Last week we started looking at how sexual betrayal impacts a betrayed partner’s sexuality. We discussed the loss of sexual desire, the loss of one’s sexual voice and power, and using sex to emotionally caretake one’s partner. This week we are going to look at falling into the trap of using sex as a form of control – as a way of managing the cheating partner’s behavior.
Sex as Control, Amp It Up
Many betrayed partners unconsciously or consciously try to use sex as a way to control the addict. I believe that what partners are really trying to control here is pain. They don’t want to get hurt again, and they are searching for a way to prevent sexual betrayal from reoccurring.
For some partners this means becoming hypersexual themselves, adopting an if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em attitude. They amp up the sexy by changing their wardrobe and/or joining the cheating partner in certain sexual activities or practices. The belief for many partners is if they will just provide the right amount or type of sex, their significant other will no longer need or even want to go outside the relationship.
This belief arises from a misunderstanding about what drives sexual addiction. The reality is that sexual addiction is not a problem caused by differences in libido levels or sexual preferences within a relationship. Those things can certainly be issues that a couple must face. But sexual addiction is another animal altogether. Sex addiction is unrelated to libido or a desire for specific types of sex. It is created by a complex set of dynamics that very likely existed before the partner and the addict ever got together. So moving into a hypersexual mode or amping up the sexy only results in more or different sex, not healthier or non-compulsive sex.
Sex as Control, Withholding
Many betrayed partners go through a time where being sexual does not feel possible as the hurt is too fresh and the fear of being vulnerable and then hurt again is too scary. That is not what I am talking about here. Instead, I’m talking about withholding sex as a way to manage and control the cheating partner. In that sense, withholding sex is the opposite extreme of amping up the sexy, but implemented for the same basic reason.
Withholding sex typically takes one of two forms. The first occurs because of a fear that if you are sexual with the addict, it will cause the addict to act out. Many betrayed partners can see sexuality as an on/off switch, and because of the pain they have experienced they want the addict to turn the switch off and leave it off so that they don’t get hurt again. They are afraid that if they engage sexually with the addict, they will turn the switch back on and active addiction will rekindle.
This can be confusing, as many betrayed partners have been told by their therapist or read somewhere that an abstinence period is beneficial for most sex addicts as part of their recovery.
While an abstinence period is often very helpful in early recovery – a time in which the addict can reassess the meaning and role of sex in his or her life – it is a temporary hiatus. Eventually, the addict both needs and wants to move forward with healthy sexual activity.
As a betrayed partner, you can think of sexual recovery as having two big tasks. The first is to get sexually sober and to learn how sex has been used in ways that are not healthy (i.e., compulsively and as an emotional regulation tool). The second is learning to engage in sexual behavior in an emotionally present, connected, non-compulsive manner.
One of my addicted clients recently said to me, “Everything about how I viewed sex was skewed for me. So even if I wasn’t manipulating my spouse or consciously using her to act out, I saw sex a certain way and that permeated everything. Now I am learning to see and think about sex differently, and that is changing how I have sex.”
Most betrayed partners also have not had a healthy view of or understanding of sex. Sex has been distorted by years of being in relationship with a sexual addict, by past sexual experiences or histories of their own, or by a sex-negative family of origin. So, the idea that sex is dangerous, and it is better to avoid it altogether can be very appealing to some betrayed partners. However, avoidance of sex is as unhealthy as compulsive sex. Part of the journey of recovery is learning how to talk about and have healthy, enjoyable, emotionally safe sex with one another.
Sex as Control, Expression of Anger
Another way betrayed partners can use the withholding of sex to control or manage the cheating partner is to withhold sex as an expression of anger. This is often about trying, through your behavior, to get the cheating partner to understand how deeply he or she has hurt you, and to create consequences that feel severe enough that they act as a deterrent to future harm.
Unfortunately, using the withholding of sex to express anger can backfire by cutting you off from your sexual desire as your anger and fear get turned both inward and outward to maintain your sexual wall. Finding ways to use your voice to express your anger, fear, and pain will provide you with a better chance of staying connected to your sexual self. It will also increase your ability to use your sexual voice and power in your relationship in positive ways.
Stayed tuned as next week we continue our discussion about the impacts of betrayal on partner’s sexuality.