Elise Bahr and her husband, Matt lead a community group for Sojourn Community Church in Louisville, Kentucky.
Growing up in the church I was taught (and believed!) that sex is a mysterious blessing to be enjoyed between a husband and wife. So when I met my now husband, we focused and fought for two years of dating and engagement to protect that sexual intimacy for our marriage. Like many believers in those premarital shoes, we were so excited to experience the long-awaited gift of sex!
But what if the thing you have longed for turns out to be a disappointment? What if the transition from saying "no" so many times to a desire for sex to wholeheartedly saying “yes,” isn’t seamless? What happens when you open the gift of sex only to find a trial . . . and in my case . . . one that’s actually intensely painful for your body?
Wounded by Sex
I was very nervous our first time together. I expected the first night to hurt a little, but for it to be great to finally express this love to my husband. But all I remember is anxiety. I was overwhelmed with my own perfectionist pressure, years of expectation built up, and being frustrated that I couldn’t relax. Our honeymoon looked no different; I was anxious, he was patient and sex was physically excruciating for me.
It took a while for me to be diagnosed with vaginismus, a condition in which physical contact causes painful involuntary muscle spasms. It was a relief to finally know why sex hurt me, and doctors were confident that it would go away with time and I just needed to relax.
But it didn’t. The endless cycle of fear about sex, pain during the sex and guilt after sex lasted for the first three years of our marriage.
To help with the pain, I needed to relax my muscles. But I was fearful of the pain, so my muscle spasms would then cause sex to be even more painful. I felt like a complete failure as a wife. My husband felt guilty for wanting something that hurt me, and I felt guilty any time I refused him something we should have. When I went ahead and had (painful) sex, it ended with me in tears from the pain, resentful towards God for giving such a twisted gift, and filled with guilt that I hated sex.
We would rarely do it, but the anxiety of knowing it was coming was hard for me and the guilt that we weren’t doing it was often even harder.
I bought $90 creams that specialists were sure would fix the problem. I avoided perfumed detergent and soap. We did marital counseling, we prayed, others prayed. I drank wine to loosen up. I did multiple rounds of physical therapy. I tried lidocaine gel. I read every book, article and blog. And then, I gave up.
Maybe I should just accept the trial and stop fighting it, I thought.
I resented others who said they had a great first year. I was envious of those who were popping out kids with no problem while we couldn’t even figure out sex. I hated when people joked about “doing it” all the time as newlyweds.
And as I saw my sinful responses to my trial grow, I realized that maybe I had worshiped my hopes for sex more than my God.
Throughout our trial God’s grace to us was abundant. We were advised by wise friends to focus on other aspects of intimacy. We talked deeply, expressed our feelings, and found other ways to feel connected. It was a challenging but sweet time in our marriage. We were extremely disappointed and often hopeless, but we were a team. However, as my love for Matt grew through our suffering, resentment towards God grew, too.
How could You ignore our prayers to enjoy this gift for so long? We read so many books and listened to sermons that talked about Your beautiful design for sex and we can’t have it? But, we waited! We did everything right. This trial is unfair. We should be over this by now.
I realized more than ever when God did grant us relief from this struggle, that I had placed my desire for the gift of sex above my desire to know Him better through any struggle He might allow me.
In the third year of our marriage when God answered our prayers for relief from painful sex, I was surprised that it didn't fix all the anxiety, unhappiness and discontentment in my life. Certainly it helped, but I hadn't realized that my desire for pain-free sex, although a good desire, had become an idol.
He had answered, yet I was still unhappy and missing something. I finally understood that only God fulfills. Not sex. Not getting what I want. Only the peace that comes from abiding in Jesus amidst all of our joys and sufferings fulfills our longings.
Bitterness had crept into my heart as I begged God to take the pain out of the good gift He gave us. Like a wife who begs God for a child when she is infertile, or a single woman desiring a Godly husband, I was a wife praying for a healthy sex-life who had forgotten to believe that God is kind. Satan had deceived me to think my life would be perfect when my sexual longings were met.
A verse that I held tightly to during this trial was, "I remain confident of this: I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living" (Psalm 27:13). I thought that I would see His goodness when He healed me. But through this trial, I realized that He is good even if He hadn't healed me. And part of His goodness to me was in denying the very thing I had been willing to worship over Him to show me that. God has indeed given us the good gift of sex. But more, God has given us the even greater gift of Himself.