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Intimacy after Infidelity

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Anshu Bahanda: Welcome to Wellness Curated. This is Anshu Bahanda and today we’ve come to you with something which is a little bit crazy, quite difficult and a very, very sensitive topic. We’re going to be talking about intimacy after infidelity. Now, this is a topic that I have discussed with friends and family over the years. People very close to me have suffered greatly. And you know, very often I say to people that there are only two people who know what’s going on in a relationship, and that is the two people in the relationship. There is though, a close third and that is their therapist. And in that light, we’ve got you three wonderful, very qualified ladies to talk about this topic. We have Anvita Madan-Behel who is a Columbia University-educated psychosexual and relational therapist. We have Aili Seghetti who is a relationship reinvention specialist. And we have Cassandra de la Thea, who is a psychotherapist. Welcome to the chat ladies. I am going to start with Cassandra. Cassandra, explain to us what your work involves, and how (do) you go about it. Just give us an idea.

Cassandra de la Thea: So, the work that I do with couples specifically is a four-step process. I call it the Love Restorer Method. And it’s really about, first of all, clarifying what is the vision, the specific vision and the specific agreements that you need between (each other) the couple. Because, you know, whatever is the model of relationships that we, that we are sold doesn’t necessarily work for the people involved. So we really have to get clear on who are the people in it, what they actually want, what agreements support them so that they can thrive individually. Then we need to get to the place of understanding and appreciating their differences. And that can be male-female differences, I mean, very informed by Tantra in my work. So what are the different needs, the different desires, and how can we make those differences work together in a way that the whole is more than the simple parts? Then it’s about building goodwill in the relationship. And then step four is about reigniting a passionate connection because a lot of the issues in relationships are often due to sexual incompatibility.

AB: That sounds incredible, actually. Love your four-step process. Aili, tell us, what do you do?

Aili Seghetti: So I’m a relationship reinventionist, a somatic sex coach and a dating coach as well. I usually get couples whose desires are not really matching or people who’ve stopped having sex or people who’ve gone through an affair and struggle with intimacy. So often I ask (the couples) to take a break, maybe living far away from each other or just not spending so much time together. And after the break, we look at everything from fresh, from scratch, especially because, often, people have not really looked at what drives their sexual life or their erotic self. And usually, there’s a one-month sort of process of workshops, individual sessions, and couple sessions where we experiment with physical touch, with words, with kind of actions, and because there’s been a rupture in the relationship, usually there are some breaks in between where people actually release energy. I use neurodynamic breathwork to help them release if there is any kind of pain or resentment or anger, crying, et cetera. So that happens in between the sessions.

AB: Very interesting, again. Anvita, thank you for being back on Wellness Curated. We’ve done a whole bunch of wonderful podcasts. I know we’ve talked about gender, we’ve talked about intimacy on a podcast, and we’ve talked about mental health. So thank you for coming back. And my question for you is, how do you approach couples who are struggling with intimacy?

Anvita Madan-Bahel: People think intimacy is just warmth or affection or something, but you really need to work on it. You need to make a conscious effort to bring intimacy back. It might be the small touches, it might be the small words, it might be big discussions, it could be (other) things, but it is about reigniting what might have got lost. And I at some level feel maybe having sex one-off might be easier, but actually bringing intimacy might be really much tougher in some ways.

AB: Actually Anvita that’s so insightful what you said because I’m going to go into it later (about what is intimacy). 

Aili, So let’s get into a situation where a couple comes to you and says that they’re having an issue. So let’s take a case study of a couple, same-sex, different-sex, whatever, they come to you and say that there is an issue in their relationship. Will you talk us through the process that you go through? I know you briefly told us what you do, but just talk us through the process.

AS: It takes a lot of time for emotional repair. So you will start with bodywork, that it’s just about cuddling, for example, or just holding hands. How does it feel? What are the emotions that come up? So there are sessions just on taking it slowly, on taking it really slow. Sometimes, for example, I use the wheel of consent. So you just go by touching a hand. And the issues, the trust issues that come up with just a hand touch are immense. So there is a lot of breaking down, there is a lot of release and crying, and that’s when you have to go back to a talk-based therapy method. And then again, you go into the body and you see what happens to the body.

