Rethinking the Affair
Every once in a while, a client makes me think through an issue in a new way, or helps me clarify something, and that is one of the most interesting and rewarding parts of my job as a sex therapist. Recently, I had that experience with a wonderful, smart, gutsy woman recovering from an affair that her husband had.
Like many of my clients whose husbands have strayed, they see it as a harbinger that it is time to take care of their sex lives. In some cases, the affair was truly an outgrowth of a sexual problem the couple was having. In many cases it really wasn’t a direct result, but the women feel that it may finally be time to deal with an issue they have long been trying to avoid.
The funny thing we’ve noticed is that often (and counter-intuitively) the fact that the partner has strayed seems to increase the woman’s sex drive. Now there’s a really interesting plot twist, and one we’ve struggled to put into context (and by the way, partners… please don’t see this as a technique to get your beloved back into bed). We’ll often have women saying to us “I hate myself”, or “I am so totally confused, but since I found out about the affair, suddenly my libido is back!”
So what’s going on?
Life and sex are really complicated and this is no exception. But I think the two issues that jump out at me are:
- Your sex drive loves competition. The same rev-you-up hormones (norepinephrine and dopamine) that get your heart pumping in a race can be activated by any type of competition, sex being only one. If you’re the kind of person who loves a challenge, a challenge to your sex drive will fall right into the pattern.
- You suddenly come face-to-face with the reality that you don’t thoroughly and completely know the person to whom you are committed. Ironically, this not totally knowing or trusting, may be one important key to preserving an erotic life with the person you love.
Numerous books and articles posit that trust and intimacy often exist at odds with eroticism. We don’t like to admit that to ourselves. It’s fundamentally scary to live an ongoing existence with someone who we don’t know entirely. In order to stay happy and comfortable in our lives we convince ourselves we really know everything there is to know about our partner; they are an open book. But eroticism needs some shadow. It may grow best is the darker crevices. And that’s an uncomfortable reality for us to face.
Enter my patient. She is typical of a woman recovering from her spouse’s affair and trying to work on her sex life. She talks about her struggle to rebuild trust in her relationship. And this dichotomy of trust vs. eroticism is particularly meaningful and poignant for me to watch.
On the one hand, she feels like she needs to trust her spouse entirely. On the other hand, I wonder if her new found sexuality is partially due to her finding out, deep down, that her husband is truly a separate individual. She may never know him entirely.
This is a painful reality for any of us, this idea that our partner exists in his or her own world, with his or her own thoughts and feelings and insecurities and impulses, some of which we will never ever fully participate in. As a matter of fact it is such a painful idea that most of us would rather live in the fantasy that we can know another individual entirely, even if that might kill our sex life. But the truth is that as much as we may love our partner and as much as they may love us, they are separate individuals living a life and reality apart from us.
And the good news? Reality builds eroticism. So as I watch my patient struggle, I want to reassure her that maybe not knowing and not trusting 100% is painful at times, but it has its upside. And she’s found that in the bedroom.