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

Embracing Intimacy After Infidelity Part 2: The Art of Cherishing

Embracing Intimacy After Infidelity: A 2 Part Series

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

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It takes most couples two years of hard work to sort out the trauma in the body, heart, and mind after the revelation of an affair. While you are on your healing journey, the experience of being together sexually can have a different meaning for each of you. It can be quite difficult to communicate without stonewalling, criticizing, getting defensive, or feeling contempt. Resuming sexual intimacy can provide another means of communication since, sometimes, the body can express what words cannot. But we need to learn multiple ways of communicating love and care.

Once both partners have had the opportunity to practice empathy on a regular and ongoing basis and feel heard and understood in their experience, then they can lean into each other again. They can turn toward one another and speak genuinely and authentically. This is another reason why I love the Truth in Love exercise from EMS Weekend and EMS Online so much. It provides a good place to start the practice of non-harming, honest communication. 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 in a new way and hopefully make a repair. It also allows you to begin connecting with your own heart and, possibly, to realize that you deceived yourself or abandoned yourself long ago.

If the healing process is going well, and you are both working hard, hopefully you will begin to work as a team: there will be less labeling, like "I am good," and "You're bad," and more "We are in this together to co-create something better." There is less and less punishment and victimization. There is acceptance of what happened—not accepting that it was ok but that it happened, and you are working together to heal from it. You begin to see that we are not all good or all bad, and we are moving toward a deeper maturity by working through this healing process together. I can't say this loudly or strongly enough: Empathy and compassion play huge roles in working through the trauma of an affair.

Desire is all about feeling prioritized. There is no amount of gift-giving, restitution, or even being a solid and trustworthy partner that can take the place of simply making eye contact every day, letting your united gaze tell them that they are first in your mind and heart. Talk to your partner about your feelings, and listen well when they talk about theirs.

Once you are able to re-establish that gaze, then add the element of touch. You can implement hugging and/or kissing at the four key points of the day: upon waking, leaving to go to work, returning home, and bedtime. This is a simple way to begin to do what John Gottman, Ph.D., calls turning toward each other, and it allows you to re-discover your attraction to each other. Commitment to the relationship and to one another reemerges, and you begin to think of the relationship and of your partner even when you are not together.

This concept is what the late Caryl Rusbult, Ph.D., called cherishing. Dr. Rusbult's Investment Model of Commitment Processes is still one of the most influential and respected frameworks of close relationships. She said that close couples are interpersonal artists, sculpting one another's strengths and weakness to bring out the best in each other. She called this the Michelangelo Phenomenon, which was a reference to the Renaissance sculptor who said that he used a chisel to reveal the figure from the blocks of stone in which they slumbered. In her research, real-life dating and married couples provided her and her team with evidence of this phenomenon time and time again, when each partner detected the others self-reported dreams and aspirations and found ways to encourage him or her toward those goals. This process hinged on identifying and working with a partner's personal flaws as well, just like a sculptor incorporates irregularities in a block of stone to form a beautiful masterpiece.

Ok, so sorry that I geeked out over Dr. Rusbult's good, time-tested and inspiring research. Back to cherishing.

By cherishing she means that you think fondly of your partner even when you are apart and have the mindset that you are grateful for your partner's positive qualities. Cherishing puts a tall fence around the relationship and protects it from outside influences that could lead us to cross boundaries. Cherishing keeps your partner present in your mind when you are apart. It is never too late to begin that practice.

It is my understanding that cherishing and expressing gratitude are part of the process in the Jewish, Friday night Sabbath ceremony. The husband traditionally sings a song to his wife which pronounces how much he cherishes her.

And cherishing is not just emotional! Think about this for a minute: If you feel cherished, your blood chemistry and pressure changes for the good. It's chemical.

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 shared interests, and feel more compatible. The marriage begins to feel exclusive again. Sexual desire returns, and there is less desire for outside help from friends, family and a therapist and more desire for time alone together. This sets the stage for teamwork in helping each other through any problems with arousal. Cherishing is intentional and active; it involves magnifying the positive experiences and feelings for your partner and the relationship.

In the art and practice of cherishing, couples work together thoughtfully to re-establish their individual and joint sexual wholeness after an affair. They are then able to begin or revise "The Story of Us". New energy is gained and shared through their cherishing and hurts are addressed; it reestablishes their unity. They renew their desire to not only support each on this roller coaster of successes, setbacks, joys, and sorrows, but also to be a primary part of all of these. They are involved; no parallel lives here.

Of course, this is an enthusiastic representation of sexual and emotional healing within the context of infidelity. But I want you to know it is possible.

Intrusive thoughts, hurtful actions, damaged perspectives, struggling with forgiveness can seem to undo all the good that you are doing individually and as a couple. The painful emotions caused by triggers and reminders can put one or both of you into a fight-or-flight response, or even worse "deer in the headlights" reaction. Intrusive thoughts, setbacks, and reminders can and do affect desire, arousal, and climax phases of emotional and sexual intimacy.

I can't stress enough that couples therapy with a therapist experienced in betrayal trauma is so important. Most couples try to go it alone for far too long and end up doing more damage in the long run. One thing is for sure: we all have blind spots, and it goes without saying that we can't see our own blind spots. But others can, and you need to be talking to someone who is safe for you and the relationship who can point out your blind spots without criticism and offer support and help.

Allow yourself to feel whatever you feel without judgment. Emotion is a teacher. Focus on cherishing and nurturing each other by watching Affair Recovery videos and courses but also by reading wisdom literature, engaging in prayer, meditation, yoga, or any physical activity of your choice. If you are so inclined, consult with a spiritual director if you have one.

You deserve a lot of respect for the courageous work you are doing each day to rebuild physical and emotional intimacy after an affair. Your story now has more pain in its pages. It can also have more triumph and resiliency.

The healing of sexual intimacy is challenging but not impossible by any means. The journey is different for each couple and each person. I think the best place to start this journey is the EMS Online course. It's a 13-week course that walks you through the critical steps required to address the betrayal and reconnect as a couple without shaming the unfaithful spouse or blaming the betrayed spouse. You can find all the details here.

Thanks for your time today. Here's to health. I'll see you again soon.

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Our Emergency Marital Seminar Online, better known as EMSO, isn’t a one-size-fits-all program for couples. Over decades of experience exclusively in the field of infidelity, our methodology has been honed to better serve couples as they address the betrayal, reconnect as partners and restore their lives.

"I would like to say thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for your ministry and the materials you have provided as part of EMSO and Married for Life. We, all five couples that started EMSO, have just completed the Married for Life 52-week course. We are now deciding what to study next as a group, as we so value the relationship we have together as couples. With God, with your materials and with each other, we have saved our marriages." — B. Minnesota | EMSO participant, March 2021.

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Am I ever going to be able to NOT think about the AP while I’m being intimate with my husband? He’s repentant and trying so hard and he is sensitive to my needs and moods and blames no one but himself for his affair. But his AP was a friend of mine and her face is always there…and I picture them together ALL THE TIME!
Please tell me how to stop the images when we are in the middle of being intimate! It just hurts too much!

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-D, Texas