This post first appeared on Healthy Marriage on November 4, 2020, but I really wanted the information here on my blog as well for my own readers. It’s been slightly edited for updating and clarity.
Infidelity. Pornography. An emotional affair. Using your spouse. Ignoring their desire, their pleasure, their satisfaction.
Any of these is enough to damage the trust and vulnerability necessary for healthy and holy sex in marriage.
Are they a death knell? No, but it can take intentionality, patience, and persistence to rebuild intimacy in your marriage. Thankfully, your efforts are well-worth the ends.
Let’s talk about how you can rebuild intimacy after it’s gone awry. Be forewarned, we have several points to go through before we get to the sex part, but these steps can ensure the intimacy endures.
1. Make sure it’s over.
The It here refers to whatever transgression or injury disrupted your relationship and its intimacy. To even start the healing process, you must stop the harming process.
After all, you wouldn’t think of treating a knife wound until you removed the knife. And yet, some spouses continue to dabble in their old ways, wavering in their commitment to the marriage.
Instead, you need to cut off whatever connections facilitated and encouraged the disloyalty. End the affair. Block the porn. Leave Facebook. Cancel cable. Get a new phone number. Change jobs. Change churches. Even move if you must.
How drastic the action must be depends on how deep the wound is. But the transgressor spouse must put down the knife, and the injured spouse should support measures that can smooth the path going forward.
2. Take time to grieve.
No one gets hitched expecting their marriage to descend into deep emotional pain. And yet, it happens. Whether the wound was intentional or unintentional, it still aches. You need time and opportunity to grieve the loss, to process the damage, to contemplate the hard road ahead.
Too many Christians shy away from lament, even though it’s a common theme in the Bible. It’s more than okay to pause, acknowledge your anguish, and cry out to God.
Oftentimes, the way out is through. There is morning after mourning.
Also, understand that grief is not a one-and-done. When you experience a deep loss, you can recover, only to have a “bad day” or a seeming backslide now and again. That doesn’t mean that you’ve lost what you gained or that you will return to where you were. Once you’ve rebuilt your marriage, you can get back on track much more quickly.
One additional note on grief—it doesn’t look the same for everyone. In fact, sometimes when a betraying spouse confesses, they feel relief and a sense of closure. They’d carried the burden of their sin and their secret, they finally let it go, and now they want to move on. But their confession is where their injured spouse’s grief begins.
Each spouse must be given the opportunity they need to reflect, lament, and begin to heal.
3. Talk through what happened.
Why did the betrayal occur? The offense didn’t happen in a vacuum. It occurred because something was amiss.
Maybe it was a problem within the marriage, which the transgressor spouse dealt with wrongly. Maybe it was a personal struggle. Maybe a sinful past crept back in or temptation blindsided the spouse. Maybe it traces back to an emotional wound from childhood or other trauma.
Whatever the reason, this is an opportunity to ask hard questions, figure out how this happened, and determine next steps to make sure it never happens again. The injured spouse should be allowed to ask some probing questions, and the transgressor spouse should answer honestly.
Do consider that your spouse cannot un-tell you what they tell you. Some details are not helpful to the underlying issues and only serve to place painful images in our heads. Before asking or answering, make sure this is something you really want to know.
These tough conversations can involve intense emotions and may stir up more conflict short-term, but this process can be crucial to re-establishing the trust that was broken.
However, you may want to have these discussions with a qualified counselor or mediator present.
4. Fix the foundation.
Now that you know where the weak spots are—individually and in the marriage—it’s time to start rebuilding. What do you need to actively change in your lives not only to stop the injury but to heal back stronger than before?
Set appropriate boundaries
Boundaries are parameters that define areas of ownership and accountability. Each spouse is responsible for their own choices and should accept the natural consequences for their behavior. Think of it as you sow, you reap.
All too often, we intervene in that process, keeping secrets from our spouse, trying to control our spouse, or enabling our spouse’s sin. It’s time to set proper boundaries. Check out Cloud and Townsend’s ground-breaking Boundaries in Marriage book to determine how that looks in your relationship.
Reconnect with honesty
The Bible has a lot to say about trusting God, but not so much about trusting other people; rather, the focus is on being trustworthy. Now that your marriage’s trust has been broken, even greater honesty and openness is required to establish your marriage as trustworthy.
