Last week we started a conversation about sex after betrayal. We talked about how healing the sexual injuries created by sexual betrayal is one of the least addressed topics for betrayed partners, yet one of the most important issues betrayed partners face. I also told you that starting this week we are going to look at the sexual injury created by sexual betrayal. We are going to break the silence around this issue. My hope is that this series of blog posts will empower you to begin talking about this issue—to your therapist, to your support group, and to others in your situation.
I’ve picked out some common themes that I see betrayed partners deal with. As we go along, there may be topics that do not apply to your specific situation. That is perfectly okay. As I said last week, each person’s sexual history, relationship, and wounding is unique. But hopefully, somewhere in these common themes, you will find yourself and you will be able to learn and grow from both your experience and the experience of others.
This week we are going to talk about no sex or a lack of sex within a relationship. This can be particularly confusing if you’re in a relationship with a sex addict. I have had many betrayed partners say to me over the years, “Oh no, he can’t possibly be a sex addict, he’s completely uninterested in sex. It’s been one of the biggest conflicts we’ve had because he is rarely interested in having sex.” When these partners find out that there has been a secret history of not just sex but compulsive sex, either sex-with-self through masturbation and pornography or sex outside of the relationship with others, it is a profound shock that leaves them enormously confused.
Often the first place a betrayed partner goes when they learn about their significant other’s secret sexual life is to the belief that there must be something wrong with them and that their spouse doesn’t want to have sex with them and instead is sexual with porn or other people. Learning about this betrayal feels like a direct rejection. Rather than being able to write it off as ‘he/she just isn’t interested in sex or has a low libido,’ now it feels like the reality is that they just didn’t want to have sex with you. This feels personal, deeply painful, and rejecting.
However, the reality is almost always much more complicated than this and, in fact, the addict’s behavior is only rarely an actual direct rejection of sex with you. Instead, the individual is often avoiding a certain type of sex or uncomfortable feelings that sex causes.
Individuals who avoid sex within their primary relationship (whether they’re sexually addicted or not) do so for a host of reasons, a few of which are outlined below:
Avoiding sex because it feels “close in.” This occurs because you and your partner know one another in all your imperfectness. When this happens, sex automatically contains an element of raw vulnerability (because you and your partner are being sexual with the person who knows your deepest strengths and gifts as well as your most serious flaws and character defects). When you are having sex with the person you are in a long-term relationship with, you are with the person you not only laugh with, play with, and companion with, but that you also parent with, pay bills with, handle chores with, and fight with.
The emotional vulnerability inherent in this close in relationship, when coupled with the emotional vulnerability inherent in the sexual act itself, can create extreme discomfort for some individuals. Your partner may have turned to sex outside of the primary relationship as a way to avoid this discomfort.
For your partner, it may feel easier and safer to be sexual with a stranger. They can create a fantasy about this sex in their head, be sexual, and then never see that person again.
There can also be less emotional vulnerability with longer-term affair partners who only see the parts of your partner that they reveal to them. The affair partners don’t truly know your significant other because they are not in the foxhole with them 24/7 the way you are.
Either way, your partner’s focus on sex outside of the relationship (sex that feels less close in and less emotionally vulnerable) can drain your relationship of sexual energy, thereby creating confusion and anxiety for you, the betrayed partner. Regardless of whether you know about the extracurricular sex, you may find yourself wondering why sex within your relationship has disappeared or is dwindling away.
Avoiding the riskiness of making love with another person. For some individuals, having sex with a live person feels risky and scary. As a result, sex with a long-term partner (or any real-world partner) can become something they avoid. Often, these individuals turn to pornography and masturbation because it feels easier and safer to be sexual with a fantasy on a screen. The screen fantasy does not need anything from them, does not know them, does not have opinions, feelings, or thoughts about things. As a result, the individual does not have to risk anything relationally or emotionally.
Sex with a partner is often high-risk, uncertain reward. What if you initiate sex and the other person says no thank you? What if you are feeling playful and flirty and the other person is feeling tired and sleepy, so you feel out of sync and awkward as you try to make love? What if one of you cannot get aroused or reach orgasm? What if the other person is not really into it? What if, what if, what if?
There is a reason we often use the word “intimacy” when talking about sex. Being sexual with another person is being vulnerable. And if this vulnerability is too hard or raises too many uncomfortable feelings, it can become something that is simply avoided.
Avoiding sex out of guilt. Some individuals who have a secret sexual life will avoid sex in their primary relationship out of guilt. I have had many betrayed partners talk to me about noticing a strange pattern where their significant other is highly sexual with them for a few days or a week, followed by weeks or months with no sex at all. Then things cycle back around, and the sexual relationship comes back online again for a short while.
Often, when the cheater’s double-life is discovered and things come to light, what becomes clear is that the cheating partner was avoiding sex with their significant other during periods where they were sexually acting out in the addiction or were heavily involved in an affair. Typically, this is out of guilt and/or a sense of split loyalty between the significant other and the affair partner. Either way, it leaves the betrayed partner stuck in confusion about why the sexual relationship waxes and wanes the way it does.
Avoiding sex due to lack of arousal/attraction. This can be one of the most difficult issues to deal with as a couple and as a betrayed partner because it creates serious feelings of rejection for the betrayed partner. However, this is an issue that many couples, particularly those dealing with pornography addiction, face. So, it is important to discuss this topic even though it may be very painful and difficult.
For some individuals, as they view more and more pornography and are looking at the same types of images and bodies repeatedly, their attraction and arousal can become attuned to and cued to only be engaged by images/bodies that mirror the pornography they’ve been watching. In addition, they can become used to a certain pattern of arousal. (Porn is very patterned, in order to make it more compelling and addictive.) And when things deviate from this pattern, they are unable to become aroused. As a result, they find themselves not attracted to or unable to function sexually with their real-world partner.
For you as a betrayed partner, hearing that your significant other is not attracted to you or not aroused by sex with you can feel like the ultimate rejection. It can make you feel unworthy, small, and ashamed. However, the reasons for this typically have little to do with how you look or how you behave sexually. They are more about your partner’s use of pornography.
Avoiding sex because of past sexual wounding. Sometimes individuals avoid sex in their primary relationship because of past sexual wounding (childhood sexual abuse, sexual harassment, sexual betrayals, etc.). Feelings and sensations associated with past sexual wounding can be triggered by current sexual activity, which may cause the individual to avoid sex in the present (because it triggers past feelings and sensations that are too painful or overwhelming to feel). For individuals who avoid being sexual because of past wounding, the avoidance often feels like a lack of interest rather than a proactive avoidance. But the lack of interest is actually a coping mechanism used to avoid the uncomfortable or distressing feelings that being sexual can raise.
Being in a relationship with someone who sexually betrays you and has also been avoiding sex within the relationship can be incredibly painful. Unfortunately, it is a more common dynamic than you might expect. It is also something that is infrequently spoken about because of the shame and confusion surrounding it. If you have been in this situation, please know that you are not alone. Many betrayed partners have had this confusing experience. Also, please know that it is absolutely possible to heal from this type of sexual injury, both individually and, if you wish, as a couple.
Final note: Last week I told you about a new intensive I am offering called Sex After Betrayal: Reclaiming Your Sexual Self. Look for an email in your inbox this Thursday with more details and information. If you have experienced sexual betrayal and have been struggling to heal the sexual wounds caused by betrayal, this intensive is for you!