So if let’s say, the wife was the one who’s been cheating, I will ask the man or the husband, where would you want her to touch you and how? And if there are any emotions that come up during that touch, what are the emotions? And then we discuss emotions. So it’s a very baby-step kind of an approach till the point where in front of me the couples would go through maybe kissing or holding tightly or maybe doing pleasure mapping, which would not involve being naked, but some parts exposed. And how does that feel? What kind of emotions comes up when you are touching her in this way? There are certain breathing exercises that we do to settle, to ground ourselves. There is a lot of reassurance that we ask from the partners, because most of the time, what we need to hear when we’ve been cheated on let’s say, it’s that we are still loved and the person is walking towards something.

AB: Yeah. And Aili, you made a very insightful comment just now when you said cheating or betrayal because betrayal is not always physical. I mean, I hear from a lot of people who sometimes feel that one partner has felt betrayed by the other partner and it might be something to do with their family. So thank you. Thank you for that.

Cassandra, tell me, how often do you come across situations where people are trying to get back after infidelity? And how do you deal with this same case study that I was asking Aili about where a couple comes and says, one of us has cheated? Help us.

CT: Yeah, well with a love story, it’s very much couples who are either in crisis or couples who feel like they’re feeling stagnant and they know they’re kind of at risk. The very first step is really like, how do you frame what happened? Because the greatest temptation is (saying) that the person who has cheated is a bad person. And I always say to people, you have one of two choices. You can either blame and punish your partner for what they’ve done, or you can repair your relationship, but you can’t do both. And the understanding that I suggest is that it is not the fault of the person who has been cheated on, but it is actually a symptom of where the relationship was before it happened. And one thing I’d like to add is it really also requires complete honesty— the honesty to be really real about who you are. What do you really need to thrive in this relationship? What do you need to be fulfilled? And that curiosity of really wanting to learn how to love your partner well. And what I mean by that is, learn to love and express love in a way that really gets to your partner and they really recognize it. Because in relationships where there is such a rupture like there’s cheating or an incident like that, it’s normally because there was something that was missing and there is a kind of a level of fear about asking for that to happen in the relationship. So there’s often a lack of honesty with (their) self and the partner that comes before. And often, one person goes out to cheat, but like that’s predated by another person. The other partner feels like they didn’t receive something and therefore (leading to) them withdrawing internally. So it’s often a co-created dynamic. And cheating is a kind of a very useful piece of information about the state of the relationship not being where it could be. And if you frame it like that, you can work together at repairing it. If you insist on there is like one victim and one perpetrator, it’s incredibly hard to come back from that.

AB: So you’re saying, that the problems probably existed beforehand and the infidelity, I can see all of you nodding, and the infidelity is just something like you said, just another thing that happens.

CT: It’s the symptom, not the cause.

AB: It’s the symptom, not the cause, yes! So Anvita just coming to a cheating scenario with you. So say one person has cheated. Now you know what you see in movies, what you see in books, and typically what you hear from people, is that the party being cheated upon blames the other person. But there is also a situation where the guilty party either struggles with intimacy or they are trying to overdo things with the partner. So they’ll go and buy (their partner) them a diamond ring or they will be over intimate or over touchy-feely in public sometimes, with their partner, to try and cover up for that.

AM: So I’m going to build on what Cassandra was saying with this idea that we always see ruptures as things. What Cassandra was talking about, and we’ve spoken about this before Anshu, is this idea of circular causality. So there’s not like one is to blame and one isn’t. But there’s something (about) the dance in the relationship, if one is pushing, one is pulling,  it’s the dance that is not working right in some ways. So both parties are involved. The other person might have not cheated or gone outside the relationship, but they might have withdrawn or they might have taken away sex from the relationship, or they might have taken away intimacy from the relationship. So you might have this dichotomy in the relationship where one person has withdrawn, but they’re not seen as the bad people because they didn’t cheat. But the person who actually went outside the relationship is the cheater or the betrayer in some ways. But for the relationship to come back together and for repair to happen, we need to see this dynamic. And it can be really tough on the person who has acted out because of those societal norms of he cheated or she cheated, let’s not make it gender-specific, anybody can do it. And what we know is most times affairs are found out because the person wants the other person to find out.

