Saturday, February 8, 2014

Sex After Discovery Day

One of the more common questions that pops up from time to time is whether and when the hurt spouse should resume sexual relations with their unfaithful spouse once the affair(s) has/have come to light? This is not an easy question to answer simply because of all the dynamics that can exist in a relationship. But I'm going to make the attempt to provide some principles, that while not covering every situation, hopefully most reading this will be able to adapt to their own situations.

What is Sex?

Before we dig into that, it is important to know where I'm coming from when I talk about sex. Sex is a broad term, and can refer to various sexual activity. But I'm using it in the narrower context of sexual intercourse between a man and a woman (required for sexual intercourse that has the potential to create life). So I'm not talking about other sexual activities like oral sex or anal sex in this article, though those participating in those activities would have some of the same issues and concerns. Thus much of this will apply to participating in any sexual activity with one's spouse or partner.

When a couple have sex, they are in effect uniting to each other in marriage or renewing their marital bond.

"What?" I can hear some people crying out. "I thought it was the state and/or church that married people so they could have sex." If you don't understand the above statement, are surprised by it, or think you disagree with it, you first need to read my articles on this topic: What Is Marriage - Biological Basis, What Is Marriage - Biblical Basis, and What Is Marriage - Cultural Basis. It is important that you understand this concept to grasp the significance of the principles I'm about to give you. To have sex with someone you don't intend to marry emotionally, socially, legally, or spiritually is to abuse the union that act creates. This is also why affairs are so destructive to a marriage, because it essentially divorces your spouse and marries another physically.

If after reading the above articles you still disagree with that concept, take that into consideration where I'm coming from as we go through these points, and adjust for you own understanding.

The Hurt Spouse's Considerations

Upon discovering one's spouse has been unfaithful, there are several issues the hurt spouse is dealing with that relate to whether and when they can resume a sexual relationship with their spouse. At the root of these issues are the following.

Betrayal: An intimate trust has been violated. The unfaithful spouse took what was not theirs to take and gave it to another without the hurt spouse's knowledge or consent.

Lies and secrets: The unfaithful spouse has lied to hide their guilt and shame for what they've done to the marriage, their spouse, and their family.

Due to those, trust has been destroyed and the unfaithful spouse's love for him put into question. While the unfaithful spouse may have convinced themselves they could love two or more people, the hurt spouse will not see it that way. From their viewpoint, people who love you don't hurt you by secretly loving another.

The unfaithful spouse's claims to the contrary will fall on deaf ears of the hurt spouse due to actions speaking louder than words. They are not able to trust anything the unfaithful spouse says. Promises and claims of undying love for the spouse will sound hallow in the hurt spouse's ears for months or years to come, depending on how fast the healing takes place.

All of those realities factor into the following issues the hurt spouse tends to deal with.

Has he stopped?

It is near impossible for the hurt spouse to know for sure, that the unfaithful spouse is no longer having sex with other people or continuing an affair. Especially in the early days, but even long after that if trust isn't healing, often due to trickle truth (new revelations about the affair that the unfaithful spouse didn't mention) or reluctance of the unfaithful spouse to talk about the affair at all.

Most unfaithful spouses are not going to be gun-ho on having sex with their spouse if they still suspect the affair is still going on. In my explanation of marriage and sex above, doing so means committing adultery since the unfaithful spouse has united to the affair partner. So aside from the "ewe" aspect of their private space having been violated by another, is the desire to have sex mean more than having a good time, but that it is a commitment to each other. After discovering an affair, that commitment has been destroyed. The hurt spouse will not be ready to commit himself to his spouse in sex until they feel confident that the unfaithful spouse won't do the same again.


Once the hurt spouse discovers the affair, one of the first concerns they will have is whether they've been exposed to any sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). It his highly recommended that both spouses get tested for STDs. Some of them are life threatening. Until the hurt spouse knows the unfaithful spouse is safe, and is not still playing Russian Roulette with their health by a continuing affair, it will be difficult for the hurt spouse to feel safe having sex again.

Remember, if the unfaithful spouse says, "But honey, we used protection," that will not help. One, the hurt spouse has no way to verify that and they can't believe anything you say about this. Two, even if you did, protection is not 100%. Condoms break or slip off. It only takes one drop of fluids to transmit a disease.


When an affair involves sex with the affair partner, many hurt spouses have trouble getting thoughts of their spouse and the affair partner out of their mind. Sexual activity of any kind can trigger those thought and shut down desire when visualizing the unfaithful spouse and the affair partner engaged in the same activity.

