and women’s relational and psychological health: The roles of trust, attitudes, and investment. Sex Roles, 73(5-6), 187-199.

  • Mendelson, M. J., & Aboud, F. E. (1999). Measuring friendship quality in late adolescents and young adults: McGill Friendship Questionnaires. Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science / Revue canadienne des sciences du comportement, 31(2), 130–132. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0087080

  • For example see:

    Blais, M. R., Sabourin, S., Boucher, C., & Vallerand, R. J. (1990). Toward a motivational model of couple happiness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 59(5), 1021–1031. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.59.5.1021

    Deci, E. L., La Guardia, J. G., Moller, A. C., Scheiner, M. J., & Ryan, R. M. (2006). On the benefits of giving as well as receiving autonomy support: Mutuality in close friendships. Personality and social psychology bulletin, 32(3), 313-327.

    Knee, C. R., Lonsbary, C., Canevello, A., & Patrick, H. (2005). Self-determination and conflict in romantic relationships. Journal of personality and social psychology, 89(6), 997.

    Lynch, M. F., La Guardia, J. G., & Ryan, R. M. (2009). On being yourself in different cultures: Ideal and actual self-concept, autonomy support, and well-being in China, Russia, and the United States. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 4(4), 290-304.

    For a review see:

    Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2017). Relationships Motivation Theory: The self in close relationships. Chapter 12 in Self-determination theory: Basic psychological needs in motivation, development, and wellness. Guilford Publications.

  • Ryan, R. M., La Guardia, J. G., Solky‐Butzel, J., Chirkov, V., & Kim, Y. (2005). On the interpersonal regulation of emotions: Emotional reliance across gender, relationships, and cultures. Personal relationships, 12(1), 145-163.

  • Brown, B. (2015). Daring greatly: How the courage to be vulnerable transforms the way we live, love, parent, and lead. Penguin.

  • Uysal, A., Lin, H. L., Knee, C. R., & Bush, A. L. (2012). The association between self-concealment from one’s partner and relationship well-being. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 38(1), 39-51.

  • Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2017). Relationships Motivation Theory: The self in close relationships. Chapter 12 in Self-determination theory: Basic psychological needs in motivation, development, and wellness. Guilford Publications. p. 294

  • For example:

    Hadden, B. W., Rodriguez, L. M., Knee, C. R., & Porter, B. (2015). Relationship autonomy and support provision in romantic relationships. Motivation and Emotion, 39(3), 359-373.

    Kindt, S., Vansteenkiste, M., Loeys, T., Cano, A., Lauwerier, E., Verhofstadt, L. L., & Goubert, L. (2015). When is helping your partner with chronic pain a burden? The relation between helping motivation and personal and relational functioning. Pain Medicine, 16(9), 1732-1744.

    Gore, J. S., Cross, S. E., & Kanagawa, C. (2009). Acting in our interests: Relational self-construal and goal motivation across cultures. Motivation and Emotion, 33(1), 75-87.

  • Le, B. M., Impett, E. A., Lemay, E. P., Jr., Muise, A., & Tskhay, K. O. (2018). Communal motivation and well-being in interpersonal relationships: An integrative review and meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 144(1), 1–25. https://doi.org/10.1037/bul0000133

  • Hadden, B. W., Rodriguez, L. M., Knee, C. R., & Porter, B. (2015). Relationship autonomy and support provision in romantic relationships. Motivation and Emotion, 39(3), 359-373.

    Deci, E. L., La Guardia, J. G., Moller, A. C., Scheiner, M. J., & Ryan, R. M. (2006). On the benefits of giving as well as receiving autonomy support: Mutuality in close friendships. Personality and social psychology bulletin, 32(3), 313-327.

  • For example: Szymanski, D. M., Feltman, C. E., & Dunn, T. L. (2015). Male partners’ perceived pornography use and women’s relational and psychological health: The roles of trust, attitudes, and investment. Sex Roles, 73(5-6), 187-199.