AB: Before doing this chat, I had a conversation with a lot of people and one person said this and it really stuck in my brain, and I think all three of you have touched on this. So what is intimacy actually? So there’s sexual intimacy or sex. And it’s easier to go back to having sex, but then there is emotional intimacy. So how do you help people build back that emotional intimacy? Because that’s the one that’s really hard.

AS: So I’ll give you my personal example. I was married to a compulsive liar. I’m still married to one, and he had an affair. We both believed that we were in some kind of romantic monogamous relationship, which is what I started questioning afterwards. Like, is it the cheating or is it actually the system that has some loopholes? Are they people going (around) cheating on each other or is it the system that is slightly not so realistic, like monogamy in general, the romantic monogamy? So my personal experience was like, okay, now if the person is lying to me or if they are having an affair, does it really matter to me when I am addressing my needs? If the person is fulfilling my needs and if I’m able to communicate my needs, does it really matter? I mean, obviously, you have to move away from that whole victim-perpetrator mode first and that’s a priority. And some people never move out of it, and sometimes you just have to accept that this is how it is.

AB: So Cassandra at Wellness Curated, we always try and give people tools that they go back with that help them. In this half an hour podcast, can you give us some tools which will help people with intimacy after infidelity?

CT: I greatly believe that sometimes it’s just about knowledge and we’re just not taught how to be with each other physically, intimately, sexually, emotionally, how we are meant to be with each other in a way that works, and how to bridge the gap between one and the other. So if I have a couple to work with, I’m very happy to do that, and I’m also happy to work with the individual. It’s like sometimes in a relationship, people are kind of stuck in the pattern they’ve co-created, and if both are willing to make that investment and move forward, that’s the ideal scenario. And then you work with a couple. But if only one person is deeply unhappy and wants to make a change, then I work with that person to empower them, to show them how can I break out of this pattern. Because patterns can only be maintained if both people keep dancing the same dance.

AB: Aili, I want to ask you the same thing, because you get approached, I’m sure, by couples, especially in this case, where there are trust issues and then there is this beautiful woman involved. So, firstly, how do you deal with that? And secondly, is it ever tough on you when you get approached by something like that?

AS: No, I think it’s quite common, especially in India where there are a lot of arranged marriages. And anyways, sexual chemistry is not there in the first place. It’s something that people really need to work on. Like people who’ve been married for, I don’t know, six months, but they are not even attracted to each other. So initially, yes, if it’s a heterosexual couple, there is some sort of, okay, what is going to happen to my husband with this woman here? Some people are not comfortable at all, so you have to work within their comfort zone. In some couples, some women aren’t touched by me if they’re heterosexual. Some men are not okay, (with) being touched in front of their partners, but they want to do a session on their own. So these things do happen. But ultimately, again, it’s the way you communicate, the way you address it within the couple. Obviously, you have sessions together and then you have individual sessions.

AB: Thank you. Anvita, I wanted to ask you so, you know how sometimes when there are repeated issues of infidelity in a relationship, and they come to you, they try and work it out, and then they go back, and then it doesn’t work, so they come back to you. Do you ever say to them, this is it, stop now, it’s enough?

AM: I think this idea that all couples counselling is to keep the couple together actually is not a fair one. A lot of times couples would come and they would be undecided, they would be exploring, they might go through counselling and say the best thing for them is to separate themselves or to stay together. As we were saying that the infidelity, the multiple infidelities we were saying is a symptom,  I would make a parallel to it (like) just the way if a child is constantly acting out at school, we would turn around and say it’s a cry for help. Like, what are they looking for? And that’s how I would see it in couples counselling as well. So each time you’re repeating the same pattern. So obviously you’re looking for something different. You’re needing something different, you’re wanting something different, or you’re desiring something different. And each time you’re doing it, and even if it is to hurt the other person, the anger to hurt, like, where is that anger coming from? Where’s that sadness coming from? Where’s (all) that coming from? So there’s something happening emotionally, and the reality is maybe a relationship stopped working or whatever. And that’s what we were saying that why are you staying in a relationship for the other partner where somebody is repeatedly cheating? And a lot of women, and I agree with you Anshu, I’ve spoken to a lot of people who have said, look, we’ve decided that this is the age and stage of life where I get what I want, so do I really care what’s happening and where the partner is going? So some people might say they want to be in open relationships now and everything.

