It is not uncommon to have romantic fantasies about people other than your partner. It’s not just normal; it can even enhance your marriage—that is, unless those fantasies cross the line, which is what I’ll talk about in this post.
In a long-term marriage, romance can depart, and sex can follow. From the outside, couples might seem to have perfect or near-perfect relationships, partnering well in work, raising kids, entertaining with other couples, and just plain building a life together that to everyone on the outside looks like a perfect or near-perfect relationship. But I can tell you that in my nearly 30 years of seeing couples, one of the biggest issues that get them into therapy is when they have not been having sex and one or the other of them feels neglected, rejected, and regret about years wasted in not having a sexual marriage.
The lack of sex often happens insidiously. It may start to decline as early as after the wedding, or after the first child is born. Maybe it begins when personal stressors take over a person’s psyche. Or it may start as late as after a woman goes through menopause and experiences dryness and pain with sex.
Life is difficult and often draining, taking a toll on our energy.
Once we get overwhelmed with responsibilities we try to use control to keep things together. What does that control look like? It can devolve into being snarky, snappy, or stingy. But admitting this to ourselves is threatening, so we compensate for those resentments or hurt feelings by making everything look more perfect on the outside so no one will guess how empty we feel on the inside.
Now we’re ripe for an effective distraction from having to think about these feelings of discouragement. Enter stage left a coworker, friend, or neighbor who listens to our feelings with rapt attention. With each interaction, new confidences are shared — just as we used to do with our partners when first falling in love, one of the best feelings in the world. We feel our vitality is coming alive again from that dormant state, that deep freeze it had been in because romance and vitality are intimately tied together. Meanwhile, our partner is oblivious — or, if they do suspect that a flirtation has progressed to a full-fledged emotional affair, we gaslight them, saying they’re crazy and have nothing to worry about.
Most relationships require that couples discuss and come to mutual agreements about fidelity issues, such as flirtation, porn, or time spent with the others that a spouse may find threatening. . When one partner strays, it’s often because these difficult discussions haven’t happened. Whether out of denial, fear, or just plain self-centeredness, the affair ends up coming like a bolt from the blue to the betrayed partner.
Of course, it’s never okay to violate the fundamental trust of your relationship by having an emotional or sexual affair or committing other indiscretions like visiting a sex-worker or getting a happy-ending massage. But it is each partner’s responsibility to check in with one another about where you’re both at with regard to your sex life, or lack of sex life.
When I’ve seen couples who come in for therapy to repair the damage from an affair, the betrayed partner will often say “I had no idea,” “They never mentioned they were unhappy,” or ”I assumed we were on the same page.” Other times, the problem is right out in the open, with years of fighting about sex. As with secrecy, that takes a toll too.
It’s important to get into counseling early—before the damage is done. There’s no doubt that affairs create deep pain. Even so, after the crisis has died down, infidelity can reignite the love you once had for each other. We are all multi-layered beings with complex feelings and needs, and we’re especially vulnerable when it comes to our sexuality. To protect yourself and your relationship, don’t neglect to have those difficult conversations.
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