Recovering Intimacy After an Affair
If you’re willing to wade into the deep waters, God will help you put the pieces of your broken relationship back together. You can survive—and even thrive.
Angela was depressed—really depressed. In fact, she was borderline suicidal. She didn’t know why, and her husband, Stuart, was equally puzzled. Their communication and sex lives were practically nil, and Stuart was worried. So he brought Angela in for counseling. He was doing fine, he said—it was she who needed the help.
I insisted that Stuart stay around for the first few sessions—I wanted to get an idea of their history together. After much discussion about various factors in their relationship, I began to find the clues I was looking for.
Stuart had indulged in a short entangled affair with his secretary five years earlier. Both Stuart and his wife vigorously assured me that they had gotten over it long ago.
Yet here was Angela about to end it all, with no apparent cause. I hypothesized to myself that their resolution of the event five years ago left something to be desired, that there still were major factors left unresolved between them.
Angela claimed that she had forgiven her wayward husband, but I had a hunch that hers had been a surface–only forgiveness and that her depression was the result of buried feelings of hostility toward her unfaithful husband.
After the affair Angela determined to go on as though nothing happened and be a “hero of God’s grace.” She kept a stiff upper lip in their church circle and was viewed as a paragon of virtue. In her heart, however, Angela was dying a slow death. Stuart seemed appreciative of her quick forgiveness—after all, that was his style too: His slogans of “Move on,” “Get over it,” and “Don’t look back” helped him to soon forget it too. He dropped his illicit relationship and arranged for his secretary to be transferred to a distant office, and she resigned rather than move. So all looked well from Stuart’s point of view.
Little did he know that a growing depression was engulfing his wife and beginning to affect her health. When he finally brought Angela in for help, she had very little of herself left to consider her anger at Stuart. In fact, she had almost forgotten the affair. It took some digging to link her feelings of “frustration” with the incredibly swift processing of the betrayal.
Moving toward forgiveness
When Angela finally got angry and both she and Stuart began to grieve, it was like a huge festering sore that had finally been lanced. Their relationship worsened at first as the anger surfaced. But when Angela finally expressed her rage and began to struggle toward forgiveness on the basis of her true feelings, instead of denial, she was able to approach forgiveness. In effect, she was moving toward forgiveness right through her anger, not by going around it. As a result, Stuart developed an entirely new respect for her.
When Angela chose to forgive her husband, Stuart knew it was for real this time, and he could therefore begin to grieve his losses. Angela discovered a whole new person—her real self—to share with her husband. At the end of that long and arduous process, they were able to stand before the congregation and share their testimony of healing without shame.
Stuart, who had begun to feel like a second-class citizen in the church, could finally begin to feel better about himself, because his sin had been fully recognized by the one he had hurt—his wife. The two have a newfound respect for each other, and the children are doing a lot better, too.
But the best part is that they know for certain that they have forgiven one another. As a result, they know that their relationship is growing closer as time goes by, not more distant.
Remember, forgiveness is a process; all the characteristics of genuine forgiveness will not always be present, but they should become increasingly apparent along the journey.
The recovery of intimacy
An entangled affair is always the result of an intimacy deficit in the marital relationship. Whatever personalized components there are in the message of this affair, it still boils down to a loss of intimacy before the affair occurred.
Part of the lure of the affair for an unfaithful spouse was the opportunity to be himself (herself) in his own little private world that he constructed with the partner. He desperately needed that freedom to be himself and be accepted and appreciated. He didn’t feel that he had to pretend or stay within a certain mold, since it was a brand-new world with no rules except those he chose to create with the partner.
Part of the recovery process is to identify what was missing in the marital relationship and repair that loss. You need to rebuild that own special world you had when you were dating and in the early days of the marriage. Everybody needs this special set-apart world—it’s a big part of what makes marriage special.
To continue to rebuild the trust and intimacy in the relationship you will need to integrate the message of the affair into your new way of relating. Following is a four-part integrating process designed to reestablish the intimacy that was crushed by the infidelity. Take each step as you both can handle it, adapting it to your own situation.
Step 1: Review contributing factors
Factors both inside and outside the marriage combined to cause the affair, and it’s helpful to review them.
A special factor to review is the family tree. “Rats don’t have mice” goes a popular saying, and affairs do tend to run in families. I’d wager a guess that there have either been full-blown affairs in your family tree or at least “close calls.” It is imperative that you go back to your parents and grandparents to find out your history.
