Lesson 6 of 7 - learn to parent effectively

Confront Harmful Sexual
Attraction Between Ex Mates

Eight Options

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW
Member NSRC Experts Council


The Web address of this article is https://sfhelp.org/parent/divorce/lust.htm

Updated  03-07-2015

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      This is one of a series of lesson-6 articles on effective parenting during parental divorce. These articles augment, vs. replace, other qualified professional help.

      This article assumes you're familiar with....

  • the intro to this site and the premises underlying it,

  • self-improvement Lessons 1-6, and...

  • basic ideas and useful Q&A items about ex-mate relations.

  What's the (Surface) Problem?

      Sexual desire for your ex mate may not stop when you separate. Strong emotions that come up during separation, divorce, and afterward - like anger explosions - can trigger gusts of sexual desire.

      One of you may act seductive towards your ex for several reasons. These can cause a relationship "problem" when someone feels that your or your ex spouse's sexual fantasies or behaviors significantly interfere with...

your (or their) wholistic health, because of excessive guilt and shame over your (their) "bad" or obsessive sexual fantasies or behaviors; and/or...

your personal security and priorities - e.g. if either of you stalks or harasses the other; and/or...

co-parenting your kids effectively after separation;

     And ex-mate lust is significant if it...

blocks some adult or child from fully grieving (accepting) the major  caused by your separation and divorce, over time; or if it causes one of you to...

use a child, relative, or friend as a sexual spy, confidant, or messenger (triangling), and/or ex-mate lust is a problem if it...

stresses a new partnership by causing suspicion, resentment, and/or jealousy.

      These problems are not about sexual fantasies or impulses, they're about how ex-mate lust affects your wholistic health, behaviors, priorities, kids, key relationships, and family functioning.

      I assume you're reading this because one or more of these situations applies to you, or you want to support someone struggling with "an ex-mate lust problem." What do you need - clarification? Information? Problem-solving options? Try saying out loud why you're reading this article.

      Note - if part of your problem is a new partner feeling jealous and/or distrustful of you (relative to you and your ex), follow the links after you finish reading this.

      As with most family role and relationship problems, sexual tension between ex mates indicates underlying primary problems. Trying to reduce the surface problems (symptoms) may cause temporary changes, but won't fill your primary needs. What can fill them is identifying, owning, and resolving ...

  The Primary Problems

      Looking below typical surface "sexual problems" between divorced partners usually reveals some mix of these...

      1) One or both of you deny sexual feelings for your ex mate, or you deny that such feelings and related behaviors are causing significant stress in or between your family members. Similar reality distortions are...

  • minimizing ("Well, yeah - but no big deal..."),

  • intellectualizing ("Let's analyze why this sexual problem exists..."), and...

  • projecting ("It's your fault: you keep coming on to me").

Each of these suggests significant psychological wounds and a disabled true Self in one or both of you. And/or... 

      2) You receive sexual signals (language, flirting, invitations,...) from your former mate, and/or you send them such signals - and feel confused about your own feelings ("I'm kinda turned on - and I feel guilty and uncomfortable, too.") 

      Chronic ambivalence always signals that a false self controls your perceptions, thoughts, feelings, and behavior. That often causes the ambivalent person (you) to give confusing double (mixed) messages to their ex - like saying with a grin or a playful voice-tone "Stop coming on to me!" Internal (personal) confusion breeds confusion between ex mates and others.  

      3) Another possible primary problem is one or both of you don't know how to...

  • define your boundaries (limits) with the other,

  • assert your boundaries effectively, and/or how to ...

  • act with integrity if your boundaries are violated.

These indicate a disabled Self + unawareness of inherited psychological wounds and effective communication skills.

      And perhaps...

      4) One or both of you - and/or a new partner - believe that "(extra- marital) sexual thoughts, feelings, and fantasies are sinful or bad." Unexamined black/white beliefs like this can evoke significant shame, guilts, and anxieties. If ignored, these will degrade your wholistic health and your family relations.

        This is a kind of values conflict. This brief YouTube video offers perspective on this idea. The video mentions eight lessons in this self-improvement Web site - I've reduced that to seven.

      Another possibility is...

      5) One or both of you is not finished mourning the many losses (broken bonds) from your separation, divorce, and family reorganizing into two or more homes. If so, the primary problems are usually psychological wounds + ignorance of grieving basics + lack of internal and/or family ''permission'' to grieve well. Patient work on self-improvement Lessons 1-3 can reduce these, over time.

      A last possible root of your "ex-mate sexual problem" may be...

      6) One or both of you ex mates has a sexual addiction. If so, excessive sexual fantasies or obsessions about an ex mate is probably part of a larger pattern of compulsively over-sexualizing relationships and events and denying that to yourself and others. This may be amplified by a relationship addiction (codependence).

      My clinical experience is that any harmful obsession indicates significant early-childhood trauma and psychological wounds. One symptom of a true addiction is fierce denial of the compulsive dependency and it's obvious personal and social impacts.

      Diagnosing and managing sexual addiction is beyond the scope of this article and series. Libraries, and Internet and physical book sellers and local mental-health centers can help you learn more about assessing and managing addictions.

      Several 12-step programs provide materials and support groups: Sexaholics Anonymous (SA), Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous (SLAA), Sex Addicts Anonymous (SAA), and groups for addict's partners. These differ in some priorities and beliefs like major religions do. 

       Do you have a "significant sexual problem" with your ex mate? If so, let's explore your...


      You've already taken the first option, which is to acknowledge that you and/or an important other has "a (sexual) problem." Other choices include...

