When Infidelity Leads to Sexual Dysfunction – Guest Post from Dr. Tammy Nelson
Many couples are choosing to stay in a marriage after an affair, for a variety of reasons.
A cheating partner may not have to mean the end of the relationship. Getting over an affair can take time, insight and empathy. But with negotiation of a new beginning and erotic recovery, couples can create a new future, together.
The 3 Phases of Post-Affair Recovery
For these couples who want to make their marriage work, there are three phases of recovery. The first is the Crisis phase, where the focus is on establishing safety and addressing painful feelings. Sometimes you have great sex during this time and sometimes you need distance. Either way, give yourself time to get through the crisis. This will pass.
The second phase of recovery is the Insight phase. During this time, couples begin to talk about how the affair happened, start to find new common ground and may begin the process of erotic recovery. Discussions about sexual issues from the past, new kinds of erotic connection, and fantasies that each might want to try going forward all start to happen during the Insight phase. Sex begins to change.
There can be erotic challenges in the Insight Phase. Sexual performance can suffer. Some may experience erectile dysfunction, orgasmic difficulties, and sexual desire can go up and down, sometimes day to day. You may feel unevenly matched in how much sex you each want or need. You could be using sex as a way to feel closer, or to control your partner, to make sure they don’t leave you.
Hopefully you can find a way to talk about how you are feeling about your sex life and your sexual performance. Don’t use sex as a competition, or as a way to manipulate your spouse. Many times that only causes stress and an inability to perform.
The third phase of recovery is when you each, together, create a new Vision for your relationship.
Creating a new monogamy agreement you begin to negotiate a deeper and more satisfying marriage, perhaps even as a result of the affair. Some couples say during this phase that the affair may be the best thing that could have happened to their sex lives.
Hurdles Many Couples Face
Yet the relationship can still be vulnerable to the stresses of the erotic trauma that an affair can leave behind. The indiscretion of the unfaithful partner can live in between you, and if both spouses, regardless if the couple is male and female, are not able to shift into erotic recovery, some sexual dysfunction is bound to occur.
The number one reason that sexual dysfunction happens to any one is anxiety. And anxiety can happen at any time. Anxiety is really fear; fear of something that has not happened yet or fear of something that has already happened that may be affecting you in the moment. But anxiety is free floating – it wanders around in our imaginations until it finds something to latch itself onto – and when it does it can affect how we function physically – and sexually.
If anxiety comes between you and your partner in the bedroom, it could be manifesting as sexual dysfunction. Erectile dysfunction effects over 40% of all men at some point and those numbers may be much higher in relationships when there has been an affair.
Your fears may be making you feel inadequate; perhaps you are comparing yourself to the outside affair partner. Or maybe you are doubting your marriage, wondering if your partner still desires you. Every fear a person can have is triggered after the disclosure or discovery of an affair. This can lead to insecurity and sexual dysfunction in bed. Insecurity can make it difficult to become aroused, or to achieve an orgasm, or simply lower desire for sex.
If this happens, there are antidotes. Cognitive behavioral and sex therapy interventions for anxiety can decrease the patterns that create the stuck ideas that your mind creates, which lead to those dysfunctional behaviors. Neurological pathways in your brain, like deer paths in the woods, can be re-written. You can learn to change your fears and reduce your anxiety.
Anxiety is simply a fear in your mind based on a story you make up. The more anxious you are the worse the fear can become. And that fear can hijack your sexuality.
The anxiety cycle of sexual dysfunction goes something like this:
“I am afraid because I can’t get an erection,” which then causes erectile dysfunction which then makes it difficult to get an erection, and then creates anxiety about the next time, etc.
“I won’t be able to reach orgasm; I am taking too long.” And because I am afraid, it is difficult to relax during sex, which makes it physically impossible to have an orgasm. And next time we have sex I am afraid it will happen again, which causes it to happen, etc.
Anxiety spirals are not failures. They are momentary emotional states that are expressed through your sexual performance.
Instead of letting your anxiety control your sexual performance, anxiety could be a sign that you have been triggered by something that has thrown you– temporarily – back into the Crisis phase. You won’t be back here forever. Remember, these phases of recovery are temporary.
Instead, look at this as a sign that it is time to talk with your partner about your feelings. Let them know you are temporarily feeling unsettled, but that these feelings will pass, and you may need reassurance from them to help you get back on track so that you can work on your erotic recovery together.
A Real-Life Example
Recently, Rob and Sarah were in my office for a session. Rob had cheated on Sarah for about three months with another woman. When Sarah found out, she asked Rob to stop, and he ended the affair. Sarah wanted to work on their sex life, which she admitted had been dull if not lifeless before Rob began the affair. They planned a sex date once a week and began the reconnection process, meeting on their date to slowly revisit and practice a more connected, erotic life between them.
However, Sarah said it had not been going as planned. Every time she tried to make love to Rob, she felt herself stiffen and she would push him away.
“It’s like I have vaginismus,” she said. Vaginismus is a dysfunction where the vagina tightens of its own volition to the point where nothing can be inserted without pain to the woman. There can be painful spasms and contractions when there is any type of contact or pressure, and intercourse can be almost impossible.
I asked Sarah to share with Rob, the end of this sentence stem,
“My fear is….”
She said to Rob, “My fear is that you will make love to me and realize you don’t really love me, now that you have been with someone else.”
He was able to hear that this was a fear of hers and I asked him to share with her his fear and anxiety.
He said, “My fear is that I won’t be able to satisfy you sexually. We are getting older, we married later in life, and maybe I won’t be hard enough or last long enough for you. And I just want to please you.”
She was surprised that this was his concern. She had no idea that he was worried about sex and aging.
For many couples, the affair may not be the issue that creates the sexual dysfunction, but the sexual dysfunction may have been the reason for the affair.
Talking about your fears and anxiety and sharing with your partner how you feel when you are worried about how things are going in your erotic recovery can lead to a stronger, more connected relationship, regardless of an affair or where you are in your marriage.
Try some of the tips in this article, and read my book, The New Monogamy, for further tips on how to have a conversation to create a new monogamy agreement after infidelity and create a sexual and passionate marriage that works.
Tammy Nelson, PhD is a Certified and Licensed Sex and Relationship therapist specializing in marriage and monogamy issues, eroticism, as well as recovery from infidelity and affairs. She works with addiction, online affairs, divorce, and LGBTQ issues.She is the author of several books including, The New Monogamy; Redefining Your Relationship After Infidelity, Getting the Sex You Want; Shed Your Inhibitions and Reach New Heights of Passion Together and What’s Eating You? A Workbook for Anorexia and Bulimia. Her eBooks include Six Weeks to Desire. Dr. Nelson has been a featured expert in New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, RedBook, MSNBC, Shape, Men’s Health, Woman’s Day, Women’s Health, Self, Glamour Magazine, Cosmopolitan, Rolling Stone Magazine and a source inTime Magazine. She is also on the Advisory Board for Men’s Fitness Magazine. She writes forHuffington Post, YourTango, and Psychotherapy Networker.