Vaginismus: Painful and Harmful to Intimacy
A Marriage Killer
The fictional spouses, Sharon and Bill, met at a party and were married ten quick months later. While sharing values of sexual restraint and the purity of romantic love, the two held off on making their relationship sexual. Early after meeting, Sharon had stated strongly to Bill that sex before marriage just wasn’t within her ethical or moral framework. Bill understood. His feelings were so strong for Sharon, and having been raised in a moderately religious family, her need to wait before exploring sexuality seemed reasonable. Plus he wished to demonstrate that his love was pure and not based upon lust. Neither partner had a lot of sexual experience, though Bill had a few prior sexual partners. Despite several prior boyfriends, Sharon had always chosen to remain chaste.
The challenge began during their honeymoon, after which the marriage remained unconsummated. Of course Bill had been eager to share himself with Sharon, after having waited painfully for ten long months to enjoy with her the fulfillment of sexual pleasure. He wanted to be patient with her, yet it was apparent that when a sexual opportunity arose, her anxiety and discomfort grew apparent. He was excited when she invited him in to share the experience of intercourse. Much to Bill’s dismay and confusion, penetration could not occur; even after several attempts during each of which Sharon cried out with feelings of sharp pain. Bill was confused, disappointed. Sharon felt deeply embarrassed. Being mildly uncomfortable with sex to start with, and not wanting to re-experience the traumatic moment, the two simply avoided both sex and talking about it for years. This story is not as unusual as you may think.
Sharon and Bill silently suffered with this shameful secret. Bill, conflicted in his intense frustration, did not want to force Sharon to do anything that caused her pain. Because of her many loving gestures, he felt confident in her love. She had hinted to her gynecologist that there was a problem, but the doctor gave her worry little importance and suggested that she and Bill use a lubricant. The doctor mentioned in a dismissive tone that during the internal exam nothing unusual had been observed. Feeling ashamed, embarrassed and deeply inadequate, she felt unable to press the issue with her doctor. Bill and Sharon allowed the sexual part of their marriage to remain unattended until years later when Sharon stumbled upon an article about vaginismus, an emotional condition resulting in the chronic spasming of a woman’s pelvic-floor muscles, effectively preventing her vagina from opening.
To understand this more clearly, consider the example of common muscle pain that so many people experience in their shoulders. In reaction to stress and tension, many people the involuntarily, habitually tighten their shoulder muscles. If tightened chronically, these muscles eventually grow tired, tight and produce a painful burning sensation. The shoulder pain sufferer over time will have lost the ability to consciously relax these muscles. Women with vaginismus suffer the same condition; however the muscles in question are located in their pelvis.
The cause of vaginismus is emotional though it manifests with physical symptoms. A woman may have anxiety and fear the vulnerability that sexual activity produces. Women with histories of sexual abuse or trauma are more likely to experience the painful symptoms of vaginismus. If during the course of a marriage, accumulated emotional hurts and distrust may be an emotional precipitant for vaginismus, which can show up along a spectrum of intensity. For instance, some women just experience discomfort, such as pain or a burning sensation only at the moment of penetration, while others feel the pain, dull or sharp, throughout the duration of intercourse. Still others, like Sharon, are prevented altogether from having intercourse.
Untreated, this problem is a marriage killer. Vaginismus is very treatable, yet it is often a mystery to the sufferer, the partner and the medical professionals women depend upon for healthcare. This is true, in part, because the source of the problem is emotional, the symptoms are physical, but without any obvious physical signs suggesting a problem. If not for the tremendous embarrassment of sexuality, and even the discomfort the medical community has with sex, many women and many partners would be spared much pain and shame. A great resource for this not-so-uncommon difficulty is the website: www.vaginismus.com. Successful treatment will come from a sex therapist, a professional trained in the emotions which impact sexual health. Andrew Aaron, LICSW