Related to that, any attempts to do any special sexual and exciting actions can trigger thoughts of "I'll bet he did this with her!" Especially if they had never been done until that point. These kinds of thoughts will tend to destroy motivation for sex.

This is an issue the hurt spouse must get through, and no one has the same time table on it. Unfaithful spouses should not be surprised to discover that their hurt spouses stop in the middle of preparing for sex, because they simply can't get these images out of their minds.

Loss of love

Dr. Willard F. Harley, in his book, His Needs, Her Needs, discussed the analogy of the love bank as it relates to romance, or feeling in love with your spouse. The idea is that through a relationship, people make desposits and withdraws from their spouse or future spouse's point of view. Deposits are actions and words that make the spouse feel loved, and that varies from person to person. Withdraws are actions and words that make the spouse feel not wanted, not important, or even hated. The higher the balance, the more in love a person will feel. If it dips into the negative, however, the relationship is in danger.

There is no question that the affair is a huge withdrawal on the love bank. Some spouses can take the hit and still feel love for their spouse because their love balance was high enough to compensate. For those with a low balance, however, the withdrawal could very easily put the account into the negative. It will take a lot of the unfaithful spouse doing and saying the things that make the hurt spouse feel loved before the negative balance can be restored into the positive.

When I say it will take a lot, I mean it will take more than it normally would have before the affair. Why? Because the hurt spouse doesn't trust the unfaithful spouse. Initially, the unfaithful spouse doing things to make the hurt spouse feel loved is going to feel, in many cases, fake and temporary. It will look like attempts to calm the storm so things can "get back to normal," in hopes he'll get over it. So those don't tend to deposit much at first. But if the unfaithful spouse sticks with it, over time it will accelerate.

But as long as the hurt spouse doesn't feel very loved by the unfaithful spouse, they are not going to be too eager to express a love they don't have by having sex. If they do, they tend to feel used and numb.

In essence, the hurt spouse may love the unfaithful spouse, but at that moment he's not in love with the unfaithful spouse.

Resistance from the unfaithful spouse.

The unfaithful spouse may also be unresponsive to having sex. Many hurt spouses take this behavior as proof they don't love them anymore, or that they are still engaged with the affair partner. In some cases, that evaluation would be correct.

But there are other reasons an unfaithful spouse may not be active in wanting sex. He may feel guilty, and is reluctant to initiate sex, or feel uncomfortable because it reminds him of what he threw away. He may feel such shame over it, he sexually shuts down. If the hurt spouse is having a hard time dealing with triggers, the unfaithful spouse can interpret that as punishing him, so he distances himself from the hurt spouse.

Not feeling the "I want you" from the unfaithful spouse, the hurt spouse may have a hard time generating any desire themselves.

The above is not an exhaustive list, but reflects the primary difficulties a hurt spouse tends to encounter when considering the resumption of sexual relations after discovery day. This, however, will not account for past history of the couple which can also play into this dynamic.

Hysterical Bonding

Hysterical bonding is what many rebuilding couples experience in the weeks and months after discovery day. Initially, after the affair is discovered, if the hurt spouse has some sense that the affair is over, and he is reconnecting to his unfaithful spouse, a period of sexual desire can ensue much like the first days when he started having sex with her.

The motivation stems from the fear of losing each other and the desire to regain what he almost lost. It can also arise due to the hurt spouse's fear that if they don't have sex frequently, the unfaithful spouse may be too tempted to return to the affair partner.

This period typically last for several weeks, even months after discovery day. However, everyone is different. Some may experience little to no such desires, for others it can last more than a year. A lot of factors go into it, including the intensity of the barriers a hurt spouse experiences.

While the period of hysterical bonding may override the above listed concerns, if they are not resolved, they are waiting on the downside of the sex craze. The period is temporary and doesn't mean the above listed issues don't need to be addressed.

Principles to Guide the Hurt Spouse

So how does a hurt spouse go about deciding if and when to resume sex, and how?

The first and primary answer to that is much of it depends on the hurt spouse's comfort level. The following principles may help you to determine that.

You believe the affair is over.

It is difficult to know for sure it is over, but if the signals tell you it isn't, and your gut warns you it isn't, then it would be appropriate to wait. You don't want to enable his behavior by allowing him to have sex from both of you, to put your health at risk from STDs, and send him the signal that you're okay with it all, that you are over it when you are not.

Fact is, you won't feel safe resuming sex until you feel certain the affair has ended.

You are willing to risk "trust on loan."

