The Emotional Journey with Vaginismus

by | Dec 15, 2021 | Uncategorized | 24 comments

Vaginismus: One Woman's Nightmare, One Woman's Cure
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Vaginismus was a big part of the early story of my marriage.

We were greeted on our wedding night by an inability to have intercourse because it hurt too much. I was expecting sex to hurt a little bit, but not like that.

It caused so many hurt feelings on both sides. We were both devastated.

But what made the whole thing worse was that we didn’t have a word for what we were experiencing. We thought I was the only one. We had never heard of someone who hadn’t been able to achieve penetration before. And so we both thought that at some level I was rejecting Keith (even though I certainly didn’t feel like I wanted to).

It took me several months to get the courage to talk to friends–who weren’t  helpful. Then we eventually talked to family (who were physicians) who took me to another physician, who wanted to put me naked in stirrups and have me touch myself while naming body parts, because then I wouldn’t feel shame.

I literally ran out of the room hyperventilating and never went back.

(Here’s a picture of Keith and me from around that time):

Real Intimacy in Marriage--Keith and Sheila

In hindsight, I know what caused my vaginismus: the obligation sex message, that my body was not my own and that I no longer had a choice in anything, combined with the improper way I was breathing and holding my abdominal wall after years of ballet. When that doctor wanted to put me on display against my will, it just exacerbated everything.

What I needed was physiotherapy and permission to wait on intercourse, but I got neither. I pushed myself because I felt so guilty, and likely made the problem worse.

As Keith and I worked on our marriage, and after a few children, the problem eventually resolved itself. I also learned how to control those muscles and learned how to breathe differently, and that helped tremendously.

But I have such sympathy for little 21-year-old Sheila, completely blindsided by this and having absolutely no idea where to go for help.

We want to make the word vaginismus as well known as the words erectile dysfunction.

After all, of couples under the age of 40, vaginismus is about three times as common, at least in evangelical circles. In many ways it’s more devastating–because often she can have sex, she just can’t do so without pain. So she feels like, to give him pleasure, she has to accept pain. That’s a terrible, toxic thing to believe–that his pleasure is worth the price of your pain.

So few marriage and sex books even talk about vaginismus. This was one thing that Kevin Leman’s book Sheet Music does well, but even Married Sex by Gary Thomas and Debra Fileta doesn’t handle it well, because they call it a psychological disorder, and say the first line of defence is counseling. But it’s not a psychological disorder. It is a physiological issue that can, and often does, have some psychological roots, and that often causes relationship issues as well. But there can be physical roots too (like my breathing), and for many people it’s multi-faceted.

The best route is to see a physical therapist who is trained in this, learn about accessing the mind body connection, and then start seeing a counselor if needed.

One of the reasons that we wanted as many people as possible for our survey for The Great Sex Rescue was to have enough women with vaginismus that we could probe root causes.

And thankfully we were able to do that (and we’ll be presenting our findings at the American Physical Therapy Association convention in February!).  It’s been known for fifty years that conservative religious women (like evangelicals) suffer from vaginismus at roughly twice the rate of the general population, and we wanted to figure out why. We found that a number of common teachings are correlated with vaginismus (like the obligation sex message), and often the way we do our honeymoon (more on that in the upcoming Good Guy’s Guide to Great Sex, and the totally revamped Good Girl’s Guide to Great Sex! And you can pre-order them now!).

Because I talk so much about it, I often have people emailing me about their vaginismus stories.

One such women is Rachel Perry. She told me her story, and I was blown away by it. She’s coming on the podcast tomorrow to talk about it, since I felt that it fit so well with our series on mind-body connection. She had read The Great Sex Rescue, and from reading it she started to answer some of the questions about “why” this had happened to her. Even though she found healing a few years ago, she’s still peeling back layers, and the Great Sex Rescue was part of that process. 

Before she talks with us tomorrow, though, I’d like to share her story with you. She’s written it up on her website: Vaginismus: My Nightmare, My Cure. I encourage you all to read it before you listen to the podcast! But I want to share a bit with you today:

“Anticipatory pain”, as my parents would call it, marked me from childhood. Whether it was me crying before Mom had even touched the hairbrush to my curly mop or trying my best to avoid every mistake or uncontrolled variable that could destabilize me, I was driven by fear to avoid surprise or disappointment.

Little did I know, this would turn out to be more than just the personality quirk of a cautious child. I had accumulated and repressed anxiety which had been burrowing its way into my psyche throughout my entire youth, creating neurological maps. In adulthood, this would manifest loudly. My body would make itself heard. That anxiety was not an innocuous personality quirk or a sin to be prayed away, but a powerful storm that had been whipping up steadily out of both nature and nurture, now swirling out of control ready to do some real damage.

