The First Steps
Resuming physical intimacy after an affair is one of the most intensely emotionally loaded of all human experiences. I’m defining the word “affair” as extramarital sexual relations, or sexual relations outside of a relationship between partners who have lived together for at least one year. (In the context of a dating relationship, I would label this situation “cheating”.) This article also assumes that the couple has not become legally separated.
Thinking about resuming sexual relations after the revelation of an affair can fill a partner with anticipation and longing, or mixed feelings, even dread. The post-affair experience is, for both partners, but especially for the one receiving the news (the Receiver), a time of simultaneous challenges to live as a high-functioning adult Self, close on the heels of what amounts to a small trauma.
There is no “right” or “wrong” way to resume Intimacy after an affair, just as there are no right or wrong answers to the many questions and dilemmas a couple must face after the revelation of an affair. There’s guaranteed not to be enough time to process all of the thoughts and feelings, questions and dilemmas at a time like this. The decision whether and when to resume involves some conscious thinking and some purposeful steps, but is probably also going to be based on gut reactions and listening to your intuition. The following ideas are offered to assist couples on their way to restoring their intimacy as a couple, but just as importantly, to help each of them to restore their own personal sexual wholeness.
The decision whether or not to resume sexual intimacy after an affair is not a foregone conclusion, and neither partner should ever be pressured to resume sex before they know that their body is ready, feel that they want to resume, and feel that it is the right thing to do. The decision involves the body, the heart, and one’s sense of fairness and justice.
One of the most critical experiences for both partners is to receive and accept empathy for their current experience, preferably from a neutral party such as a psychotherapist. It may be surprising that both partners need empathy after the revelation of an affair, not just the Receiver. But both partners are going through an emotional upheaval at this time, and both need acknowledgment of what they are going through.
First, let’s consider the body. If the affair was brief or just started recently, then it is quite likely that the other partner finds out about it by having symptoms of an STD, which are then confirmed by a physician. Even more traumatic, but just as commonly, there were no symptoms, but one partner finds out from a routine blood test at a doctor’s office, that he or she has an STD.
Any STD’s must be treated before sexual relations can resume. It’s also a really good idea to meet with a psychotherapist to process your reactions at this time. Beyond this, all other recommendations should be implemented as soon as possible, but wouldn’t need to happen before resuming sex.
It’s a good idea for both partners to understand how their body reacts to stress, and take care of their body accordingly. Stress-related health problems such as reduced immunities, slip-and-fall accidents, ulcers, tension headaches and migraines, and intestinal problems can all flare up at this time. Good self-care is crucial, including adequate rest, good nutrition, the right form exercise, sunlight, and the appropriate medications. It may be tempting to talk late into the night trying to resolve the issues, for example, but your rest is much more important.
Sexual problems, such as lack of desire, arousal, or ability to climax should be verbally acknowledged, and both partners should be prepared to make healthy accommodations to the other’s needs. The body can feel numb at this time, and the senses dulled and slowed down. This is often a sign of trauma, can be felt by either or both partners, and usually goes away on its own, after a few months.
Next is the heart.
Both partners might be brokenhearted. For the one who had the affair, there might be heartbreak about the damage done to the marriage; but there might also be heartbreak about losing the affair, or having to choose between the spouse and the lover. There are significant feelings of rejection for both partners.
The receiver can feel the deepest isolating rejection a human being can ever feel. That although they have given themselves to the other exclusively, and although they were available to their partner, their partner went outside the marriage for sex. The one involved in the affair often finds that the affair ends abruptly when it is exposed, and they are feeling that loss. They might soon lose their marriage too.
The void that the affair filled suddenly becomes a gaping void once again. It can be very healing to be accepted once again by the receiving partner, if he or she is ready; but that can take time. Both partners can vacillate between intense desire to win back their spouse, to intense desire to be free from the spouse.
Finally, both partners begin to think about the fairness and justice of resuming sex.
- Is it right to resume, and under what conditions?
- Should the involved one apologize, and is that enough?
- It is normal to momentarily desire humiliation for our partner, or even to daydream about it. But in real life, is that ever good or right?
- Does it help either of you to heal?
- Should the receiving partner apologize for anything they might have done to cause the involved partner to be vulnerable to getting involved in the affair?
- How do the religious beliefs of both parties come into play here?
It takes most people about a year of hard work to sort out the issues of their body, heart, and fairness after the revelation of an affair. While they are on their healing journey, if the couple desides to resume ongoing sexual relations, the experience is going to have a slightly different meaning for each of them, each time they are together. It may be stating the obvious, but couples find it quite difficult to communicate verbally at this time, without stalemates, silences, and shouting. Resuming sexual relations can provide another means of communication. Sometimes the body can express what words cannot. Sexual intimacy after an affair can help to answer one of the biggest questions after an affair, “Should I stay or should I go?”