Let's face it. You don't trust your spouse, and it will take months, maybe at least a couple years before you can regain a working level of trust. That is, you have enough trust in your spouse to have a healthy relationship.

If you don't let your spouse have sex with you until you've regained that trust, that will be a long time for him to wait. The truth is, few couples ever wait until trust has been restored before sex resumes. So they end up sending the unfaithful spouse the message, "Oh, okay. I'm over it now."

Practically speaking, you end up extending trust anyway. You can't keep tabs on your spouse 24/7 short of locking her in her room, which will get you a few years in your own prison cell. If your spouse wants to cheat, they will find a way to do it.

On my own discovery day, I came up with this concept after my wife asked if we could have sex that day. At first, I wasn't sure I could. She had said she'd stop seeing the affair partner or having any kind of contact with him. But those were just words and intentions. They were tested in the coming week.

I knew I didn't have the trust to give her outright, indicating everything was all right. It was far from all right. But I had the following knowledge that helped me. One, I knew everything she'd done, so I knew there were no more gotcha surprises. Two, she confessed to everything. She didn't know I knew everything, but once I confronted her, she spilled all the beans. So I had a sense she was now being honest with me.

So I told her I was going to give her trust on loan. It didn't mean I trusted her, rather I was willing to take the risk she might default in paying it back to give her breathing room to set things right. She would pay off that trust loan by continuing to be honest with me, hide no secrets, maintain no contact with the affair partner, to institute full transparency. As she did all that consistently over time, she would pay it back.

If, however, she defaulted on that trust loan by doing the opposite of those things, then she'd be stuck in a pay as you go trust rebuilding. In which case, sex would stop happening. Doing it this way, however communicated the message "I don't trust you yet, but I want to." It shows you are committed to rebuilding, but you are not giving the unfaithful spouse a free, blank check either. They are still responsible to address the issues that bought the affair about.

That said, if you determine they are still in contact with their affair partner or keeping secrets and not being transparent, I would not recommend giving them trust on loan. You need at least some semblance that they are on the path to paying that trust loan back. Otherwise your no better off than a bank loaning money for a house to someone on the unemployment line. They've got to at least show they have the potential to pay that loan off before they get it.

Sex as a commitment.

The other message I gave to my wife that day is the need for her to understand what having sex with me again meant. Before that day, her last sexual encounter was with her affair partner. In effect, at that point she was physically divorced from me and married to him.

For me to have sex with her was in effect to remarry her. To take her back from the affair partner. But I wasn't interested in playing back and forth. I wanted her to realize that to have sex with me again meant she was committing herself to me exclusively. That going to have sex with someone else was a deal breaker. That by having sex, I expected us to be exclusive with each other.

She agreed. So we were remarried that evening. Thankfully she kept her end of the commitment up to this day. She's repaid the trust loan. I've had a working trust for well over a year, probably close to around a year and a half.

I didn't know then whether she would keep up her end of the deal. I took a risk, and I won so far. But the possibility for default, for failing, is always a possibility.

But the above strategy did two things for me. It ensured that I put the burden of addressing the affair issues on her shoulders. She needed to take responsibility for the bad choices she'd made, and work to address the issues which allowed her to chose a destructive path. It also communicated the reality that while I was giving her a second chance, she was still making a commitment right then to be my wife, and no one else's. If that was broken again, it would be over.

The Risk of Love

The reality is that loving someone is always a risk. The more intimate the love, the greater the risk, the more we can be hurt. Too many couples, unwilling to risk much in love, stick to a superficial, selfish, pleasure-seeking based love. They view sex not as a commitment and life-long union with a person they love deeply, but as one among many recreational activities they like to participate in.

Whether a hurt spouse rebuilds with their unfaithful spouse or divorces and seeks another, it will be a risk of getting hurt again. The difference is in the hurt spouse's perceived level of risk from any one person. If the risk becomes too high of getting hurt again, the hurt spouse will not feel safe loving the unfaithful spouse again. They will go look for a lower-risk relationship to be a part of.

The above is a way the hurt spouse can approach resuming sexual relations. But it is primarily up to the unfaithful spouse to reestablish a safe zone for the hurt spouse, and do the things that rebuild trust over the next months and years. To aid in that, our recommendation for unfaithful spouses is to get a copy of How to Help Your Spouse Heal from Your Affair by Linda MacDonald, and do what it says.

As stated at the beginning, there are many factors beyond what we've listed here that go into a decision of when to resume sex with an unfaithful spouse. It is my hope this will give the hurt spouse some ground work on how to reach that decision in their situation.

1 comment:

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