I discovered that I had vaginismus on my wedding night.

I can not bring myself to share with you graphic details of the evening, but it is all crystal clear in my memory. It was beautiful, it was full of trust and love, and it was also confusing. It is heart-wrenching to remember now, but only because I know now what lay ahead.

Rachel Perry

Vaginismus: My Nightmare, My Cure

She goes on to talk about her journey: How she sought out medical attention for years and nothing worked. Multiple medical professionals thought the case was hopeless. 

And then, after six years, she found real help at The Women’s Therapy Center in Plainview, New York. 

But in my heart I could not look ahead into a long life dragging this body along that I despised, that had failed me. I needed to believe I could be cured. It was not primarily about sex, or exams, or tampons, or even children, as people had long since begun to assume. It was about feeling like a defective human. The church we were attending at the time was led by dear friends who were among the very few who knew about my condition. The church was in the family of a fairly charismatic tradition, and when they offered to anoint my head with oil and pray for healing I was extremely reticent. Since the unwelcome arrival of vaginismus in my life, I had found passages in scripture about healing upsetting. I should ask God for healing? The God to whom I had given my devotion and for whom I had guarded my purity – only to have the rug ripped out from under me after we made our covenant before him? He had removed His hand of blessing from me and I was going to ask for healing? My complaint was fraught, because I was not certain whether He had not come through for me or I had not come through for Him, or whether this was a test and if I begged for healing I might fail it? But I eventually said yes. We prayed for God to heal me, in His mercy and in His time. 5 months later I stumbled upon the online presence of The Women’s Therapy Center in Plainview, NY.
Rachel Perry

Vaginismus: My Nightmare, My Cure

Her story is riveting, raw, and real, and if you’ve ever wanted to understand what vaginismus does to a person–and how healing can be found–please read it. It’s lovely. 

Tomorrow Rachel will share her story with us on the podcast.

But for today, I’d like to encourage all of us to use the word vaginismus more. Let young people know it can happen–though it likely won’t. But let’s not let another woman be blindsided on her honeymoon, feeling as if her body has failed her and that she’s defective. 

Let’s not let more women give up hope because they think they’re the only one.

Twenty-two pecent of us experience this in some way, 7% to the extent that penetration is impossible.

Healing can come. But it comes first when we start talking about it. 

The Great Sex Rescue

Changing the conversation about sex & marriage in the evangelical church.

What if you’re NOT the problem with your sex life?

What if the things that you’ve been taught have messed things up–and what if there’s a way to escape these messages?

Welcome to the Great Sex Rescue.

Vaginismus: One Woman's Nightmare and One Woman's Cure

Do you have a story with vaginismus? Or do you know how we can educate more people about it? Let’s talk in the comments!

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Sheila Wray Gregoire

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Founder of Bare Marriage

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

Related Posts

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Author at Bare Marriage

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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24 Comments

  1. Tory

    What a heartbreaking story. I hope that some young women read it, realize they are not alone, and seek help and not wait 5-6 years to do it. For me, I had somewhat of a similar experience— I didn’t have Vaginismus, but when I went to get on birth control before my wedding at age 21, I had my first pelvic exam and the nurse told me that I had a thick hymen covering my entire vaginal opening, with only pinholes to allow menstrual blood to pass. (Sorry if this is tmi!) That explained why I could never insert a tampon. Long story short, I had looked forward to my wedding night but penetration proved impossible. He could get maybe an inch in, and it had to be from behind. So that’s how we had sex for months. It took probably a good six months until he could be all the way inside me. I definitely felt broken and like I was deformed, and I was convinced I was the only woman this ever happened to. I didn’t have pain-free sex until after the birth of my first child five years later. My husband was great and never pressured me. I’m just so glad people are talking about this stuff so maybe other women won’t have to struggle and be ashamed.

    Reply
    • It’s Me

      I had the same thing! I went to the doctor right after we got married and had surgery. Then years later, come time for my daughter to get married and she tells me she had never been able to use tampons…I took her to the doctor and she had surgery also. Thankfully she didn’t have the horrible honeymoon that we did.

