Ask Esther Perel: 10 Ways to Get Over an Affair
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How do you have sex with your cheating husband without thinking about his affairs?
What happens after the revelation of an affair is different for everyone.
For some couples, everything comes to a complete standstill. The thought of physical contact is repulsive. For others, they’ll say being held is the only thing that keeps them calm: they want the person right next to them, to see and touch them. It calms them against the fear of abandonment. Still others might feel as if sex with the betraying party lets them off the hook.
There is no one right answer.
But we can examine the dynamics of the affair and go from there.
The following are 10 things to think about — including a few to act on immediately.
After the revelation of an affair, some couples have the most passionate sex they’ve ever had. That’s a big, unspoken truth. There’s something about the fear of loss that triggers desire and a depth of conversation that helps some people access a new level of honesty.
Sometimes the person most bothered by infidelity is the betrayed, not the betrayer. If you cheated on me, I might be thinking, “Are you enjoying sex with me? Are you thinking about another person? Am I going to be thinking about the other person?” Men get competitive: “Did you do X and Y with him? Was it better?” Figure out the questions you’re asking yourself. Are you comparing yourself to your partner’s other lover? Are you questioning your inadequacies or attractiveness?
There are questions that don’t need to be answered. I always ask: Do you want to hear the answers to your questions? Or do you want your partner to know that you have the question? Once you hear the answer, you can’t take it away. If you’re seeking info about the sordid details, you may be turning all night while your partner is already long asleep.
Don’t ask detective questions. Ask investigative questions. Ask about meaning and motives. Instead of, “Where were you? Where did you do it? How often? Was she/he better than me?” You need to ask, “What was your affair about? Did you think of me? Did you hope to continue or did you secretly hope it would end? What is it that prostitutes offer you that is important to you? What is it you value about us?” It can be calming. People usually ask the wrong things. Trust is our ability to live with what we don’t know.
It’ll stay with you. And them. I know a young guy who was betrayed by his girlfriend and best friend. For a long time, when he was with a woman, he would wonder, “Who else is in the picture?” This went on for years. Even if the relationship ends, sometimes you’ll take that breach with you, that question of “Am I enough?” You’re feeling inadequate, and that taps into a lot of things. If we consider intimate sex vulnerable, it connects with vulnerable emotions, too.
The affair might not be about what’s missing at home. Oftentimes, it seems like the person who went outside the relationship betrayed and lied and cheated for something they didn’t have at home. But it may not have to do with home at all. I worked in Mexico recently. A man I worked with told me his father had a mistress for 20 years. He said you go elsewhere to find things you don’t have at home. But I responded that sometimes you go elsewhere to find that which you don’t want at home. For his father, home was for the family and the wife, his erotic world was with his mistress. This is a very old divide and one that has accompanied the double standard of adultery throughout history. Proclaimed monogamy attended by clandestine adultery is about privilege, not about what’s missing in the marriage.
Build back trust in small movements. For example, if you notice your partner is scared or sad they’re upset, do something kind or loving. Do not ask why they’re bringing it up, or chastise them. You can’t force someone to be over things. You want to be in this together, and these small and immediate acts and attunements are essential to building back trust.
The betrayed person may want more. Now that the status quo is broken, this is the betrayed person’s time to say, “I want more.” Maybe they were the one accepting a mediocre sex life … Now they want more within the relationship.
Figure out the magnifiers and buffers. How did it hurt you? Affairs don’t hurt everyone the same way. Maybe it’s who it was: “Did it have to be a best friend?” Maybe it happened more than once. Or how you found out. When you figure this out, it may inflame your heartbreak. Or it could give you some reassurance: “At least he didn’t do that.” Magnifiers compound the betrayal, buffers promote what’s positive. We can use them both to mitigate the impact of this relational crisis.
“Rethinking Infidelity,” a TED Talk with Esther Perel
Esther Perel’s online workshops on relationships and intimacy
After the Affair by Janis Abrahms Spring
Monogamy by Adam Phillips
Esther Perel is the best-selling author of Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence, a practicing psychotherapist, celebrated speaker and organizational consultant to Fortune 500 companies. The New York Times, in a cover story, named her the most important game-changer on sexuality and relationships since Dr. Ruth. Have a question? Ask Esther Perel.