How Can I Recover Sexual Desire
for My Husband after My Affair?
Introduction: Last week I promised I would get off the subject of infidelity, and on to something else. Unfortunately, that's easier said than done. This week's letter is about a different topic, the recovery of sexual desire in women, but it is related to infidelity, so I haven't really kept my promise. I'll try harder next time.
Women are characteristically finicky when it comes to sex. What may begin as a passionate sexual desire for the love of her life, can become her worst nightmare -- being forced to have sex with someone who is sexually undesirable to her. I have already written several columns on how a wife can avoid that nightmare and increase her sexual interest for her husband. But this letter and my answer to it is different than those posted in past Q&A columns.
By the way, I have been receiving many letters lately from women complaining that their husbands are the ones with a low sexual desire. The answer I give in this letter may address some of a man's problems as well as a woman's problems with sexual desire. But for men, a low level of testosterone, or a testosterone uptake problem is usually at the root of their sexual reluctance. So if your husband has low sex drive, before you sign up for extensive sex therapy, ask him to see his doctor for a hormone check-up. Testosterone is still the the most effective aphodisiac known to man.
Dear Dr Harley,
My husband and I have been married for 5 years. He is a very caring and wonderful person. In most ways, I cannot imagine spending my life with anyone else.
But our sex life has been unfulfilling ever since we got married, and the longer we have been married, the worse it has been for me. Prior to marriage, sex was spontaneous, creative and uninhibited. I actually thought that sex could not get any better. The problem lies with me. I do not find myself attracted to him physically any more. I try to avoid sex with him and I give him lame excuses. His desire for me is still very strong and I find myself very confused and wondered if I do not love him anymore.
I had an affair recently. It ended because my lover left the country. This man and I had an affair a few years ago before my husband and I got married. It was really only to fulfil my sexual needs, the excitement I craved, the touch I longed for from having sex with someone new or different.
Now that the affair is over, I am even more confused. I feel like I am trapped. My husband loves me but I feel choked. I don't really want to have children. I am frightened of the responsibilities and commitment that is associated with having children. I have a dog and I sometimes resent him for taking away my freedom. I feel that marriage is nonsense. I find myself challenging the concept of marriage and children. I am overwhelmed with confusion, not guilt.
I don't know if my problem is a marital one anymore. Deep down, I wonder if I really want to make things better between my husband and I. How can I become interested in him sexually again? I don't understand how that can be achieved.
Your letter reflects two separate problems. The first is about a loss of sexual interest in your husband that has been growing worse since you were married. The second reflects the remnants of withdrawal that you may be experiencing after your lover left you, and that may compound the sexual problems you are having with your husband.
In this letter, I will only address the first issue, your growing loss of sexual desire after marriage. For the infidelity part of your question, I refer you to last week's Q&A column, Four Rules to Guide Marital Recovery After an Affair. But before I get to the first issue, I will comment briefly on infidelity and how it usually effects sexual desire in women.
One of my cardinal rules for married couples is never see or communicate with a former lover. And always let your spouse know who your former lovers are, so that he or she can identify the foxes whenever they are in the chicken coup. The rule is not only thoughtful (who wants to see your spouse with a former lover!), but it is also a safeguard against the affair reigniting. In your case, that's exactly what happened when your husband was out of town, your affair reignited. You had the affair to gratify your sexual need, but it had the effect of making your sexual problem with your husband worse.
When most women have affairs, even when sex with their husbands was great before the affair, it's usually lousy during and after the affair. Women usually have trouble dividing their sexual desire among several men, and an affair usually ruins sex with their husbands. So part of your sexual problem is just getting over the affair, and re-establishing a romantic relationship with your husband. Other things being equal, it usually takes about six months after an affair has ended for sexual desire to return. But in your case, other things are not equal. In your case, sexual desire has been steadily decreasing since you were married. That's the problem I will address in this letter.
Since you have been married, you have lost sexual interest in your husband. And yet, it was there before marriage, and it was there after marriage -- for another man. So there's obviously nothing wrong with you sexually. There's another problem -- it may be your personality. But don't despair. Marital problems can be solved regardless of personality characteristics.
