For couples who choose to stay together after an affair, one of the most challenging aspects of the healing process is figuring out how intimacy develops again. When I work with couples who are navigating the aftermath of an affair, I spend a lot of time supporting and demonstrating new methods of communication. This is because the only chance a relationship has of continuing is if it’s rebuilt in a manner that honors and meets the needs of both people.
The key to finding out how intimacy develops again is in negotiating genuine win-win outcomes. I use the word negotiation rather than compromise because compromise suggests that people must give up something in this process. Instead, healing after an affair requires sincere negotiation that elevates and expands the needs of both partners rather than diminishing them.
One more thing. One of the single most important pieces of advice I can share is to seek a trained therapist in this process. Rebuilding after an affair is an experience most of us have not been well equipped to negotiate. It requires a different type of communication than most of us are used to and a therapist is important in helping have these conversations.
What Causes an Affair to Happen?
When an affair comes to light, it’s often the final breaking point when one or more people have struggled to communicate their needs or have felt unheard or disrespected for years. If a person feels it’s not safe to communicate their hopes and desires or they don’t feel their partner listens, they can begin to keep their needs secret.
These secrets, and the shame that often accompanies them, has a tendency to build over time and motivates people to look to meet these needs one way or another. Perhaps surprisingly, the needs aren’t always sexual in nature. It’s a common misperception, but not all affairs revolve around meeting sexual needs.
Here are a few examples of needs people long for but struggle to communicate with their partner:
- To feel loved or touched
- A need for spontaneity or change
- To be respected as an individual
- A desire for non-sexual intimacy like touch, closeness, spending time together and laughter
- A need for space and time apart
- A desire for organic, even primal sex and sexual energy that may live outside the traditional boundaries of monogamy
- The desire to engage or revisit sexual acts that meet their partner's needs. It's important to note that being able give love and pleasure to a partner is a vital need for many people.
Honoring Grief & Anger
It deserves to be said that a grieving period occurs when an affair is discovered. Like all grief, no two experiences are the same. Some common feelings after an affair is discovered are that the unknowing person feels that the rug has been pulled out from under them. They may feel that everything they once thought was true is now a lie. And that they were hurt in one of the most painful and humiliating ways imaginable. It’s also very common to feel a swell of intense anger during this time.
Regardless of what form it takes, this grieving period must be respected and given the time and space it needs. During this time, the couple may need to spend significant periods of time apart. Once the grieving period is honored, the couple can decide if they want to make the effort to mend the relationship or separate.
Although this piece focuses on what happens when people stay together, it's important to acknowledge that after the grieving period some couples simply do not have the ability or willingness to continue. If this happens, the decision should be respected and honored.
What Makes It Possible For Some Couples To Stay Together?
Finding the reasons for staying together is a deeply personal process that should not be rushed. The first step is to be weary of simply jumping back in because of a fear of loneliness. Any snap decisions to resume the relationship as it was can be a way of avoiding the grieving period. This is problematic because the grieving period is actually a vital part of the process of rebuilding the relationship in a healthy way.
Once grief has been experienced and acknowledged, then the process of choosing each other again can begin. This step also takes time and it requires a careful process of redefining boundaries, respecting new sensitivities, and rewriting the operating procedures of how the relationship moves forward.
Because the affair was the product of secrecy and shame, the opposite is needed in order for it to survive. When learning to how to rebuild, openness and honest communication is the key to unlock a fully blossoming relationship that serves as a great example of how intimacy develops again.
You’ve Chosen To Stay Together, Now What?
When a couple goes through the hard work of redefining their relationship, learning how to develop intimacy and adopting new and even fun tools is a vital part of the process. Intimacy and authenticity are the life-blood of a relationship. Without it, the desire to fulfill unmet needs outside of the couple is likely to continue.
Expanding Your Understanding of Intimacy
Intimacy is vital, but intimacy doesn’t always mean sex or sexual intimacy. As I define it, intimacy is the shared experiences that people have to show they care about each other. This means that any time a partner does something out of the ordinary just to show they were thinking of the other can be a very intimate and powerful act for the couple. For example, intimacy can be as simple as making popcorn for the other person.
After an affair, a couple can decide that they no longer want to have sex or experience sexual intimacy together. If this happens, other forms of intimacy must be cultivated. There’s a very big difference between couples that engage in non-sexual intimacy and no intimacy of any kind.
Intimacy is a fundamental human need and it’s required if the couple doesn’t want to slip back into the secrecy and shame that precedes an affair.
How Intimacy Develops, Again
To develop intimacy together, both people must take the time to sit down and communicate what they desire from the relationship in order to continue. Some tough questions must be asked, and honest answers must be shared in response. Here are some important questions to consider:
- What needs must be fulfilled for the relationship to continue for each partner?
- What’s been standing in the way of having those needs met? What has or hasn’t been happening?
- Can sex and the components of it that make up our primal naivete be reframed as something that has a sense of adventure, delight or fantasy?
- What forms of intimacy help each person feel appreciated, respected, or cared for?
- Are there any actions one partner engages in that makes the other person feel unloved or uncared for?
- If sex isn’t going to be part of this relationship, what does that mean moving forward?
- Does this relationship need to be redefined in a manner that allows for sexual intimacy outside of the couple?
Finding mutual agreement with questions like these is the key to being successful as a couple moving forward. In a sense, you know you’re ready to move forward when both people are willing and able to honestly say the following to each other: “I’m truly willing to make this relationship to work, I love you, and I want to continue learning how to align our shared desires."
If agreement cannot be found, then it may mean that the relationship cannot continue. That’s what makes this process so challenging. Both members of the couple may spend energy and effort working through these steps only to realize that they can’t find alignment.
If this happens, it will be even clearer that the next step is to gracefully separate. Similar to the process of finding out if the relationship can go on, graceful separation requires sensitivity and clear communication as well; especially in the case that one partner has control of more practical resources like money and the other does not. An approach of respectful negotiation can be mediated by a therapist or other third party in these instances.
Supporting A Successful Relationship In the Long Term
In my 30+ years of experience as a psychotherapist, I’ve worked with several couples where an affair occurred yet both parties still felt deep love for each other. When this happens, my role is to facilitate the honest and open communication required to rebuild. This is what helps people find their ‘why’ for why the relationship can continue and why it’s worth the effort.
In truth, the process of rebuilding and understanding how intimacy develops again is not easy. But with professional support, some couples are able to do just that. And perhaps surprisingly, some are able to do this quite rapidly.
Have you experienced an affair within your relationship? Are you interested in how intimacy develops after this devastating event? If so, contact me today to discuss how I may be able to support you and your partner in the healing process.