Wayne Baker
by Wayne Baker, M.A., LPC
Member, Affair Recovery Expert Panel

Recovering from Infidelity: Difficulties with Intimacy

Recovering from Infidelity: Difficulties with Intimacy
A 3 Part Series

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In recent years, one of the most popular topics in sexology has been female sexual desire disorders. For the past four decades, women have been pathologized for not being like men.

For instance, according to University of British Columbia psychiatrist Rosemary Basson, "sexual difficulties are particularly prevalent among women seeking routine gynecological care. In population surveys, some 30%–35% of women aged 18–70 have reported a lack of sexual desire during the previous 1–12 months." The percentage of women reporting sexual difficulties after infidelity are even higher.1

But is there something wrong with the woman who lacks desire, especially if she's dealing with a painful situation, or is it a normal response to difficult circumstances, such as a problem with the relationship, sexual context, or cultural factors?

Long-Standing Assumptions

The traditional assumption for both men and women has been that desire precedes sexual arousal. Therefore, if a woman is no longer experiencing desire, it is assumed that she now has some sort of sexual hang up or disorder and simply does not want her mate.

While this may be true for men, research in the past 10 years reveals a different pattern for women.

Men tend to be more like a loaded gun, ready to fire. All that's needed is for someone to pull on the trigger. A man's libido acts as a drive that is similar to hunger or thirst. For the past hundred years, sex professionals have assumed that a woman's libido was similar and that if a woman didn't feel desire, something had to be wrong.

Contributing to the problem are the messages delivered through media. Women are sexually portrayed in books, movies, articles, and even in church circles as men in female form. This mistaken and toxic belief concerning female arousal and response patterns has left generations of men and women believing something that's false. Hardly a day goes by that some couple doesn't come into my office arguing about the wife's lack of sexual desire. This leaves women feeling that they are somehow flawed because they don't share the same sexual interest as their husband.

What If Desire Does Not Precede Arousal?

That is exactly what Basson discovered after interviewing hundreds of women. Contrary to the conventional model, for many women, desire is not the cause of lovemaking but rather the result. Basson's research revealed that women often begin sexual experiences feeling sexually neutral. But as things heat up, so do they, and eventually desire is experienced.

This explains why Viagra doesn't work for women and why sex-boosting supplements are only minimally successful. Products that change the physiology of sexual arousal do not affect desire. At best, they can only increase blood flow into the genitals. It's easy for men to be aware of increased blood flow because erections are hard to miss! From there, it's only a short step in a man's mind from erection to the assumption that they have desire. Women, on the other hand, are often unaware of increased blood flow to their genitals, and even when they are aware of it, they frequently report no feelings of arousal.

When men realize that women don't experience a sense of desire as most men know it, they are baffled and tend to wonder why women even want to be sexual at all. According to research, women tend to be sexual for reasons that affirm their relationships, but their reasons are not inherently sexual. These reasons might include wanting to please their lover, to feel close, to prevent strife, to reconnect after a fight, or because they feel a responsibility to be intimate.

Research supports the notion that men become intimate to have sex, and women have sex to become intimate.

From this perspective, the critical question becomes not "how do you ignite a woman's desire for sex," but instead, "what kind of interaction arouses women sufficiently to enable them to experience desire?"

Rushed Lovemaking Won't Work

The types of interaction that fuel desires in women are playful, leisurely, sensual (lovemaking based on whole-body massage that can include genitals but certainly is not focused on them). In surveys, the primary complaints of women are about interactions with their husbands which are non-sensual, too rushed, too focused on breasts and genitals, and too quickly plunged into intercourse. Rushed lovemaking fails to give women the time most need to become aroused enough to experience desire.

Further complicating the issue is the culture created by Viagra. Men mistakenly believe they are sexually aroused when they have an erection. Therefore, taking such a medication means they're "good to go." However, erections have nothing to do with psychological arousal. Any erectile medication can give a physical erection, but does it create an excitement to be with your mate or enhance true connection through the wonder of who they are? Far too often, a man's genitals will be at 100 percent, while his psychological arousal levels top out at 10 or 20 percent. Once the erection is in place, he proceeds on to intercourse, skipping the steps which would create psychological arousal for both his wife and himself. This creates a growing sense of dissatisfaction (and disconnection, I might add) for the woman since she is repeatedly not experiencing the relational interactions and arousal that is necessary to making the experience pleasurable for her.

What Is Sexual Neutrality?

Research shows that many women do experience spontaneous desire and interest when they're involved in a new relationship or when coming back together after long-term separation from their partner, but it also indicates that most women in long-term relationships rarely think about sex or experience spontaneous sexual desire. This is what we mean by sexual neutrality. Therefore, women seem to operate more from of a point of sexual neutrality, meaning she is receptive to being sexual but does not initiate sexual activity. Many women report that the goal of sexual activity is not necessarily orgasm but rather personal satisfaction, which is then experienced as physical satisfaction (orgasm) and/or emotional satisfaction (the feeling of closeness and connection with her partner).

