Sex File: I can't have sex with my wife without thinking about her affair

'Unravelling infidelity is never easy - it takes commitment and a rebuilding of trust that can take years'
Sex File: I can't have sex with my wife without thinking about her affair

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Q: My wife had a brief affair last year before Covid. We have reconciled during the pandemic and she assured me it was a mistake, but I still find it hard to be intimate with her without thinking about it. How can I get over this?

A: With difficulty. Infidelity is such a serious breach of trust in a marriage that a bit of verbal reassurance is never going to be enough to wipe the slate clean. Intellectually, people understand that infidelity occurs, but they find it very hard to forgive when it happens to them. 

Infidelity is also the leading cause of divorce. Although "unreasonable behaviour" is the most commonly cited reason given on divorce papers, infidelity is often the underlying cause. Lawyers advise against using adultery as grounds because it is frequently denied, hard to prove and tends to slow down the process. And not everyone wants that stated on their divorce papers.

While I admire your stoicism, ignoring the elephant in the room in the hope that it will go away is never a useful strategy. In the immediate aftermath of a marital earthquake, keeping calm and carrying on may feel like the least destructive option, but you will never be able to make your marriage structurally sound unless you work out where the weaknesses were in the first place. One of the awful ironies of marriage is that people enter into it looking for stability, but it is an inherently unstable system. When a marriage becomes difficult or unhappy the level of spousal commitment to it reduces, and that increases the likelihood that one or both partners will seek solace elsewhere.

I don't know what went on in your marriage, but I do know that infidelity can affect people's sexual relationship in one of two ways: either the betrayed partner feels so angry that they cannot bear intimacy at all, or the opposite happens - infidelity sometimes resets the relationship. The couple can suddenly "see" each other in a new light. Feelings of grief and fear, a desperate need for comfort and a new sense of "separateness" trigger an intense, albeit brief sexual honeymoon. As you are now realising, getting back together and having sex with each other doesn't quell the anxiety, or stop the doubt.

The only sustainable way to get beyond the emotional impact of infidelity is for both of you to confront what has happened, and I would strongly advise that you do that with the help of a relationship counsellor. You might recoil at the prospect of discussing the intimacies of your marriage with a stranger, but it is much easier to navigate your marriage safely through this emotional minefield with the help of an experienced guide.

Sometimes the person who has been unfaithful is reluctant to engage in counselling because they worry they are going to be blamed for everything, but a good counsellor helps both partners to understand what has happened within the context of the marriage as a whole. Although relationship counselling is traditionally conducted face to face, doing it remotely can actually make the experience easier - you are in your own environment, which can feel less stressful, and you don't even have to be in the same room as your wife if you don't want to be.

I wish you luck. Clearly, you believe that the marriage is worth saving. Unravelling infidelity is never easy - it takes commitment and a rebuilding of trust that can take years - but it is an awful lot easier than getting divorced.

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