Rick Reynolds, LCSW
by Rick Reynolds, LCSW
Founder & President, Affair Recovery

Embracing Intimacy After Infidelity Part 1: How to Reengage

Embracing Intimacy After Infidelity: A 2 Part Series

Part 1: How to Reengage
Part 2: The Importance of Cherishing

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Returning to sexual intimacy after an affair is often an intense and emotionally charged experience. Just thinking about reengaging sexually after the revelation of an affair can fill both partners with anticipation and longing, fear and anxiety, and sometimes even dread. To address this aspect of recovery, one thing is for sure: We have to spend some time looking deep within ourselves and gently but directly face our fears, anxiety and shame.

At the beginning of this journey, many people think it is impossible to heal from the psychic wounds of infidelity. But we know that the physical body can heal, and your emotional body can heal too. In order to heal emotional wounds and rekindle physical desire, however, you will need to be patient with yourself and your spouse. We tend to put these really high expectations on ourselves and each other to have perfect sex, and that pressure just makes things worse.

Rick says, "It's about progress, not perfection; and practice makes progress." Healing is about the small things done well and often. It's not all or nothing. It might be that it is simply about physical touch, both non-sexual and sexual. It's not about comparing yourself to the affair partner, and it's not about being someone for your mate that you're not. I've never seen that work out well in the long run.

Please remember that many of you are not trying to go back to what you once had but, rather, are co-creating something new—a new life, a new relationship—something better together. And it can happen; I see it all the time when couples use possibly the worst thing that has ever happened to transform their relationship into the best it has ever been.

The recovery journey after the discovery or disclosure of an affair is a time of concurrent challenges. The world keeps spinning with its day-to-day demands that require us to live as high-functioning adults while we are trying to keep our heads above water. It is truly one of the most hurtful and challenging times that couples go through.

There is not just one "right" way to resume sexual intimacy after an affair, but there are several mistakes that couples can make along the way. Unfortunately, most of you won't be able to process or heal everything before engaging sexually, because you don't always know what the triggers and reminders are until you experience them. There will be a lot of thoughts, feelings, and questions. But it can still be done well! The decision to resume sexual intimacy involves some conscious thinking and some purposeful action. I'd like to invite you to listen to your intuition and offer you a few ideas that will assist you on your way to restoring sexual intimacy with your partner as well as your own sexual wholeness.

A Few Thoughts...

Deciding when to resume sexual intimacy after an affair is a deeply personal choice, and neither partner should ever be pressured to resume sex before they know that their heart, mind, and body are ready. We often encourage couples to take a 90-day break from having sex in order to reestablish an emotional connection first.

After disclosure of an affair or sexual addiction, one of the most critical things for partners to experience is empathy. It is obvious that the betrayed spouse needs empathy and compassion, but it may be surprising that the unfaithful spouse needs some as well. But both partners are most likely on an emotional roller coaster and both need their partner's acknowledgment of what they are going through.

One of the most common obstacles to resuming physical intimacy is the mind, especially for the betrayed spouse. Flashbacks and images, whether real or perceived, can intrude and interrupt the experience during the early stages of reintroducing sex. It may help to stay connected through keeping your eyes open and looking at each other while you are being sexual. Looking into each other's eyes lets you know that your partner is present with you, and it can help you stay present with them. Another good technique if you are still struggling with images and videos playing in your head during sex is to agree to stop what you are doing and name what is going on in your head. This allows your partner to listen and express empathy, compassion, and care. Often, you can pick up right where you left off in a matter of a few minutes. Working with a counselor trained in EMDR can also be very helpful. It is not a good idea to try and muscle your way through those intrusive thoughts.

Perhaps one of the biggest roadblocks to rekindling desire is resentments. If this is an issue for you, you will need to find a way to work through them. Look at the cost of why you are holding on to them. How does holding on to resentments benefit you? Do they make you feel strong or like you have the upper hand? Or are you afraid of conflict? Be aware that resentments come in many forms: anger, bitterness, withdrawal, depression, irritability, to name a few. There are physical costs as well: heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, compromised immune system. I am not saying that resentments are the cause if you struggle with any of those physical symptoms but they can contribute to them.

Both partners should be checked for STI's and, if necessary, meet with your therapist to process your response.

Pay attention to how your body and your spouse's body reacts to shame, fear, anxiety, and stress. The body can feel numb at this time, and the senses dulled. This is often a sign of trauma—whether trauma from the betrayal or trauma that is getting stirred up from the past.

  • Note: Meditation can be very helpful. If you don't have a mediation practice, I suggest that you start simply. Find a comfortable place to sit, close your eyes and focus on your breath for three minutes. Set a timer, and put it behind you so you'll be less tempted to peek at it. When you notice that your thoughts have drifted to something other than you breath, just notice it, and come back to noticing your breath—how

Sexual problems, such as lack of desire, arousal, or ability to climax should be verbally acknowledged, and both partners should be prepared to have healthy conversations and possibly make accommodations to the other's needs.

