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Rebuilding Intimacy in Marriage (When Trust Has Been Damaged)

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.

11 thoughts on “Rebuilding Intimacy in Marriage (When Trust Has Been Damaged)”

  1. This honestly sounds like every other piece of marriage repair advice from any church or marriage therapist’s article. They all call out the obvious transgressions but ignore the uncomfortable ones. I give you credit for mentioning it in the beginning but that’s the last time it’s brought up. I see lots of advice for repairing damage from transgressions like porn or affairs, but nothing about when the transgression is long term refusal or sexual neglect. How do you fix a marriage where the primary issue is there’s no sex life? When one spouse has no interest despite the other doing all the right things suggested by every advice column? When it’s months or years between encounters and when this dynamic has existed for many years, or in my case the entire marriage? Just like every other person talking about fixing a marriage after broken trust, there’s nothing for the cases where the lack of intimacy IS the broken trust.

    I no longer have any trust in my wife to even care about me at all. If she ever promises she’s going to be intimate in the future, she never follows through on it so I no longer believe her words. She says she’s attracted to me but doesn’t touch me for months at a time and when she does allow sex, she still avoids touching me. Because of the 15 years of this neglect I have endured, I am no longer attracted to her. I can’t even force myself to become physically aroused by her anymore. The last time she allowed sex, I couldn’t even follow through with it. After so long being rejected, my body is now rejecting her. I don’t even know if I’ll ever be able to be intimate again.

    1. I don’t know how much you’ve read on my blog, but this is one article addressed to one scenario in marriage. You say that there’s “nothing about when the transgression is long term refusal or sexual neglect,” but if I covered all of that, it would be a different topic. In fact, I HAVE covered all of that! Here’s just some of my content about long-term refusal and sexless marriages:
      Q&A with J: I’m in a Sexless Marriage
      Q&A with J: “My Sexless Marriage Is Making Me Lose My Faith in God”
      Is the Church Failing Sexless Marriages?
      Q&A with J: “What Can I Do About My Sexless Marriage?” Part 1
      Q&A with J: How Do I Write a Post that Helps Sexless Marriages?
      A Prayer for Those in Sexless Marriages
      Q&A with J: “What Can I Do About My Sexless Marriage?” Part 2
      Q&A with J: What Can I Do About My Sexless Marriage? Part 3
      Q&A with J: What Can I Do About My Sexless Marriage? Part 4

      You can also find some insights with these:
      Is Refusing Sex in Marriage a Sin?
      How the Sexually Rejected Spouse Feels
      How the Sexually Disinterested Spouse Feels
      Are You Owed Sex in Marriage?

      I’m sorry you’re hurting. Being rejected in this way can be heartbreaking.

      However, I am concerned about your use of the word “allow,” because sex is not supposed to be “allowed” by either spouse, but rather mutually desired and satisfying. It may not be equally desired, but it should be happening in a safe, loving atmosphere with two sexually healthy individuals who want to be there and enjoy the experience. What that means in practice is that it’s not about getting the sex so much as clearing the obstacles that keep each and both of you from prioritizing and cherishing physical intimacy with one another.

      1. Allow is the right word for sex in my marriage. My wife has no interest in sex at all. She has never had any interest in sex including rejecting me on our wedding night and avoiding me for almost all of our honeymoon except for one encounter not out of passion or desire, but because she felt guilty for depriving me and felt sorry for me. She actually used those words. That’s why I quit initiating entirely several years ago because I couldn’t take the rejections anymore. It’s been so infrequent that we never even had children and now I’m past the age where having children is reasonable.

        Looking back, my original comment probably says more about me than you. I understand that you can’t fit every situation in one article. You pointed out sexual neglect in the beginning of the article though and then it felt to me like a major let down when it wasn’t discussed again. Seeing it there in the beginning and nowhere else, it felt like the rest of my life where once again hope was dangled in front of me only to have it pulled away again. If it wasn’t mentioned at all, I probably would have read it and not commented at all which again says more about me than you.