That “historical research” doesn’t excuse you or your mate’s behavior; it just helps you understand the setting in which it occurred. Knowing your family heritage can help you change it in your generation so that you do not pass it on to your kids. If teenagers (who are beginning to understand adult feelings) can see their parents grieve and rebuild their marriage following the infidelity, that will help them not repeat the cycle when they get married.
Once you’ve surfaced the information (it may take some digging), talk it over with each other. How does the unfaithful spouse feel about it? The spouse? What attitudes were modeled to your young soul as a child that you can identify? Make it a matter of prayer together, and keep talking about it. Make the information yours, not just something you read in a book!
Step 2: Rehearse what drew you together originally.
This is a time to focus on the two of you, on your special history. It’s time to get nostalgic, to remember “the good old days.”
The two of you did not have to choose each other; you were attracted to each other initially for many reasons. Explore that collection of reasons, and identify the various components. Talk about those initial experiences together—the dates you had, the places you went, the things you enjoyed. Review those, because it was during that initial dating stage that you began to trust in each other in the first place.
As you begin to rehearse and redo similar trust-building experiences (I recommend you even go to some of the old haunts again), you will find that your feelings of trust will start to return. You will find that, even though the unfaithful spouse and his or her partner built their own experience together, there is still an overwhelming amount of history that only the two of you share. This is your story.
Many things can help you get in touch with those important memories:
- old pictures, photo albums, and scrapbooks
- time lines (charts where you list things chronologically)
- date lists (write out all the things you did that you both recall)
- revisiting the old places—even journeying across the country is helpful (you can take pictures of old haunts and develop your scrapbook, which may have been neglected for a while; in fact, further developing that old book may become a metaphor for this stage of recovery: putting time and energy back into your marriage exclusively)
One of the traumas of recovering from an affair is that the spouse often thinks about the new history that the unfaithful spouse and partner have built together. Even though that is true, the memories of that illicit history will dissipate over the course of time, especially as you begin to reinvest in your relationship. That is exactly why the reconciling couple needs to rehearse and remember what drew them together.
Step 3: Do it differently—rebuild your own special world.
It’s difficult, especially for the spouse, to admit that her husband (or his wife) started to build a special world that excluded her. It’s so repulsive that sometimes the spouse tries to ignore the unfaithful spouse’s need for that world. But it’s better to look at this need squarely and take positive steps toward rebuilding your world together.
Start going out on dates again—find a baby-sitter if you need one and go romance each other again! You’ll both love it, you both need it, and you can make it fun. Try to cast off some of the old patterns (for example, he never wanted to go to the symphony, or she never went hiking), and try doing it differently. Remember, this is a world of your own making, and you can find new freedom as you put your relationship back together again.
Surprise each other with little gifts or notes hidden in the dresser drawer or on the dashboard of the car. You can make these new ways of relating deep (late-night heartfelt talks) or playful (taking your mate on a surprise hot-air balloon ride at dawn) or sexy (fill in the blank here)—anything you two might enjoy. Keep in mind your mate’s love language.
The idea is to rekindle the flame that you once had. With God’s help, your own creativity, and the other suggestions for rebuilding, you can rebuild that special world.
Step 4: Share your intimate self.
It’s standard fare for stand-up comedians, but it’s sad when you really think about it. The guy who, for 30 years of marriage would never think of doing anything but drive the same car slowly and deliberately to work and back, suddenly begins to tool around town with sexy young blondes in a new red Porsche!
Yet caricature differs only slightly from real life: One of the common reports from the spouse in an affair is the complete change in behavior in the unfaithful spouse as expressed with the partner. For example, with the spouse, the unfaithful spouse never talked; with the partner, he talked for hours. With the spouse, he never read poetry, but with the partner, he not only reads it—he writes it! There are dozens of examples: with the spouse, he never took walks, never had barbecues in the park, never spent lazy afternoons in a motel, never bought shiny trinkets for gifts, or planned a rendezvous, but with the partner, he does all those things. It’s comical in one way but sad in another.
Usually the illicit partner sees a very different person in the unfaithful spouse than the spouse had come to see over the many years in the marriage. Yet that side of the unfaithful spouse’s personality needs to be revealed. It is a part of his psyche and of the marriage relationship that the couple has allowed to atrophy.
