Vaginismus: Finding Hope for Unconsummated Marriages and Female Sexual Pain
“Brian rolled over and cradled me against him. His sexual advance immediately caused my body to tense. It soon became evident that pain and fear had once again won this battle. With a heavy sigh, Brian rolled away from me, frustrated by another failed attempt at what should be a very natural act: sexual intercourse. My mind screamed, ‘Why can’t I be like other women? Can’t anyone help me?’ Silent tears once again wet my pillow as I drifted to sleep outside the embrace of my husband.”
This story depicts a glimpse into a problem that happens far too often due to a condition call vaginismus (vaj-uh-niz-mahs). Vaginismus is an involuntary spasm of the muscles surrounding the vagina (the pubococcygeus or PC muscles) which tightens the vaginal opening, making sexual penetration painful or impossible. Vaginismus may be the most common cause of female sexual pain you’ve never heard of and if left untreated causes devastating sexual and relational complications.
For almost 14 years, my husband and I lived in a marriage deadened by vaginismus. For the first eight years of our marriage we enjoyed a pleasurable sex life but after I gave birth to our second child, I experienced some post-partum pain with intercourse. Further sexual encounters were then met by an intense burning sensation. I told my doctor of the problem but he could find nothing physically wrong with me. He suggested I have a glass of wine, relax and the discomfort would subside. But it didn’t. In fact it got worse! Every attempt at intercourse felt like a ‘violation’ and I soon began to fear and avoid the very act that used to bring us such comfort and pleasure.
In the years that followed, any attempt to keep intimacy alive was very frustrating because intercourse had become all but impossible. Without realizing it, I had actually made my problem worse by continuing to have painful intercourse. My mind and body learned to expect pain with penetration, so any time my husband approached me intimately, the muscle surrounding my vagina ‘closed off’ in an attempt to protect me. I didn’t even realize this clenching was occurring, but it created pain with intercourse causing me to fear sex. Eventually, the muscles surrounding the vagina tightened so completely that it was difficult to use tampons or have a gynecological exam without pain.
What was wrong with me? Repeated visits to the gynecologist yielded the same answer. No physical cause was found for my pain and since vaginismus was never considered, I remained undiagnosed and untreated. Was I the only woman who suffered this way? Did anyone else know this deep sense of silent failure I lived with every day? Shame and embarrassment kept me from opening up to even my closest friends. I couldn’t imagine telling anyone, “I can’t have sex.” Vaginismus continued to cripple our marriage and guilt grew along with my loneliness due to a self-imposed isolation from my husband— who was just as confused as I was.
After suffering with my ‘then un-named condition’ for 12 years, I began to experience emotional and behavioral complications. I finally began to see a counselor and when I opened up about my ‘little sexual problem’ she immediately said, “You have vaginismus.” I had worked in the medical field for 20 years and until then I had never even heard the word before! She then suggested I research the condition thoroughly.
In my research I found that vaginismus falls into two categories. Primary vaginismus occurs when a woman has never been able to achieve vaginal penetration. This ‘penetration’ refers to sexual intercourse but most often these women are also unable to insert tampons or complete a gynecological exam. All too often women with primary vaginismus find out they have the condition on their wedding night when they discover intercourse is impossible. This was the case with Jane:
“I was a virgin on my wedding night and was horribly surprised to find sex ‘didn’t work.’ We kept trying but the pain was always horrible. Due to embarrassment I didn’t want to see a doctor. So here I am 8 years later living in an unconsummated marriage…still a virgin. I am so ashamed.”
Secondary vaginismus, which is the condition I had, occurs in a woman who has previously been able to achieve pain-free penetration but for a variety of reasons her body suddenly begins to ‘fail her’. The hallmark symptom is a severe burning pain and it feels like you want to push your partner’s penis out. Left untreated, the pain/fear cycle continues to reinforce the spasm of the PC muscle tightening it further and making intercourse not only painful, but impossible.
Whether she suffers from primary or secondary vaginismus, the emotional effects on a woman’s life can be tremendous. Women are faced with severe feelings of shame, guilt, embarrassment, loneliness, and failure. The strange silence that surrounds vaginismus keeps women from releasing their private pain even to those closest to them. Some women with vaginismus have described feeling like they are still a ‘little girl’ or that they can never be a ‘proper wife’. These attitudes cause unworthiness to engulf a woman’s life leaving her to feel hopeless about her situation. She is forced to live with a shameful secret that keeps her intimacy locked away on a high shelf, seemingly unavailable to her.
The first and most important step I took in overcoming vaginismus was to become educated about the condition. As I researched and wrote in my journal, I learned more about the emotional, physical, and spiritual aspects of my individual problem with sexuality. I spoke with women who suffered just as I did and had contact with others who had overcome the condition. I realized I wasn’t crazy, uptight, frigid or any of those other words I’d thought about myself. Vaginismus was tangible and it had real causes with a real cure. My research eventually led me to a web site where at last I received the information and tools I needed to start my journey to recovery.
Vaginismus is considered a ‘dual aspect condition’ in that it has both emotional and physical components. The most effective therapeutic approach takes into account the whole woman: body, mind and soul. Physical treatment for vaginismus consists of a process called dilation therapy. I used gradually sized vaginal dilators to retrain the muscle surrounding the vagina to respond correctly to sexual penetration. Emotionally and spiritually I dug deeper until I found areas of my life that had caused me to feel shameful about sex and stopped me short of thinking I could ever enjoy it. I continued to seek help from my counselor to untangle the mess of lies vaginismus had told me for so many years. My husband and I held our family together clinging to the hope that our marriage could be healed in every way possible. Through self therapy and divine guidance, I was able to retrain my mind, body, and spirit to work together so I could consciously control the spasm of the muscle and eventually achieve pain-free and pleasurable intercourse.
Offering hope to others
Unfortunately, far too many women hear the hopelessness of their own cries as they struggle with the silent shame of vaginismus. Because of my own trial, I know the feeling of longing for sexual intimacy and thinking it could never be achieved. What a lie! Vaginismus is actually highly treatable. Yet because of medical misconceptions surrounding this condition, women with vaginismus may never seek help or even realize there is a name for their pain.
After overcoming vaginismus my passion has been to spread the word about this condition and help others to also find sexual healing. For two years I served as an on-line counselor and moderator in a private forum offered to women in a vaginismus web site. I am now a Life Coach and I encourage women through treatment by phone while helping them move forward in other areas of life as well.
I often wonder how many relationships end because of a woman’s inability to achieve intercourse. How often does the fear of intimacy cause a woman to ‘tense up’ creating a burning pain she cannot explain? Like me, do women avoid sexual advances due to pain and give the excuse they just aren’t interested? Due to a lack of research and the extreme shame and silence surrounding this condition, we may never know the answers to these questions. I know many women could be spared very lonely lives if they could find the correct treatment before they feel helpless. I am so thankful for my discovery of healing and it is my sincere desire for others to also know the reality of hope fulfilled.