        1. I still think the perspective of “allow” isn’t likely helping the situation. But I do ache for your situation. It sounds like your heart has taken many dings over the years, including the missed opportunity of children. I wonder what on earth your wife learned about sex or experienced about it before marriage, but she clearly didn’t have even a healthy curiosity about it. These are the stories where I wish desperately that the church was, as a whole, addressing this topic more candidly and helpfully. Not just trotting out scriptures about how you should have sex, but why it matters, how to heal from bad teaching or past trauma, and ways to increase arousal and pleasure for both spouses. I see more and more of that happening, but it’s still not enough. And sadly, it missed some generations that now feel stuck and lost. I pray for a turnaround, truly.

          1. Sex was never discussed at all in church other than the typical “wait for marriage” line and the false promises that everything would work out better as long as we followed the rules. There was no premarital counseling either. There was only the expectation of abstinence before marriage and no discussion about what would or should happen after marriage. After so many years of rejection and neglect, I no longer view her as anything more than a roommate. I stopped initiating years ago and no longer feel any desire or arousal around her. I don’t even feel comfortable changing clothes in front of her anymore and take my clothes with me to the bathroom to dress after a shower. There will be no turnaround. I have been thinking about divorce for a while now and the only reason I haven’t is because I would be making myself homeless after the alimony requirements here. Our marriage was a mistake but the church’s avoidance of the topic of sex meant that we couldn’t figure that out before we got married. We were never right for each other and never will be. There’s no way to water a dead plant back to life.

          2. I don’t understand believing that your relationship is that far gone (“dead”) and yet staying with her, even given the financial implications. That seems like a certain way to experience ongoing despair, not to mention that it’s unfair to all involved. If you still believe in God, what’s the Christian rationale for your approach? I’m genuinely curious.

          3. Christianity has little to do with my rationale. I believe that our marriage was a mistake and the church should have seen that and prevented it. I think they should at the very least offer premarital counseling and should really refuse to marry people who don’t go through it. None of that changes what is though. I don’t think my wife was ever capable of being in a full and complete marriage but never knew that about herself. She’s just not a physical person and nothing will ever change that. Now there’s nothing that can be done to change it. Finances matter and I can’t make myself homeless just for the chance to not be lonely and miserable. Right now, involuntarily celibate is less bad than homeless. Sometimes life gives you a bunch of bad options and all you can do in life is pick the least bad option.

          4. Your story makes me think of Proverbs 13:12: “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life.” Your heart has felt sick for a long time. I pray that you can find hope and pursue something better for both of you.

  2. H,
    I don’t know if sharing my personal experience will be a benefit, because there are so many complexed variations of trauma that is exclusive to all individual marriages, where solutions aren’t like a one size fits all, tube sock.

    I say this, because the kind of trauma that occurred in my own marriage. also was complicated enough, that it would break up many marriages.

    Even though it might feel your marriage is barely held together with strings and rubber bands, you two are still together, which means there might be the hope of healing both outside and inside the bedroom. I hope this won’t be too graphic.

    In my case, we were 2 people who loved each other enough to stay together as divorce for us wasn’t going to happen, but we were emotionally distant and in my case I continued to make things worse, by making the same mistakes and I didn’t know why.

    I’m not sure if counseling would’ve made a difference, because our circumstances were so individualized that I had to realize I had to be the one to let go of deep rooted generational pain and suffering in my ancestry.

    About 5 years ago, I was meandering cluelessly in an emotional deep hole when I finally gave it to God and pursued his love. Within days it felt like he opened my eyes and inspired me to stop being so “blunt”. (be kinder to her and everyone in general)

    I realized it was my bluntness that created a wedge between me and the ones I was suppose to love and caused my spouse’s sweet bubbly personality, to shut down with issues going unresolved, it needed to stop. The bluntness also triggered most everything wrong I was doing.

    Just like that, both my wife and I was able to immediately understand the dangerous hazards to a marriage, when voices are elevated, unkind words are exchanged or emotional shunning occurs and pickiness that carried over from my own youth.

    We began to immediately detect when our words and thoughts began to approached a boundary that we didn’t want to be crossed.

