When vaginismus emerges at the start of marriage, couples are in their infancy; they have yet to develop the trust, understanding and communication skills that are essential in overcoming this challenge as a team. Vaginismus certainly threw us some curveballs at the start.
The vicious cycle begins: attempts at sex are painful and frustrating. The husband may feel rejected, undesired, or anxious about his performance, or hurting his wife. The wife may feel broken, ashamed, or wonder if these sexual difficulties are a sign that something is wrong in the relationship.
Would you fancy confessing to any of these feelings? We certainly didn’t, especially when we hadn’t yet learned to share our feelings lovingly, or to anticipate each other’s response. So communication closes down and negative sexual experiences mount up. Hurt builds and its tentacles spread to other aspects of the relationship. It can spiral into a deep freeze of estrangement, or a furnace of argumentation. Soon, this isn’t only about sex. The whole relationship fills up with tension.
Does this sound familiar? Hold up. It doesn’t need to be like this.
To both chatan and kallah, keep in mind that your marriage is new. We are led to expect that the newlywed phase should be characterized by perfect harmony, raging passion and total confidence. Sure, that’s some couples’ experience – mainly those who are in the fleeting (and totally optional) phase of infatuation, or those with a long history together who are already very enmeshed in each others’ lives. For many, especially couples who experienced a short, formal shidduch process, it’s an unhelpful fiction.
In reality, odds are, you’ve never touched, never spent longer than a day-trip together, and hardly negotiated basic chores, let alone major life upheavals. You’ve yet to learn each other’s rhythms, communication styles and sensitivities. Of course there will be tension! Of course there will be confusion and frustration! Now throw vaginismus or another sexual difficulty into the mix. If you’re stressed over negotiating the rules of a shared bathroom, a spanner in the works of your intimate life is going to feel like life or death. Why? Because sex is so much more personal, more intimate even, than bathroom habits.
Logically, sexual intimacy – the closest intimacy there is – should be the last frontier we cross when building our relationship. We may only feel the confidence to open up sexually once we have opened up in every other aspect of our lives, from money matters, to embarrassing fears, to sitting in comfortable silence together, to other forms of affectionate and sexual touch. Instead, our custom is to dive straight into sex as soon as we leave the wedding hall, not taking the time to gain comfort on those preliminary levels first. For me, the stress of this was too much and my body rebelled. Also, my negative prior beliefs about sex needed more teamwork to break through than we had put in so far.
Therefore it might help to step away from sex. Focus on gaining comfort, pleasure and intimacy in your conversations and daily routines. Aim for those same simple enjoyments in physical encounters – and by that I mean affectionate touch outside the bedroom. Set aside the “goal” of penetration for now, and let the relationship evolve until intercourse feels like a natural progression, rather than a glaring item on the newlyweds’ to-do list. Talk about sex; what are your beliefs and expectations? These conversations can align a couple, and illuminate and help to mend shameful or painful mental obstacles. This was certainly true in our case.
For many new husbands who eagerly anticipated the sexual dimension of marriage, this can be tough. Diverting the focus from penetration can feel like going backwards. But marriage is a journey; it’s OK to take the slow train, with a few more stops than expected. You will get there. And that is more efficient, however slow it is, than frantically searching for a non-existent alternative route, or staying on the platform, sighing in frustration.
Here is my husband’s advice to men, in his own words: consider your wife’s pain for what it is – a health problem. It’s nobody’s fault. Most of all, be patient. It will help your relationship, and your wife needs your love and support.
One halachic issue that can arise from engaging in sexual contact without intercourse is shifchas zerah levatalah – spilling seed in vain. Debate abounds about the prominence this prohibition is given in different sectors of Orthodoxy, and each couple will need to consider and consult within their own religious paradigm. But one thing must be said; if your wife is unable to have intercourse, or experiences severe pain when she does, she is not causing you to sin, does not owe you sex, and should not be coerced in any way to experience trauma for your spiritual sake.
All that being said, your hurt, disappointment and confusion deserve to be aired and honored. And that can be done without blaming or shaming. Navigating a relationship through this can be really hard. So, please realize that there’s nothing abnormal or wrong with seeking outside help from a counselor and/or competent mentor (it might help to be able to talk about your feelings separately). Kallah – don’t let the pain of vaginismus undermine your confidence as a wife, or obscure your view of your husband and his feelings. Revel in the manifold ways you can still bring love, companionship and fun into his life.
Most of all – in the absence of abusive relationship patterns – know that this is a season in your marriage. It only has the emotional potency that you give it, and you can choose how to deal with it. With deliberate thinking, a proactive approach, and the right support, you will get past it together. My husband and I can now look back and say we’re proud of how we handled this challenge. The mindfulness and honesty required were tough and messy at the time, but so worthwhile.