Perhaps you are not married to or living with a leading sports player whose sexual habits make frequent front-page news. Nevertheless, you are concerned about your partner’s attitude to sex.
When you met, fell in love and made a commitment to one another, you knew that he (or she – this story does run in two directions) had a colourful past. You were not put off. In fact, you were somewhat flattered to be chosen from so many.
A few years pass. You have children. You create a shared life. Then you discover that he is seeing other women. You try not to believe it. But he is careless. He tells a few too many stories that even with the kindest interpretation don’t add up. He’s away more often than he should be. He’s home later than any job could demand. You confront him.
He denies everything. Or admits everything. Either way, he is eventually contrite. How could you think anything matters to him except you and the children? You are the only person he has ever loved. He may become self-righteous – even mean. Or he may be sorrowful, self-pitying and quaintly boyish. Somewhere in this drama words are spoken: “”I will never…”” And, “”Trust me…”” You believe him. Why wouldn’t you? You love this man, this marriage, the life you have together. You want everything to be all right and will do anything to convince yourself that it will be.
Your story may end there. That time may truly be the last time. Many people who fall back into patterns of casual sex, even when they genuinely love a partner, are capable of caring about the pain those actions cause. And will change their behaviour to demonstrate that.
But you may be less lucky. Time goes by. Perhaps you have another baby. Or move to a bigger house. Incredibly, the same signs appear. This time you read them sooner and with greater panic. Is it possible? It is. Now the promises are more intense. But your capacity to believe them is diminished. You are afraid of what you know and of what you don’t know. You wake up in the night and wonder if your partner’s carelessness extends also to unprotected sex. Is he putting your health in danger? Would that be the last straw? What should you do?
Experience has taught me that we are all capable of making significant psychological changes for the better. Given a grain or two of emotional intelligence, and even fear of loss as a motivating factor, people can make significant changes personally and within a relationship. When those changes are achieved consciously and willingly, the relationship may actually improve and have a new and more truthful depth of understanding and commitment. For that to happen, however, in a partnership where sexual fidelity is an agreed value, contrition needs to be genuine – and that means action, not just words.
Giving up sexual infidelity may be as hard as giving up any other kind of addiction – even when it is acted out infrequently. The person who believes they “”can’t help themselves”” needs to discover that they can. And perhaps the injured person also needs to accommodate a loss of innocence with a willingness to build on strengths and restrain from blaming or punishing, even when they feel entitled to do so. A partnership based on love can recover. Mutual care and trust can be renewed.
The situation becomes infinitely more complicated when the cycle of infidelity/contrition/relapse accelerates rather than stops. Where there is no change in behaviour, words of contrition become increasingly painful and finally insulting. This doesn’t mean that the marriage is necessarily over, but it will be seriously harmed. Intimacy depends on trust. When trust is absent, resentment and fear rush in. What happens next will always depend on each individual’s capacity to take responsibility for what they are doing and who they are becoming. A crisis of any kind is always an opportunity. How we respond to those opportunities shapes our characters, and perhaps our fate. How we respond also destroys – or saves – our most intimate relationships.
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