There are moments when recovery from sexual addiction is a war against shame. That can be especially true in sexual intimacy.For a man in recovery, sexual intimacy with his wife can be a battle against old thoughts and shameful feelings. It can have an impact on his ability to stay engaged mentally, emotionally and even physically. In fact I’ve talked to 3 men in the last week who’ve lost an erection in the middle of sexual intimacy because their shame was so present. The guilt and shame associated with having previously committed adultery, for blowing up the family, for hurting his kids, for viewing outrageous pornography can be overwhelming.
For each of those men there is a wife who, sometimes equally, struggles with shame. The shame of insignificance and questioning if he’s thinking of the other woman. The shame of incompetency and wondering if she is being compared to women from the porn pictures. For some wives all the old messages come flashing back and the allegations are levied against herself: I’m not enough, I’m too old, I’m too young, I’m too prudish, If my body were different, if I didn’t have a checkered past, etc.
Here are a few tips to deal with shame as it pertains to sexual intimacy:
1) Pause – Stop the process and take a timeout. Many men, and women, will try to continue and just get the thoughts out of their head. They’ll try to ignore it, refocus, turn the lights on or off, change positions, say different things and so on. Don’t try to get around it; instead work through it.
2) Talk about it – Yes, it may ruin the mood. But the mood isn’t the most important thing! Your personal and marital healing are the most important thing. If you’re the husband, remind your wife that you love her enough to not have sex with her while another woman or pornographic thoughts are in your head. Talk about the pain it brings up, engage empathy and let your heart break for the situation. That conversation may not be pleasant. Here are 2 ways it could go:
“Honey, I’m stopping because I’ve got old memories in my head and I can’t get rid of them. I don’t want them, I wish I didn’t have them, I wish I had never done the horrible things I did. I am so sorry that even this sacred place in our relationship is ruined. I’m sorry.”
“Let’s stop. I’m thinking of how some of the women in porn seem to enjoy sex so much and you just don’t seem to enjoy it at all.”
Hopefully you see a difference. That second one is a direct quote from my someone in my office. As you might imagine, that conversation did not go well.
If you’re a wife, honor yourself enough to use your voice and share your pain and disappointment with your husband. You don’t have to shame in that moment, but you can express your hurt. And you can ask for reassurance. Give him a chance to assertively say that he is in fact NOT calling up old memories and is fully present with you.
NOTE: Guys, whatever you do, DON’T use pornographic thoughts or memories of a mistress to stay engaged in sex with your wife. This will only cause you more damage in that you are still not connecting in intimacy with your spouse, instead you are connecting with intensity via euphoric recall.
3) Don’t make sex the focus - Instead, make the focus intimacy. Make the point of your being together connection, vulnerability, security and reassurance. Sometimes we can experience that using our bodies, other times (especially in early recovery) we need to experience that with our words. If you’re having difficulty shifting the focus invite help from support folks or a counselor.
Remember that recovery is about intimacy, not intensity.