Sex
Couple in bed realizes intimacy and sex changes after someone cheats.

Here’s How Sex Can Change After Infidelity

Things might not go back to normal right away.

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Doing the deed. Getting laid. Making love. It seems as though every euphemism for sex implies an action. That's because sex is largely considered a physical activity, though it’s just as much an emotional experience as it is a physical one. Sex is intimate in more ways than one, which is why, when a partner is unfaithful, your bedroom activities might suffer as a result. Sex changes after cheating, but in order to understand how, it’s important to define “cheating” for yourself and your partner.

For some people, cheating is sex with someone outside the relationship. For others, it may look like something more benign than sex. “I’ve heard cheating defined as everything from masturbating, to looking at porn, to having sex with another person, to falling in love with someone else,” Nebraska-based AASECT Certified Sex Therapist and AASECT Certified Sexuality Educator Kristen Lilla tells Elite Daily. “It’s dependent on someone’s values and history. I think this is an important discussion for couples to have so they both understand what the other person’s boundaries are.”

No matter how you define cheating in your relationship, Luke Thao, a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist Associate (LMFTA) and member of the PNW Sex Therapy Collective based in Seattle, says it’s imperative to communicate how that transgression affected your feelings about the relationship — before jumping into sex again. “For my clients, I’d want to guide us to conversations around what’s at stake for you, what’s been transgressed, where do you want to go now, what’s the healing and the transformation that comes out of that?” Thao tells Elite Daily. “We’re starting with a conversation about cheating but we move into conversations around trust, comfort, emotional needs that no one wants to talk about.”

If you do eventually get back to having sex, though, NYC-based sex therapist and social worker from Peaceful Way Psychology Danica Mitchell says it might feel different than it did before one or both partners cheated, whether they’ve engaged in an affair or a one-night stand. "There is often a shift in sex after infidelity," she explains. "People can respond very differently, especially factoring in their upbringing and past relationships." So yes, sex changes after cheating. But what sort of changes can you expect? If you or your partner has strayed, here are some of the ways in which your sex life might be impacted as a result.

The Sex May Be Used As Reaffirmation
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While not true for everyone, some couples find themselves having sex much more often after an affair. This sexual hyperactivity can be borne from guilt, as the partner who cheated is using their sexual enthusiasm to assert their dedication to the relationship. But it can also be instigated by the party who was cheated on.

"Sometimes a spike in sexual activity is related to the person who was cheated on trying to reaffirm they are loved and desired by their partner," Mitchell reveals.

The Sex May Feel Guilt-Ridden

Guilt isn't always just felt by the partner who strayed. The person who was cheated on may also feel plagued by guilt if they believe they are somehow at fault for their partner's infidelity. Sex might be used by both parties as a means to overcompensate, though of course, that culpability will still be felt, perhaps even more intensely.

"The partner who was cheated on [might feel] guilt and blame, or have thoughts like, 'Oh, if we had sex more, he wouldn't have cheated' or, 'If I made him dinner every night...'" Mitchell says. Just as both partners may hope that frequent sex will repair their relationship more easily, people may use sex as a tool to potentially rid themselves of guilt.

The Sex May Be Withheld As Punishment

The amount of sex you and your partner are having can increase after an affair, but more often than not, Mitchell finds that the sex decreases in frequency instead. Rather than desiring affirmation through sex, a person who has been cheated on may feel no sexual desire for their unfaithful partner. Likewise, the guilt of the person who strayed may manifest as a lack of desire all together.

"What I tend to see most commonly after infidelity is that the significant other has a lower desire for their cheating partner," Mitchell says. "Sex sometimes becomes a means of control or punishment, which is a system that makes the partner who was cheated on feel more secure but is often damaging in the long run." Withholding sex allows a person who was betrayed to feel they have authority in the relationship again, but really, using sex as a tool isn't productive for either party.

The Sex May Feel Tainted Or Unsafe
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People cheat for any number of reasons, but no matter why they stepped out, the partner they cheated on is likely going to feel vulnerable, both in the relationship and in their own body. Yes, it will take time to rebuild that trust. However, something you may not have considered is the time it takes to actually feel safe having sex with your partner after they've slept with someone else.

"The person who was cheated on often feels unsafe emotionally and sexually, sometimes due to a fear of STIs," Mitchell explains. "Oftentimes, people struggle with a sense of feeling 'dirty' when trying to engage in sex with their partner again, which is tied into a lot of shame and guilt related to general narratives about sex." Even if the sex is still physically enjoyable, people can feel conflicted about whether they still want to have sex with an unfaithful partner simply because they don't feel secure any longer.

Thao says that in order to restore a sense of safety and trust, it’s imperative to have those really tough relationship conversations. “Some people can use their partner’s infidelity as a scapegoat to avoid talking about their own emotional needs,” he says. “I’m hesitant to use that word because I don’t want to dismiss the pain around the infidelity, but there needs to be a conversation about how to heal, how to move forward, how to update the terms and conditions of your relationship so that they’re modern and flexible. Infidelity is a boundary-type conversation. How do we make those boundaries flexible and honest?”

The Sex May Be Judged By Others

As private as you may keep your sex life, outsiders will likely make assumptions if a couple decides to stay together after an affair. No one can really know what happens inside your bedroom except you and your SO, but you might feel others' judgement regardless, and harsh judgement can change the way you feel about engaging in sex, no matter how often the sex is even happening.

"There is a big cultural narrative," Mitchell says. "[It is believed that] if someone cheats, you should leave because they are an awful person. People are often judged if they stay with a partner who was unfaithful." Feeling judged by others about your sex life may compel you to turn that judgement on yourself, which could make the sex feel a lot less comfortable and a lot more complicated.

The Sex May Become Much More Meaningful

Before the infidelity took place, you and your partner may have had a more casual approach to how and how often you had sex. After cheating, sex can feel more consequential, and good sex can actually help both you and your relationship repair over time.

"Once some of the emotions are processed and trust is being rebuilt, incorporating sex back into [your life] is often the next step into feeling happy and 'normal' again," Mitchell explains. "It absolutely can be scary to engage sexually after a betrayal, but with patience and communication, that connection and foundation can be rebuilt — sometimes stronger than before."

"Sex often acts as an emotional bridge back to each other," Mitchell adds.

Outside of sex, Lilla advises there’s a lot of work to be done to restore a relationship after an incident of cheating. “It’s important to go to therapy and process the infidelity together. It is important to understand why the affair happened to prevent a situation like that from occurring again,” Lilla says. “It also takes time to rebuild trust, and if you want the relationship to work then you need to both be patient. Trust doesn’t exist in a vacuum, though. I often hear people say ‘I’ll never trust them again,’ but they do trust their partner to go to work and pay the bills, so I focus on what they can trust so we can then focus on where to rebuild.”

Working your way back to a fiery sex life and a comfortable relationship is never easy after infidelity — but with the right mix of patience and dedication, it’s possible to come out of it stronger than before.

Experts:

Luke Thao, MA, LMFTA (Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist Associate)

Kristen Lilla, AASECT Certified Sex Therapist and AASECT Certified Sexuality Educator

Danica Mitchell, sex therapist and social worker