Show Transcript for Episode 17: Affair Recovery

Laurie Watson: Welcome to Foreplay Radio, Sex Therapy, with your host, sex therapist, and author of Wanting Sex Again, I’m Laurie Watson. And I’m here today with Dr. Adam Matthews, couple’s therapist. Thank you so much for joining us.

Dr. Adam Matthews: I’m so excited to be here. This has been fun.

Laurie Watson: And you can find us on ForeplayRST.com. We are also on Facebook and Twitter. Write us a note and let us know what you think of this show or topics that you would like us to discuss. And we will definitely get to them. Today, we’re going to talk about post affair, the sexual re-entry of the couple. We know that there’s a lot of hurt and problems that go on with affairs. And we’re really talking, I think, today about a stage of recovery after an affair where the couple is going to and has decided to embrace each other again and they are being sexually intimate.

Dr. Adam Matthews: And Laurie, this is one of the things that I see just so often. Obviously, an affair is really damaging to a relationship. And so, trying to jump back in, there’s a lot of hurdles that they seem to have to be overcome before sex is re-engaged. But I’ve also seen couples that have jumped right back into sex.

Laurie Watson: Yes.

Dr. Adam Matthews: Almost as a way to like prove that the relationship is better. Or possibly for other reasons. But then other couples that seemed to be on the opposite extreme where the injured party really resist getting back into a sexual relationship with their partner. Is that something that you’ve seen? These kinds of extremes?

Laurie Watson: Yes. I think you are right. Sometimes couples have a part that they feel it almost ignites their sex life. And they talk about that sex is so hot after the affair.

Dr. Adam Matthews: After the affair, yeah.

Laurie Watson: The best sex of their life together, that they’ve ever had. And I think some of it may be threat, but some of it may be that they thought, you know, what it’s not fair that you’ve gone off and had all this wonderful sex. And I’ve been kind of stuck in our vanilla bedroom. And I want that too. Or both of them feel a re-energizing about their own sex life. So, sometimes I’m aware that couples become sexual before I would think they were ready for it.

Dr. Adam Matthews: Yeah, me too.

Laurie Watson: And I have to be aware of that and talk with them about where they’re at in their sex life. But I see the other end as well, what you’re talking about Adam. That sometimes there’s injury. And they just don’t feel like, the injured party, doesn’t feel like they can re-engage sexually.

Dr. Adam Matthews: Yeah. Because there seems to be a comparison with the third party, the other woman or the other man.

Laurie Watson: Right, yeah.

Dr. Adam Matthews: And wondering about that person and a comparison of, are they better looking?

Laurie Watson: Are they better in bed?

Dr. Adam Matthews: Better in bed, yeah.

Laurie Watson:  Does the affair itself, is it a judgment that says I’m not good in bed?

Dr. Adam Matthews: Yeah.

Laurie Watson: Yeah. And I think many people talk about that. But I mean, first of all, I would suggest as they are processing the affair to avoid explicit details. I think that that can be injurious. It causes kind of a traumatic effect that there’s a tape that we will play in the betrayed partners head. Of now, I see you in the backseat of your car doing x, y, and z. So, I would say avoid those kinds of explicit details.

Dr. Adam Matthews: That’s really interesting. Because the couples that I’ve worked with who are trying to recover from an affair, the injured party, they have a ton of those questions.

Laurie Watson: Yes.

Dr. Adam Matthews: They want to know. Some of them want to know more details than others. But almost everyone has questions and those questions tend to not have a lot of good answers to them. And so, you’re saying avoid those questions?

Laurie Watson: And avoid answering those questions.

Dr. Adam Matthews: Okay.

Laurie Watson: Just say, you know, I don’t think that’s going to be helpful to us. And even though the partner may be, who wants to know about it, I think that some of their task, if they have decided to go forward in the marriage, is to kind of hold that anxiety aside. And say, you know, knowing those details will not be good for me.

Dr. Adam Matthews: Okay.

Laurie Watson: One woman I know, hired a PI. And it was discovered that her partner was having an affair. And the PI said, “Do you want to see this?” And she said, “No, I really don’t. I never want to see it. As long as there’s hope that we’re going to be together because I know me. I will play that over and over in my head and I’ll never be able to get it out of my head. And now that I know. It’s confirmed. But I want to deal with our relationship. Why it happened? And what happened? And I thought that was so smart. And you know, kind of so mature.

Dr. Adam Matthews: Yeah, real mature.

Laurie Watson: You know, because there is this part that says, well what was it like? Was it better? And the fears that somehow another a person thinks will be assuaged by knowing the details.

