What Affairs Teach Us about Sexual Passion and Desire

Sexual Passion and Desire

According to a recent MSNBC/iVillage survey of 70,000 people, around half the respondents said that they’ve been unfaithful at some point in their lives. Clearly, infidelity isn’t an anomaly involving just an unlucky few. Other studies suggest that approximately one-third of married men and one-fourth of married women have strayed—and approximately seventy percent of marriages do not survive an affair. In my therapy practice, approximately sixty percent of the couples seeking my services are dealing with the upheaval of either emotional and/or sexual infidelity.

In our efforts to understand infidelity, it’s easy to oversimplify what has occurred (“He’s the cheater type”; “She’s a sex addict and couldn’t help herself”; “He must fear commitment”), and because of the turmoil that results after an affair has been discovered, the real motivations for why the affair has occurred can get lost in the emotional shuffle.

While infidelity frequently involves sexual activity, the complicated dynamics of an affair usually involve more than sex. Understanding the underlying motivation behind an affair (which is very different than rationalizing why one has betrayed his/her partner) and understanding the relationship context that surrounded the betrayal can help couples build a stronger, more vibrant union—including creating a more vibrant sex life. Let’s examine some of the reasons for infidelity.

What Infidelity Can Teach Us about Sexual Passion and Desire

Feeling Important and Valued

“For a long time I didn’t feel like I mattered to my husband…” ~ Linda, 44 years old

Linda’s affair arose not out of sexual longing but rather, a longing to feel important to her husband. Inherent to an intimate relationship is feeling like you matter to one another (not just knowing this at an intellectual level, but actually feeling this at a deeper level). There are many ways to show your partner that s/he matters to you, and the more a shared hunger exists for one another outside the bedroom, the more likely this hunger will follow you both into the bedroom.

Feeling Wanted and Desired

“When I met Fiona [affair partner], I finally felt desired…I had felt unattractive and undesired by my wife for so long.” Ben, 29 years old

Couples who are in a sexual rut often have sex in a mechanical, non-passionate, routinized manner. In short, there is little or no sexual desire—no energy that propels you each to take one another sexually. While not all sex in long-term relationships needs to arise out of the heat of desire, it’s a big let-down for many when you stop feeling obviously desired by your partner. We are inherently sexual beings, and to deny this part of ourselves (or to have it ignored by our spouse/partner) comes at a significant emotional cost. It’s important to make your partner feel desired sexually, and in other ways as well.

Being Seen and Understood

“I felt seen and understood by Joshua [affair partner] in ways that I haven’t felt in my marriage for years.” ~ Karen, 41 years old

One of the most painful marital/relational experiences is to feel like your words are constantly falling on deaf (or uncaring) ears. Karen felt this in her relationship, and as a result, she felt increasingly lonely despite her longing for connection and emotional contact with her husband. When we cannot share (and continue to share) our deepest longings, worries, aspirations, wants and desires with our partner, without an ongoing shared understanding of each other, painful disconnection and isolation result, despite the physical presence of the other. We all want to be emotionally seen, deeply understood and accepted by those who matter most to us.

Feeling Vibrant and Alive

“It’s like I was a different person when I was with Cecilia [affair partner]. I felt alive and daring, more willing to take risks with myself and within the relationship.” ~ Abel, 56 years old

I often hear complaints from couples about particular ruts they’ve fallen into, sexual or otherwise. While all long-term relationships involve predictable patterns and rhythms (the familiar allows us to feel emotionally grounded and safe), relationship ruts can also squeeze the life and vibrancy out of a relationship. This can also occur when you don’t feel accepted by your partner and feel it is necessary to shut down parts of yourself to be in the relationship.

The above shouldn’t be viewed as a justification to betray your partner, but these common reasons for an affair can cue us in to the emotional and psychological needs that we bring to our relationship—needs that if are ignored for too long (by either ourself or our partner) can lead us down the slippery slope of an affair.

Here are a few questions I often ask someone who has cheated (either by an emotional affair or sexual infidelity):

  • “Who did you become when you were with this other person?”
  • “During the affair, what emotional and sexual needs were met that you wish were met in your marriage/relationship?”
  • “How can you bring these parts of yourself back into your marriage/relationship?”

Answering these questions is an important part of building (or rebuilding) a stronger, more satisfying and intimate relationship. If you and are partner haven’t faced issues of infidelity, you can think about similar questions that can help strengthen your relationship:

  • “What parts of myself have I been excluding from the relationship or marriage?”
  • “How can my partner and I work to make the emotional issues discussed above a regular part of our union?”

Having these discussions with your partner might not always be easy, but the potential payoff is worth the time and effort. Many of the couples who come to see me are stuck, and part of this entrenched pattern can bring out the worst in both parties. The goal for a more vibrant, passionate union is to create the necessary relationship or marital conditions that allow for the potentials (sexual, emotional, creative) that exist in each of you to be fully realized.