This is important simply for the fact that there is not something necessarily wrong if a woman is not experiencing the same desire and arousal patterns as a man. Clearly, men and women are not the same.

As couples begin to rebuild their relationship and recover from infidelity, operating from clear and correct assumptions about how men and women function sexually is essential. Women need to quit being so hard on themselves if they don't experience the same desire as their husbands. And men need to quit thinking there must be something wrong with their wife, or themselves, if she doesn't experience sexual desire as he does.

If men or women experience a lack of desire in a marital relationship, multiple factors need to be explored. The following is a list of factors from Rosemary Basson's article2

Women's Sexual Dysfunction: Revised and Expanded Definitions

Interpersonal and contextual factors

In a recent national probability sample of American women 20–65 years of age, their emotional relationship with the partner during sexual activity and general emotional well-being were the 2 strongest predictors of absence of distress about sex. Women who defined themselves (using standard psychological instruments) to be in good mental health were much less likely than women with lower self-rated mental health to report distress about their sexual relationship (odds ratio 0.41, 95% confidence interval 0.29– 0.59). The healthier women were therefore 59% less likely to report distress about their sexual relationship. Feeling emotionally close to their partner during sexual activity decreased the odds of "slight distress" by 33% relative to "no distress," and "marked distress" by 43%; in other words, the stronger the emotional intimacy with the partner, the less distress. Other contextual factors reported to reduce arousability included concerns about safety (risks of unwanted pregnancy and STDs, for example, or emotional or physical safety), appropriateness or privacy, or simply that the situation is insufficiently erotic, too hurried, or too late in the day.

Personal psychological factors

Frequently a woman's arousal is precluded by the nonsexual distractions of daily life, but also sometimes by sexual distractions (e.g., worry about not becoming sufficiently aroused, reaching orgasm, a male partner's delayed or premature ejaculation or a female partner's lack of orgasm). Empirical studies have shown a high correlation of desire complaints with measures of low self-image, mood instability and tendency toward worry and anxiety (without meeting the clinical definition of a mood disorder). Differences between a group of 46 consecutive women with a diagnosis of desire disorder without clinical depression and a control group of 100 healthy women were significant for 6 out of 8 scales in the Narcissism Inventory (a standardized self-administered instrument). The scales indicated that the women with desire disorder had self-esteem that was weak or even fragile, emotional instability, anxiety and neuroticism. Sexual arousal and orgasm, especially in a partner's presence, necessitates a certain degree of vulnerability, which is impossible for some women who cannot tolerate feelings of loss of control generally, and loss of control specifically of their body's reactions. Further inhibiting psychological factors include memories of past negative sexual experiences, including those that have been coercive or abusive, and expectations of negative outcomes to the sexual experience (e.g., from dyspareunia or partner sexual dysfunction).

Biological factors

The biological and pathophysiological underpinnings of normal and abnormal female sexual response are only recently receiving attention. Most of the basic science and animal experiments in this area are beyond the scope of this review. Some promising attempts are noted, however, in part because they relate attempts to ameliorate sexual dysfunction by means of off-label use of available drugs and to avoid the negative sexual side-effects of medications such as antidepressants.

Depression is strongly associated with reduced sexual function. Of 79 women with major depression surveyed before treatment with medication, 50% reported decreased sex drive; 50%, more difficulty obtaining vaginal lubrication; and 50%, far less sexual arousal when engaging in sex. Only 50% had been sexually active during the previous month. In addition, sexual dysfunction can constitute an adverse event of antidepressant use, especially among patients who had low levels of sexual enjoyment before the onset of their depression. When patients are specifically asked about sexual side-effects, they are acknowledged by as many as 70%.

Sexual dysfunction is also a common side-effect of treatment with antidepressants. Among women being treated, it has been found to be more common in those who are older, married, without postsecondary education, without full-time work, or taking concomitant medication (any type); those who have a comorbid illness that might affect sexual functioning, or a history of antidepressant - associated sexual dysfunction; those who deem sexual function unimportant; and those whose previous sexual engagements had afforded little pleasure.

Currently under scrutiny is the role of dopamine and other neurotransmitters in influencing sex hormone receptors and how the neurotransmitters are, in turn, influenced by sex hormones. Estrogenized female animals change their sexual behaviour when administered progesterone; studies have shown that the same changes can result from dopamine or the presence of a male animal. Among 75 non-depressed women with a DSM-IV diagnosis of hypoactive sexual desire disorder who received bupropion (a dopaminergic drug; average dose 389 mg/ d) or placebo, improvements in pleasure, arousal and orgasm were statistically significant for those administered the active drug. Interestingly, these changes were unaccompanied by increased desire.

