In July 2015, there was a major hack into Ashley Madison, a website designed to help married people have affairs. The hacker group published the names of the website’s customers online, giving every husband and wife in the world the opportunity to scan the naughty list for their spouse’s moniker. Now, eight years after the secret lives of millions of Ashley Madison users were revealed, a study has determined why most of them cheated. The No. 1 reason was sexual dissatisfaction.

“Consistent with participants’ reports about their relationships, sexual dissatisfaction was the most strongly endorsed motive for wanting an affair,” the authors of the study wrote, adding that sexual dissatisfaction “predicted an increased likelihood of relationship dissolution/divorce.” It’s no secret that sex – particularly good sex – is an undeniable part of a healthy relationship for most people. So, is a partnership simply doomed if one person is underwhelmed in the bedroom? How should couples protect their marriage from cheating? We spoke to a relationship therapist to find out.

Unlocking the secrets to better sex

Tamekis Williams, a licensed therapist in Georgia, has devoted her professional life to helping couples work on their relationships. When she learned about the Ashley Madison study, she wasn’t particularly surprised that “sexual dissatisfaction” was the top reason why the website’s customers cheated on their spouses. 

“There’s a lot of pressure from society when it comes to sex, intimacy, and habits. Sex is being pushed as the No. 1 most important thing in a relationship, when it’s actually communication, connection, and love,” Williams said.

But that’s not to say that communication and connection don’t play a role in turning regular sex into good sex.  

“I think the sex we’re having right now is maybe between 20 percent and 40 percent of what we could be having if we were truly connected to our partners,” Williams said.

However, that genuine connection can’t happen unless emotional inhibitions are thrown out the window. 

“Sexual dissatisfaction and infidelity are symptoms of a bigger problem. A lot of people have issues with intimacy and vulnerability – and when that’s the case, it’s naturally going to show up in their sex life.” 

Williams said that in some cases, blaming the quality of the sex is easier than tackling what’s really there, whether that’s financial problems, parenting issues, or any number of other causes of relationship stress. 

Of course, the classic “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” philosophy also comes into play. That’s because as a whole, males and females act differently when it comes to sex and emotions. While this piece of information should not come as a surprise to anyone who resides on Planet Earth, Williams explained it in a very digestible way. 

“It’s not unusual for men to be able to go straight from a fight to having sex. But for a lot of women, our emotional self is connected to our vagina. If things aren’t right outside the bedroom, nothing is going to happen inside the bedroom.”

Finding out that your partner has been unfaithful to you is one of the most devastating discoveries you can experience in a relationship. (Shutterstock / studiostoks)

Navigating the emotional aftermath of infidelity

Pinpointing the exact number of people who have cheated on their partner is impossible, largely due to the fact that no one voluntarily chooses to go public with their affairs. Even academic studies on the prevalence of cheating vary so greatly that it hardly warrants linking to any of them in this article. But we know it happens. In fact, there’s a good chance you know someone who has cheated or been cheated on (or maybe you’re that person).  

So, what should you do when you discover that your partner has betrayed you by sleeping with another person? Williams says therapy is a great first step, but noted that self-care – mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual – should be the foundation of any healing.

“When a person feels as though their relationship has been threatened, it takes a lot out of them. It tears at their self-worth. Those who have been cheated on often take on the emotions that the other party should have – the guilt, the shame, the second-guessing.” 

Next, the person should explore and verbalize their emotions. How did the cheating make them feel? Did it make them feel like they were no longer desired by their partner? How did they feel about their partner around the time when the cheating occurred?

“We have to look at the health of the relationship prior to the infidelity to truly understand why it happened,” Williams said.

“Everyone always wants to place blame, so it’s important to work through where the blame really belongs. That’s the only way to heal properly.”

Williams is also a strong believer in “love mapping,” a concept created by psychologists John and Julie Gottman. 

“I encourage my clients to turn love mapping into a date at home. It starts with questions like ‘what is my shoe size?’ and then digs deeper into questions like ‘what are my fears?’”

It’s an opportunity for couples to travel back to the early days of dating and connect the dots with each other once again. 

“It’s like when people get a world map and they put a pin in a location every time they go somewhere. With love mapping, you’re exploring different places in each other and making emotional deposits into your relationship.”

Couples reconnecting after infidelity can benefit from ‘love mapping,’ ‘love sessions’ and ‘love journals.’ (Shutterstock / studiostoks)

Reconnecting with your partner after infidelity

Love mapping and “love sessions” are also great for couples who have not been affected by infidelity, according to Williams.

“Love sessions require both couples to check in with each other, once a month. It’s an opportunity to truly connect.” Those one-on-one chats aren’t to be confused with what Williams calls “team meetings,” which is when couples should discuss topics that are outside of the intimate relationship – the bills, the house, the kids, work. 

Williams said that couples can also benefit from creating a “talking space” in their home, a designated area where couples know they can talk with each other, look each other in the eyes, and share important messages. A “talking piece” to be held by the speaker can ensure that no one talks out of turn. 

“The talking space is great for high conflict couples because they tend to talk over each other, and they listen to respond instead of listening to hear. But if they’re in the talking space and they have a talking piece, that helps keep the conversation civil and productive.” 

Lastly, Williams said that keeping a “love journal” nearby is a helpful tool for couples. It can be a small book located anywhere in the house. The idea is that when a person feels love, contentment, or appreciation towards their partner, they can write that feeling in the love journal. But any notion of tit-for-tat journaling needs to be thrown out the window. 

“It has to be organic, not orchestrated. The moment one person gets angry because their partner doesn’t write in the love journal often enough, the entire benefit is gone.”