The emotional fallout from an affair is extensive, and the healing process can be a long and bumpy road. Couples committed to this healing journey should be mindful of what’s ahead for them as they try to rebuild their relationship. One of the most sensitive and painfully triggering issues for post-affair couples occurs when they try to re-establish a sexual relationship. Sexual intimacy has the potential to turn into a painful reminder of the events that happened with another person.
Here’s how Janice (whose husband John had a three-month long affair with a coworker) describes her experience:
“It was a little over a year since his affair ended. We were in counseling and doing well and I was feeling much better. We were communicating and we started becoming more affectionate with each other, so the issue of sex came up and we attempted to make love. I thought I was ready, but instantly, I was flooded with waves of anger and hurt and insecurity. It was like the affair had just happened….” ~Janice, married four years.
The challenge for couples (especially for the betrayed partner) is to remain emotionally present during love-making—to exist fully in the here-and-now of the sexual experience. Worries, distractions and preoccupations will only pull you away from the moment, dulling the sensory pleasures and the emotionally gratifying aspects of sex. Awareness of the potential challenges of re-establishing a meaningful sex life with your spouse/partner can go a long way in the post-affair healing process.
Relationship Help: 5 hurdles to Post-Affair Sex
The betrayed spouse/partner may struggle with the following intrusive thoughts (and related images) during sex:
1) Did you do this (sexual act) with her/him?
2) Did you do something with her/him that we’ve never done together?
3) Is s/he a better lover than me?
4) Do you find him/her more attractive/sexy than me?
5) Are you thinking of him/her while we make love?
While the five thoughts above are posed as questions of possibility, sometimes the betrayed may experience these worries as absolute truths: “You must have done this with him/her”; “S/he must be more attractive than me or you wouldn’t have strayed.” The common denominator behind these thoughts/worries is a debilitating sense of insecurity—a feeling that you must not have been enough (physically attractive, sexually adventurous, interpersonally charming, etc) because your partner cheated.
Don’t Suffer in Silence. Go at Your Own Pace
At times, it may not feel like you have control of these (and similar) thoughts—they can take on a punishing quality because you cannot escape their seemingly never-ending onslaught. While painful to endure, it’s important to remember that this is a common part of the healing process and that these intrusive thoughts are a result of the emotional trauma you experienced.
If your partner is supportive and patient (which will be essential to the healing process), discussing your insecurities with him/her can help you slowly regain your emotional footing. Don’t just suffer in silence–allow him/her to help you shoulder the pain. Feeling you should be “over” the pain just because a certain amount of time has passed, or feeling like you need to protect your partner from your wounded feelings because s/he is starting to lose his/her patience can become a significant hurdle to the healing process. Avoid both of these traps by giving yourself permission to go at your own pace and to communicate your emotional progress with your partner.
Don’t Rush Into Sex
Re-establishing a sexual relationship may involve a step-wise approach rather than immediately pushing yourself into trying to recapture past sexual experiences. Also, pressuring yourself to meet your partner’s sexual needs for fear that s/he may stray again has the potential to backfire (communicate these fears with your partner). One couple I worked with spent several months touching and kissing each other before trying to engage in more intense sexual experiences. This allowed the betrayed partner to be more present emotionally and talk about her worries when they interfered with her ability to give and receive sexual pleasure.
Finally, be compassionate and patient with yourself. Healing from an affair takes time, and set-backs (while extremely frustrating) are normal and will occur.
I’ve created several workbooks and resources for couples who want a stronger relationship, was well as resources for couples healing after an affair. Click Relationship Workbooks for more information.
Wishing you peace and healing,
Dr. Rich Nicastro