“I honestly don’t know if I’ll ever be able to sleep with him again. It’s just too painful.” ~Cheryl (eight months after her husband’s affair)
“When we have sex now it’s like I’m not even there…I go through the motions, but emotionally I’m somewhere else.” ~Leonard (one-and-a-half years after his wife’s affair)
Re-establishing meaningful physical intimacy after an affair is a monumental challenge. As you can see from the above quotes, the post-affair healing journey of some couples may take years. Central to recovering from the emotional fallout of an affair is the ability to make patience central to the healing process—this involves the willingness to fore go placing an artificial time-line on the journey of recovery.
Thoughts of, “I should be over this” or “Why is my wife/husband still reacting this way? Just move on already!” is a setup for damaging impatience, mounting frustration and failed empathy. Couples should recognize that their patience will be tested and pushed to the limit, but this reality shouldn’t be viewed as a sign that recovery is impossible or not moving forward (see Affair Recovery for more information about the challenges of healing from an affair).
Let’s look at some specific post-affair hurdles couples face in the bedroom—an area of recovery that will require herculean levels of patience and understanding.
5 Challenges for Re-establishing Sexual (physical) Intimacy
1) Sense of Inadequacy
It’s common to blame the person who cheated. You might feel totally victimized by his/her betrayal and feel justified in directing all your hurt and emotional venom at him/her. After all, it was his/her actions that caused so much pain, so much turmoil.
But another reality may also exist: You (the betrayed) may somehow feel inadequate as a result of your spouse’s/partner’s infidelity. As one wife shared, “While I don’t blame myself for what he did, at some level I guess I wonder if I wasn’t enough for him and that’s why he cheated.” These feelings of “not being enough” are likely to arise when couples try to reconnect sexually. It’s important to realize that it’s common to struggle with feelings of inadequacy about yourself in general, or your body, or to doubt if you’re attractive or desirable. Be patient with yourself when fears of inadequacy arise and demand patience from your partner.
The experience of shame is connected with feeling inadequate, that you are somehow defective as a person, spouse, lover, friend… This is the “run and hide” or “don’t look at me, I don’t want to be seen” emotion. Brene Brown in her book Daring Greatly, defines shame as: “The intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.”
Sexual and physical intimacy often evoke our deepest insecurities and concerns (“Am I attractive enough”; “Is my body OK”; “If I express myself sexually will I be rejected in some way?”). I often see this dynamic play out for men who have been betrayed by their spouse/partner. These men become plagued with fears that they are sexually inadequate and that the person their partner cheated with is superior sexually in ever way. This experience of humiliation can block the vulnerability needed for the re-establishment of physical intimacy.
3) Waves of Anger
While anger (and the appropriate expression of anger) can play an important role in marriage and relationships, it is the unresolved anger—an anger entwined with hurt and despair—that is likely to linger and undermine physical intimacy. Why is anger such a challenge to re-establishing sexual intimacy after an affair?
Physical/sexual intimacy requires an emotional openness and vulnerability that is scary under the best of conditions, and anger can be a statement of not being ready to let go of your protective wall—the experience of anger is the antithesis to the experience of sharing your body, mind and spirit with another.
4) The Comparison Trap
We all compare ourselves to others at times—sometimes this comparison process is innocuous, at other times, punishing. It can feel impossible not to compare yourself to the person your spouse/partner had an affair with. “Who was s/he? What did you do together? Did you enjoy it more with her/him?” We’re often plagued and punished by a litany of comparison questions—and reassurances from our partner may do little to ease our painful ruminations.
One of the most wrenching comparisons involves imagining what your partner did sexually with this other person and to wonder how you measure up physically and sexually. Couples frequently report setbacks when trying to restart their sexual life because of the comparison trap.
5) Loss of Specialness
We all feel that our relationship is unique in some way, that the love and experiences (especially intimate experiences) shared with our partner are special and not easily replaced. An affair shatters this sense of specialness, cracking the very foundation on which our relationship is built. And this loss of specialness has the potential to negatively color our sexual experiences with our partner—the betrayer failed to protect the sanctity of the relationship.
This experience was captured by a husband who described the following: “We were with other people sexually before we met, but once we made the decision to commit to one another, sex became a way to express the specialness of our love. So sex was special because of this. After she cheated, this felt lost to me…three years later I’m still struggling with this.”
Take It Slow (Be kind and compassionate with yourself)
Reconnecting sexually after an affair is often 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).
The norm of healing from an affair will be one step forward, two steps back. Just when it feels like life is getting back to normal, you can suddenly be pulled back to feeling like you just discovered the affair.
Because of this reality, start with physical, non-sexual touch as a way to feel emotionally safe with your partner and to not become flooded with overwhelming feelings. You can spend several months touching and kissing each other before trying to engage in more intense sexual experiences. With one couple, taking it slow enabled the wife to be more emotionally present and talk about her feelings when they interfered with her ability to give and receive sexual pleasure.
Finally, and this cannot be stressed enough, be kind, patent and compassionate with yourself. Healing from an affair takes time, sometimes lots of time, and setbacks (while extremely frustrating) are to be expected.
Strengthen Your Relationship Resource
I’d like to share a communication resource that I’ve created:
Effective communication is central to a strong marriage or relationship, and to the post-affair recovery process. For more information on my couples communication workbook, click Effective Couples Communication.
Dr. Rich Nicastro