Psychologists are known for their interest in personalities, and I'm no exception. I have even created my own names for the host of personality types I've encountered.
First, I should explain what a personality is. It is a characteristic way of approaching life that makes the choices of an individual somewhat predictable. For example, a people-pleaser personality is one where the person goes to a great deal of trouble to make sure that everyone likes him or her. So whenever a choice is made, the question this person asks is, which alternative will make people like me? That's the one they choose.
Another example is the perfectionist. This person makes choices so that when the decision is made, it is perfect in every way possible. It must always be the very best alternative. Would it surprise you to know that these people are usually very indecisive? They can't make up their minds, because the perfect choice is very elusive. I don't believe that there really are any perfect choices. But then, I'm not a perfectionist.
People usually have several personalities all wrapped up into one person. So a person might have a people-pleasing personality and a perfectionist personality. As you may well imagine, such a person would be a bundle of nerves.
I think you may have what I call the "electric fence" personality. People with such a personality walk down the road of life with an electric fence on each side of the road. And they are faced with a serious disadvantage -- the stroll is at night, the flashlight they use to look ahead is very dim, and the road takes sharp turns. That makes it difficult for them to see the electric fence, and they often stumble into it. As long as these people are on the path, they are usually very happy and optimistic about life. But, when they touch the fence they get a rude shock, and will do anything to get off of it and back onto the path. Once back on the path, they are happy again.
Referring back to my definition of personalities, you can predict the behavior of an electric fence personality when they touch their electric fence -- they do whatever they can to back away from it. If you seem to be pushing them onto the fence, they will fly into a rage in an effort to escape, because it's so painful. They usually don't know where the fence is located because of the path's sharp turns, and their dim flashlight, so they are stumbling onto it quite regularly, and expressing anger whenever it happens.
Once off the fence, however, they usually return to a very happy state, and try to forget the incident. Since the path takes sharp turns, they give up hope of learning from the past experience, because the fence will be somewhere else next time. So they figure it's best to just forget the whole thing.
These people have very little insight into what makes them happy and sad. That's why I use the analogy of the dim flashlight and sharp turns in the path. When I have a client with such a personality, I often seem to understand their likes and dislikes better than they do themselves, because my flashlight seems to be brighter than theirs. I remember what their last electric fence looked like, and the next one looks very similar. Their lack of insight makes them very impulsive and great risk-takers because they don't seem to learn from their past painful experiences. But their lack of memory of failure also makes them very optimistic and cheerful, as long as they are in the middle of their pathway.
Someone with an electric fence personality is often joined by others on his or her path. Those people are not effected by that individual's electric fence. So they can wander off and on the pathway, through the individual's electric fence, and remain unscathed. They will often encourage the person to follow them, but once the electric fence is touched, he or she cannot follow. If they try to force the person to follow, he or she usually flies into a rage because the shock of the electric fence is so painful.
Obviously, the way to get along with someone with an electric fence personality is to follow them on their path, because they cannot usually follow you on yours. These electric fence people may seem very selfish and uncompromising, but you would behave the same way if you had an electric fence to prevent you from going just anywhere on the path of life.
People with electric fence personalities have a terrible time with rules, because rules often lead them into their fences. As children they have trouble with authority for the same reason. At first, they try to follow rules and obey authority, but the pain of the electric fence is so great that they soon learn to be a rule unto themselves, and they ignore what others tell them to do. Abandoning rules, in turn, usually leads them into all kinds of trouble, and many of these people end up in prison.
People with electric fence personalities are also very likely to divorce. Since they have such difficulty adjusting to someone else, they usually marry someone who happens to be on their path for a while. But when that person leaves the path, it's much to painful to follow, so they divorce and move on to a relationship with someone else on their path.
As you might expect, people with electric fence personalities also tend to have affairs after marriage, again, because the ones they marry usually leave their comfortable pathway. They are the ones that originated the saying, if you can't be with the one you love, love the one you're with. So when a spouse leaves their pathway, they switch to whomever will walk with them on their pathway next.
