How Past Intimacy Gone Wrong may Harm Your Marriage Now

Your marriage didn’t start with a blank slate when it comes to intimacy. You may think your spouse is the roadblock to real connection, and it’s true that you did marry a sinner. But what about your own stuff? What walls are you hiding behind? How open and available are you for true intimacy? Intimacy gone wrong in your past may be causing harm to your marriage now.

Think of what your past taught you about intimacy. What did you learn from your family of origin, from experiences with previous partners or friends, from life or church? Perhaps you learned:

  • Intimacy in marriage is about sex. If we have sex, we’re being intimate.
  • It’s not safe to be intimate; I’ve been hurt before and I’m likely to get hurt again.
  • If you truly know me you’ll reject me, so I’m better off hiding or pretending to be who I think you want me to be.
  • Intimacy should just “happen.”

The places where you’ve been discipled around marriage and intimacy greatly affect your expectations and the very templates in your brain about how to “do” all this. And pain from past intimacy gone wrong leaves scars and creates walls in your soul that can keep you from seeing and knowing your partner or allowing them to truly see and know you.

Isn’t that what you hoped for when you said “I do”–to be truly seen and known? And if your husband or wife doesn’t want sex or won’t communicate, your expectations and your heart get squashed once again. Or perhaps you’ve given up because intimacy seems impossible.

Past intimacy gone wrong can certainly cause harm to your marriage. So what to do about it?

Intimacy and Sex: Related but Not the Same

Intimacy has often been used as a euphemism for sex, especially in marriage. Let me remind you that the two things are related but they are not the same. You cannot experience intimacy by only taking the clothes off your body. The coverings must come off your heart and mind also.

And that’s where the rub comes. Porn has discipled countless men and women that sex is about getting, about experiencing a physical release; that’s anything but intimacy, but the templates get set up in your brain. The church has too often made you believe intercourse in marriage is the pinnacle of intimacy (wrong). Many men believe if they can get their wife to have sex they’ve experienced intimacy. (But if it’s only about a physical release, why are you unsatisfied with pity sex or duty sex?) Many women feel objectified and lonely when engaging in married sex. Husbands or wives who have been sexually abused in the past may or may not be OK with intercourse, but either way their heart is often far away.

In such marriages there’s no oneness going on. And you’re left heartbroken, lonely, frustrated, angry, or . . . .

Good married sex is important. But if intercourse is happening without whole-person intimacy it can drive you farther apart instead of bringing you closer together.

Where are you Hiding?

Consider what walls you are hiding behind. Some of these walls may be because of things your spouse has said or done that wounded you. You will hurt each other in marriage, guaranteed. For a healthy relationship to grow you will need to keep short accounts, learn to forgive, and become increasingly trustworthy. And sadly sometimes ongoing toxic behavior means it’s not wise or safe to let down the walls around your heart.

Other times, perhaps the majority of the time, the walls in your heart were built long before you slid a ring on your finger. Hurts in your marriage can raise those walls even higher. But the only way to become able to experience intimacy is to address the templates that got set up in your brain from intimacy gone wrong in your past.

Doing this work isn’t magic, and it is challenging. It involves wrestling with such questions as, what parts of your past, your dreams, fears, anxieties, hopes are you holding back from sharing with your spouse. When and how did you start hiding those parts of yourself? What do you imagine might happen if you did let down those walls?

And just as important are questions such as, what’s it been like to be married to me? Am I being an invitation for my spouse to come closer? Where has intimacy gone wrong for them? Can my spouse be safe with me in letting down their walls?

Building Healthy Intimacy

I love getting to help a couple re-engage in intimacy after it’s been broken, sometimes for years. It always takes addressing all aspects of a person and of the couple. This is not sex therapy! It’s helping two growing unfinished people see and know each other even when it seems risky and awkward.

Building intimacy requires your decision to refuse to let past intimacy gone wrong define your future. And then here are some important elements of building the oneness you wanted your marriage to express.

Spiritual intimacy. This is not an add-on or optional. Oneness was God’s idea for marriage, after all, and you need Him to be the glue holding you together. Pray together, silently at first if necessary. Ask God to bless your spouse and your marriage. Invite Him into your messy marriage, and specifically into your marriage bedroom. This is more important that most people realize.

Emotional intimacy. Remember the good moments of your early days as a couple and talk about them. Find ways to create moments of fun and play in your relationship. Enter each other’s world. Take a mental step toward your spouse. Express gratitude. Listen. Seek to understand your spouse, to connect with their heart.

Physical intimacy. Learn your spouse’s arousal template. Give affectionate touch (non-sexual). Kiss, especially when you separate for the day and when you return. Explore all of your spouse’s body, the non-sexual parts as well as the sexual parts. Don’t make love-making a 10-minute “getting off” (although a quickie can be just fine). Focus on giving your spouse pleasure more than worrying about your own.

Oh, there’s at least a book’s worth of “stuff” in those three paragraphs. But if you aren’t doing those things, you’re not nurturing intimacy.

Learning to Love Well

You didn’t come to marriage knowing how to do those things. For all the past intimacy gone wrong that is causing harm to your marriage, it’s almost certain that your marriage can experience so much more intimacy than you are experiencing now. And I want to teach you how to get there!

I’ve taken the things I’ve taught individual couples that have helped them build intimacy and put it all in our new online course Fully Alive Marriage. This course is not marriage enrichment; it’s helping you learn the mindsets and skills to solve problems that sabotage your intimacy and build the kind of relationship that nourishes you both for the long haul.

Don’t remain languishing in marriage misery or walk away before seeing what God may yet do for your relationship. Join me in the Fully Alive Marriage course today!


Your Turn: How is intimacy gone wrong in your past causing harm to your marriage relationship now? Where are you hiding? Which of the steps mentioned in the Building Healthy Intimacy section of this article are you going to do next?  Leave a comment below.

Tweetables: why not share this post?

  • Most marriages can experience dramatically better intimacy than they are now. Intimacy gone wrong in your past may be what’s causing harm to your marriage now. Here’s what to do about it. Tweet that.