Testosterone itself is being investigated as to its role in sexual function and dysfunction. About half of daily testosterone production in women is from the ovary. Some women with sudden loss of all ovarian production of androgens lose their sexual arousability. Supplementation to high physiological (as opposed to pharmacologically evident) levels of testosterone recently has led to increased arousability and more intense orgasmic experiences, but not to increased sexual thinking, fantasizing or spontaneous desire. Of 75 surgically menopausal women aged 31–56 participating in a randomized clinical trial of testosterone versus placebo, those given testosterone (300 μg transdermally) in addition to estrogen reported increased frequency of sexual activity, sexual pleasure and intensity of orgasm. So, reminiscent of the animal model, supplementation with a dopaminergic drug or testosterone can increase some women's sexual arousability; but so too, as in the animal model, can environmental change (a new partner).3

This may be far more information than you wanted, but I hope it helps you begin to understand the complexity of this issue as described by Rosemary Basson.

My personal experience working with couples trying to recover from infidelity leads me to want to share with you a few additional factors. When a man or woman has fallen in love with someone else, they soon discover the difficulty of being emotionally connected to two people simultaneously. For their heart and desire to return to their mate, they must first release their affair partner and let go of the resentments they hold toward their mate. Only time, professional help and support, and a willingness to bring things to light will allow the truth to be revealed. Ultimately, the beliefs you hold about physical and emotional intimacy, along with the perception you have of yourself and your mate, need to shift. But this won't happen unless you allow the right voices, beyond your own, to speak truth. As Einstein said, "No problem can be fixed by the same consciousness that created it." You must seek wise counsel and be open to other points of view.

Remember, our feelings are 100% true about what we believe, but they don't necessarily reflect the truth.

If you're the unfaithful spouse and your mate is ambivalent toward the marriage, then at the very least, begin to focus on becoming the person God and your best self want you to be. You at least want to be a person you like to be with, right? Focusing on those qualities is a good place to start.

Reconnecting is not a fast process, but it's more than doable. Allow yourself to hope and dream. Allow your current crisis to be the catalyst for a new connection for both you and your mate. We invite you to give our EMS Weekend a chance. It is designed for the very purpose of giving you the backdrop you need for safety, expert help, and a vision of complete marital transformation. If you don't believe me, please make sure you watch the EMS video testimonial and read the testimonies at the bottom of the page. No matter where you are at in this process, you will find them to be encouraging.

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There is always a lot to be

There is always a lot to be said about women who struggle with sexual intimacy... what about when it is the husband?  As a wife I long for my husband and physical  sexual intimacy - it's been 4 years since he has made love to me.

Thank you! It was very

Thank you! It was very interesting to read and to feel like such research was done about me.

must admit I'm very impressed

must admit I'm very impressed with your blog. Found most of the posts not only valuable, but interesting as well. Will be looking forward to more from you with a great expectation. Thank you!

WS dealing with Sex

I am the WS and I'm the one that at d-day + 3 weeks is having serious issues with the possibility of resuming our sex life. My husband and I are communicating honestly; I have resolutely ended the affair; and apologized to my husband. We both are willing to work to make our marriage succeed and have started counseling. The shame and guilt are occationally overwhelming, but there are good days and bad days and we're both fighting long-ingrained habits. That said, he has repeatedly indicated that he's ready to resume our sex life (which has been limited for the last year or more) and is frustrated that I'm not ready yet. He seems to see it as a step we're supposed to cross to indicate we're getting better and simultaneously has discussed how much of his ego is caught up in us proving that we have a better sex life. I want very much to give him that, but not under false pretenses. I'm worried that if we rush in and it doesn't go well, that will set us both back even further. I'd like to give him what he needs and wants, but I'm not ready yet. He keeps seeing it as a rejection, but if I fake desire for sex that I'm not experiencing, then it's a lie. It's good to know that I'm not alone in this.

The timing on this article is

The timing on this article is impeccable!!! I'm the unfaithful and I'm struggling with desire. Thank you one thousand times!!!

Article of the Week: Difficulties with Intimacy

Hi it would be helpful if you could write a similar article but where it's the reverse - how men experience desire and intimacy, and what affects their interest in sex, both when they are the betrayed as well as the betrayer.

perfect timing!

Excellent, excellent article and video! Thanks for tackling and talking about sex! Since God created the union between a husband and a wife, the subject of sex should not be awkward or hard, but as we all know, it is so much of the time. And there is so much mis-information and so many myths to be de-bunked!
Not sure I would have absorbed the content early on, so this is perfect timing in our recovery process to hear and read this info. We are almost four years from d-day and three years this month from EMS weekend, the start of our healing and recovery. Healing/recovery is ongoing, so I very much appreciate still receiving the weekly emails to continue us on down that road!
Thanks AR!

Role Reversal

I hope you do an article about men's lost desire after an affair. I'm the betrayed and have been rejected after initiating sex several times. I want to feel intimate with my husband but now just feel he has no desire for me. It's worse than intrusive thoughts. My heart is breaking even more.

Additional resource

I highly encourage everyone (especially therapists and leaders who teach or counsel on marriage) to read "The Great Sex Rescue" by Sheila Gregoire. It is research based information that untangled so much misinformation about sex that's been pushed by evangelical leaders and some popular Christian marriage books. This book was life changing for me.

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