There was an affair. It’s over and done. You’re still working on forgiveness and reconciliation. You are in couples therapy, and you are slowly healing. But you want to heal even faster. Do you want to learn how to rebuild intimacy after an affair? Here’s the one thing you must do.
The first thing you must do to restore intimacy is to enter a selfish period as a couple. That requires saying “no” to things that you previously said “yes.”
Spend time together, selfishly and unapologetically. It is essential for you to recover your sense of “we-ness.”
Science-Based Couples Therapy has a lot to offer couples healing after an affair. Couples therapy can help structure Generative Conversations that address the question of “what happened to us?” This is the core of the epiphany phase of repair recovery.
In this post, I’m going to discuss couples that have previously done the hard work of unpacking how they drifted apart, and now want to build something new.
The first thing you must do to restore intimacy to your most important relationship is to increase the amount of time that you spend together.
It is not only the most essential thing to do, but it is also the one thing you must do ahead of all other things.
Couples in the epiphany phase often describe how they have grown apart. Often spouses complain of feeling unloved or taken for granted. When couples slowly begin to peel away the issues that caused them to drift apart, time is often at the heart of infidelity.
It is incredibly common for couples rebuilding intimacy to notice that prior to the infidelity, they do not spend much time together. They are often perplexed. They didn’t see this as a problem. Their lifestyles were fairly similar to their friends and family.
I’d like to put aside any discussion of high-conflict couples here for a moment. While I will admit that chronic conflict and negative sentiment override are a hard truth in many cases of infidelity, there are far more infidelity cases of incremental feelings of disconnection and emotional abandonment.
Most marriages suffer a death of a thousand cuts leading up to the infidelity.
The culprit is often time.
Most couples who are struggling to rebuild intimacy after an affair must understand how infidelity infiltrated their intimacy. These couples often lament that “we were so busy” with ( fill in the blank, kids, career, family obligations, mindless screentime etc.), that we didn’t put ourselves first.
It’s not that these obligations are an “excuse” as some might say. These are typically real and legitimate obligations.
It’s just that couples typically fail to “pay themselves first” by spending time as a couple and allowing other obligations to queue behind them.
I’m going to be blunt here. Few, if any school, sports, music, or social activities are designed with marital health in mind.
Many parents are chagrined to find that all of their evening and weekend time have become hostage to soccer, dance, karate, or music lessons, etc.
What most families need in the 21st century is more unstructured couple time and family time.
That means that parents have to say “no.” from time to time.
Saying “no” to activities which encroach on unstructured time is not easy, but it is necessary for marital health.
If you want to learn how to rebuild intimacy after an affair you will have to say “no” to the idea of sacrificing any possible opportunity for marital intimacy to your children’s perpetual amusement.
It saddens me to note that this idea goes against the grain of modern values.
If you really learn how to rebuild intimacy after an affair, it takes about 2 years to process and recover from infidelity. Successful couples ask for help and enter couples therapy. Couples therapist Arthur Nielsen reports how challenging it can be for a couples therapist to “direct a couples’ attention to the lack of shared pleasurable activities.”
The reviving of pleasure as a couple is a specific goal in affair recovery. And an essential truth of how to rebuild intimacy after an affair is to completely de-construct how life is lived and how time is spent.
I encourage most couples that want to learn how to rebuild intimacy after an affair to enter a “selfish period.” I want them to put their relationship first.
But it’s not just a matter of spending time together, it ‘s also a matter of how “quality time” is defined.
This may take some careful discussion. We have a cultural bias toward “spontaneity” which does not serve us well. For couples learning how to rebuild intimacy after an affair, putting themselves first requires planning.
Interestingly enough, research tells us that planning has its consolations.
While it might seem odd at first, couples recognize that the lack of planning permits a “yes” momentum to other non-couple activities. Couples are surprised to notice that the planned couple time offers the added pleasure of anticipation (Lyubomirsky, 2013), as well as the pleasure of the actual experience and the fond memory. Couples therapists sometimes have to help dismantle the privileging of “spontaneity” with the observation that “what’s gets planned gets done.”
Couples may also notice that beneficial impact of anticipation. Looking forward to a planned couple event is a potent de-stressor. Spontaneity lives in “hoped-for” experience, but a planned date night lives in the commitment of a calendar.
I suppose I should talk more about what I mean by intimacy. Weingarten (1991) reported that “intimacy” is more than just a deep disclosure in a heavy conversation. Intimacy also emerges from shared experiences and novel activities that help a couple to “co-create” meaning.
Markman’s research in 2001 put an even finer point on this. he found that “the amount of fun partners had together emerged as a key factor in predicting their overall marital happiness.”
More fun for you may mean saying “no” sometimes to your kids. I’d rather that they had a relatively minor fun deficit instead of you both enduring a major one.
Novelty is key. Novelty jumpstarts positive emotions (Aron, Norman, McKenna, & Heyman, 2000). Boredom and parental fun deficits expand the vulnerability to infidelity ( Mitchell, 2002) and (Perel, 2006).
I can’t over-emphasize the importance of playfulness. According to Panskepp (1998) when the brain’s play circuitry is activated, it triggers the reward system in the brain, linking the sense of pleasure with being in the presence of their partner.
Couples may need help brainstorming about fun. it’s also helpful to explore “how did you define fun as a kid?”
A good couples therapist will focus on helping you to compile such a list. They will also help you through any resistance that may come up. The best way to learn how to rebuild intimacy after an affair is to enter a “selfish” period, where both focus on fun and novelty. While children can be negatively impacted by infidelity, you have a chance to model resilience and intimacy as you are healing.
You may have forgotten how to have fun together, but you can restore your intimate bond by putting yourselves first. Start today.
Aron, A., Norman, C.C., Aron, E.N., McKenna, C.,& Heyman, R. (2000) Couples shared participation in novel and arousing activities and experienced relationship quality. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78, 273-283.
Lyubomirsky, S. (2013) The myths of happiness: What should make you happy, but doesn’t; what shouldn’t make you happy, but does. London; Penguin Books
Mitchell, S.A. (2002) Can Love Last? The fate of romance over time. New York: W.W. Norton.
Panskepp, J. (1998) Affective Neuroscience. New York: Oxford University Press.
Perel, E. (2006) Mating in Captivity; reconciling the erotic with the domestic. New York HarperCollins Books
Weingarten, K. (1991) The discourses of intimacy: Adding a social constructionist and feminist view. Family Process, 30, 285-305.
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Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist. He currently sees couples at Couples Therapy Inc. in Boston, Massachusetts, three seasons in Cummington (at the foothills of the Berkshires...) and in Miami during joint retreats with his wife, Dr. Kathy McMahon. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and the Developmental Model in his approaches.