I work with many couples during and after the discovery of an affair or other form of betrayal. Let me tell you about one of them.
This couple came to work with me after the wife learned that her husband had had an affair with a work colleague. She was devastated and was openly questioning if she wanted to stay married to him. He was shame-ridden, deeply remorseful and afraid, saying he was willing to do anything to “save the marriage”. We spent the first year or so of their couples therapy working on managing the fallout from the affair, its impact on their relationship and the medical, financial, emotional, relational, sexual, and existential/spiritual consequences. Things mostly stabilized between them and they found a “new normal” in their lives.
Post-crisis, we began to discuss what their relationship was like pre-affair. This is an incredibly important part of the recovery work — I cannot emphasize this enough. They described an all-too-common situation I frequently hear from couples: her center of attention was being the stay-at-home parent to their young children while also managing her mental health; he focused on being the breadwinner and not causing her stress. As is so often the case, sex fell by the wayside. They described their sex drives as him having a higher libido, her a lower libido. He eventually explained how their lack of sex is what led him to have the affair. This resulted in her feeling guilty for not “giving him sex” (BTW, sex is not something you “give” another person but that’s another topic for another time), feeling angry that in his mind his decision to have the affair was about her not having sex with him during that very, very difficult time, and also feeling resentful about the now omnipresent pressure she felt to have sex with him to deter him from having another affair. He repeatedly said that if she would “just have sex with him more often”, he would be a happy guy.
Variations of this is, unfortunately, a narrative many couples create. When someone decides to do X (have an affair, be in a bad mood, start an expensive hobby) because “my partner doesn’t have sex with me.” People often make sex — or the absence of it — the reason they do something in a relationship. This is a false narrative!
When you make it about sex, you’re not making it about other important things, like your feelings about sex. When you make it about sex, it means you’re not being vulnerable with your partner and sharing what role sex plays in your life. When you make it about sex, it’s a sneaky way of shifting responsibility away from your own actions and experience and onto something — or someone — else.
Knowing that making it about sex is a slippery slope into avoidance behaviors I just described (and what would be the relationship implications if they did yikes), I didn’t want this to become their dominant narrative about his affair or their pre-affair sex life. So I asked him:
“What are you thinking and feeling when she doesn’t have sex with you?”
Him: “I’m thinking, I wonder if she still likes me, is she still attracted to me, does she still want to be with me.”
“Aaah” I said. “You have thoughts and feelings of self-doubt and relationship insecurity?”
He said yes.
I continued: “And so the way you know how to deal with those uncomfortable thoughts and feelings is to have sex with your wife. And when you have sex with your wife do those uncomfortable thoughts and feelings go away?”
“Yes,” he said softly, but he was looking me squarely in the eye so we all knew we were getting somewhere. She was quietly observing our exchange, riveted by what she was hearing for the first time.
I continued: “Well then, we need to help you find another way to cope so that you don’t always rely on having sex with your wife to alleviate those painful thoughts and feelings.”
There was a long silence in the room. This was big.
He risked vulnerability to show her his inner life. She saw a side of him that she had never seen before. Because he revealed this important thing about himself to her, he felt closer to her and she felt she understood him better. It was a powerful session, it shifted things between them, and was a moment they continued to reflect upon after it was over.