It can provide the most supreme comfort, or it can leave either partner feeling very alone. The sexual bond is, in the end, how couples give life to the next generation. Love and commitment, symbolized in the sexual act, energize the couple, empowering them to give beyond themselves. This principle holds true for all healthy committed couples — birth parents and adoptive parents, heterosexual or same-sex couples, and non-parent couples.
Once both partners have had the opportunity to receive empathy, to feel heard and understood in their experience, then they can learn to turn towards each other again and speak genuinely and authentically to each other. I encourage my clients to use Heart Statements when they get to this point in recovering from an affair. A Heart Statement is a verbalization to your partner, about what's going on inside of you emotionally. When you tell your partner how you're feeling right now, or how you're affected by a situation, this allows your partner to hear you on a deep heart level.
Working Towards Intimacy
Most couples understand intuitively that if they are going to try to rebuild their marriage after an affair, then healthy, positive and exclusive sexual intimacy is the foundation for moving forward together. Once they have both had the opportunity to begin addressing some of the issues of the body, heart, and meaning, they usually both feel the need to resume sexual relations. Most significantly, it is an attempt at starting over, starting fresh.
At times the sexual connection can signal ownership, especially in the mind of the one who did not have an affair. At times it can signal contrition, a desire for forgiveness; or it can be a gesture of forgiveness. Both might be carrying some things that they want forgiveness for, and some things they wish to offer forgiveness for. In other words, if the healing process progresses well, there begins to be less of a clear dualism, less labeling of a “good guy” and “bad guy”.
There is less emphasis on feeling punished, or feeling victimized. There is more of a real-life acceptance that people are not all good, or all bad, and they both gain deeper maturity by working through this healing process. The receiving and giving of EMPATHY plays a huge role in getting to this point. When both partners make a good faith effort, in the bedroom and outside of it, to listen attentively and use heart statements, they get to know each other’s heart better, and begin to reestablish oneness.
I mentioned that most couples feel the need to resume sexual relations, once they have acknowledged the areas of body, heart and meaning. But what about the desire to resume, the ability to feel aroused, and the ability to climax? Desire is all about feeling prioritized. There is no amount of gift-giving, wining and dining, and being a good and responsible partner that can take the place of simply looking into your partner’s eyes again, and letting your shared gaze tell them that they are first in your heart.
In fact, when partners give lavish gifts, start working out again, or make big promises, the other partner tends to see it as a temporary form of manipulation. The oneness is lost, and desire plummets. If you can’t look into your partner’s eyes, or allow them to look into yours, then self-check for the reasons why. Perhaps shame or anger, or some other difficult emotion, is still holding you back. Talk to your partner about your feelings, and listen well when they talk about their feelings. Once you are able to re-establish gaze, then add the element of touch.
Hugging and/or kissing at the five key points of the day — upon waking, leaving the home for the day’s work, returning home in the evening, evening meal, and bedtime (what Gottman and Silver call “turning towards”) — allows you to re-discover your chemical attraction to each other.
Once chemical attraction is re-established for both partners, then it becomes much easier to enjoy the other person for who they are, participate in your shared interests, and feel more compatible. The marriage begins to feel exclusive again. There is less desire for outside help from friends, family and a therapist, and more desire for time alone together, and desire resurfaces. This sets the stage for teamwork in helping each other through any problems with arousal.
For a man, erectile dysfunction can be a problem at this time, due to mixed feelings and being unsure about the future of the marriage. There are lots of non-prescription ways to work through this problem. These include the “Squeeze Technique”, acceptance of variations in size of the erection during the course of lovemaking, and lengthening the duration of lovemaking, the “Penis as a Paintbrush Technique” and many more. Women who have had arousal problems report that talking about it in the moment helps, as well as having all distractions removed, such as chores, child and elder care, and work responsibilities.
Side note: ALL couples need to start thinking of sex as an airplane taking off or landing, which means you must turn off all electronic devices!
Climax can still be an issue, and although it may sound counter-intuitive, climax starts with setting the scene for lovemaking. Rebuilding couples need a private retreat with no reminders of the third person. New sheets are a must, especially if the third person was in the bed. Rebuilding couples report that new paint, changing the furniture arrangement, and establishing a little ritual can all help. A ritual might be something as simple as lighting two new white candles, to symbolize a fresh beginning, and the energy that comes from your love and commitment.
Reading a favorite poem or piece of wisdom literature aloud together can be part of the ritual too. It’s also helpful to develop “our special touches”, such as hand massage, foot massage, or a form of genital touch that you haven’t tried before. “Our special touches” make foreplay a way to communicate your love and commitment, and not just a warm-up exercise.
