A partner’s sexual infidelity is the straw that breaks the backs of many relationships. Before making the commitment, many people make it crystal clear to their love interests: “If you cheat on me, we’re done!” Most sincerely mean it, and some even follow through with their promises of ending their relationships when they’ve been cheated on.
For others, however, things aren’t that simple and it isn’t just about picking up and leaving. There are a number of things to consider: like the care of children; the management of shared finances; the time invested thus far; thresholds of forgiveness; and the ability to move on as a pair committed to the preservation of the relationship.
While most of the focus when repairing a union splintered by infidelity tends to be on the emotional side of the process, there’s the physical side to consider. I’ve spoken to women who confided that the hardest part of “moving on” is having sex with their lovers the first time after discovering they’ve been cheated on. While intimacy is created in various ways, one of the best ways for couples to connect with and express their love and devotion is during moments of sexual bliss. “I felt dirty,” “I no longer felt sexy,” and “I didn’t think he wanted me anymore” were some of the laments expressed by women who struggled with repairing one of the most intimate elements of their relationship, the sex.
This isn’t just an issue women struggle with; men feel the pain of infidelity too. A recent study showed that over the last two decades, the number of wives willing to admit to cheating on their spouses rose 40 percent. At 14.7%, cheating wives are closing the gap between them and cheating husbands (21% of married men admit to cheating on their wives). Dr. Peggy Drexler, assistant professor of psychology at Weill Medical College found “multiple studies concluded that men are more deeply affected by a sexual affair; women, by an emotional one.” With the number of women engaging in sexual affairs increasing, more men are finding themselves having to make the tough decision about staying or leaving right along with women.
There is no pain quite like discovering the person you love has deceived you, be it emotionally or physically. You’re likely to feel like all of the trust, hope and faith you had in your relationship has been irreparably destroyed. You don’t know how you’ll ever feel safe and protected in your partner’s arms again. If you decide to move on and make it work, however, you have to commit to it completely.
Dr. Drexler advises that the first step to moving on is to sever all external interactions and focus on reparation. Focusing solely on each other might make transitioning back into sexual intimacy less intimidating to both partners. When you look at your partner, fight the urge to imagine him/her physically engaged with someone else. You’ll never be able to take the first steps forward if you continue to do so. If you believe your partner loves you and is committed to you going forward, there’s a certain amount of “letting go” you have to do, and it begins with wiping away the image of someone else from your vision.
Don’t expect the sex to be the same as it was before, and don’t try to replicate it. You’re starting over, so try some new things. Role-playing might help in this situation, as you can pretend to be different people and even act out a scene that doubles as therapy for both of you. Buy some new lingerie and get rid of anything that reminds you (or your partner) of the difficult times. If your bed triggers bad memories or images, try making love in the living room the first few times.
Take new sexy pictures of each other or send creative text messages to warm each other up and get into the idea of getting over that initial hump. Email each other fantasies you’ve had but haven’t yet explored with each other. Consider taking a mini-vacation where the two of you can isolate from everyday life and everyone in it, physically reconnect, and remember your love for and commitment to each other.
There are a number of ways you can begin to rebuild physical intimacy after cheating has taken place, if you don’t force or fake it. Both of you have to be on the same page, mutually committed to forgiveness (of yourself and/or your partner), and be willing to put in the rather difficult work of rebuilding the union you’re committed to. Stop running to your friends with every detail about your recovery process, because they’re not in your relationship and don’t need to know every bit of your business.
This won’t work for everyone; some people just need to let go and walk away. However, some people walk away and regret doing so because they didn’t give the relationship the kind of chance they believe it deserved. It isn’t easy to forgive betrayal, but infidelity also isn’t the automatic end of the world for everyone. There can be some powerful healing in sexual reconnection if you’re willing to trust and believe again, remain committed to the parameters of your relationship, and let go of the past.
Feminista Jones is a sex-positive Black feminist, social worker and blogger from New York City. She writes about gender, race, politics, mental health and sexuality at FeministaJones.com. Follow her on Twitter at @FeministaJones.