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.
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.
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.”
A crucial component of our sex therapy model is the couple feedback session. The goals of this 90-minute session are: the development of a new, more genuine narrative about each partner’s strengths and vulnerabilities, especially regarding sexuality; the creation of a therapeutic plan addressing the relationship, the affair, trust, and the couple’s sexuality; and assigning the first psychosexual skill exercise to be completed at home. As both partners confront painful personal, relational, and sexual realities during the feedback session, the clinician must be particularly empathetic, respectful, and caring.
During this session, both partners learned new and valuable information about the other. Cheryl hadn’t been aware of Justin’s desire to be sexually submissive or his performance anxiety during sex. For the first time, she understood that her husband’s affair had been driven by his own internal sexual conflicts, rather than his judgment of her sexual desirability. Rather than having to defend herself by attacking him, she felt freed to be more emotionally present with Justin in a new way.
For his part, Justin hadn’t realized how desperately Cheryl needed his love and sexual desire, nor did he know how devastated she was by his loss of sexual interest in her and his avoidance of marital sex. For the first time, he took some responsibility for the impact of his secret sexual life. “I never wanted this to happen to you or to us,” Justin gently told his wife. “I never intended to hurt you.” Then, with my urging, Justin took her hand, looked into her eyes, and said, “I love you and want to be with you.”
By the end of the 90-minute feedback session, the three of us were emotionally drained, but Justin and Cheryl exuded a new sense of hope. They committed themselves to a therapeutic plan for trying to rebuild a new marital and sexual bond. Toward the end of the session, I described a psychosexual trust exercise and asked them to practice it at home. It focuses on nude, whole-body touching that promotes safety and attachment. The trust position that Cheryl and Justin chose was her lying in his arms as he stroked her hair. Over time, this exercise helped them experience being part of an intimate team in confronting the past and building a satisfying new sexual connection.
It was Cheryl who took the initiative to promote sensual and playful touch both inside and outside the bedroom. Though Justin hated the clinical-sounding term “non-demand pleasuring,” he greatly enjoyed touching and being touched by Cheryl. In one session, with tears in his eyes, he told her, “For the first time since I was a kid, I feel there’s someone who really knows me, accepts me, and loves me.”
Facing the Tiger
We still needed to confront the most sensitive issue facing the couple: Justin’s variant sexual arousal—his need to play a sexually submissive role and be demeaned in order to be turned on. I explained to the couple that they had to commit jointly to a therapeutic strategy to deal with Justin’s sexual pattern. They could choose to accept it, compartmentalize it, or give it up as a “necessary loss.” Clinicians remain split regarding which strategy works for which couples.
Justin spoke first. He told Cheryl how much he appreciated her empathy and support for his dilemma and made it clear that he didn’t want her to become his dominatrix. “I don’t want that for either of us,” he told her. His choice was to relinquish his submissive sexual pattern as a necessary loss.
Cheryl was deeply moved, seeing his willingness to change his lifelong arousal pattern as a tremendous gift and a symbol of how much he valued her, their marriage, and their family. “Thank you,” she whispered.
Acceptance of the necessary loss strategy was vital, but not sufficient. With my encouragement, Justin also acknowledged to Cheryl that the combination of secrecy, eroticism, and shame surrounding his behavior had been destructive to their marriage. He took hold of her hands, looked into her eyes, and said: “I’m so sorry I hurt you. I’m totally committed to being your intimate sexual spouse. You can trust me.” He’d arrived at a place where he genuinely and deeply regretted his betrayal, yet was no longer sunk in shame and self-hatred. He was ready to learn to value intimacy, pleasuring, and eroticism within his marriage.
This doesn’t mean that Justin’s issues evaporated. In an individual session with me, he acknowledged that being sexually submissive with a controlling, dominant woman was still a 100 for him in terms of erotic intensity. He didn’t believe that he’d ever experience that same degree of erotic charge during intimate sex with Cheryl. However, he understood that it was still possible to create a rewarding new couple sexuality. “It’s already happening,” he told me. He rated his sexual bond with Cheryl as a solid 85 in terms of intimacy, intensity, pleasure, and sexual satisfaction. He added with a grin, “Who knows where it’ll go from here?” As this case demonstrates, I advocate the both/and path that Cheryl and Justin negotiated with courage and commitment. Helping couples fully express difficult feelings and process the affair to make meaning of it enables them to build a stronger trust bond and a more satisfying sexual connection.
This blog is excerpted from "Sex, Lies, and the Long Road Back" by Barry McCarthy. The full version is available in the March/April 2013 issue, Clinical Wisdom: Who Needs It?
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