    Then we agreed, to give one another the green light to say: “we agreed not to do this” whenever we did approach that verbal boundary. This immediately stopped the discussion from getting out of hand while making more room for compromises and solutions to be discovered, in a way where we began to emotionally stimulate one another’s mind.

    What a rush that is.

    If I can stop at a traffic light to avoid the dangers of running a red light, then most of us can mentally do the same by stepping on the emotional breaks to prevent a discussion or a pet peeve (no matter how large or small) from turning toxic and also prevented a crisis from being magnified or created out of thin air.

    Whereas, we are turning our discussions into a thought provoking conversation allowed us to pique one another’s imagination and emotionally connect.

    Right now, I hope there is room (and time) in both you and your spouse’s lives to be kinder and polite to one another, to go on scenic drives, go grocery shopping together, watch an old romantic comedy or share dreams watching vacation house hunters or jointly doing the dishes and cooking together and hopefully you 2 can once again enjoy one another’s company.

    I hope and pray, firstly that you and your wife will re-connect and start doing the right things outside of the bedroom. First re-assuring one another that even exchanging a kiss doesn’t equate to sex. You may end up being able to stand behind her when she is washing the dishes and tell her how much you appreciate her and then gently kiss the back of her neck for about 5 to 10 seconds while she feels the heat of your breath and send chills down her spine. (well in some cases it can exacerbate hot flashes, which mean back off) It rarely leads to sex and if she knows that you are simply wanting you and her to bond, she’ll emotionally be surrendering herself to you more frequently, which can lead to sex.

    I found myself being more protective and understanding of my spouse as we understood she was the kind of person who let people exploit her time and take advantage her giving heart.

    We have aged and I’ll admit that during the last 5 years, the intimacy isn’t as frequent but it has become more intense as the act of making love (and foreplay) had slowed to near motionless and created the kind of urgency that allowed her arousal to expand very high and more pleasurable for her. The intensity increases. especially when I have to withdraw for a moment so I could calm down enough not to “let go too soon” (driving her nuts) before entering back inside. Going slower should also increase the man’s intensity and pleasure as well.

    When you and your wife are intimate again, with past infrequencies, she might be tender and slightly afraid.

    That lack of intimacy and emotional disconnect, might make the intimacy very painful for her even if with some foreplay.

    If you don’t have unscented water base lubricant I would suggest getting some as it will be much easier and enjoyable to her, when you enter inside of her with ease and of course go slow as you can so the experience of love making will be prolonged, without irritating her interior linings.

    Scented and non water based lubricant for some women (like my spouse) can burn inside and make the experience very unpleasant for them. Because we incorporate foreplay, we might use lubricant 10% to 20% of the time.

    I’m aware that sometimes my spouse’s erogenous area can become tender during intimacy, if she isn’t damp enough and becomes painful. (which is sometimes affected by age) Some men may prefer that wet/dry friction going inside, not truly understanding how uncomfortable it can be for her.

    I want the initial entrance, to be super easy and painless for my spouse and then take it slow, in order for her to keep elevating her arousal and cause nerve endings throughout her erogenous area to become inflamed and her opening to swell and expand and create even less friction so I can prolong my own stamina, while her passionate urgency continues to reach new plateaus.

    1. All the outside the bedroom stuff you described is stuff I already do, or used to do and gave up on after a decade of no change. We already do everything together and are rarely ever apart outside of work. She won’t go anywhere without me: grocery shopping, taking the dog to the vet, going literally anywhere. We are civil but don’t talk much anymore about anything other than meal planning and what to watch on TV. We coexist in the same house and nothing more. We go out to dinner several times a month, go to the movies, and even go on vacations together but nothing romantic ever happens. We are roommates and that’s it.

  3. H,

    This is hard for me to wrap my mind around this, because all marital difficulties are uniquely individualized.

    If your spouse won’t go anywhere without you, vacations, dinner, movies there must still be some kind of special bond and companionship you are providing her. (and hopefully she is providing for you)

    From what you have proclaimed, I have to believe that you and your spouse are (at least) still friends as it appears that you and her care about one another and do things together.

    Has your spouse experienced pain during the act of intimacy?

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