Over the past few weeks, we have looked at the different sexual dynamics that cheating and sex addiction can introduce into the emotional and sexual relationship. In No Sex for You, we looked at what happens when your partner is not interested in sex or is only interested in porn or sex outside of the relationship. In When You Become the Acting Out Partner but Don’t Know It, we looked at what happens when your sexually addicted spouse uses sex with you as part of the addiction. And in Duty Sex and the Cycle of Dread, we looked at what happens when either the threat of danger from betrayal or pressure and manipulation around sex separate you from your ability to connect to your own sexual desire.
This week we want to turn our attention to the negative impacts these dynamics create for betrayed partners. Each partner experiences the impacts of sexual betrayal in different ways, but almost all partners report some degree of damage. Let’s take a look at some of the common ways a betrayed partner’s sexuality can be impacted by sexual betrayal.
Loss of Sexual Desire
One of the most significant impacts of betrayal is the betrayed partner’s loss of connection with sexual desire. We have talked about this in detail in the last two blog posts so I won’t repeat myself here. I mention it again simply because it is one of the most commonly experienced (and emotionally disturbing) effects of sexual betrayal.
Loss of Sexual Voice and Power in the Relationship
Many betrayed partners report that they have never known how to have a sexual voice in their relationships. This is particularly true for those who come from homes where sex was never talked about or where sexual abuse or violence occurred. These sex-negative environments create an unconscious but deeply held belief that sex is taboo, not to be spoken of, shameful, and immoral. These environments make the task of sexual development incredibly challenging, and many people who grew up this way find that they still feel like confused young children or teenagers when talking about sex.
If you are a female betrayed partner, you must also deal with the fact that the cultural deck is stacked against you in terms of claiming your sexual voice and power. Our culture trains women to be passive sexually and to prioritize and privilege male sexuality over their own. If you stand in the grocery store and leaf through the average women’s magazine, you will find all kinds of advice about how to please your man sexually. You will almost never find an article that talks about female sexuality for its own sake. Instead, sex is almost always talked about in service to male sexuality.
Women are trained from childhood on to think about sexuality from a male perspective and in service to men. Often, when our culture does talk about female sexual empowerment, the conversation is geared toward pushing women to function and behave more like men. True empowerment – where female sexuality is equally privileged and understood – is rarely discussed. For women, this makes the task of developing healthy sexuality and being connected to and responsible for your sexual voice and power in the relationship incredibly challenging.
Combine these dynamics with a relationship fraught with pain and damage caused by betrayal and it frequently adds up to the betrayed partner having a complete loss of voice and sexual power within the relationship. They just do not know how to say yes or no sexually. They do not know how to speak about sexual preferences, problems, or feelings. As a result, they remain silent or attempt to communicate through non-verbal means.
Using Sex to Caretake
Many partners describe using sex as a way to take care of their spouse emotionally. In other words, they use sex as a way to reduce or manage their spouse’s anxiety, anger, stress, irritability, etc.
One partner recently said to me, “I know that if I will just have sex with my husband the rest of the weekend will be lovely. He will pay attention to me; he will be patient and engaged with our children. Everything will be better for the next couple of days.” This individual was working on moving out of the cycle of dread we spoke of last week, trying to connect to her sexual desire and trying to find her voice and power sexually within the relationship. The temptation to go back to using sex as a way to manage her spouse’s emotions was strong. Choosing a new pattern of behavior meant living with the anxiety and uncertainty of leaving her spouse to manage his own emotional world.
However, continuing to use sex as an emotional management tool promotes the unhealthy thinking in which sex addiction is rooted. Addicts in recovery, as part of their healing process, must learn to feel their feelings and use healthy coping and self-care behaviors to regulate their emotional selves (rather than continually reaching for sex as the answer). When partners of addicts continue to emotionally caretake addicts with sex, they are participating in the problem rather than being part of the solution.
In addition, partners may increase their struggles with feeling connected to their sexual desire or find themselves caught in the cycle of dread. The client I mentioned above went on to say to me, “I can’t do it anymore. I can’t have sex from that place. It will set me back and it will make me angry because I will feel like a sexual object instead of a person. It will make me want to avoid sex. It will make me feel like I betrayed myself. It’s just not worth it, even though I know it would make the weekend much easier.”
Here is an interesting thing about using sex as a form of emotional caretaking. Very rarely do we manage or caretake someone emotionally to try to help that person identify and express feelings. Most often we are trying to get the person to not feel his or her feelings. We are perhaps afraid that if the person feels angry or frustrated or bored or lonely that it will impact us in a negative way. So, instead, we try to distract or talk the other person out of his or her feelings. This is a fear-based coping technique that perpetuates the problem (compulsive emotional escape through use of an addictive substance or behavior) that recovery is trying to solve.