Presented by Mark Chamberlain, PhD at the “Togetherness Conference” on October 17, 2015. The following content is his PowerPoint presentation.

Emotionally Safe Sex

“I feel messed up emotionally”
“I’m not crazy!”

Attachment System:

• I still want to be with my husband physically
• I want to know he’s near me

Avoidance System:

• I want to be as far away from him as I can get
• When I get near him I get physically ill

Is Sex Better Now?

• Better: real, authentic, more caring, connection, closeness

• Harder: complicated, frustrating, requiring attention, effort, dedication, frustration, before I was blissfully naïve

• Not Better:
–”Not sure we’ve reached the pay off phase yet.”
–”Still so many trust issues, but it’s matured into more than honeymoon sex, with him driven by lust and giving little in return.”
–”Getting better but still resentment and fear.”

How Did it Get Better?

The Stages of Progression

• Recognize I had trauma around sex (took years)

• Believe I had a right to say no

• Determination to change things

• Persuade him I needed to change

• Say no at any indication of interest due to fear of being manipulated. All sex initiated by me. (1 year)

• Convinced he’s honest, sober, and I will protect myself, so allowed him to initiate sometimes

• Fumbling to find mutually comfortable level of frequency, variety, and who initiates. (we’re here now)

Inhibitors to Safety, Connection

• I doubted myself, my sexuality. Was it my fault? Am I not lovable?

• We believed that he needed sex and I shouldn’t say no. He was afraid that if I said no at all, our sex life would die.

• I was afraid of being a doormat, of disapproval, of being talked into something I don’t want to do, of him not loving me.

• I didn’t reach out for support.

• The confusion: I second guessed everything, I didn’t trust my own judgment.

What I did that helped

• Recognized my value and strength.

• Did my own recovery work.

• Honored my reluctance, prioritized emotional safety. (“It was the only way forward.”)
– Convinced I never again have to have sex when I don’t want to
– Can say “no thanks” without fear of retribution

Break from sex

• After his disclosure we separated for five months, no physical contact.

• “Sex wasn’t an option. The relationship was so damaged we had to start from scratch rebuilding a friendship before anything intimate could be reintroduced.”

Boundaries about sex

• We wait a week after a relapse for sex, several days after a lust hit.

• We’ve had multiple in-house separations in the last few years.

• Healthy boundaries in other easier areas of life first, then sexual boundaries.

Saying No

• I have learned that participating in unwanted sex will do me great harm. I can’t afford to ignore my own protests. I can’t even afford to try to like something.

• When I sense my husband is not in a good place or he has acted out, I remove myself — I sleep on the couch.

Trust flows from … TRUSTWORTHINESS

• “It’s the character of the man. His integrity. It’s who they are, not just a show to placate you. Rebuilds your faith in humanity, marriage, men.”

• “The whole thing depends on trust, and that’s entirely dependent on the betrayer. (If he doesn’t become trustworthy, a healthy sexual relationship may never be possible.)”

Ongoing Betrayal is Huge Inhibitor

• “Our intimacy lives on the edge of a very steep cliff. My husband continues to act out regularly while attending 3 sex addiction groups. Neither of us are sure that he really wants to have this problem removed from his life, only managed.”

• “He doesn’t feeling worthy of sex with me after acting out. He requires himself to be sober for a while before coming back to the marriage bed. The progress is hindered because of his cycle.”

• Chronic relapses over the course of years.

Helped That He …

• “Takes full responsibility for his addiction — no blaming, demanding sex, encouraging me to doubt myself.”

• “Stayed close enough for me to know where he was when I was angry and withdrew.”

• “Did recovery work and regaining control of his life by reading, counseling, meeting with our bishop, attending groups.”

• “His progressive victory over lust.”


• “Admitted he was a sex addict before we married.”

• “Voluntarily told me about every relapse since he first disclosed his addiction 10 years ago. I can trust that I am not having sex with someone who’s not sober.”


We realized early on that we were going to have to learn all over again so first we tried to go back to more intimate connections without sex. Watching movies together, holding hands in church, kissing hello and goodbye. Time too. It all just took lots of time. We’re 2.5 years past the disclosure and we are still trying to figure out real intimacy.

