Doing the deed. Getting laid. Making love. It seems as though every euphemism for sex implies an action. (And I just thought of another one: Get some action. No ambiguity there). That's because sex is largely considered a physical activity, though it really can be just as much an emotional undertaking 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, and the changes can happen due to several factors you might not expect.
I spoke to Danica Mitchell, an NYC-based sex therapist and social worker at Peaceful Way Psychology, and she offered some insight into how sex may change after one or both partners in a relationship cheat, whether they 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 what sort of responses can you expect? If you or your partner has strayed, here are some of the ways in which your sex life might just be impacted as a result.
The Sex May Be Used As Reaffirmation
While not true for everyone, some couples may 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 that they are loved and desired by their partner," Mitchell reveals. And that makes sense — a person who was cheated on may feel betrayed, and engaging in intimate activity with their partner could make them feel as though they have their partner's undivided attention again, and the damage is restored.
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
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.
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 in the process of 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 may not ever be just "doing the deed" or "getting laid" again, but having it carry more significance may make it better than ever.
No matter who cheated, having sex with your partner again after infidelity may not always be easy. As Mitchell points out, "Sex often acts as an emotional bridge back to each other." If you are the partner who has been cheated on, you may want to know details. "For example," Mitchell says, "how many times, where did you have sex, did you think of me during, etc." But knowing these things (or telling your partner these details) might only cause more pain.
Instead, try to understand why the cheating happened. Knowing what motivated you or your partner to stray is far more productive than rehashing all of the intimate details of the affair. Once you have a better understanding of your partner (and yourself), that's when sex can used as a means of healing rather than a means of hurting.