How to navigate intimacy while living with vaginismus
‘Sex and intimacy aren’t a part of my life that I explore much these days because it feels like more hassle than it’s worth,’ says 32-year-old Lucy.
Lucy has vaginismus, a psychosomatic disorder that causes the vaginal muscles to automatically tighten up whenever penetration is attempted, causing penis-in-vagina (PIV) sex to be painful, uncomfortable or simply impossible.
According to Stina Sanders, a psychodynamic therapist specialising in relationships, ‘the pain caused by vaginismus is often described as burning, cramping, or a tight feeling and, for some, nothing can be inserted into the vagina.
‘Because of this painful experience, vaginismus can impact self-esteem and lead to anxiety and depression and those with vaginismus may avoid any intimacy for fear that it may lead to sex.
‘This can significantly affect relationships, leading to distance, resentment and conflict.’
This is because intimacy – one of the most important aspects of a relationship – is commonly built through, and associated with, sex, especially in monogamous relationships.
‘Penetrative sex is about as close as possible to another human that we can physically get,’ says Sanders.
‘The closeness created and experienced during monogamous sex not only strengthens connection, bond, and commitment but it maintains a healthy level of intimacy, love, and belongingness, which we, as human beings, need.’
But, as in Lucy’s experience, vaginismus can cause people to avoid sex altogether.
’In my case vaginal sex is sometimes possible and sometimes not but there doesn’t seem to be much rhyme or reason as to why,’ she says.
‘It puts me off pursuing sexual partners out of fear that “it won’t work”. Sex has felt like a requirement in all my relationships, unfortunately, and I think that’s why I’ve been put off by the whole thing for a while.’
But navigating intimacy while living with vaginismus is far from impossible, not least because intimacy is about much more than just sex – and sex is about more than just penetration.
For Larissa, 35, another woman living with vaginismus, this is paramount.
She tells Metro.co.uk: ’When you are someone living with vaginismus, I think a really key thing is you to have to open up your ideas of what sex and intimacy mean.
‘We’ve been super conditioned to view “proper sex” as meaning “penis-in-vagina” – that’s some destructive heteronormative conditioning that erases so many forms of touch and pleasure.
‘With partners, I’ve worked on breaking down ideas of sexual hierarchy and changing language away from heteronormative terms such as ‘foreplay’ which label non-penetrative forms of sex as the starter before the main course of penetration.
‘At times, it has been helpful to give myself permission to let go of penetration entirely and to state that penetration is not going to be a part of sex.
‘It’s a powerful desensitisation technique as it’s crucial for people living with vaginismus to build security with sex and override the fear responses in the body that automatically turn on as the brain equates arousal and intimacy with pain and danger.
‘Taking the pressure off penetration, the body and mind can relax, sometimes even to the point where penetration can then occur.’
For this to work though, shared understanding from your partner is extremely important.
‘For me, choosing the right partners is really key to navigating intimacy with vaginismus,’ Larissa continues.
‘Some people are not going to be supportive of not having penetrative sex, but that’s completely on them and is not a reflection of you.
‘I’ve had issues of male partners internalising their inability to penetrate me as their own failings or feeling emasculated – you need to find partners who can support you and not add the burden of their own insecurities on to a condition which is already highly emotionally exhausting to navigate.
‘Be selective, find the partners who think it’s amazing that you are getting creative and taking ownership of your individual sexuality – believe me, they are out there!’
According to Sanders, there are at least four types of intimacy that don’t involve sex or touch at all but are just as impactful in a romantic partnership.
These include emotional intimacy, intellectual intimacy, experiential intimacy and spiritual intimacy, all of which lead to feelings of connectedness, understanding and closeness.
The four types of intimacy that don’t involve physical touch or sex
Emotional intimacy: This involves sharing your thoughts and feelings and being able to tell each other your deepest fears, dreams, and most complicated emotions. This allows us to feel seen and understood. Emotional intimacy means both you and your partner feel safe and comfortable.
Intellectual intimacy: Comfort with communicating beliefs and viewpoints without worrying about potential conflicts creates intellectual intimacy. Each individual has the freedom to think for themselves and their opinions are valued by their partner. Each person should not feel pressured to agree with the other.
Experiential intimacy: Shared experiences lead to inside jokes and private memories that can intensify a connection. Going on holiday, cooking a joint meal or training for a marathon together can lead to experiential intimacy.
Spiritual intimacy: Religious practice isn’t necessary for spiritual intimacy, though it can create a bond when you share moments like praying or worshipping as a couple with your partner. There are also many other examples of spiritual intimacy, such as meditating or watching a sunset together.
For Naledi, 26, intellectual and emotional intimacy have become more important than sex alone.
‘I think I’d expected for a long time that intimacy would be having sex and that foreplay was the warm-up to the sex, but having vaginismus meant that my partner and I tried to have penetrative sex for a full year without success,’ she says.
‘I’ve learned to value non-sexual intimacy more: being able to spend the whole night up talking to someone without running out of things to say now feels far more intimate than even being able to have penetrative sex.’
Non-sexual physical touch is also important for intimacy.
‘Intimacy is the feeling of being physically close and emotionally connected and supported with someone, but it doesn’t have to be sexual or even romantic,’ says Sanders.
‘In a relationship, this might include holding hands, cuddling or kissing.’
For Agnes, 26, who has always had vaginismus, meaning she’s never been able to have PIV sex, intimacy is a combination of all of these things.
‘Personally, intimacy has come to have different meanings for me – it goes from sharing with a partner that I have vaginismus, to cuddling, to engaging in anything sexual that makes me feel comfortable,’ she says.
‘To me that’s always been key to intimacy, never pushing myself to do anything I’m not at ease doing.
‘There is so much you can do outside of PIV sex, and also just sharing your vaginismus journey with someone else can be something that creates that unique ‘intimate’ bond with someone.
‘I see intimacy as showing your authentic self to others, including your vulnerabilities, and PIV sex is definitely just a tiny part of it.
‘Everyone that has vaginismus is deserving and capable of experiencing amazing intimate moments, often it’s just about being a little more patient and creative about it.’
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