Dr. Adam Matthews: Yeah. And so, are there better questions that you feel like they should be asking?

Laurie Watson: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, they need to be asking, why did you feel the need for this at this point in our marriage?

Dr. Adam Matthews: Oh, yeah.

Laurie Watson: What did it mean to you? What did that person mean to you? What was missing for you between us? Meaning questions, I think are more fruitful than how many times did you do it? What did you do in bed? You know where they prettier than I was. You know, was he bigger than I was? All of those kinds of things that don’t provide a path forward.

Dr. Adam Matthews: So, it sounds like you’re saying more about the emotional need rather than the sexual need.

Laurie Watson: That’s right.

Dr. Adam Matthews: Questions about —

Laurie Watson: And it may be the sexual need. Like why sexually?

Dr. Adam Matthews: Or sexual details. Not sexual details.

Laurie Watson: The sexual details, yeah.

Dr. Adam Matthews: Okay. Yeah. That’s interesting because that seems to be the exact — that doesn’t seem to be immediately where people go because the affair seems to be all about sex.

Laurie Watson: Right. And I don’t think that affairs are always just about sex. I think that they are complicated. That oftentimes it’s between the couple. There is something that is missing. There is something that needs to work out and sometimes it’s inside the person who decided to act that way. There are pressures that come from everything from childhood to the midlife crises that you know is nearly a cliché. But some of those are very real. And it has nothing to do with the failing of the partner. And so, it’s very hard to depersonalize something that is so intimate. And personal as an injury.

Dr. Adam Matthews: So, personal, yeah.

Laurie Watson: But I think that that could help. So, when they go back into the sexual relationship themselves, I think the challenge often for the person who did not have the affair is, how do I not wonder about what my partner is thinking about? Are they thinking about the partner? Their affair partner?

Dr. Adam Matthews: So, the injured party or partner is really asking the questions more about how to that emotionally. What emotionally and trying to depersonalize it. What about the person that had the affair? The partner that had the affair? How should they be approaching trying to come back into an intimate relationship and leaving another one behind?

Laurie Watson: And I think we don’t necessarily want to hear this if our partner had an affair. But I think that there is grief in having left something that was an idealized fantasy.

Dr. Adam Matthews: That’s hard to hear, Laurie.

Laurie Watson: I know, it is. It is.

Dr. Adam Matthews: It’s hard to hear.

Laurie Watson:  And that grief maybe needs to be processed with a therapist. It’s not as easily processed with your partner. But the grief of the personality of that person of perhaps the way sex was, but also their own responsibility. Well, why did they let the sex life get to the point that it was so dull?

Dr. Adam Matthews: Yeah.

Laurie Watson: I’ve often asked people, you know, has this fantasy that you had and played out in your affair. Did you bring those ideas to your own bedroom? Were you open about what you wanted to do? And about your own sexual and erotic inner life? And most of the time the answer is no, I didn’t. I haven’t done that for years. And I don’t feel like doing it now. You know, it’s scary for me to do this.

Dr. Adam Matthews: Are you saying to bring what the sexual fulfillment that they were getting in the affair, trying to bring that into the partner relationship?

Laurie Watson: No, not necessarily that. In an affair, people let down their barriers about their own inner erotic life. And they talk more about their life. So, they do create in that sexual relationship more of what they want. And so, in the marriage or in the committed coupleship, they’ve withheld that.

Dr. Adam Matthews: I see.

Laurie Watson: Basically, often because of their own lack of growth and maturity and courage to bring forward into a committed sex life what they’re thinking about. I think the fear of the partner who has been betrayed is, “Okay, is this something that you did with your partner?  You’re affair partner? Are we just recreating that?” And you know, it’s very tenuous. But sometimes I don’t think it’s that they’re recreating what happened in the affair. It’s that the person who’s reengaged in the marriage is finally saying, “Okay, I need to grow up. I need to bring to you what I think about what I want to do in bed. That’s what I’m bringing to you. Not something I learned in the affair.”

Dr. Adam Matthews: So, they’re being honest, for perhaps, the first time in their relationship.

Laurie Watson: Right. And both people have to look at the sex life in re-engagement as an opportunity for new life, for new ideas, for creativity. Because sometimes the other person, “Well, I’ve been shut down too. I haven’t been getting what I want.”

Dr. Adam Matthews: Yeah.

Laurie Watson: This whole time.

Dr. Adam Matthews: I haven’t been fulfilled as well.

Laurie Watson: And I say, “Okay, this is the time to bring that forward. To talk about what you’ve needed and what you’ve been missing.” So, that together you create it. And that takes so much vulnerability at a time in their life when they feel the least like being vulnerable.