  • learn more now, and develop more options;

  • defer any action to "later;" or...

  • accept things the way they are now, with or without significant discomfort.

If you choose the first of these, you may...

      Ignore the primary problems, and attempt to resolve your surface problems. If you do this, I suspect that months or years from now, you'll admit that your "problem" is the same or worse, or that it has manifested in another part of your life. Pursuing surface solutions teaches you long term what won't work, and what the core issues are.

      People make permanent belief and priority changes when they finally exceed their limits for pain, weariness, and despair (''hit bottom''), and have proved that superficial changes don't fill their needs for long.

      Or you may...

      Research the primary problems above to see if they apply to your situation. Options:

    Assess  for psychological wounds in you and your ex by working at Lesson 1. If your Self (capital "S") is disabled, evolve and work patiently at a personal recovery plan. Freeing your Self to harmonize and guide your other subselves will significantly reduce your...

  • paralyzing ambivalences about your sexual (and other) situations,

  • denial, minimizing, procrastinating, and intellectualizing (defenses);

  • confusion about your boundaries, (limits) and anxiety about enforcing them;

  • choosing immediate gratification over long-term serenity; and...

  • sending double messages to your ex, and harvesting doubt, frustration, and distrust. 

What would your life be like if you could significantly reduce these? Note that over-sexualizing relationships and situations (or repressing normal sexual thoughts and impulses) may indicate some significant childhood sexual trauma and/or sexually-wounded caregivers.

      If you feel your ex mate is psychologically wounded, see these options.

      To learn if you're unclear on your sexual (and other) boundaries with your ex mate, describe...

  • what specific behaviors of theirs "upset" you,

  • what specific behavioral changes you need them to make, and...

  • specifically what actions you'll take if they choose not to change after you've requested or demanded that they do so. 

      Specific here means some behavior you could capture with a audio or video recorder. You can't record "being a jerk" (a judgment). You can record "using sexually-offensive language with me," Use this article as a resource.

      To improve your communication effectiveness with your ex - like asserting your needs and boundaries - read and apply this article. To expand communication options with your ex about sexual or other relationship issues, try mapping your usual communication sequence with them on specific topics (including "we don't talk about it"). Does your sequence qualify as effective communication? If not, use these blocks and tips to make it more effective.

      Option: get quiet and try mapping your subselves' usual dialog sequence (thoughts, feelings, and images) when they're focusing on your "sexual problem" with your ex mate. Are your subselves communicating effectively? Your Self can improve your internal communication outcomes, once s/he's trusted to lead your other subselves and they all know these basics.

      To assess whether incomplete grief in you or your ex is contributing to your "sexual problem,"

  •  get undistracted,

  •  put your Self in charge,

  •  take this quiz, and...

  •  review this and these symptoms.

If unfinished grief is part of the problem, see these options and study online Lesson 3 for all your sakes.

      To see whether your key attitudes about your ex and/or about sexuality are skewing your perceptions, decisions, or behaviors,

  • take this attitude inventory,

  • compare this sample Bill of Personal Rights with your beliefs, and...

  • rate your reaction to these statements. T = true, F = false, D = "it depends" (on what?), and "?" = "I'm not sure now":

Sexual thoughts or fantasies about people other than your primary partner are always wrong and bad.  (T  F  D  ?) 

Sexual thoughts or actions other than for procreation are always wrong and bad. (T  F  D  ?) 

Sexual thoughts, fantasies, and impulses are normal and OK, as long as I don't act on them with someone other than my primary adult partner. (T  F  D  ?) 

Divorced parents who have strong sexual feelings for their ex mate are sick, weak, wrong, and/or bad.  (T  F  D  ?) 

Healthy, mature men and women should be able to control their sexual thoughts, fantasies, feelings, and actions.  (T  F  D  ?)

I feel comfortable enough talking factually about my sexual situation with my ex mate to my close friends, and to any counselors I'm working with.  (T  F  D  ?)

I and/or my ex believe solidly in _ Hell, _ Christian sin, and that _ thoughts or actions of lust and fornication other than to further God's plan are clearly sinful and shameful. (T  F  D  ?)

My true Self responded to these questions  (T  F  D  ?)

      Your subselves' beliefs about sensuality and sexual morality may be causing excessive conflict, guilt, shame, and/or anxiety. If so, this suggests the need for personal recovery from psychological wounds, and the need to examine beliefs like those above to see if they're yours or someone else's (like your parents, a religious book or teacher, or a partner). If you're using someone else's beliefs out of habit or duty, replace them with your beliefs, and see if that improves your situation.

            More options...

      Print this article and give copies to your ex mate and relevant others for information and/or as a resource for some action you want to take;

      Remind yourself to reread this article on some future date (when?), to evaluate your progress on any action-options you choose; 

      Finally ...

      Use parts work to identify which of your subselves are triggered by some sexual aspect of you and your ex mate. Then learn what each activated subself thinks, feels, and needs. Do any of them  disable your Self around sexual reactions with your ex? Learn more about your subselves and parts work in part 3 of online Lesson 1 here. If you feel you have a sexual obsession, see this parts-work strategy for reducing it.


      This article is for people - specially parents - who are troubled by sexual feelings or behaviors with an ex spouse. The article proposes practical options for identifying the primary "sexual problems" you have with your ex mate, and specific options for reducing them.

+ + +

      Pause, breathe, and reflect - why did you read this article? Did you get what you needed? If not, what do you need? Who's answering these questions - your true Self, or ''someone else''?

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