If you have the electric fence personality, it would help explain why you feel the way you do about having sex with your husband, and why you have had an affair. While you were dating your husband, he was on your path with you, and you had a great relationship (but then, you'd have a great relationship with almost anyone who walked with you on your path).
But as soon as you married, something tragic happened. I suspect that in your effort to accommodate your new husband, you tried to follow him off of your path right into your electric fence. Panic set in as you suspected that marriage would trap you into a lifetime of electric shocks. The great relationship with your husband turned into a mess when you found him on the other side of the fence much of the time. He was no longer your friend because he was not on your side of the fence anymore.
To make matters worse, making love to him meant you had to endure those electric shocks. Instead of wanting to make love to him, you felt forced to make love to him. And people with electric fence personalities don't want to be forced to do anything. They have learned the hard way that people who make them do something are usually making them endure the electric fence, so they have a natural defense against demands.
Things went from bad to worse regarding your sexual relationship with your husband, because every time he wanted to make love to you, you felt those electric shocks. Besides, he wasn't even your best friend anymore. He was just someone you married.
Granted, he didn't make very many demands on you, and he didn't really want you to suffer. It was easy to give him excuses, and before long you did not make love to him at all. But looking at him through the fence made you realize that you and he had become incompatible.
One day a man who you had known before your marriage joined you on your road, and the passion of your earlier relationship blossomed. You probably would still be having your affair today if he had stayed with you on your path. But about the only thing that could have ended the affair, did end it. He left you alone on your path.
Now, you are again looking at your husband on the other side of the fence. You are wondering how you can get on his side of the fence so that you can have a fulfilling marriage. That's impossible, but maybe he can join you on your side.
People with your type of personality often view marriage as a trap, because they have had so many experiences trying to follow the lead of others only to find themselves shocked by the electric fence. A marital commitment to these people means a life of suffering, trying to be something that makes them very uncomfortable.
What you need is a new approach to marriage that gives you the freedom to stay away from your electric fence by having your husband join you on your pathway. As soon as your husband figures out a way to get on your side of the fence, your sexual relationship will be sensational again. But where should you begin?
First and foremost, abandon your habit of being dishonest. People with electric fence personalities learn from early childhood to be dishonest because that helps keep them off the fence. When their parents tell them to do something that will make unhappy, they don't do it. Instead, they lie about it and say they did. Or, when their parents tell them not to do something that would keep them on their path, they do it anyway, and say they didn't. They get into the habit of being dishonest, because honesty gets them into so much trouble.
But you are not a child anymore, and your husband is not your parent. You can tell him the truth without necessarily getting into trouble. In fact, if you were to get into the habit of telling him the truth, you would get into much less trouble. He would discover your fences as soon as you touch them, and with an understanding that you would both back away from them, the experience would be a minor inconvenience. Before long you would be happy again, back in the middle of your path, with your husband by your side.
There's nothing in your personality that prevents you from being honest. In fact, you probably want to be honest. People I counsel with electric fence personalities usually tell me anything I want to know about them because they understand that I won't try to make them do anything. If you could be honest without the risk of being dragged into the electric fence, you would be honest with your husband, too. So I challenge you to try it out with him.
Tell your husband everything you told me. Tell him how you feel about having sex with him, and tell him about your ex-lover. Tell him that you don't want a divorce, and that you want to live with him for the rest of your life. Also tell him that want him to be your favorite lover, but your passion for him has somehow evaporated.
When you were first married, something he did, or you did, got him on the opposite side of the fence. Talk to him about what it could have been. Why was it that marriage ruined your sexual reaction to him? Was it the feeling that you were now required to make love to him -- that he now expected it of you? Was it that he began taking you for granted in bed? Did he stop giving you the time and attention he had given you before you were married? Had he stopped meeting some of your important emotional needs? Or, was the way he made love to you better before than it is now?
Think it through with each other, and don't assume that you will have all the answers right away. It may take quite a bit of searching before you discover a way of helping him over the fence so that he can join you on your path.
One question that may occur to both of you is, what if he has the same personality as I do? What if he also has an electric fence, and if he tries to join me, he gets shocked by his electric fence?
