Sex, Lies, and the Long Road Back : Recovering from an extramarital affair
By Barry McCarthy
Recovery from an extramarital affair asks a lot of partners. They must not only process painful feelings, repair the rupture of trust, and share their deepest vulnerabilities, but also take steps to build a new, resilient bond, both emotionally and sexually. Allocating the right amount of time to deal with the affair and determining when partners are ready to focus on the present and future marital bond is a struggle for both clinicians and couples.
Cheryl and Justin, a couple in their mid-thirties, were both demoralized and alienated when they arrived in my office. Two years earlier, Cheryl had discovered that her husband of nine years had been spending some $700 a month on Internet sex sites, massage parlors, strip clubs, and prostitutes. When she’d furiously confronted him, he’d refused to admit that his behavior constituted an extramarital affair, dismissing it as normal male fooling around. Cheryl had considered leaving the marriage, but she didn’t want her son and daughter to suffer the same pain, loss, and family fracturing she’d experienced as a result of her mother’s three divorces.Cheryl and Justin had received lots of conflicting advice from family and friends during the past two years. Some thought they should end the marriage and get a lawyer, while others encouraged them to see a pastoral counselor or marriage therapist. A friend of Cheryl’s even recommended that she forgive her husband in exchange for $5,000 worth of jewelry.
As their mutual bitterness escalated, the couple’s sex life ground to a halt. Cheryl accused Justin of being an irresponsible sex addict who was bankrupting the family, and Justin shot back that she was acting like the sex police. For two years, they remained stuck in mutual recrimination, unable to decide how to move forward. Finally, Cheryl’s older brother, an accountant, confronted them with the reality that they were spending more money on counselors, computer surveillance equipment, and a private detective than Justin had spent on all the sex sites, clubs, and prostitutes. Shocked by this realization, the couple accepted the brother’s suggestion that they see a clinician who specialized in marriage, sexuality, and extramarital affairs.
My approach to affairs is heavily influenced by the work of clinician–researchers Douglas Snyder, Donald Baucom, and Kristina Coop Gordon, who advocate that partners go through a three-phase process: (1) focus on self-care, slow down the process, and do no harm to each other; (2) make personal and relational meaning of the affair; and (3) decide to either recommit to the marriage or achieve a “good divorce.” In my work, I emphasize an additional phase: sexual recovery from the extramarital affair. Few theoretical and clinical models include this vital aspect of treatment.
Justin and Cheryl came in for a four-session assessment that included an initial couples session, an individual session focusing on each partner’s psychological, relational, and sexual history, and a couple feedback session with a recommended therapeutic plan. Not surprisingly, our initial session was difficult, since both were still trapped in a blame/counterblame cycle. Cheryl fluctuated between raging at Justin—calling him a jerk who was destroying her life and family—and begging him to love her and be a trusted partner. Justin barely looked at Cheryl, at one point muttering, “This is useless.” It was hard sitting with their pain, but such raw suffering is frequently part of the initial couple session.
The subsequent individual sessions were more productive. In listening to Justin’s story, it was clear that he brought a number of strengths to the marriage: he loved Cheryl, valued sex, cared about their family, and wanted to heal the marriage. But while Justin loved his wife and found her attractive, he was an anxious sexual performer and didn’t value marital sex. He couldn’t imagine his wife in the erotic role that most turned him on—that of a dominatrix. Justin eroticized transgressive sex, specifically the role of being a sexual submissive. “I’ve struggled with this my whole life,” he said, adding that he’d never revealed this part of himself to any intimate partner, including Cheryl.
Justin continued to resist labeling his secret sexual life as an extramarital affair. He rightly noted that a large percentage of men use porn and get turned on by socially unacceptable images and scenarios. Feeling my empathy and respect, he gradually grew less defensive and began to examine both the healthy and unhealthy components of his sexuality. While maintaining eye contact and reflecting how difficult this sexual split must be for him, I said, “You owe it to yourself to resolve these conflicts.” Once we acknowledged his sexual strengths—valuing sex, enjoying eroticism, and having regular orgasms—I looked him in the eye again and said, “Be honest with yourself. What don’t you like about what’s happening with you sexually?”
After a silence, Justin said in a low voice, “I’m embarrassed about spending so much money on sex clubs and all the rest.”
Gently, I pressed the issue: “After a sexual encounter, what do you think and how do you feel?”
More silence. Then he answered: “I just want to get away.”
After a moment, I suggested to Justin that keeping his sex club encounters a secret and de-eroticizing his wife were part of the problem. “Your sex is controlled by high secrecy, high eroticism, and high shame, isn’t it?” I asked. When he nodded agreement, I added, “Don’t you feel that’s a poison that you’re taking into yourself?” This was a new, non-shaming way for Justin to understand himself, the role of his secret sex life, and how it affected Cheryl. For the first time, he understood that his secret sexual activity did negate marital sexuality and, therefore, was an extramarital affair. His voice shaking, he said, “Dammit, Cheryl’s right. It is like an affair.”
In her individual session, Cheryl revealed that she’d grown up feeling fearful and inadequate in the sexual realm. Her mother had raised her to link sexuality with pregnancy and being labeled a slut. She never felt pretty or sexy enough and feared that no one would ever want to marry her, so when Justin pursued a relationship with her and proposed marriage, she felt she’d been saved. Now she was devastated by her husband’s lack of erotic interest. “I feel like a sexual neuter,” Cheryl said. “I can’t imagine that any man would think I’m attractive or want to go to bed with me.”