One any given day, my house is filled with my three kids, ages 12 through 17, and a collection of their friends, both male and female, gay and straight. One has to almost wade through hormones in our house. The air crackles with sexual energy.
Dinner table conversation the other night ran from masturbation to teenage motherhood and the importance of protection ("Abstinence!" insisted my Catholic-schooled husband, who never practiced it much himself). My daughter's boyfriend shook his head in disbelief. "We never have conversations like this at my house," he said, and I wasn't sure whether to feel smug or sheepish.
But while there's plenty of talk about teen sex around our house, there's far less around post-betrayal sex.
Sex is an arena that, almost nine years after D-Day, seems still dotted with landmines. It has become easier for my husband and I to simply avoid that topic. But, as I know all too well, "easier" can mean avoidant. And avoidant can fast-track us to disengagement and detachment, two signposts on the way to cheating.
That's not to say that I think either of us plans to cheat. It's just to say we should both know better than to ignore our own discomfort.
And sex makes both of us deeply uncomfortable.
It wasn't always this way, at least for me. In fact, I considered my sex life to be a model of agency and maturity and healthy sexuality. I loved sex, which, for me, was within the context of relationships with people I felt safe with and cherished by. I felt comfortable in my body.
Not too long into my marriage, however, I began to notice that sex with my husband sometimes felt...off. Though it offered up the expected physical pleasure, on an emotional level he sometimes seemed tuned out. Somewhere else.
I bought Mars and Venus in the Bedroom and tried to get him to read it with me. In very broad strokes, author John Gray outlined the differences between male and female sexual desires. My husband wanted rough-and-ready sex. I preferred soft and slow. I tried to talk with him about achieving some sort of compromise, along the lines of, sometimes we do it your way, sometimes mine. But not much changed.
During that time, I gave birth to one, two, three children. I was exhausted. I became resentful. He worked longer hours. I was lonely. I freelanced part-time and mothered full-time. Sex waned. I talked myself into believing this was what life with three kids and two tired parents was like. Maybe that's true.
I was happy. Mostly. I loved being a mom. My career was going great. I had deeply fulfilling volunteer activities. I had good friends. So I avoided looking too deeply at what didn't feel right. My relationship with my husband.
We all know where this is going, right?
Dec. 10, 1996, the light in my head finally went on. My husband was cheating. My world collapsed.
For six months, I continued to believe he had cheated with one person: his work assistant. I remained baffled by the affair. It didn't add up – she was so incredibly unpleasant and his relationship with her was constantly strained – but I believed him when he said that was the whole story. And then came the day when he told me the rest: He was a sex addict who was in treatment and who had been carrying on secret sexual relationships for the entirety of our relationship before D-Day. His acting out preceded me – though, without being in a committed relationship, it appeared more as just the sex life of a 20-something than the actions of an addict.
That remaining puzzle piece explained so much that had felt wrong in our relationship. It explained my sense of feeling objectified when we had sense (his sex addiction included a lot of porn). It explained his inappropriateness around sex, sometimes making frat-boy-type jokes that to him were funny but to those around us were beyond the pale. It explained my awareness that he was often elsewhere emotionally when we had sex – present in body but not in spirit. Turns out, he needed fantasy to fuel his desire. A real-life wife – and mother of his children – didn't do the job, so to speak.
Like so many of you after learning about a spouse's affair, my sexual identity was in tatters. I was so confused about our entire relationship – what was real? what was fake? – but especially our sexual relationship. I had believed myself desirable. I had thought of sex as connection. How could I have been so wrong?
At first, I responded with hysterical bonding. For the first time since very early in our relationship, I felt that intense connection through sex. We looked each other in the eyes, we talked and talked and talked. We tried new things. Our passion was unquenchable.
And then...it was over. For months and even years, we barely touched.
In the meantime, my husband was in sexual addiction therapy and learning, for the first time, what healthy sexuality looked and felt like.
I was just trying to hold myself together. It was enough to get through the day. My bed and my pyjamas signalled to my husband that I was closed for busines. I might as well have had a sign around my neck that read, "Leave me the hell alone."
I began to wonder about leaving. Not the "to hell with you, you bastard" kind of leaving (which, I wholeheartedly support if that's what you want) but an "I want a healthy sexual relationship with someone who doesn't carry the same baggage" kind of leaving. I toyed with the idea of having a no-strings-attached sexual relationship outside of my marriage, feeling somewhat entitled given what my husband had put me through. But I knew I couldn't look myself in the mirror if I was violating my own value system.
Eventually, we found a therapist who specialized in sex. We saw him for about six months and though we might have inched forward incrementally, he ultimately wasn't moving the needle far enough. His most frequent recommendation was "wine time", which too often turned into "whine time" during which we complained about the kids. It sure as hell didn't lead to sex.
Back to a sexual wasteland for a couple of years.
All this time, however, we were rebuilding a marriage. Though I hold that sex is an important part of a marriage, I've come to recognize that it's not necessarily the glue that I'd always thought it was.
Marriages come in all shapes and forms and I felt no less married in a sex-less relationship than I had when we had frequent sex. In fact, I felt more married because we were so committed to making it work.
And then we found our current couples counsellor.
We continued to try and avoid talking about sex, but she wouldn't let us off the hook.
She'd gently remind us that we were starting over with sex. Like shy teens, we had to come together in a way that we hadn't before, or at least not for a very long time. She still reminds us that it will feel uncomfortable and embarrassing at times, and she's right. I've had to do a lot of work around my own body image, especially as my former marathoner's body has settled into middle age. Long-gone are the mind movies that tormented me in the weeks and months post D-Day but I realized that I replaced them with a squeamishness around ordinary people sex, as compared to the soft-light beautiful people sex we see on TV and in movies. Both involve somehow imagining that everybody else is having better sex than you. Both involve convincing ourselves that we're somehow deficient: we have rolls, we don't moan loud enough, we accidentally fart. And both take us out of the experience itself and into our heads, where dangerous thoughts roam and threaten our pleasure.
I've learned from one incredible BWC warrior that my own sexual pleasure isn't given to me by someone else but is mine to claim, a lesson I knew in my twenties but that got unlearned in the rubble of D-Day. I've learned that sex is many things – awkward, fun, amazing, uncomfortable – and that I don't need to feel threatened by any of that. The only person who expects me to constantly delight in bed is me. I've learned that, despite my conviction that I had no sexual hangups, I do. We all do.
I'm still learning. So is my husband.
Which is why I'm not sure if have much to offer you beyond my own story about where I am right now: A middle-aged woman who's realizing that another chapter of her sex life is still being written.