A word here about “toys” and fantasy play. Couples report that toys are enjoyable once in a while, but that with regular use, they can have a displacing effect, whereby one or both partners find that their body is more stimulated by the toy than by their spouse’s touch. Most importantly for rebuilding couples, the toy can very easily represent a third entity in the bedroom, which is the last thing on earth they need at this time.
It can be very tempting for both partners to engage in fantasy play around the third person. Re-enacting the love triangle may seem as if it will help you process the trauma, make you more attractive to your spouse, or create titillation. But re-enacting the triangle consistently creates new hurts and reduces trust. The most healing, trust, and satisfying sex comes from talking and acting as if you are the only two people in the world, from the time you set the stage, until after you have both climaxed and rested together.
When couples work together thoughtfully to re-establish their individual and joint sexual wholeness after an affair, they are then able to get back to telling their joint story, “The Story of Us”. The energy shared and gained through their intimacy re-establishes their unity. They renew their desire to not only voice support during each
other’s ups and downs, successes and setbacks, joys and sorrows, but to be an integral part of all of these. With this new sense of shared meaning as their foundation, the couple’s energy then can be shared in healthy ways with family, friends, co-workers and the community.
Of course, this is an optimistic rendering of sexual and emotional healing within the context of renewed commitment and a so-called happy ending.
Setbacks and Hurts
Couples who are rebuilding physical and emotional intimacy after an affair deserve a lot of respect for the courageous work they are doing each and every day, towards individual healing and healing the relationship. The Story of Us now has some very pain-filled chapters.
Setbacks and hurts can seem to undo all of the good that the couple is doing. The frustration, hurt and other painful, forceful emotions caused by setbacks and hurts can put one or both partners into a fight-or-flight response, or even create a stunned “deer in the headlights” reaction.
But individuals and marriages do have the ability to recover from follow-up setbacks. The following are some typical setbacks to healing after an affair. All of them can affect the desire, arousal and climax phases of emotional intimacy.
1. You want to go to couples therapy, but your spouse refuses to go
The spouse who had the affair might refuse on the grounds that the therapist will take sides against him/her. Another reason can be that a partner is holding a secret about money, work, substances, or a lie that has been told.
The spouse who didn’t have the affair might be feeling like a “loser”, or “ugly”, is worried that the therapist will want her to talk about what he/she might have done to contribute to the affair happening.
Refusing to go to couples therapy could be about power and control, it could be about revenge, or it could be about not being in love any more. As important as couples therapy is at a time like this, it is vastly more important to get to know your partner’s heart better. Instead of issuing an ultimatum, try asking your partner how she/he felt inside when you suggested going to couples therapy.
If they are willing to explain, then listen to their whole answer and thank them for being willing to talk about it. A list of emotion words, available at www.judycares.com/heart-statement/, accessible on any mobile device, could be helpful for your partner. Go to therapy on your own, and invite your spouse to join you.
2. You and your spouse have warped perceptions
What is beautiful, such as your body, might seem ugly. What was joyful, such as being together sexually, now feels sad, or stressful. A marriage that was once full of exciting possibilities, now feels like a trap or a jail.
Warped perceptions are often the result of trauma. The trauma of learning about the affair, or the shock of being suddenly exposed in an affair, can even touch on childhood traumas. Remind yourself of ways that you have overcome shocks, adverse experiences and setbacks in the past, to remind yourself where your strengths lie. When friends and allies affirm you, accept the affirmation. You deserve to feel good again, even if you're the one who had the affair.
3. Recurring thoughts about the intruder
You can’t stop imagining your spouse and the intruder doing things together. You imagine them sharing an elegant meal at a restaurant, having sex, or enjoying long intimate conversations.
The partner who had the affair may be thinking about the things they did together, but may try to hide in these thoughts. Both partners can feel very shut out. Reach out to your partner with touch or words when you think about the intruder.
You don’t have to talk about the thoughts unless you want to; you can talk about any topic, or simply reach out with touch. It is healthy to process these thoughts with a therapist.
4. Forgiveness seems far, far away, even impossible
The hurt just seems too big to ever get past, and too much about your marriage has been damaged by the affair. The pressure to forgive quickly is a symptom of our high-speed post-modern age. We would like to microwave everything!
Forgiveness is a process, and can’t be rushed. Use this time to get resourced on the subject of forgiveness. Books such as “How Can I Forgive You?” and “After the Affair”, by Janis Abrams Spring can help you to organize your thoughts around forgiveness.
Allow yourself to feel whatever you feel, without judgment. Emotion is a teacher. Forgiveness accesses the spiritual part of a person, allowing you to regain a sense of personal meaning. Nurture your spiritual life at this time, by reading wisdom literature, engaging in prayer, meditation, and yoga, and by consulting with a spiritual mentor if you have one.
The healing of sexual intimacy is tied in with these setbacks, but in a different way for each couple, and each person. The body, heart and meaning all work together in the process of recovering from the affair.