The revelation of infidelity can bring great emotional upheaval, suddenly everything upside down and inside out. The relationship can feel shattered… the discoverer can feel shattered, yet sometimes, something survives and there is still the hope of working things out. Many vow they would never remain with someone who crossed this line but when it’s real, it’s sometimes not that simple. Sometimes, amidst the outrage and devastation, love and passion survive.
Couples in this situation almost always experience changes in their sexual relationship. In my experience one of four things happen.
The person who had the affair is reluctant to engage in physical intimacy either because they feel too guilty, think they could have contracted an STD, or have not completely emotionally separated from their affair partner.
Even though someone might genuinely believe they have ended the affair because they realize how much more important their marriage is, this is not sufficient to really end it emotionally. There has to be a real process of acknowledging the loss in order to be completely free to move on. This is something most people who are leaving an affair need to do on their own, not with their spouse.
The discoverer of the affair cannot stand the thought of reentering the sexual relationship. They might not even be able to stand being touched by their partner. The sexual relationship feels ruined now that someone else has intruded on it. Or it might be that withholding sex seems like a good way to retaliate. And if protection wasn’t used during sex with the other person, there is an added issue of STDs.
The discoverer of the affair might want to resume sexual relations as soon as possible, and tries, but cannot bear the experience as it triggers flashback imagery of their partner being intimate with someone else. Sexual encounters become emotionally charged scenes, sometimes resulting in conflict and/or tears. One or both partners may begin to avoid physical intimacy altogether.
The discoverer of the affair wants to have as much sex as possible. This happens for many different reasons, but all have one thing in common. These encounters are extremely intense, and frequently different in quality than before discovery. Here are several possible scenarios:
Sexuality becomes a mode of expressing relief that there are no more secrets. The encounter feels more real and both partners feel much more present and closer than they have in a long time.
Revenge sex can occur where the discoverer seeks to restore a sense of power, of having defeated the other person. “You are mine, not theirs.” Revenge sex can take the form of a sudden interest in S/M, or a formerly timid or passive partner becoming aggressive and dominant. This type of sexual encounter can feel confusing for the discovered, but also exciting.
Sex during this time can also be an act of desperation by the discoverer who might want to use it to get their partner to desire them, and only them, once again. It’s part of a bigger effort to make themselves more desirable. The person who had the affair may feel the desperation. Sometimes both partners are desperate together. They hope to restore their bond through their sexual encounters. Usually they find out it’s going to take more than that.
Sex can actually become more exciting because it is now an encounter with someone who is, in a way, new. It is true that one of the most painful parts of affair discovery is precisely this… that the person you thought you knew is someone who, in a sense, you really didn’t. But in the midst of the devastation, or once the initial crisis is over, this “who are you?” experience can also spark new interest. It may sound strange, but sometimes the idea of a partner as someone novel can be very exciting.
What all of these alterations in sexuality have in common is that they are most likely temporary. In my experience, for better or worse, after a number of months, the sexual relationship usually returns to the way it was before the affair was discovered. Some couples can feel very disappointed when this happens because it is easy to believe, since the sex is so good, that the problem has gone away.