When infidelity occurs in a relationship, the shattered trust creates ripple effects that extend far beyond what each partner might expect. Since intimacy hinges on trust, it’s no surprise that couples healing from infidelity tend to struggle with repairing their sexual connection. They are often left with feelings of uncertainty, confusion, frustration, and so many questions: How do you fix intimacy after cheating? How do you get the spark back? How long will it take for our sex life to get back to normal? 

Understanding how betrayal can affect intimacy and what you can do to nourish your sexual relationship will help you move toward forgiveness and regain your intimate connection.

How does cheating affect intimacy?

One of the first steps in rebuilding your intimate relationship is to align expectations on your partnership’s unique healing journey. To better understand what’s to come, take an honest look at how each partner is reacting to the broken trust. Just as people grieve differently, people respond to infidelity differently. 

Some betrayed partners may feel more distant and disconnected, with urges to push away their partner to get the space they need to process their emotions. They may feel triggered during intimate moments, causing an abrupt interruption to any connection they were sharing. These triggers are sneaky and sharp, reminding them of the pain they desperately want to put in the past. For the person who cheated, guilt and frustration can grow each time their partner is triggered, leaving them feeling helpless and defeated.

Not everyone immediately falls towards feelings of relationship ruin. Some people experience hysterical bonding, a subconscious act of denial that can express itself in increased sex drive and desire for their partner’s attention. On the surface, they may appear more connected and committed due to the betrayal. However, it’s important to note that under the surface lies suppressed emotional turmoil. Once the hysterical bonding wears off, the couple has to confront unresolved feelings and address their crisis. 

Understanding how each partner reacts to the betrayal will help you better anticipate what emotions you might encounter, what conversations to have, and what boundaries to set.

Set and respect boundaries to build trust.

Speaking of boundaries, you will want to get very comfortable with identifying and discussing them. Consistent, clear boundaries will be your best friend in rebuilding the trust necessary for authentic intimacy. When someone cheats, a major boundary is crossed. The breach can cause the betrayed partner to worry if that boundary will be crossed again, putting up more walls (read: boundaries) to protect themselves from more hurt. The partner who cheated can prove they can be trusted by learning their partner’s boundaries and consistently respecting them. 

Let’s consider “Tom” and “Debby” as an example couple. Debby used to love it when Tom called her “sweetie.” It gave her a warm feeling of security and affection. But after discovering emails in which Tom addressed another woman as “sweetie,” Debby cannot bear the flood of pain that rushes in when she hears that word. Debby draws a boundary with Tom, telling him not to call her “sweetie” anymore. 

Now, if Tom slips a “sweetie,” what happens? Not only does Debby feel that rush of pain with the reminder of his betrayal, but she also cannot trust that he won’t do it again. As small as this may seem to others, it adds to her doubts about whether she can trust him. Without that trust, intimacy will not grow. 

Over time, if Tom consistently refrains from calling her “sweetie,” Debby learns that Tom can be trusted to respect her boundaries. This gives her a sense of emotional safety, allowing her to feel comfortable enough to start taking down a wall that she built as a form of self-protection.

Both partners must identify and communicate their boundaries as they move through their infidelity recovery. Keep in mind that boundaries are contextual and may change over time. To build trust, you need to regularly check in with yourself and your partner to ensure mutual feelings of safety and security.

Reframe your approach to sex and intimacy.

When a betrayal comes to light, couples often work with a therapist to address their immediate emotions and concerns. Once they have some grounding and are ready to shift focus on reconnecting sexually, they find that what worked for them before might not work for them now. It can feel fragile and unfamiliar. Although there is no “one size fits all” solution for healing through this obstacle, here are some actionable steps that can help smooth your road to recovery.

Shift your focus from sex to intimacy.

It’s not uncommon to hear the word “intimacy” and automatically associate it with sex. But intimacy is so much more than sex. It’s closeness. When you feel distant from your partner, it can be difficult to isolate the specific reason causing the disconnection. 

Think of your intimacy as the sum of five different tanks: emotional, physical, intellectual, spiritual, and sexual. These tanks work together to fuel your overall intimate connection. When you’re feeling a disconnect, consider which tank (or tanks) is running low. Dissecting your intimacy into these subcategories will help you more acutely identify your specific needs and give your partner clearer direction, keeping your intimate relationship more fulfilled.

Rediscover your partner. 

Think back to the very beginning of your relationship. You had to learn what kind of touch your partner likes, which compliments make them feel attractive, how they prefer sex to be initiated, and so on. Put yourself in that curious mindset of discovery again, as your partner’s likes and dislikes may have changed. The caveat is to remain respectful of established boundaries and strong preferences. 

Want to put a hand on his knee in the car? Ask for consent first, then check how he feels with your hand on his knee. Want to run your fingers through her hair while cuddling in front of the TV? Ask for consent first, then check how she feels when you’re playing with her hair. Notice the pattern? Ask for consent, then check-in. 

As clunky or awkward as this might seem, ensuring consent signals your awareness of and caution in this new territory and your commitment and respect for your partner. Each person, whether they cheated, has the power to prove their respect to each other by asking and checking in. Keep in mind—consent can always be withdrawn. Your intimacy rebuild may not look or feel linear, but remaining respectful of each other’s physical and emotional boundaries is key. 

Consider the three segments of sex.

Sex is often depicted as intercourse alone. In film, books, and other media, we rarely witness the build up before intercourse starts or the resolution that occurs after intercourse is finished. Deducing sex down to one part does your intimate connection a disservice. 

After a betrayal, once you are ready to have sex again, it’s beneficial to consider sex in all three segments: before, during, and after. 

1. Before sex, you’re building anticipation, engaging in foreplay, and getting both physically and mentally aroused. For couples healing from betrayal, this can feel like dipping your toe to test the water. Be aware of your feelings and physical body during this time. If your gut is tight, what does that tell you? Are you excited and ready? Is it cautioning you to take it slower? Give yourself the time and space to be aware of your physical cues as you re-navigate this stage.   

2. During sex, rely on communication to check in with each other. Ask open-ended questions; instead of “Is this good?” try “What does this feel like?” Additionally, communication shortcuts can be incredibly beneficial. For example, if you need a break to regroup, use a codeword like “pineapple” instead of struggling to find the right words to explain your feelings. When giving consent, you can use the traffic light: green is yes, yellow is not sure yet, and red is no. Chat with your partner separately to discuss what communication shortcuts to try.

3. After sex is often the most overlooked segment. Yet, for couples rebounding from betrayal, “after sex” may be the most critical area of focus.  Post-sex hormones make this time a prime opportunity to enhance intimate bonding. Learn how to incorporate aftercare into your sexual routine. This might look like cuddling, swapping back rubs, showering together, or sharing a snack. Aftercare is a great way to softly transition from a highly intimate experience, further securing the connection you just made.

    Healing from betrayal is a process. 

    Whether you are healing from an affair, infidelity, or emotional cheating, repairing your intimate connection requires patience, empathy, consistency, time, and effort. Aligning expectations, respecting boundaries, and reframing your approach will smooth out the road ahead

    If you would like professional assistance during your time of repair, our therapists and sexuality experts are ready to help. We offer individual therapy, couples therapy, and group therapy through our Beyond Betrayal group

    Pin It on Pinterest