After the affair: sex again?

Freud once said that when two people make love, there are six people in bed — the couple and their parents. After an affair, add a seventh: the ghost of the lover. Here are some ideas to help you pull your parents and the lover out from under the covers, warm up the space between you, and get sexually intimate again. By sexually intimate, I mean that in the presence of your partner you can:

  • feel emotionally safe and protected, though physically naked;
  • be yourself yet feel connected;
  • value passion and playfulness in bed, but trust that closeness matters more to both of you than performance;
  • acknowledge your own sexual fears and frustrations, and still feel accepted and respected;
  • ask openly for what pleases you sexually yet set limits on what feels comfortable;
  • have compassion for each other, knowing what makes you frail and imperfect also makes you human.

Partners may hold assumptions that make it impossible to reestablish intimate ties. One commonly held by hurt partners is: “I’ll never be able to satisfy you the way your lover did. I can’t compete.”

It’s common to compare yourself to the affair-person in the most unflattering and self-deprecating ways. Whatever you hate about your body or your performance in bed, you’re likely to admire in that person, especially if you’ve never met. You think your breasts are too small? The lover must have huge ones. Your penis seems too soft? The lover’s must be made of steel. Your lovemaking seems ordinary? Your partner and the lover must have enjoyed the wildest, darkest, most uninhibited sex, and together reached a thousand multiple orgasms.

Fantasies like these are likely to make you feel so undesirable and inferior, so convinced that you lack the goods, that you can no longer function as an active sex partner. If your sex life is ever going to get back on track, you need to see these fantasies for what they probably are: expressions of your sexual insecurities after the trauma of an affair.

The reality is that men frequently have affairs even when they’re sexually satisfied at home, and women often stray not for better sex but to feel more loved, appreciated, and respected.

That isn’t to say that sex with the affair-person wasn’t at times more torrid than it is with you; torridness is hard to come by when you have one eye on the clock and the other on the kids. Laced with a spirit of defiance and secrecy, illicit sex is bound to seem more transcendent. But try not to be demoralized. Romantic love is a distorting and transient experience, and the heat your partner may have generated with another person would have cooled in time, as it has perhaps with you. Passion often loses its edge when it’s no longer new or forbidden.

Keep in mind that if your partner has decided to recommit to you, it’s likely to be because you offer something deeper, more enduring, than romantic love. You need to believe in and reclaim those aspects of yourself that your partner values in you and that you value in yourself. You need to trust that you’re worth loving, and work to regain that sense of self that informs you that you’re a wonderful person who has made your partner happy, and can continue to do so in countless ways.

Don’t let your obsession with the affair-person distract you from what should be the real issue right now: restoring intimacy with your partner, in and out of bed. Instead of making useless comparisons. Try to find new ways of injecting creativity, energy, and romance back into your own lovemaking; instead of competing with the affair-person, step out of the ring, bring the focus back on your relationship, and address the issues that let the affair-person get between you.

When I speak of you, I mean both of you; it’s not your job alone to satisfy your partner or create a fulfilling sex life. Developing sexual intimacy is a two-person project.

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