Therapists often recommend a period of abstinence to couples dealing with issues of compulsive or addictive use of pornography, or with issues of other types of sexual acting out. This can provide time for the wounded spouse to begin processing the impact of betrayal without the pressure to be sexually intimate. It can also be instrumental in rewiring the addict’s brain and in allowing that individual the opportunity to learn ways of connecting other than through sex.
For many, the idea that there can be intimacy without sex sounds as unbelievable as the story of the man’s encounter with aliens, headlined on the magazine at the check-out counter. This can be especially true for the person struggling with porn or sex addiction. The reason for this, according to Robert Weiss and other professionals, is that sex addiction is about an underlying intimacy disorder caused by childhood trauma, neglect, abandonment, or abuse that makes it difficult for the individual to form healthy bonds.
So how can a couple connect when one of them has a distorted view of intimacy from experiences that may go back as far as childhood, and the other is reeling from the pain of betrayal? First, I believe that apart from surrendering to God and relying on His strength, it will be nearly impossible. Second, each will likely need to have done some individual recovery work to be in a stable enough place to be ready for this step.
For those in recovery or anyone else who would like to know how to build intimacy apart from sex in the midst of a world saturated with sexual images and messaging, here are ten suggestions.
1. Focus on spiritual connection.
Together, listen to a sermon or read a devotional and take turns telling what you got out of it. Question each other about the values, traditions, and belief systems in which he or she was raised. Serve together at a food pantry, homeless shelter, or some other local ministry.
No one likes to feel taken for granted. For one week, each night before bed, tell your spouse one thing he or she did that day that you appreciate. This will help you focus on the good things your spouse does. “Appreciation can make a day, even change a life. Your willingness to put it into words is all that is necessary” (Margaret Cousins).
3. Reminisce together.
Talk about your first date, your first kiss, a memorable trip, or the birth of your first child. Some studies show that there is a release of serotonin that enhances our mood when we do this.
“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things” (Philippians. 4:8).
(If your pain still has you in a place where all past memories feel tainted, skip this one.)
4. Laugh together.
Watch a funny TV show. Play a board game. Do something silly. Fly a kite. Play a round of miniature golf.
“A cheerful heart is good medicine” (Proverbs 17:22).
Science agrees. Laughter triggers the release of endorphins, the body’s natural feel-good chemical.
5. Foster emotional connection with meaningful conversation.
Share the highlights and lowlights of your childhood. Share your greatest fear. Check in with each other once a day and share your current feeling. It is important for there to be no judgment in this space so each feels safe to share.
6. Do something new together.
God created us with curious brains that respond positively to new stimuli, releasing endorphins that make us feel better. That shared experience can act as a bonding agent. So try a new restaurant, visit a new place, see a new sight, or take up a new hobby. Create new memories.
7. Engage in non-sexual physical touch.
There is healing power in touch. When Jesus walked this earth, he had the power to heal with His words alone. Yet, time after time, He chose to touch people when healing them. There are studies that show the body releases oxytocin with physical touch. This can contribute to relaxation and feelings of trust as well as bonding.
So, go for a walk and hold hands. Try giving your spouse a hug before you leave the house and when you return. Reach out and touch your spouse on the arm during a conversation. Make a habit out of physically touching without the expectation of anything else.
Related: Intimacy is not spelled S-E-X
8. Stare into each other’s eyes.
Turn off all noise and eliminate all distractions. Sit across from one another with knees almost touching. Then stare into one another’s eyes for four minutes. This can be a powerful exercise that can help you focus on your spouse, staring into the soul, and connecting on a level beyond words.
9. Do something to make your spouse feel special.
We all have the desire to feel like we matter for who we are and not just because of the things we’ve done. So do something for your spouse to bless them—to show you care. Bring home her favorite dessert. Surprise him by washing his truck. Do one of the chores you know your spouse does not like to do. Leave a kind note. You don’t have to spend money. Be thoughtful.
10. Listen intently.
In their book, Seven Desires, Mark and Debbie Laaser list the first universal desire of all mankind as the desire to be heard and understood. So, put down your phone, turn off the TV, and give your spouse your undivided attention. Ask your partner about his or her day and then just listen. James, the brother of Jesus, said we should be quick to listen and slow to speak (James 1:19).
Listen to merely understand what your spouse is experiencing and feeling, not thinking about how you will fix them, solve a problem, or respond. It is not even necessary that you agree with the perspective or feeling.
The world is full of people who have sex without true intimacy. Unfortunately, that is common. Sex addicts do so regularly. What is not so common is having deep intimacy apart from sex. Healing comes through intimate connection. Here you’ve read ten suggestions. If you want more, ask your spouse what, other than sex, makes them feel connected to you and then do it. You may discover the beauty of real intimacy. There is no substitute for that.