Physical intimacy after infidelity – how do you begin to feel sexually confident once a partner has committed an affair?
Society seems to discuss adultery as a case of deciphering between staying with a cheater or calling it quits. If a person does stay, focus usually revolves on them learning to rebuild trust and commitment. When a friend opened up about her long-term boyfriend’s infidelity, she addressed her confusion over why: What made him stray? What did she do wrong?
This analysing echoed across social media when Beyoncé referenced Jay-Z’s affair on her album “Lemonade”. Some comments remarked ‘If Beyoncé can get cheated on, anyone can’. I believe there is an assumption that when a person commits adultery, the faithful partner either gave up on sex or didn’t satisfy their partner’s needs. This train of thought can cause sexual insecurity, which has its own societal stigma.
Accredited psychosexual and relationship therapist and certified psycho-sexologist, Kate Moyle, recognises the taboo surrounding insecurity with sexual performance. A 2019 BBC Sex on the Couch therapist (a six-part series) and UK expert for intimate lifestyle brand Lelo, Kate has featured in Cosmopolitan, The Telegraph and The Guardian, among other publications. Here Kate discusses how to rebuild sexual confidence after an affair, including advice for people who want to help their partner with any bedroom self-doubt after their adultery.
“The anxiety that we feel about ‘not getting sex right’ can be so detrimental to people’s sex lives and relationships, and this is even more impactful because most people feel very alone in what they are experiencing. The majority of people who come for Psychosexual Therapy realise logically that they can’t be the only person in the world feeling this way, but still struggle to see any representation of their experience around them which creates feelings of isolation”, says Kate.
Sex anxiety is something I’ve felt uncomfortable mentioning. In the past with a trusting partner, I couldn’t tell him about my bedroom nerves. Revealing I didn’t feel good about my skills sounded too unattractive; it’s no secret we link sexual attraction to confidence. This problem isn’t tied to women alone. “Sexual performance anxiety impacts both men and women, and when it’s strong enough it can interrupt sexual functioning; and often what I see when working with people therapeutically is a vicious circle of anxiety and performance difficulties”, writes Kate.
So how much does a partner having an affair typically affect a person’s sexual confidence? “Obviously every person’s experience, and every relationship is different; but most people are in some way impacted by infidelity. Even if a relationship hasn’t been working, it still can knock our self-esteem if we feel that our partner has chosen someone else over us, or that they don’t care about losing the relationship enough to risk losing it. In terms of sexual self-confidence, we may carry that lack of trust, or impact to self-esteem forward with us to our next relationships and that can stop us from letting go when we are with someone new”, notes Kate.
How to rebuild a relationship after cheating
My post on defining cheating in relationships reveals an affair is one of the biggest reasons couples split. The BBC reported on statistics suggesting “75% of men and 68% of women” have confessed to some form of unfaithfulness. To help move forward and enjoy better physical intimacy after infidelity, it helps for the adulterer to explain their feelings leading up to their affair.
“Good communication is at the heart of any sexual relationship, and where there has been a rupture it’s likely that this will play an even more important role in repair. It’s absolutely possible for couples to work through infidelity, but the partner who has cheated will need to be honest with their partner, reassure them and communicate about how they were feeling when the cheating happened, and help them to work through it together.
In terms of rebuilding a sex life, it may take time and may also involve changing the way that you do things, distracting thoughts e.g. to do with lack of confidence or thinking about their partner having cheated may also take them out the moment; and so mindful sex techniques could be helpful for both parties. The reality is for a sex life to work, both parties have to feel comfortable being intimate and vulnerable, and this may feel more challenging after infidelity”, says Kate.
Regaining sexual confidence
Opening up about bedroom insecurity can feel as intimate as sex in itself. It can take a lot of vulnerability to disclose sexual uncertainty, particularly if you begin a sexual relationship with a new partner. In my case, me and an ex were doing a Ross and Rachel: we were on a break. When we got back together, knowing he had slept with another woman during our separation made me analyse potential comparisons. Although I didn’t classify his sex as cheating, I did suffer from self-doubt.
“Don’t internalise everything that happened and make it all about you. Relationships happen between people, and turning it all inwards will not help you in future. In fact, it will get in the way of your relationship with a new partner as you will be seeing the relationship and them through the filter of the past infidelity when it’s not that partner’s fault. If you have a new partner, then explain to them that there may be certain or particular triggers, and then they will know to avoid them. They can’t know what these are unless you communicate them, they aren’t a mind reader. Try and treat each new sexual experience as a fresh start, and to focus on what’s happening in the present rather than focusing on what happened in the past”, advises Kate.
In addition to communication and learning to not over internalise, there are helpful resources. “Try mindful sex techniques (there are great resources online e.g. Diana Richardson’s Ted Talk ) which help you to keep you in your body and experiencing the physical sensations, rather than being distracted and preoccupied by negative thoughts which can impact both desire and arousal.
If you are really struggling then reach out for help e.g. psychosexual therapy, or try and rethink sex by listening to podcasts, and reading resources which might help you to add points of view to your perspective”, says Kate.
Physical intimacy after infidelity: When to consider therapy
In some situations, talking to a partner and looking up online information alone isn’t enough. If you’re finding your feelings too difficult to deal with by yourself, it might be worth considering therapy. “Therapists are different to friends as they are completely separate from the rest of your life, and so you can feel confident being completely open and honest and a) that it’s confidential and judgement free, and b) that they will not be offering feedback based on their own personal, and subjective experiences but based on an empathetic and professional one.
Psychosexual Therapy is a great resource for those that need it, but opening up to someone can be really scary, and so do your research and find a couple of therapists that you feel may be a good fit for you, and see if you can have a phone call with them in advance of booking a session; it will give you a feeling for how they may work with you. You don’t have to be at rock bottom to seek therapy, you can use it to help you at any stage”, Kate expresses.
Regardless of your stance (if you choose to stay with a partner who cheated or find someone new), feeling good about physical intimacy after infidelity can take time and effort. Doubts over performance in bed are nothing to feel ashamed of – it’s more common than you likely realise. But luckily, it is not something you have to suffer with.
What are your thoughts on physical intimacy after infidelity?
Kate Moyle specialises in helping people facing difficulties with their sex lives and sexuality. Each week, she interviews sex and relationship experts on Instagram, in a series entitled The Sexual Wellness Sessions. (Old episodes can be viewed to IGTV).