Thursday, March 10, 2011

When your spouse or partner has a secret sexual life

When your spouse or partner has a secret sexual life

(This article generalizes that the sexually acting out partner is male and the discovering partner is female. This is, of course, a sweeping generalization and more often the case than the other way around. I have mostly focused on the sexually acting out men which can be found here under articles).

The biggest referral source for my practice regarding Internet infidelity is the computer. With one click of the keyboard, women can discover a whole world her partner is engaged in and would have never known otherwise.

It makes sense there is high reactivity as discovering sexual material can be very upsetting and confusing. 

When couples come into my office I usually do a few things immediately. 

First, I help calm both partners’ initial reactivity. Usually the partner who has been discovered on the Internet is experiencing a tremendous amount of shame for having their secret sex life exposed. They are often defensive, angry and blaming of their partner. The men often say they don’t know why they are viewing the porn or became involved in Internet chatting and want to stop but have been unable to do so. My work is to help them accept responsibility that for whatever reason they chose not to share their sexual activity on the Internet and that their partner has a right to their feelings of shock and betrayal.

The discovering partner often takes what they find very personally and feels that it is because she is not attractive enough or providing an adequate sex life to her partner. Another common reaction is to be very angry and say, “I didn’t cause this, this isn’t my problem” and he better fix this and stop immediately.

My preference is to help couples immediately and keep them together in therapy from start to finish to working this through together. However because feelings and emotions are running high on both sides I find I have to separate the couple and work with them individually. Both need privacy to get their initial feelings and thoughts out without having to worry about the other in the therapy room.

Unfortunately and understandably women often feel so betrayed and angry that they don’t want to be a part of the therapy because they say it makes them feel responsible for what happened and they have been blamed enough by the men who have often accused them of being hypersensitive and wrong in their suspicions that they were even on the Internet.

Consequently, I work with men first to help them understand their sexual indiscretions and how to explain to their partners what the sexual outlets were about and what they are willing and able to do about it.

When the wives and girlfriends are ready to enter therapy I try to work with them individually on whether or not they want to stay and work things out and provide them with resources and education their partners and on help them focus on themselves. Ultimately I bring the couples together to do the rest of the work and strengthen their relationship.

Here are some things for women to consider when discovering a partner’s secret sexual life:

1. It's not your fault!
His sexual outlet on the Internet most likely has nothing to do with you. Understandably this is hard to reconcile as often women compare themselves to the images the men are viewing. Also men may have often made feel that something is wrong with them by telling them to “get over it and deal with the fact that they enjoy porn” or making women feel “crazy” for being sensitive and hypervigalent.  The work here is not to take this personally as hard as that is.

2. He may have been sexually abused.
Sometimes excessive viewing of porn and sexual behaviors are the result of childhood sexual abuse. When women are sexually abused as children this often manifests in sexually shutting down as adults. There may be a period where they are hypersexual and in general when engaged in the sexual abuse recovery work they tend to be disinterested in sexual activity. Men, on the other hand, become hypersexual from childhood sexual abuse. While some men sexually shut down, the majority find themselves compulsively acting out in what I refer to as “returning to the scene of the crime” where they are re-enacting the abuse by watching it and/or acting it out.

3. Many women try to be more sexual once they discover men’s secret sexual lives.
Often women think that men are not getting enough sex so they try to compensate by offering themselves up sexually at a higher frequency and/or offering to do sexual behaviors in which they are uncomfortable. I often tell women that this is not the answer and that while they may decide to do this ultimately the decision should not come from desperation but rather a discussion with their spouse. Again it is most likely about the men’s inability to express their sexual needs and wants.

4. Many women are triggered by their own sexual histories, abuse and traumas.
Finding sexual material in a partner’s computer can bring back a variety of sexual betrayals for women from their own lives. Sometimes women have been abused or raped themselves and finding porn on the computer feels like being abused and raped all over again.  Seeing men objectify women through porn and the Internet can bring up a women’s own feelings of being objectified and sexualized against her will.

5. Going forward after learning about a partner’s secret sexual desires can be very vulnerable.
Recovering from sexual indiscretions in a relationship is possible and very fragile. I don’t recommend doing anything in terms of ending the relationship or even separating for at least three months.  It demands understanding what the sexual material meant about him, about her, and about them both as a couple. Insight into the personal vulnerabilities that led to the behaviors helps distance from the sensationalism of the sexual material and focus more on who both are individually. Getting past the trauma of the betrayal allows for safe communication about what the vision is for the relationship.

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