Dr. Adam Matthews: Yeah, they don’t want to be vulnerable at all. They want to be closed off. And I think that’s one of the biggest challenges is that I feel what you’re talking about requires a great deal of trust after something where trust has been so broken. To be able to re-engage and open yourself up to somebody else, to be that vulnerable, both physically and emotionally, and to be that honest requires a lot of trust on both parties. And I think that’s one of the things that may be the injured party doesn’t often see is that it requires trust on the other one as well.

Laurie Watson: Yeah. And I think that sometimes what I hear from the injured party is again, that it’s not fair. You had great sex over there. And now, suddenly our sex life is great. So, you’ve never suffered what I’ve suffered. Which is the feeling of being left, feeling betrayed, and having to do this again. Because often the party that went outside the marriage is in a different place emotionally about that experience. They’ve often moved on. They’re not as hurt. And so, they don’t feel as much vulnerability about re-creating a sex life in the marriage as the person who was injured feels.

Dr. Adam Matthews: Yeah. A lot of comparison that seems to be going back and forth. Comparing the injuries for the injured parties, the injury of the affair itself for the person who had the affair, their injury may have come before the affair.

Laurie Watson: That’s right. That is so right, Adam. A person who has an affair is not necessarily the bad party.

Dr. Adam Matthews: Yeah.

Laurie Watson: The person who’s hurting one party because they have often been hurt in the marriage or in the relationship prior to that. They sometimes see the affair as the only way out.

Dr. Adam Matthews: Yeah.

Laurie Watson: So, it isn’t necessarily that they are the one who is hurting. They’re often the one who has also been hurt.

Dr. Adam Matthews: That’s right.

Laurie Watson: I mean, I think about classically the woman who feels, you know, my partner never talked to me. And then this man engaged me. And was interested in me and started talking to me. And yes, I slept with him. And my partner is outraged. But the reality is, he’s been ignoring me and been cool to me for many, many, many years. And this just like something that I was starved for. So, she felt injured first. And likewise, maybe the stereotypical male who says, you know, my partner has withheld sex for five years. And we have literally not had sex for five years. And yes, I cheated. But I’m a sexual being. I have to have sex. And she indicated she wasn’t interested. I mean, he’s been hurt as well.

Dr. Adam Matthews: Yeah. Laurie, that seems so difficult to kind of move on from that. And I’m wondering if when you come back from break, we can explore that a little bit more.

Laurie Watson: Good. Let’s do that. That’s good. So, this is Foreplay Radio, Sex Therapy with sex therapist, Laurie Watson and Dr. Adam Matthews, couple’s therapist. We’ll be right back.

Commercial: Wanting Sex Again, how to rediscover desire and heal a sexless marriage by certified sex therapist, Laurie Watson. Each chapter is designed to fix one of the problems that caused low libido from early marriage through the childbearing years, even all the way through menopause. I’ve also had men read it and tell me that for them it was the most helpful thing they read about resolving sexual problems. Look for Wanting Sex Again on Amazon.com. You can also talk to Laurie Watson for therapy in person or via Skype. I offer couples counseling and sex therapy and I think about both aspects of the relationship, emotional intimacy, and sexual technique. And that combination together helps marriages be happy. Improve your sex. And improve your relationship with awakening center for couples and intimacy. Find out more at AwakenLoveandSex.com and sign up for their next couples retreat weekend hosted by Laurie Watson. AwakenLoveandSex.com, awaken what’s possible.

Laurie Watson: Welcome back to Foreplay Radio, Sex Therapy with sex therapist, Laurie Watson and Dr. Adam Matthews, couple’s therapist. Today, we’re talking about affairs and how do couples come back into the bedroom and have a renewed sex life. And Adam, you are going to talk about a couple that you’ve seen. Could you tell us a little bit about them?

Dr. Adam Matthews: Yeah. So, they are pretty standard, had been married for 10 plus years. Have had a lot of good times in their relationship. But then man, we can call him, John, began having an affair about two years ago.

Laurie Watson: John Doe.

Dr. Adam Matthews: John Doe married to Jane Doe, completely anonymous. And they came in because the wife had discovered the affair.

Laurie Watson: And I do want to say one thing about anonymity. You know, sometimes my patients say, you know, we never want to show up on your podcast.

Dr. Adam Matthews: That’s right.

Laurie Watson: Or one of your books or on one of your blogs. And we definitely don’t do that.

Dr. Adam Matthews: That’s absolutely right.

Laurie Watson: I mean, we always mask identity and our patients are not going to show up here.