      Reply
  2. Jo R

    The medical community has as much to answer for as those pushing obligation sex in the church. I’m trying to imagine a doctor telling a man to just “push through” his erectile dysfunction. 🙄🙄🙄

    Also, is it possible to develop what I guess would be called “secondary vaginismus” several years into marriage? Obligation sex and a whole lot of meeting his needs while patiently waiting for him to meet mine, even though I was simultaneously disbarred from merely voicing what my needs were; an absolute loss of the deep emotional connection we’d had while dating and engaged; no conversation on anything other than the weather and the perpetual “what’s for supper?” despite intense conversation about anything and everything before we said “I do”; no touching throughout the day except just before sex, and then just a perfunctory couple of deep french kisses and fifteen seconds of hands going straight to breasts and groin—and PIV became incredibly painful, even with lots of lube (sorry, TMI). Literally biting my lips, occasionally actually crying from the pain, and again, I was debarred by all those “experts” from even saying “ouch” because I might make HIM feel bad.

    To all the men still reading, I sincerely hope I haven’t just described what your marriage has been like for you wife for a decade or three.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Hi Jo, I’m so sorry! That’s so awful.

      Yes, secondary vaginismus can certainly develop for a variety of reasons (abuse and childbirth are two big ones).

      Are you in a better place now? That’s so sad.

      Reply
      • Jo R

        Oh yes, things are much better! But it was all damn unpleasant, as too many of us know all too well.

        The scary thing is how easy it is to slide back into the obligation mind-set; to do everything for him while waiting, waiting, WAITING for him to notice anything that doesn’t directly affect his own needs or comfort; to just keep my mouth shut tight because I’ll make HIM feel bad if there’s even a hint that I’m not actually a robot without any needs of any kind.

        At least I can now say in bed that something hurts without getting a negative reaction. Sigh.

        Reply
  3. Ashley

    It seems that already in the comments (and in Sheila’s story) this problem resolved after childbirth. I wonder why that is–it it just that the muscles get stretched enough? This is my story too. I had incredibly painful penetration until my first vaginal birth. I don’t even know what caused it because I don’t really think I internalized the messages many other women did. But after my stitches healed it was just…bam, cured.

    Reply
    • Andrea

      I have heard that story from one of my sisters, but I’ve also heard the opposite, where pain begins AFTER childbirth BECAUSE of the stitches (specifically the horribly so-called “husband stitch.”) Much has been written about this lately, amplified by the #MeToo movement, I I think hopefully it’s on the wane.

      Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      I know many people certainly do have it resolve–but for others it’s worse! And for many other women vaginismus starts after childbirth (due to birth trauma or injury). It’s really multifaceted. I am glad that I did get better, and that did seem to help, but I know that’s not every woman’s story!

      Reply
  4. NM

    I think I may have had mild vaginismus as a newlywed, although of course I had no idea what to call it. Our wedding night was great, but I think we overdid it and I was really sore the day after. It never crossed my mind that I should take a break until I felt better (and honestly I didn’t want to because I was truly enjoying my hubby). I wish someone had told me it was ok to take a couple days off if I was sore! As a result I think I cemented a sex=pain connection in my head, so the first couple minutes of intercourse were painful for months. I asked my mom if that was normal and she didn’t really know what to tell me. Fortunately my husband and I were talking about it and I hadn’t read too many marriage books yet so I spoke up for myself, and it did resolve itself after about 4 months. But it sure would have been nice to spare my newlywed self that pain and stress!

    Reply
  5. Rhean

    I have suffered from severe primary vaginismus from my wedding night 7 years ago. During lockdown 2020 I had the time and space to do the treatment and heal, and for a few months my hubby and I were able to have penetrative sex for the first time. We got pregnant – an ectopic pregnancy, I had surgery and lost a Fallopian tube as well as our desperately wanted and so loved baby. Now sex is possible, but painful. My hubby is wonderful, but our sex life is a constant battle. This openness about vaginismus is such a relief for us, to feel less alone in this journey.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      I’m glad, Rhean! And I’m so sorry for what you’re going through. That’s really, really tough. I’m so sorry about your baby. And I do hope that sex becomes less painful. that’s a hard road.

      Reply
  6. A2bbethany

    Honest question, would a, about to be married virgin, be less likely to have it, if she stretches out the hymen? And maybe specifically practicing penetration, by sticking fingers in? Do you think that would help lessen the likelihood of vaginismus, or not really make a difference? I know from learning from Sheila, that the reasons for having it are diverse. But my thought is by simply recommending that, we might (?) help lessen her chances.(thinking about the physical side of it.)

    Reply
    • Hope

      My obgyn recommended to use a tapered wax candle (smoother) or my fingers. She did recommend stretching, which I did. I’ve never had vaginismus, so I can’t say whether that was a key or not. I wouldn’t think it would hurt to try🤷🏼‍♀️ (that was 23 years ago!) My hymen did tear during our honeymoon, which gave me a momentary burning and sore sensation. But nothing that lingered thankfully.

