Navigating A Long-Term Relationship With Vaginismus

long term relationship hand holding

I did not discover that I suffered from vaginismus until I was in my twenties, and prior to that realisation I had never even heard of the disorder before. I suffer from primary vaginismus, and with a relatively complicated medical background and mental health issues, the diagnosis made perfect sense. However, even though the diagnosis itself gave me an initial wave of relief, I had to navigate what it meant in the context of a long-term relationship and my ongoing mental health issues.

Illness, Anxiety, and Vaginismus

I was born approximately two and a half months early, and as lucky as I was, my kidney and bladder took the brunt of the toll from my prematurity. As a baby, I suffered from severe kidney reflux (a condition that results from the bladder and kidney not being properly connected). As a result, I suffered from constant urinary tract infections throughout my childhood.

These medical issues were a precursor to a traumatic medical procedure I underwent when I was 11 years old that would haunt me for years to come. On more occasions than I can count, I would wake up mid-scream in a cold sweat in the middle of the night plagued by nightmares of being held down and feeling violated. While the procedure and tests I dreaded were necessary, as a small child who couldn’t understand what was happening, I translated these experiences into feelings of hurt and helplessness. Alongside these issues, I was diagnosed with anxiety at a very young age. At times the anxiety was so extreme that I was first taken to see a therapist when I was only 4 or 5 years old.

With the unrelenting stubbornness of my anxiety, those feelings of helplessness never fully went away and I believe that it manifested itself in the form of vaginismus. The constant pain I had endured from frequent UTIs and invasive procedures mixed with my anxiety magnifying and manipulating negative thoughts into gargantuan proportions had convinced me that any experiment regarding vaginal penetration, from tampons to masturbation, was improbable and likely unpleasant. I became convinced that anything to do with my vagina would be painful and that the anxiety-fuelled nightmares would resurface.

Navigating University Life and a Relationship with a Sex Disorder

By the time I settled into university, nearly a decade later, I thought I had left much of that trauma behind me. I still opted to avoid tampons and dreaded visiting a gynaecologist with every ounce of my being but I attributed that to general medical anxiety from my past and a relatively normal preference to sanitary pads over tampons. However, once I found myself in a happy and trusting adult relationship, I discovered something else wasn’t right; sex did not come naturally… or at all. Initially, I wrote it off as a painful first encounter – it’s not supposed to be great the first time, right? After a few months, my partner began to suspect there was something bigger at play than simply a case of first time nerves.

It’s here that I wish I could say that I had been proactive and done research around the subject but I was content enough to ignore it and push it as far under the rug as it could go. My partner, ever-supportive and never pushy, approached me one day about the possibility that what I was experiencing might be vaginismus. After a tearful and terrifying visit to the GP, I resolved that this was indeed the problem. The pain, stinging, and anxiety surrounding penetration all made sense. Unfortunately, suddenly having a term for what was wrong did not absolve me of the issue. Instead, I began to feel more certain that there was something fundamentally wrong with me; I was damaged goods.

I read as many articles as I could find online detailing personal trials and victories with the disorder. I was dismayed to find a recurring theme that only added kindling to the anxious fire in my head that insisted I was not a worthy partner. Many women wrote of their husbands and partners leaving them after eventually becoming fed up and dismayed by the state of their sex lives. Again and again, I found interviews and testimonies from sex clinics and therapists advertising their services to women; not to help increase their enjoyment of sex or achieve a more liberating and satisfying sex life but encouraging them to save their relationships before their male counterparts found someone more suitable and sexually fulfilling. These testimonies hit me like a ton of bricks and my anxiety and depression had a veritable field day with the new information I was struggling to digest.

Dating and sex can feel like a massive part of the social side of attending university; feeling as though my body was sabotaging me made me question how other people would perceive me if they knew. Upon discussing my vaginismus with an ex-housemate, she attempted to comfort me with the assurance that I was ‘lucky to have found anyone at university who would be willing to stick around’ given the circumstances. Hearing those words felt like a kick in the gut. It was a confirmation that reaffirmed every article I’d read that those diagnosed must get treated ASAP lest they be tossed aside and replaced with someone better. It soon became impossible to pretend that I wasn’t distraught over that possibility. What would I do if my partner did get fed up? Was I destined to never be in a happy, healthy relationship unless this disorder was treated?

Finding the Silver Linings

Luckily, there are ways to work through vaginismus and try to reclaim your body to function as you want it to, however, these methods take time and a lot of patience. Dealing with anxiety and depression alongside a sexual disorder adds another piece to an already tricky jigsaw puzzle of physical wellbeing, mental health, and self-love. Learning to trust that my partner was not going to disappear the first chance he got was a big test of my own feelings of self-worth. Truthfully, it still is. I still suffer from the symptoms of vaginismus, and it is likely something that will come and go throughout my life as my anxiety flares up and past traumas may resurface. Coming to terms with that, or at least trying to accept myself as a bit abnormal, can be a huge strain on my mental health.

I feel it’s vital to introduce another narrative here – one that insists that you are worth sticking by. Out of all the testimonies that push women to get treatment for the sake of their relationships and their partners, it can feel as though those suffering take a back seat, and that they aren’t the ones who should primarily benefit from getting better. This harmful narrative also seems to flout the idea that if their male partners immediately aren’t happy with their sex lives, then it’s perfectly okay to go – in fact, it’s the woman’s fault for suffering from vaginismus! Women who have to deal with the symptoms and ramifications of vaginismus deserve to be encouraged to find supportive partners who will accept them as they are and support them to cultivate a sex life that works for them both.

In my own relationship I have found that, although I would never choose to have vaginismus, it has dramatically improved our communication skills and deepened our levels of trust and intimacy. I think that silver lining should be the focus of more stories and testimonies. Women who suffer from vaginismus deserve narratives on how to move forward positively, even with unresolved symptoms.

Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

I still frequently find myself feeling drowned in guilt. There are some days that I cannot help but feel that I am holding my partner back no matter how patient and supportive he has been. On dark anxious or depressed evenings, it is difficult to navigate the nagging feelings that he might be happier or more fulfilled with someone else. Learning to trust the relationship that we have built in difficult circumstances has been a test, but one that I feel both of us have passed.

Learning to accept my body for what it is has also been a two steps forward, one step back kind of trial and coming to love myself (vaginismus, anxiety, and all) can still prove challenging on the best of days. However, with support from my partner and close friends as well as an open discussion of more positive narratives, I am hopeful that my symptoms will be managed and worked around. I also have hope that other women who suffer from vaginismus may find happier outcomes as well. Vaginal penetration should not be the be-all and end-all of romantic relationships, just as romantic relationships should not be the beginning and end of self-love.

Words by Anonymous

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