Sex Has to be Turned Back On Again after Being Shut Down

• “I’d turned those things off when I didn’t feel safe.”

• “I’d let myself have those feelings, then discovered he wasn’t exclusive.”

• “You learn not to trust those feelings. You get numb and reluctant to commit to decisions and activities.”

Initially Tentative

• “It was like starting over. I had to learn how not to be in pain every moment, tormented by my imagination. He had to remove the fantasy life from his brain and just be with me.”

• “It was rough. We stuck with the basics and just tried to survive those moments.”

Saying Yes

• I did not participate in sex that was not initiated by me for a long time

• Eventually, as I felt protected when we were together and learned to accept him as he was, and learn to forgive him and let go of things I couldn’t control, it became easier.

• My desire to be near him and then my willingness to be intimate with him was more a blessing from God than my own doing.


That first step I took back toward my husband was the hardest step I’ve ever taken in my life. I had to fight through disgust for him, the pain I felt at his touch, and the wall I had built around my own physical desires to protect myself from being hurt again. The first time we reconnected I was a bundle of raw nerves and emotions and was for days afterward. The movie in my head of him with other women wouldn’t stop and I had nightmares for days after as well.

Stretch, Take Risks?

• Yes, BUT … not until I felt secure in my safety:
– He had been sober for a long time,
– I felt confident he’d tell me if he slipped,
– I knew that he wouldn’t withdraw emotionally if I turned him down, and
– I knew that I would not allow myself to participate in anything that
made me uncomfortable.

• Once all these components were in place for over a year, I could take risks and gave him more leeway in our sex life.

Step Forward, Step Back

When I felt brave enough to let him initiate again, sometimes we would connect wonderfully … then the very next time I’d spend the whole time worrying that he’d do something I don’t like.

Make Sex About Connection…

• It’s not about lust and sex drive as much.

• We set boundaries on certain sexual practices to reduce me feeling victimized and him feeding his lust and prolonging his cycle.

• We recognize triggering sex moves and verbalized them and avoided them.

Communication to Safeguard Against More Trauma

• “Lot’s of talking about what’s okay.”
• “Temperature checks all along. ‘How does this make you feel?’”
• “Experiencing things together with feedback. ‘Yeah, that helps me feel secure.’”

He Makes Sex About Connection …

• Stays with me and not disappearing into his own head. We are able to be there together.

• He’s on guard not to go to a carnal, animalistic place, which jeopardizes our experiences.

• He tries not to come to bed with lust in his heart. If he’s aware he’s in a lustful frame of mind he doesn’t initiate anything.

• He tries to make sure that my pleasure comes first. He meets my needs before he meets his own.

Tone & Focus of Sex Changes

• “He’s careful to be gentle and watch my reactions.”

• “There’s an element of tenderness that shows respect.”

•”We’re both there for the other person instead of for ourselves.”


• He realized it would take time even though [the hurt] wasn’t of his own doing.”

• “My husband had to learn how to go at my pace so that he didn’t do any more damage.”

• “Which aspects of healing our sexual relationship went quickly? None. I mean it.”

If Triggered During Sex …

• The same things would trigger me sometimes but not others.

• “There’s a greater sensitivity to who I am, what I feel, and what the experience is like for me.”

• Because we listen to and honor how I feel, I’ve come to believe that I will protect myself and not allow myself to be further traumatized.

• We have an exit strategy in case I am triggered during sex.

Empathy During Hurt

Often I would end up in tears after sex. He wouldn’t say anything just be there with me till I was ok again. He let me know that he was hurting too because he knew he’d destroyed this good thing that he had and hurt me badly in the process. We mourned together the intimacy we had lost.

Verbal Reassurance

“For us there’s constant feedback and communication. Affirmations and expressions of appreciation and love and desire to put each other first. An acknowledgment of the commitment. It’s not just said once and that’s that, it’s there all the time. As a woman it’s important to have that reassurance. Someone who thinks that of you — prioritizes you — and shows it.”

Gender Differences

• Explore
• Experiment
• Expand repertoire

• Connection
• Closeness
• Comfort

© 2015 Mark Chamberlain, PhD

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