Over the past two weeks, we’ve looked at how sexual betrayal impacts a betrayed partner’s sexuality. Two weeks ago, 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. Last week, we talked about using sex as a form of control – as a way of managing your cheating partner’s behavior. This week, we continue our discussion by focusing on the impact of betrayal on sexual self-esteem (especially body image issues).
As women, we are socialized to be dissatisfied with how we look and to wage a war of dissatisfaction on our bodies from a very early age. When you pile sexual betrayal on top of this, the self-doubt or body-insecurity that already exists is put on steroids. The knowledge that your partner has been viewing other women or has been sexual with another person immediately creates a compare-and-contrast syndrome.
- Am I as pretty, young, fit, toned, big-breasted, small-waisted, tall, or sexy?
- Does my partner find me beautiful, or am I in some way not enough?
- Is he attracted to me?
- How can I possibly compete with a porn star or an affair partner?
Even for women who may have felt relatively at peace with their bodies, sexual betrayal can create a new level of preoccupation and concern with being beautiful or sexy enough for one’s partner.
If women’s inbred self-doubt and insecurity were not enough, there is also the cultural belief that if a man is straying sexually, it is probably the woman’s fault. He’s not getting enough sex at home, or he’s not getting good enough sex at home, or she’s gained weight, or she’s unpleasant, etc. People will think those thoughts, even when they are absolutely not true.
One of the couples I worked with a few years ago talked to me about this issue. The husband told me, “We met with a pastor at our church back when we were first trying to get help. I told him how I was cruising around picking up anonymous sexual partners as well as masturbating and looking at porn all the time. He tried to explain to us that Sarah is getting older and her body is changing so my attraction to her is probably declining and that’s why I was doing those behaviors.” This couple, both just 24-years-old at the time, shook their heads in disbelief as they told me this story.
More recently, one of my colleagues called me and told me she had been consulting with another therapist who was working with the sexually addicted husband of her client. My colleague said, “The addict’s therapist said that since my client is a bit overweight you couldn’t really blame him for going outside the relationship.”
I could go on and on with examples like this that I have witnessed over the years. And always I am shocked to remember that our culture is so willing to blindly and collectively blame women for what men are doing sexually.
These cultural forces are a large part of what drive partners of sex addicts to initially feel both blame and shame about the cheater’s sexual behaviors. Partners report feeling like some inadequacy in them – their sexuality, their body, or their personality – has not been enough to keep the cheater’s attention. At the same time, they feel as if they have done something (or not done something) that has driven their partner to stray.
It takes a lot of time and work for betrayed partners to be able to put down the burden of these blame and shame beliefs and to instead allow the cheating partner to be accountable and responsible for his or her own behavior.
Another reason that I believe betrayed partners struggle so deeply with feelings of inadequacy in the aftermath of betrayal is that sex addiction is based on objectification. Sexual acting out is not a relational activity. Instead, it reduces a person to sexualized body parts. Stopping to think about the fact that the person in the picture is someone’s daughter, mother, or sister is an absolute buzzkill and is irrelevant to an addict focused on getting his or her sex fix.
Betrayed partners unwittingly get co-opted into this system of belief. When they find out about the cheating partner’s extracurricular activities, they begin to also become focused on and preoccupied with body parts and sexual functioning. Suddenly, everywhere they go, they are looking at what women are wearing. They are noticing other women’s body parts and comparing themselves. Unconsciously, they join the addict in objectifying and body-parting the women around them, reducing them to sexual objects rather than whole human beings.
One of the tasks of recovery for partners is to arrest this slide into humanity-reducing objectification and to instead remember that healthy sex is a whole-person activity. Healthy sexuality is relational, grounded in the context of the person with whom you are being sexual – their sense of humor, their intelligence, their spirituality, their playfulness, their personality, and their body. Rather than joining in the reductionist view of sex as body parts and sexual functioning, betrayed partners must claim their right to healthy sexuality that honors them and their partner, each in his or her entirety.
Loss of sexual desire, loss of your sexual voice and power, using sex to caretake, using sex to control the cheating partner, and the impact of betrayal on sexual self-esteem and body image are all ways that sexual betrayal negatively impacts a betrayed partner’s sexuality. To heal, it is necessary to reclaim your sexual self, and that is what we are going to start looking at next week.