AB: Just building on that. Cassandra, I want to ask you something. So in today’s day and age, there are all kinds of relationships, right? The modern family, the modern couple. Have you seen relationships or would you say you’ve seen healthy relationships where the couple have decided that they don’t want intimacy, they don’t want sexual intimacy? So they’re together, there is companionship, there’s friendship, but there’s no sexual intimacy.

CT: Well, there’s only really one instance where I think that (having no sexual intimacy) works, that’s if both partners are asexual to exactly the same degree. Otherwise, I would just call these people cohabiting friends. Because like for me the difference between a friendship and an intimate relationship is sex. So I think what happens is that (in) pretty much most relationships that I’ve ever seen, there is often a difference in sex drive or often a difference in how someone gets started to get interested in sex, like what starts the desire for someone or the other. And I see that a lot of people have not learned how to bridge that gap and translate it. And that’s really where I think our work as educators comes in. It’s again being a translator and saying, well, yeah, let’s say someone has a very physical access to sexual energy, all they need is to see their partner naked or wearing some lingerie and they are ready to go. And that’s often an expectation we have of ourselves. But then let’s say someone has a more cerebral approach to sexual energy and for them, it’s all about anticipation. What might this mean? Maybe it’s about power dynamics. Maybe it’s about you having to make someone think about sex before the body follows. Now if two people like that come together and they don’t know that that’s who they are, they both will feel flawed or both will feel like their partner is the wrong person. And so often it’s the same with different sex drives. Often the partner who has the lower drive sets the pace and then the person who has the higher drive actually has a lot of themselves left on the shelf.

AB: Right.

AS: Can I just add one to that? 

AB: Yes. I was going to ask you the next question but go ahead.

AS: Actually, I disagree with (addressing Cassandra de la Thea) you. There is a difference between a friendship and an intimate relationship that might not be sexual; because again, it depends on the interpretation you have of sex. It could be like touching someone and experiencing pleasure in a body part that might not be your genitals, for example, but would you do that to your friend?

AB: Thank you, ladies. So to recap very quickly, let’s talk about intimacy issues after infidelity. Aili, what would you advise?

AS: Yeah, it’s an opportunity for you to understand what is it that you need, want, and where do you want this relationship to head to.

AB: Thank you. And any other advice Aili?

AS: That it’s an opportunity, see it as an opportunity and not a failure. Thank you.

AB: Thank you. Anvita, intimacy issues after infidelity, any advice?

AM: I think it takes a lot of work and I think that’s what we’ve emphasized a lot (in the podcast). (Working on) Communication, trust building, intimacy building and everything. So it’s not the end, you can restart, but it is a long journey and it is a difficult journey. So just being mindful of that, when you do start the journey.

AB: Cassandra, intimacy issues after infidelity, what would you advise?

CT: Ask yourself, what is it that I really, really want, to be in that kind of relationship? What does it take for me to really be satisfied, for me to want to engage with my partner, for me to feel safe and secure in that relationship and really use that as a wake up (call) for you to really examine, what (actually) would great look like? And then if your partner is willing to explore that with you, to really be honest and see how compatible are we both when we’re both laying our cards fully on the table, we’re both really showing up willing to work and prepared to work and grow on this (relationship), and then let’s see where we get to. And then you can, from a very informed place, see if that’s good enough or not for where you want to go (next).

AB: Thank you, ladies, for being part of this podcast. Thank you to the listeners for listening in. I hope we’ve helped you, I hope you learned something new and that you’re going to come back next week for more nuggets from us. Take care of yourself in the meanwhile and make sure to subscribe to Wellness Curated. Thank you.