Duty Sex and the Cycle of Dread, Part 2

A couple of weeks ago (sorry about the brief hiatus!) we started a discussion about sex that becomes an obligation and evolves into a cycle of dread in the relationship. We looked at how this issue surfaces in couples where sexual addiction is not present but there is nevertheless a higher-desire partner and a lower-desire partner who are struggling to negotiate their sexual relationship.

This week, we want to look at how duty sex and the cycle of dread can manifest in a relationship impacted by the presence of sexual betrayal – especially the betrayal of sexual addiction. Such a betrayal, even before you become aware of it, places your intimate connection and relationship under threat. And that threat can register with your subconscious and significantly affect your desire for sex.

If you are in a relationship with a sexually addicted individual who is using sex with you as part of the addiction (often without your awareness that the addiction is present), then your sexual relationship with the addict is likely to change over time. However, because the addiction is hidden and you are not consciously aware of it, the changes that occur may confuse you and leave you feeling like your sexual interest or connection is diminishing and you don’t know why.

Many betrayed partners have talked to me about losing sexual desire in their relationship with the addict. They talk about this with confusion and consternation, as though their sexual interest and desire were a shoe that has suddenly gone missing and, despite searching high and low, they’re unable to find it. Inevitably, this leaves them feeling like something is wrong with them.

This assumption is often heightened by the addict applying pressure and manipulation to try to get the partner to engage in sex. These betrayed partners have seen doctors, tried herbal remedies, read books, received gifts of sex toys and lingerie from the addict to try to boost their desire, and generally gone through months or years of feeling like their loss of sexual desire is a deficiency in them that is hurting their relationship and needs to get fixed.

This creates the cycle of dread we talked about in our last post. Betrayed partners’ conviction that the ‘problem’ belongs to them, plus sexual and emotional pressure to fix the issue pushes them into a highly stressful corner. They feel like they (not the addict) have a problem with sex and they (not the addict) have a duty to solve that problem. And they feel guilty if they are not able to solve it and participate in the sexual relationship the addict seems to want. So the sexual relationship becomes a cycle of dread with betrayed partners dreading the guilt, pressure, and sense of obligation just as much as they dread being sexual when they don’t want to.

I have worked with many betrayed partners who have begun to use alcohol, sleeping aids, or drugs as a way to numb out prior to being sexual. They feel caught in the duty and obligation to have sex even though their desire for it has waned. In order to tolerate being sexual when they do not want to be, they drink or take medications so they don’t have to be ‘present’ during sex.

Many different things can cause the loss of or disconnection from sexual desire. Changes in health, chronic or heightened stress, childhood abuse issues, phase of life issues such as caring for babies, etc. So, if you have experienced a loss of connection to your sexual desire, it can stem from many different things, and more than one thing can be contributing to the frustrating situation.

That said, nothing seems to affect sexual desire within a relationship more than sexual betrayal. This is because betrayal presents a tremendous emotional threat and danger to the relationship. Your body will sense this threat and respond to it even if you don’t consciously know the betrayal is happening.

We often think that we only respond to threats that we are consciously aware of. But this is not true. We are highly sensitive creatures and, in order to survive, our threat systems are finely attuned to any changes in the people and situations around us – especially changes that might create danger. For example, we may find ourselves swerving out of the way of an oncoming biker before we consciously register that the biker was crossing into our lane.

This type of unconscious response can occur not just in our situational worlds but in our emotional worlds. Our unconscious mind can pick up on threats and dangers of which our conscious mind is unaware.

Marriage and family therapists often refer to this as ‘free-floating anxiety’ in a relationship. There is a sense that something is wrong, but you can’t seem to put your finger on what. You are unable to consciously identify what the threat is, but you are nonetheless aware of it. This sense that there is a problem creates free-floating anxiety – emotional stress that is not attached to one particular thing but creates a general sense that things are not alright and that the safety and connection in your relationship are somehow threatened.

Our body often knows that we are experiencing betrayal before our conscious mind finds out. When this happens, the body registers anxiety and senses that the safety and connection in our relationship are not intact. And our instinctual response, of course, is to defend and protect against this unknown danger. One way the body does this is by overriding or shutting down sexual desire for the person who is no longer safe. Because of this, betrayed partners can find themselves losing interest in being sexual with their addicted partner and not understanding why that loss of interest is occurring.

Again, this can be very confusing to betrayed partners. They can feel like they’ve suddenly lost something important that was always there for them before. Often, the betrayed partner will internalize blame for this loss. What is actually happening, however, is that the betrayed partner’s threat system is registering external danger (from the addicted partner) and is shutting down sexual desire as a means of self-protection.

If you have experienced a loss of sexual desire as a response to the lack of emotional safety in your relationship, it is important to validate this experience. As frustrating as it can be to lose your sexual desire, it is helpful to understand that this is a protective defense directed toward the lack of safety in your relationship. Your body is not betraying you; it’s protecting you.

The good news is if your partner is working a solid recovery program and the two of you work together to repair trust and heal the wounds that the addiction and betrayal have caused, safety in your relationship can be restored, and you will be able to reconnect to your sexual desire and engage once again in a full and free sexual relationship with your partner. However, reconnecting to sexual desire is not something that happens magically. There often has to be an intentional reclaiming of your sexual self. Stay tuned as we explore that in the weeks to come.

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