The transgressor spouse in particular will need to be forthcoming to demonstrate their commitment, repentance, and trustworthiness. For instance, an unfaithful spouse may need to report where she is going, where she has been, when she will return home, whom she has been in contact with, etc. Or a habitual pornography user may need to have regular checks of their phone and computer, by the spouse or an accountability partner, and passwords become shared information.
Some such steps are temporary—needed until the injured spouse feels secure—but some reporting in and sharing should be a habit in marriage. You joined your life with this person, you’re asking them to trust you, and it’s simply courtesy to be willing to talk about what’s going on in your world.
Yes, this can become invasive or controlling (see the boundaries section above), but done properly, candid communication is a loving and respectful way to be vulnerable and connected with your spouse.
Foster your friendship and romance
By now, you’re likely thinking: This is all so serious and heavy. Yeah, it is. But amid the struggles, here are some lighter, happier things you can do:
- Befriend your spouse
- Date your spouse
- Woo your spouse
Remember why you married your mate? There was a reason. Really. Take time to rekindle what brought you together or find something new that can bring you together.
Clear some times when you don’t talk about the heavy issues but rather just spend time together. Rediscover old hobbies. Explore new places. Take a personality quiz and learn something about each other. Go out on dates. Stay in for dates. Write a love letter. Dance in your living room. Pray together.
Studies have actually shown that engaging in fresh activities together fires up our physiology in a way that mimics sensations of falling in love. Which translates into feeling like you’re falling in love all over again.
You may still feel the hum of heaviness—all those issues you still need to work through—but give yourselves a break now and then and focus instead on why you fell in love and why your intimacy is worth rebuilding.
5. Reintroduce physical intimacy.
Some injured spouses don’t want to have sex for a long time after discovering a betrayal, while others plunge into sexual intimacy in a longing to remind themselves of this physical bond. Neither way is unreasonable.
Some counselors recommend a period of abstinence to reset the transgressor spouse’s wiring and the marriage’s intimacy.
Eventually, however, the couple should reintroduce sex. The word reintroduce is carefully chosen here, because it is a second introduction to physical intimacy. You need to get to know each other again, rewrite the scripts, and learn how to arouse and satisfy each other.
Typically, the injured spouse needs to set the pace. Having been bruised, they may be tentative and should be allowed to take their time, ask for what they need, and even take a break to regather their thoughts. It may be difficult for the transgressor spouse to move at this slower pace, but going along shows an understanding of the past hurt feelings and a willingness to do what it takes to rebuild healthy intimacy.
As you engage, you may want to take some extra steps to make sure you are not focused on bad memories but in-the-moment sensations. For example:
- Communicate clearly about what you want or need to feel safe.
- Create a conducive setting, possibly with lowered lighting or romantic touches.
- Say one another’s names, reminding yourselves this act is about you and you two alone.
- Maintain eye contact, keeping your spouse as your focus.
- Spend additional time touching and exploring one another’s bodies.
- Extend foreplay, ensuring that each of you is fully aroused.
- Let the injured spouse indicate when they’re ready to move to the next step.
- Savor the experience afterward by holding one another, talking intimately, and/or praying together.
You may find that sex is like bike-riding for you, easy to get back on and enjoy the ride, or it may feel awkward. The betrayal in your marriage may be forefront in your minds, or you just struggle to feel comfortable and able to be vulnerable with each other.
But over time, positive sexual experiences will outweigh those feelings. Indeed, research by relationship expert John Gottman, Ph.D. has indicated that we need five positive interactions to balance out every one negative interaction and build a healthy marriage.
Let yourself create good new memories, new scripts, and new feelings to replace the old, harmful ones.
6. Invest in maintenance.
Whether it’s your body, your house, or your marriage, staying healthy requires good habits to maintain your gains. Thankfully, it’s easier to maintain health than recover from an injury.
So once you’ve gone through your healing journey, continue to prioritize what helped you reached your newfound health:
- Ongoing commitment
- Appropriate boundaries
- Honest communication
- Friendship and romance
- Mutually satisfying sex
One of my good friends sees a marriage counselor with her husband every month simply to maintain their relationship. They’ve been married more than a decade, but they long ago decided these regular sessions help them deal with any minor issues that could become major issues if untended.
Would I recommend that course for everyone? No, your marriage may benefit more from a reading blogs like this one, attending a marriage class from time to time, taking regular vacations, etc. But the takeaway is the same for all of us: Ongoing maintenance can help us avoid issues that can cause damage to our marriage.
Once you’ve rebuilt your intimacy, do what you can to keep that structure strong.