While that is sometimes a problem, the way you describe your husband, I think that it's you who is keeping him off your path, and not his fence. I would encourage you to begin with that assumption. If he expresses discomfort whenever he tries to accommodate your feelings about sex, then maybe his fence is more of a problem than I first assumed. But if you allow each other the right to escape the fence when it shocks you, the worst thing that will happen is that you sit looking at each other through the fence. Keep trying to find a way to join each other without making the other person suffer shocks.
If you can be honest with your husband about the nature of your problem, and have agreed that neither of you should suffer when you try to implement a solution, then you are in a position to solve the problem. These are the steps I suggest you take to help your husband get on your side of the fence.
1. Set ground rules to make negotiations pleasant and safe.
Before you begin to discuss your sexual problems with your husband, agree with each other that you will both follow these rules: (a) be pleasant and cheerful throughout your discussion of the issue, (b) put safety first--do not threaten to cause pain or suffering when you negotiate, even if your spouse makes threatening remarks or if the negotiations fail, and (c) if you reach an impasse, stop for a while and come back to the issue later.
Under no conditions should either of you be disrespectful or judgmental of each other's opinions or desires. Your negotiations should accept and respect your differences. Otherwise, your conversation will not be pleasant and safe.
2. Identify the problem from the perspectives of both you and your spouse.
Be able to state each other's position regarding your sexual issue before you go on to find a solution. What do you want in a sexual relationship and why do you want it? What does he want and why does he want it? Be careful to avoid negative expressions, and try very hard not to match a negative comment with another negative comment. If one of you expresses pessimism, or even anger, don't counter with an equal dose of negativity. Instead, try to sooth the person who is negative and if that doesn't work, take a break from the discussion. Avoid arguing with each other at all costs. If you can't discuss the issue without arguing, take a break and come back to it later. That's the way you will keep your distance from the electric fence.
3. Brainstorm solutions with abandon.
Spend some time thinking of all sorts of ways to handle the problem, and don't correct each other when you hear of a plan that you don't like -- you'll have a chance to do that during the fourth step. Your husband may suggest that the best way for you to renew your sexual desire of him is to just have sex with him whenever he wants. That would nail you to your electric fence for sure. Don't respond to his suggestion in a disrespectful way, just write it down along with other suggestions. If you give your intelligence a chance to flex it's muscle, you will have a long list of possible solutions.
4. Choose the solution that is appealing to both of you.
From your list of solutions, most of the solutions will satisfy only one of you but not both. However, scattered within the list will be solutions that both of you would find attractive. Among those solutions that are mutually satisfactory, select the one that you both like the most. If there are none that meet with your mutual approval, go back to brainstorming again so you can get a longer list of possibilities.
When couples have a serious conflict, I usually suggest a test of solutions before actually implementing any of them. That allows them to consider worthy alternatives even though one spouse may not yet be enthusiastic about it. The suggestions that may sound appealing may, in practice, not turn out to be very successful. On the other hand, there may be a solution that may not seem too useful, but in practice, it solves your problem.
The Policy of Joint Agreement should be your marital guide in life (never do anything without an enthusiastic agreement between you and your spouse). If you had followed it at the start of your marriage, you would have not found yourself impaled on your electric fence. Once shocked, you would have jumped back, and started to negotiate with your husband. Such negotiation would have brought him back to your side of the fence, and your aversion to having sex with him would never have materialized.
The Policy of Joint Agreement is your friend. It protects you from pain and guides you right down the middle of your path. Remember, you don't have to do anything unless you are enthusiastic about it, so it will never lead you into your electric fence. But it will lead your spouse past your fence and onto your path where he would become your enthusiastic friend and lover for life.
You now have an opportunity to save your marriage that you may not have had for some time. Your affair has ended, and you are emotionally prepared to build a good relationship with your husband. As you consider ways to improve your desire to make love to your husband, remember how important it is for your lover to be on the same path you are on. He must be your best friend, the man who you share every aspect of your life with. Try honesty and the Policy of Joint Agreement. You and our husband will be lovers again in no time.