After almost seventeen years as a couples' therapist, I've talk to a lot of couples, and I've found that most couples have a hard time just talking about sex. I don't think that there is a more vulnerable time than when we are naked and giving ourselves to each other. Shame gets stirred up so often in our sexual relationship and in the way we view ourselves sexually. Both of you have to come to the conclusion that you feel like you're worth a good sexual relationship. If you don't, it will be difficult to feel desired or a desire to be sexual simply because you're condemning yourself.

I think most of us need to educate ourselves on sex and sexuality, and I'm not just talking about pop culture advice on how to have a great orgasm. I'm talking about really learning about sex and sexuality from people like Emily Nagoski, Ph.D., in her book*, Come as You Are. She talks about the parasympathetic and the sympathetic nervous systems which she refers to as the brakes and the accelerator for our sexuality. After infidelity, trying to reengage sexually can be like trying to push the accelerator while the parking brake is engaged. Your response systems are sending you conflicting messages.

We come into marriage with our schemas and sexual knowledge, or response system, and it's already set. So, we need to begin to understand how your systems work, what sexual context works well for you, and how to make it safe for yourself and your spouse. To do this, you must be clear about what kind of committed relationship you want and why, and then begin to have good conversations. Reading Emily's book is a great way to begin to understand our sexuality and sexual potential in a different way. The Couple's Guide to Intimacy by Drs. Bill and Ginger Bercaw is a good resource, especially if a sexual addiction is present. I also like Barry and Emily McCarthy's book, Rekindling Desire for low-sex or no-sex couples. It's a great resource to help us understand the importance of non-sexual touch, especially if you're struggling with sexual dysfunction because of infidelity.

Many of us face challenges with the sexual part of our relationship, and they don't just go away. I strongly encourage you to get professional help so that you can address the issues in an environment where you both feel safe. It is hard to have pleasure if we don't feel safe.

I believe that it's really up to us individually to heal our own sexuality. Your spouse can't fix it for you. You know, I tell people all the time that we are responsible for our own pleasure, and we must quit taking responsibility for our spouse's pleasure. That's not to say that you don't care about their pleasure, and we give ourselves to our mate for their pleasure, but you're there to love each other and enjoy each other. I don't really want you to come back together in the same old way. My hope is that you find a new way, a better way. Please use this crisis as a catalyst to begin to grow and heal.

If you're struggling with where to go next in your healing journey, and you're the betrayed spouse, I encourage you to join others who are traveling the same journey through the Harboring Hope course on the Affair Recovery website. Harboring Hope is a 13-week course designed specifically for betrayed spouses by John Haney and Leslie Hardie. It can help you discover what you need to heal and help you find hope as you restore your confidence. You can find all the details at affairrecovery.com under the programs tab. Please check it out.

Always good to be with you. I'll see you again next week.

Harboring Hope registration opens monthly. Subscribe to be notified.

Harboring Hope is our online course for betrayed spouses to heal after infidelity. It often sells out within a few short hours. Don't miss it!

"I just completed the Harboring Hope program. My husband was unfaithful to me emotionally, physically and sexually with a co-worker. What I wished I would've known is that forgiveness and reconciliation are two different things. People who refuse to forgive can never live their own lives, they are too busy obsessing about the life of the one who hurt them. They are stuck. They are unable to enjoy friends, family or even their children. They imprison themselves in a bondage of their own making. I definitely recommend the Harboring Hope program as a support for healing. To be in a safe community with other women who know what you're going through and how you're feeling is comforting. Whether you're able to reconcile or not, there is hope." — M., Michigan | HH Participant, April 2021.

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My wife was the unfaithful and has very low desire since the affair ended, 5 years ago. It wasn't bad at first but has slowly declined over the time since. She does not think that she needs to do anything on her part and that her desire will return on its own as we become closer. She's not been willing to read anything about the subject, doesn't address it in her own therapy, or really seem to be willing to do anything for her part other than wait for our relationship to "get better".

How can I help her understand that the lack of sexual relationship is getting in the way of that connection for me. Or get her to be willing to examine what might be going on with her for her part. She doesn't seem to be interested in having a sexual relationship, even in herself. She doesn't fantasize or have sexual thoughts at all.

Any time I mention that maybe it could help for her to take action, she takes this as an attack and becomes very defensive, saying that I am putting us on opposite teams. I feel like I'm doing everything I can to help us get to the space that she wants - that close, safe feeling relationship, but that she is doing absolutely nothing to help her move in the direction of a good sexual relationship with me. I am so sad about this, and I just don't know what to do. I don't think the lack of a sexual relationship in our marriage is worth ending it - but at the same time, how can I just be OK with it maybe never coming back. I cry about this a lot.

What can I do?