If your life has been damaged by a partner’s infidelity, please join me for my “Healing From Infidelity” online class, free for LDS Living readers.
Q: Several years ago my husband had an affair on the heels of pornography abuse. I was shocked. He is a good man who did something awful. He felt terrible about it, has gone through church discipline, and has repented. His blessings have been fully restored to him. I feel like we should be in a good place right now, but I’m really struggling with sexual intimacy in our marriage. So often it makes me feel unsafe, hurt, scared, and brings up images of him with or lusting over someone else. I don’t know how to get past this.
A: What a devastating thing to go through. I’m truly sorry for your pain and glad that your husband has taken the steps necessary to be cleansed by the atoning power of Jesus Christ. The first thing to recognize is that, while making things right with the Lord and His church frees your husband from the eternal consequences of his choices, he still must deal with the fallout of them in mortality.
This means that he still must do the work of earning your trust and helping you to feel safe. Another way of saying this is that repenting in the Church is not the same process as repenting in your marriage. After all, the Church was likely not traumatized by his choices. You were.
Betrayal trauma, like other forms of trauma, occurs when you believe your world is safe and then discover that it isn’t. You believed that your marriage was safe, that your husband was true, that his heart, mind, body, and soul were loyal to you, and then discovered that these weren’t the case. Persons in that situation are often left reeling, not knowing what to believe or trust anymore (aside from God, and sometimes mustering even that faith can be difficult at the time).
The core issue for you right now is that sexual intimacy—which the brain ideally associates with trust, safety, belonging, and adoration—is now associated with devastating pain, sin, selfishness, and fear. Our brains are designed to fear the things that harm us; it’s how we keep ourselves safe. And now your brain fears your husband and intimate contact with him. “Don’t go there,” it says, “because it will only bring you heartbreak.”
So how do you move past this? First of all, your husband’s repentance must be complete. “By this ye may know if a man repenteth of his sins—behold, he will confess them and forsake them” (Doctrine and Covenants 58:43). He must be honest and transparent. He must be accountable for his actions without shifting blame. He needs to be able to hear your hurt and even anger without becoming defensive or rushing you to “get over it” and “let it go.” He must be faithful and true. Unless he’s doing these things, your brain will tell you not to trust him, that he’s still a threat to your emotional health.
If he’s not doing these things, he may need help in order to do so. If he is doing all of them, and has been for a sustained period of time, then the issue now is not him earning your trust back. He’s doing what he needs to do. The issue at that point is your choosing, or not, to trust him and be vulnerable.
Easier said than done, I know. Even if you want to trust him and be vulnerable, even if you are willing to do so, that doesn’t mean you can just will your brain to override its self-protecting instinct.
The key to your recovery, to rewiring your brain, to feeling safe in the bedroom with your spouse again, is something called exposure therapy. Exposure therapy is the process of learning how to self-soothe when you’re overcome by anxiety and fear. It involves slowing down the heart rate through deep-breathing, meditation, and prayer. Then you gradually expose yourself to the thing you fear, self-soothing and assessing for safety as you go.
For you this would look like, instead of jumping into sexual intimacy, starting with less intimate forms of contact with your spouse like slow dancing, kissing, and holding each other. As thoughts invade of him with another woman or lusting after images, you self-soothe through the anxiety and, once calm, assess your current situation for safety. You do this by focusing on who your husband is, not who he was; by focusing on what your marriage is, not what it was; by going through a checklist of reasons you have to trust him now.
Over time you can go a little further, and a little further. Your husband has to be in on the process and willing to be patient, stop when you say “stop,” and build up to a healthy sexual relationship. The more your brain associates your husband with love, trust, respect, and safety instead of pain and trauma, over time you’ll be able to reengage without being triggered as frequently or severely. There will still be incidents, and when they happen you can dial the intimacy down to a level where you feel safe.
This is a simplified version, of course. Many couples find that this is not a process they can do on their own. In fact, I’m firmly in the camp that infidelity is not something a couple recovers from without qualified therapeutic support. It doesn’t have to be from me. But you don’t bounce back from it on your own like you might many other relationship struggles. There’s too much pain and too many factors.
Of course, the most necessary component is the support of the Lord. The Atonement brings healing, it brings hope, it brings joy back into lives and marriages. In all things call upon Him. Make use of the resources He’s provided.
God bless you. I hope this helps.