It is true that different people bring out different sides of our personalities, but an affair so opens up a marriage and the individuals in the marriage that there is almost unlimited access to the psyche of both mates. In affair recovery, we need to take advantage of that unique view into the other’s needs and turn something bad into a growth opportunity.
A talking exercise
One of the ways to reveal who you are and how you became that way is to talk nonstop about yourself for 20 minutes. This self-revealing exercise is usually nonexistent in marriages but extremely frequent in affairs. Talking about who you are is part of the central fascination on which the friendship builds in an affair.
At first, individuals are afraid to initiate this kind of activity with their marital partner. They think it’s boring, selfish, or even narcissistic, but it doesn’t have to be. They also may be uncertain about how they will be accepted, or they may suspect that what they say will be used against them.
Resist those fears and try it. Remember, lack of deep communication is usually part of the message of the affair. We all want to reveal who we are, and we all want to be known by someone who loves us and accepts us unconditionally.
Things to talk about
Choose some safe topics. The following list might be helpful:
- Your earliest set of memories
- Grade by grade in elementary school
- My first boyfriend/girlfriend or first date
- Happy childhood memories
- My birthdays—happy and unhappy
- My favorite teacher and all of my memories about him/her
- The first time I drove a car
- My first car accident or traffic ticket
- My first kiss, job, and so on
- The favorite child in my family, why he or she was the favorite, how I felt about that, experiences and feelings I shared with him/her
- My favorite parent, grandparent, aunt, uncle, cousin
- All the houses I lived in; my craziest neighborhood friends
- All the schools I attended
- The longest walk I ever took
- The ways I always spent my allowance as a kid
- My parents’ favorite sayings and how they used them; which ones I liked and didn’t like
- Things that I would have changed if I had been the parent in my family of origin
- The favorite year of my life
- The age I would like to remain forever
- Any others you think of
All of those experiences have feelings attached to them. Share with your mate how those subjects made you feel. That is the part that is important to tell at this point in your relationship. Facts are helpful; perceptions are important; but feelings are crucial to reestablishing intimacy. Feelings form the core of intimacy—that special closeness that assures you that, although your mate knows you and sees inside of you, he/she still loves you and accepts you completely.
One of the best ways to do this exercise is for each mate to take turns on successive days talking about himself or herself. The wife might do it one day; the husband the next.
Final words to the spouse
You have every right to feel overwhelmed, out of control, enraged, and practically crazy when the affair is disclosed. Don’t put the pain away too quickly; take your time to finish the process as outlined in these pages.
Remember that Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane took all the time that was available between the Last Supper and His arrest to work on the terrible emotional upheaval He was experiencing. Taking time is healthy. You don’t want to make decisions relating to others until you have worked through your own turmoil in this most important of crises.
Now that the affair has been disclosed, you know the truth. For the first time, your relationship has the potential for genuine intimacy. You will have to work through the entire recovery process. So get started. You might be pleasantly surprised.
As you and your mate restructure the intimacy in your marriage, realize that it’s going to be two-steps-forward, one-step-backward progress. Much turmoil will remain to be dealt with.
Difficult days still lie ahead. But keep this thought firmly in mind: you are in the process of recovery. It won’t happen overnight; in an ultimate sense you’ll never be completely over the affair. Trauma always changes people, and it should.
The affair and recovery will change both of you, and as a result will change your relationship. One unfaithful husband had this to say upon looking back at his recovery:
I never thought Carole could forgive me. But today our relationship is stronger than ever. I thank God for pulling us through, using Christian counseling and supporting friends to help us restore our precious relationship. I’m especially grateful for the difficult circumstances that made me face something ugly in myself: that I was seeking personal fulfillment in sex. What a foolish strategy that was. I didn’t need a change in partners; I needed to change myself! As a result of my realization and her forgiveness, today Carole and I enjoy a closeness I would have thought impossible before the affair.
The fact that that husband can give such a testimony after suffering through months of uncertainty and turmoil in his marriage warms my heart like no other words.
If you’re willing to wade into the deep waters, God will help you put the pieces of your broken relationship back together. You can survive—even thrive—in the wake of infidelity. And I pray that you’ll try, starting today.
Adapted from Torn Asunder: Recovering from Extramarital Affairs © 1999 by David M. Carder and R. Duncan Jaenicke. Used by permission of Moody Publishers. Excerpt may not be reproduced without the prior written consent of Moody Publishers.