  • Hill, M. T. (2009). Intimacy, passion, commitment, physical affection and relationship stage as related to romantic relationship satisfaction (Doctoral dissertation, Oklahoma State University).

    Jakubiak, B. K., & Feeney, B. C. (2017). Affectionate touch to promote relational, psychological, and physical well-being in adulthood: A theoretical model and review of the research. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 21(3), 228-252.
  • Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2017). Relationships Motivation Theory: The self in close relationships. Chapter 12 in Self-determination theory: Basic psychological needs in motivation, development, and wellness. Guilford Publications

  • Wright, P. J., & Tokunaga, R. S. (2018). Women's perceptions of their male partners’ pornography consumption and relational, sexual, self, and body satisfaction: toward a theoretical model. Annals of the International Communication Association, 42(1), 55-73.

  • DeKeseredy, W. S., & Hall-Sanchez, A. (2017). Adult pornography and violence against women in the heartland: Results from a rural southeast Ohio study. Violence Against Women, 23(7), 830-849.

  • Zitzman, S. T., & Butler, M. H. (2009). Wives' experience of husbands' pornography use and concomitant deception as an attachment threat in the adult pair-bond relationship. Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity, 16(3), 210-240.

    Schneider, J. P. (2000). Effects of cybersex addiction on the family: Results of a survey. Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity: The Journal of Treatment and Prevention, 7(1-2), 31-58.

    Doornwaard, S. M., den Boer, F., Vanwesenbeeck, I., van Nijnatten, C. H., ter Bogt, T. F., & van den Eijnden, R. J. (2017). Dutch adolescents’ motives, perceptions, and reflections toward sex-related internet use: results of a web-based focus-group study. The Journal of Sex Research, 54(8), 1038-1050.

    Bridges, A. J., Bergner, R. M., & Hesson-McInnis, M. (2003). Romantic partners' use of pornography: Its significance for women. Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy 29, 1-14.

  • Muusses, L. D., Kerkhof, P., & Finkenauer, C. (2015). Internet pornography and relationship quality: A longitudinal study of within and between partner effects of adjustment, sexual satisfaction and sexually explicit internet material among newly-weds. Computers in Human Behavior, 45, 77-84.

  • Zurbriggen, E. L., Ramsey, L. R., & Jaworski, B. K. (2011). Self-and partner-objectification in romantic relationships: Associations with media consumption and relationship satisfaction. Sex roles, 64(7-8), 449-462.

    Szymanski, D. M., & Stewart-Richardson, D. N. (2014). Psychological, relational, and sexual correlates of pornography use on young adult heterosexual men in romantic relationships. The Journal of Men’s Studies, 22(1), 64-82.

  • Wright, P. J., Tokunaga, R. S., Kraus, A., & Klann, E. (2017). Pornography consumption and satisfaction: A meta-analysis. Human Communication Research, 43(3), 315-343.

  • Perry, S. L., & Schleifer, C. (2018). Till porn do us part? A longitudinal examination of pornography use and divorce. The Journal of Sex Research, 55(3), 284-296.

  • Hald, G. M., & Malamuth, N. M. (2008). Self-perceived effects of pornography consumption. Archives of sexual behavior, 37(4), 614-625.

  • McEvoy, P. (2010). Pornography, intimacy and isolation. Australian journal of psychotherapy, 29(1), 48-66.

  • See for example:

    Ringrose, J., Gill, R., Livingstone, S., & Harvey, L. (2012). A qualitative study of children, young people and'sexting': a report prepared for the NSPCC.

    Brown, J. D., & L'Engle, K. L. (2009). X-rated: Sexual attitudes and behaviors associated with US early adolescents' exposure to sexually explicit media. Communication Research, 36(1), 129-151.

  • Suleiman, A. B., Galván, A., Harden, K. P., & Dahl, R. E. (2017). Becoming a sexual being: The ‘elephant in the room’ of adolescent brain development. Developmental cognitive neuroscience, 25, 209-220.

  • Jensen, R. (2010). Pornography is what the end of the world looks like. In Everyday pornography (pp. 117-125). Routledge.