Dr. Adam Matthews: Yeah. And they very literally could be the story of 30 different patients over the last year who have a very, very similar story, right?

Laurie Watson: Right. There are unfortunately so many commonalities in terms of how this goes.

Dr. Adam Matthews: Yes. And so, typically Jane discovers the affair happening and insist on coming to therapy.

Laurie Watson: Okay.

Dr. Adam Matthews: And so, partly we worked through some of the issues that we talked about the beginning, in the first half about the questions that she had. And she had a lot of questions. And now, they’re beginning to move into a period. She’s been real resistant to a re-engage their sexual relationships. She’s been one of those that have held that part back. And now, she’s starting to get ready to be able to do that. But she’s very fearful of it.

Laurie Watson: Good, good.

Dr. Adam Matthews: And so, that’s the part where we’re saying, okay, how do we begin to kind of do that in a good way for them that honestly makes sex for them better than it ever has been for them in their 10 plus year relationship.

Laurie Watson: An affair is a sexual intervention.

Dr. Adam Matthews: Yeah.

Laurie Watson: Even if the affair is not centered around sexual needs in the beginning. It is a sexual intervention for the couple as they reengage with each other. I think you’re right. I have a couple of questions.

Dr. Adam Matthews: Sure.

Laurie Watson: Was their sex life something that was robust, or had it been anemic at that point?

Dr. Adam Matthews: Well, I think it was at least robust enough that she began to notice a difference once the affair began. And she hypothesized somewhat throughout those couple of years that there was something going on. But there was other stressors in their relationship that had been introduced that were distracting. And so, in her mind there weren’t red flags going off. But she did notice that decline. Both of them are very in touch with their sexuality and their desire. And so, before, obviously there was a little bit of a decline leading up to it, some of the personal stressors were introduced before the affair began. Which is part of what he claims is the reason that the affair started was because there was a bit of neglect on her part to him and to their relationship.

Laurie Watson: Not necessarily sexual neglect, but other issues that were happening.

Dr. Adam Matthews: Yes, yes.

Laurie Watson: And then she notices the decline in his interest. And perhaps his initiation. Which it turns out a lot of good people have affairs. And a lot of people who consider themselves monogamous have affairs.

Dr. Adam Matthews: Yup.

Laurie Watson: And they find themselves there and then they’re not necessarily as sexual with their partner because they see themselves as monogamous.

Dr. Adam Matthews: Yeah, that’s right.

Laurie Watson: And they can only be having sex with one person at a time. And so, it is a flag. And it doesn’t always mean that. But sometimes it can. So, now she wants to reengage. I think the first thing I think about in bringing a couple back together is I know sexual intimacy is a must in terms of recovery. I mean they have to have that. Or they won’t have that melting trust back again. I think couples think, or at least the injured party believes that vigilance is what will ensure trust. If I just keep watch enough, if know the signs, if I am aware of when there’s a breach between us, that will give me a sense of security. But really, it’s about emotional intimacy and sexual intimacy and that coming back strong in the relationship that does renewed trust.

Dr. Adam Matthews: Yeah. I liked the idea of the melting idea there that it begins to almost like a thawing begins to happen because the emotional and the physical intimacy begin to be reintroduced. Do you see that as a slow process or a fast process? Or is everybody just different?

Laurie Watson: I think everybody’s different. I mean, like we said, some people sex after the affair is hotter than they’ve ever had it. And then others it’s like are so fearful about re-engaging that it can be slow.

Dr. Adam Matthews: Okay.

Laurie Watson: I think one thing I might suggest to the couple that is slowly thawing is maybe designing a sort of a re-engagement trip. Some place that they’re away from the markers that remind them of the affair. And I will say that after an affair, there are so many markers and triggers. It’s sort of like when you’re trying to get pregnant. Every woman that you see from, you know, the woman getting on the elevator to your best friend, to your coworker, they’re all pregnant. And when you’re recovering from an affair, every politician has an affair. All your friends have affairs. You see it on every television show. It’s hard to get away from triggers.

Dr. Adam Matthews: And you also see everything that reminds you of your partner’s affair.

Laurie Watson: Right. And even a re-engagement trip of going away to a nice place or a hotel can say, you know, “You did that with your affair partner. You went to hotels.” I mean that can be a trigger in and of itself. But if you could go back, say to a place that you’ve been together that was romantic, where you were emotionally connected to each other and sexually attracted to each other and connected. That might be a safe place.

Dr. Adam Matthews: Someplace that is just yours. And you guys are alone.

