There are many ways that sexuality can go awry for us as individuals and couples. We can experience a range of sexual functioning issues such as erectile dysfunction or vaginismus. We can experience periods where we struggle to find our sexual desire or find our sexual desire is pre-occupying. We can struggle with our sexual self-esteem by feeling inadequate, undesirable, unattractive or unwanted. When we are stressed, overwhelmed, and overly busy with the labor of parenting or careers our sex lives can suffer. When any of these issues occur, sex within a relationship can become a source of conflict or stress rather than enlivening the relational bond.
Many couples may already be dealing with some of these issues when sexual betrayal is discovered. This complicates the existing issues and adds new layers of stress and distress to the sexual dynamics.
Sexual betrayal destroys emotional and sexual safety. When one partner violates the sexual agreements and chooses to be sexual with other partners or with compulsive, secretive pornography use it is felt as a death blow to trust – the glue holding the relational bond together.
Sexual betrayal is so very painful because it cuts to the heart of our primary attachment and dependency needs. We all need to feel that we matter, are important, are lovable and desired by our most significant other. Because the cheating partner has chosen someone or something else to be sexual with, betrayal automatically holds within it the seeds of rejection. Our most important needs are threatened in a way that is terrifying and destabilizing. We no longer feel we matter, are important and desired by our partner. We now fear we are unimportant, unwanted, rejected, undesired and alone. By choosing someone other than us, our partner has made us feel less than, unworthy and insignificant.
In addition, sexual betrayal walls us off from our partner’s sexual self. When the cheating is discovered, we learn that our partner has a whole sexual part of themselves they have been hiding, keeping secret and sharing with others. If addiction is present, we often find out this sexual wall has existed the entire span of our relationship. The sexual self our partner presented to us was only a part of them while the rest of them was compartmentalized in an escalating compulsive pattern of sexual behaviors they have been hiding for years.
It is impossible to wall off sexually from our partner and not also wall off emotionally. When we engage in an affair or lose ourselves in compulsive sexual acting out and then hide it from our partner, the secret sits between us, and we must now watch each and every word we say to make sure we do not give ourselves away and get caught in our lies. In addition, we often begin to tell ourselves a negative story about our partner to justify and rationalize our secret sexual behavior. After all, if our partner were more understanding, paid more attention to us, was more sexually adventurous, etc., we wouldn’t need to go outside of our relationship.
However the behavior is being justified, the walled off part of ourselves, combined with the diminishment of our partner through a negative relational narrative all merge to create emotional and sexual distance within our relationship. The secretive nature of cheating creates emotional and relational walls that are felt by the betrayed partner as “free floating anxiety” within the relationship.
Free floating anxiety is when one partner has a sense that something is awry but when they ask questions or try to identify the problem, they are stonewalled by the other partner who indicates nothing is wrong. Because the cheating behaviors are hidden and not in evidence the partner who can feel the disconnection and unease is left with nothing solid or tangible to support their feelings. This turns into free-floating anxiety that comes and goes within the relationship often for months or years as the cheating stays secret. Betrayed partners spend enormous amounts of mental and emotional energy trying to figure out how to reduce or eliminate their feelings of unease so that safety and connection can return.
Walled off sex undermines safe and secure connection. It sends our attachment systems into distress as we try to cope with the secrets and betrayal alive in the relationship. In next week’s post we will explore the way our attachment systems function and the way our attachment systems and sexuality interact.