      Reply
    • Anon

      I think it might help getting used to the physical sensation of having something ‘in there’ without any pressure. I had to apply cream for a gynae condition before getting married, and it felt really weird and quite painful at first, but I learned how to stop it hurting by taking it slowly and relaxing my muscles. I’d never touched myself in that area before, so I’m sure having to do that helped make me more comfortable with that part of my body.

      But I think the key is to stress to engaged couples the need to take things slowly. There is so much expectation that virgin couples will consummate the marriage on their wedding night. Well, we didn’t actually get that far until our honeymoon was over! My doctor had told me that sex would be extremely painful for the first few times because I was ‘abnormally’ narrow and my hymen was abnormally thick, but the worst I felt when we finally had intercourse was ‘uncomfortable’, and I know this was because my new husband took things SO slowly. He was adamant that my first time was going to be pain-free even if it took us years to get there (it didn’t, but it did take a few weeks). I suspect the reason the doctor said pain would be ‘unavoidable’ was because he didn’t imagine any man having sufficient self-control and selflessness to take things slowly enough!

      Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      It very well might, and I don’t think it would hurt. I think many women who have vaginismus would also have trouble doing that–even psychologically. I think asking questions like, “have you ever been able to insert a tampon?” is important. If we can help girls recognize the signs that would be good.

      Reply
      • Katie

        I really, really wish we could recognise the signs like not being able to insert a tampon. I have never been able to insert a tampon, and having a cervical smear has always been excruciating. I had what I now suspect was mild vaginisimus for several years after being married. I did stretching exercises diligently before our wedding but that wasn’t enough to help.

        The doctor I consulted said there didn’t seem to be anything obviously wrong, and I should just focus less on penetrative sex. No mention at all of vaginismus. I only learned the name from The Great Sex Rescue, after 20 years of marriage.

        In my case, I’m pretty sure the problems were to do with the effect of poor nutrition and toxic exposures (especially the contraceptive pill) on my ability to relax. It improved massively after stopping taking the pill.

        I’m really glad you’re making people more aware of this issue, Sheila. Thank you!

        Reply
  7. Pilgrim Profress

    Me too.
    Married at 22 in 1986 – evangelical background.
    Was looking forward to sex, having saved myself for my husband. Completely unrealistic expectations I guess. No guidance. Went to see the doctor but he told me there was nothing wrong with me.
    It took years before I could enjoy sex. Now I know what it’s called!

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      You never knew what it was called? I’m so sorry! I’m glad you got over it though.

      Reply
  8. Wifey

    I thankfully had no pain, but I was unable to have full intercourse with my husband on our wedding night. My mom’s friend who is a nurse specifically pulled me aside right before the wedding and said ask me anything at any time. I called her and she coached my brand new husband through the process of manually stretching me. It was excruciating and took several weeks, but it worked and we were able to fully enjoy one another. I was so thankful the lady had had the foresight to allow me to ask questions and never made me feel uncomfortable but instead celebrated God’s design for sex in marriage!

    Reply
  9. Jeannie Miller

    I feel like I’m reading my own blog post here.

    The Great Sex Rescue and your blog have been a godsend—in addition to vaginismus, I also have a diagnosis of endometriosis, so double whammy. I’m thankful that my husband wasn’t raised in church. He didn’t see sex as an entitlement. He’s been very supportive. But I still struggle. It’s a constant battle, thinking I’m not good enough, wondering if God had ripped the rug out from under me. He is good. He is faithful. But it’s hard.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      I’m so sorry, Jeannie! That’s so tough. And endometriosis can be so painful. I pray you’ll find healing soon from both.

      Reply
  10. Haley

    Thank you for sharing your story! As a women’s healthcare provider I am glad to know about the resource that helped you!

    Reply
  11. It’s Me

    I didn’t suffer with Vaginisimus but after having a hysterectomy 20 years into marriage, all of a sudden it was painful. I went back to my doctor and he told me he “tightened and shortened things up so my husband could have a more pleasurable experience”. Well, it didn’t create pleasure because for 20 year, we rarely had sex because of the pain! That created a great divide (as well as other things). I finally realized we had to work through this slowly to hopefully make the tissues more pliable (my doctor, right after telling me what he had done, suggested I go to counseling). Thankfully, it has slowly gotten better but now I am hoping we can become emotionally connected after all the years of such separation. My husband wants sex, not connection and I think the years of rare sex (I am talking maybe once a year!) has made that connection impossible. We have had twice where he lets his guard down and we have sex daily for 3 months, each time, but then he become distant again and I feel so rejected that I don’t want sex. This really should be easier!

    Reply

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