By Anne Stirling Hastings for YourTango.com
A psychologist goes on a cheating site — and here’s what she discovered.
As a psychologist specializing in sexuality and relationships, I went on the “cheating” dating site Ashley Madison while gathering information for my eBook on online dating. What an education! Starting 12 years ago, this website kicked off a boom of dating sites for married people.
The success of such a service makes a lot of sense because sites for married people allow the dater to be anonymous. If the lover isn’t among your circle of friends, neighbors or co-workers, you’re safer from being caught.
Here’s my amazing discovery. Most of these men were more interested in romantic relating than in sex! This shouldn’t be surprising, though. If people are looking for just sex, there are plenty of other sites for this purpose that have been around for a long time.
The men I encountered through email, phone conversations and in person meetings made clear that they were looking for love. For some, sex is really not that important. Romance seems to be the dominant interest. They want a “lover” to text that they are thinking about them or a caring phone call mid-afternoon.
Many put up pictures of their erect penises, but after it was admired, it didn’t come up in conversation again.
One man texted that he was thinking of me while with his wife waiting for a movie to start. We had never met. When we talked on the phone it was in those tones of caring and desire of lovers. We never did meet.
I asked many men why they wanted a lover. Most were not having sex with their wives. But even without sex, people can feel loved and adored. These men didn’t feel loved but couldn’t justify divorce because of the children, even adult children, and the sense of family they appreciated. But they also wanted love.
One man stayed in his marriage after his wife had at least two long affairs, but he was no longer willing to be sexual with her. After years of no sex, he went online to find married women. He, too, didn’t want just sex. He wanted an affectionate, caring exchange that included some sexual activity.
Another man’s wife was chronically ill, depressed and didn’t enjoy sex. He had married her hoping to help her get well. When failing, he sought out interested women, but never actually consummated sex with any.
A man dating a woman who was eager for sex was upset by her lack of interest in romantic dinners. He stopped seeing her.
While I didn’t have sex with these men, I found it fascinating to interact with them. I had the great rationalization of research for a book. Their yearning for love, for being cherished, and wanted, was strong. Any attention from me was gobbled up, and more desired. While they talked about sex, it was not the primary focus. They liked my interest in them — that I wanted to hear their stories and learn about their lives. It felt like real caring, and I guess it was. But I couldn’t give them what was missing in their lives.
When sexless couples come to my office it’s a struggle to get them in touch with their loving feelings. I help them access caring without requiring sex to be the expression of it. They agree to stop having sex for a time, discover their loving feelings, if any, and then add sex back in. Many people go to therapy because one partner believes he or she deserves sex, and demands it. The other partner feels obligated, which kills the partner’s sex drive.
Sexual shame is the greatest inhibitor of couples being able to maintain an abundant desire for each other. We look at how that influences the lack of interest, and the felt need for outside-in stimulation.
I believe that the extent of extramarital affairs initiated online is the outcome of the large number of people who cannot incorporate loving sex into their marriages. These sites offer a facsimile of it, where they find people who will talk with them, and make them feel special in some way. Sexual energy, even if not acted on, fuels the strength of feeling.
Many men in my practice have difficulty wanting sex with their wives. They separate the “clean” wife from the “dirty” lover, even if only texting and talking with her. They may see wives as mother-like, or pure, and not appropriate for “dirty” or “nasty” sex. “In the gutter” is only one expression reflecting the shameful nature of sex. As a wife she can’t be seen as a “shameless hussy” by him. When they feel the need to have “shameful” sex, it can be accomplished through porn, prostitution, or affairs.
I wrote a novel called Dirty Sex or Clean Sex in which the characters walk through these issues as they show up in love relationships. The reader is the fly on the wall as the characters explore their sexual shame, and learn to relate with the partners they live with and love.
My work with clients, and my explorations on Ashley Madison, reveal that sexual relating is perhaps the most confusing arena in which to relate. Love and sex and shame are interwoven in ways that are difficult to pull apart. Unless affairs are the drug of an addiction, they are one solution for those who can’t bring sex and love together. Hopefully some of these people will discover that it’s possible to heal sexuality and weave love and sex into one relationship.
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