Laurie Watson: Right, right. Exactly. And maybe set aside some time saying we’re going to be sexual again. And we need to give ourselves space for that. To process both how it feels again. To process what will come next. Because I think sometimes in early sex after an affair the injured party can feel very emotional about it.

Dr. Adam Matthews: Yeah.

Laurie Watson: And if you’re at home with the kids and you have sex with your partner after their affair and you spend the next two hours crying your eyes out because it touches you and it’s hard. And maybe it’s pointed. Maybe it’s the both, for what’s been missing between you and the fear of what they had with someone else. All of that needs to be processed. So, trip away.

Dr. Adam Matthews: It sounds like that in that what you’re describing even in the trip away creates a lot of emotional safety for the injured party as well, which is really important.

Laurie Watson: Yeah, I think so. I think another thing that I would suggest before they do this, especially if they’re moving slowly. Is to write down both of their fears about what re-engagement will be like. You know, these things just fly around in our heads. And it can almost become obsessional. Especially for the injured party of this is what I think my partner is going to be thinking. And I say, get it down on paper. At least it will stick. It will stick for a moment there instead of just in your own head rolling around and around and around. Let’s put it down, talk about it, and have some place as a cutoff. “Okay, we’re going to leave that aside for now. We know that that’s there. But you’re going to try to leave it on the paper and have some re-engagement with your partner about this now that’s fresh from that.”

Dr. Adam Matthews: Yeah. That’s excellent.

Laurie Watson: I also think that the person who had the affair needs to prepare for an emotional reaction from their partner. And have some skills. And this is, I think what we provide in therapy, right, Adam? Some skills to contain and comfort that person. Because it can trigger their guilt, especially if they’re really done with the affair and they have a lot of remorse. Seeing how hurt their partner is, especially after they’ve just been sexually vulnerable. They may not know what to do.

Dr. Adam Matthews: Yeah.

Laurie Watson: They may not have expected it, as like, “Wow, that was really hot sex and suddenly you dissolved into tears or you got angry and threw something across the room. And I have no idea why. I mean, after this great sex and if I felt like we were connecting.” So, preparing them for that and then what to do. Which, what do you say to couples in terms of how to contain each other in these hot moments?

Dr. Adam Matthews: I think partly, we talk about a lot of expecting the unexpected. And just kind of what I hear you saying as well. To know that it is going to be deeply emotional. And that their job as the person that’s had the affair is simply to comfort the other person in whatever way they need to be comforted. And so, it may be understanding what that might look like for the injured partner. What do they need when they get emotional? When they get angry? Especially right after sex, expecting that that might happen. But then, how can the person that had the affair comfort their partner in that moment?

Laurie Watson: Yeah. And I say, you know, you can’t say, “I’m sorry, I hurt you,” enough.

Dr. Adam Matthews: That’s right.

Laurie Watson: You know, just offering empathically without necessarily drowning in guilt or wishing that your partner had moved on faster and was through this already. But just saying, “Obviously, you’re hurting again. I’m really sorry. Can I hold you? Can I give you a hug? I am here now. I do want to be with you.” That kind of verbal reassurance is really healing. It’s like a bomb after the injury. And can’t be said enough. And I know that sometimes recovery is extensive. And the injured party does get obsessive. And that needs therapy.

Dr. Adam Matthews: Yeah.

Laurie Watson: But, you know, for most everybody saying that over and over again, its kind of sinks into their partner eventually.

Dr. Adam Matthews: Yeah. And tolerating that discomfort of having to do that repetition over and over.

Laurie Watson: You are so right. You are so right. And the anxiety that it brings up in the party that strayed, you know, or the guilt. Tolerating that.

Dr. Adam Matthews: Well, and the feeling of is this ever going to end? Is it ever going to be repaired? That’s what I hear a lot of the person that had the affair. “I just want things to go back to normal.” Well, what we’re trying to do, it seems is to create a new normal in which sex is better. The relationship is better. But that’s going to take time and take a lot of patience as they go.

Laurie Watson: You’re right. All of this takes patience to heal after an affair. And also, to have the sexual life be better than it was. So, that it’s a rejuvenating and a binding part of the relationship that helps them.

Dr. Adam Matthews: A new chapter, so to speak.

Laurie Watson: A new chapter, yeah. Well, thank you so much, Dr. Matthews, for joining us. I really appreciate it.

Dr. Adam Matthews: I loved every moment of it.

Laurie Watson: You brought it. Lots of things to us today. And I think I would say my tip of the day is just that intimacy after an affair is complicated. Give yourself some time and some grace. Thank you for listening to Foreplay Radio, Sex Therapy.

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