Essential advice and information for partners of women with vaginismus
By Cara Mason, Co-author of Cure you Vaginismus and Thrive
This page aims to provide information and guidance for partners of women with vaginismus, so that you can better understand the condition and how to support her as she works to resolve it.
As difficult as having vaginismus is for the sufferer, as her partner you may have also experienced a range of difficult emotions, such as frustration and isolation, on top of the yearning to be intimate with her. You might also find it confusing to know how to best respond to her sexually now - whether to encourage her to try to be intimate or to back off so that she doesn't feel any undue pressure.
I hope this page will provide you with important insights and helps to manage your expectations as she progresses through the any therapy programme for vaginismus, The Cure your Vaginismus Programme or otherwise. Having an understanding, communicative and supportive partner helps to make a woman's journey to overcoming vaginismus that much easier and smoother.
As she progresses through a treatment programme, she will hopefully gain more understanding about vaginismus and how her body responds. As her partner, you don't need to understand it to anywhere near the degree that she will, but hopefully, by having a basic understanding of the condition is certainly helpful, so below are some insights into vaginismus and how to best support her...
What is vaginismus?
Vaginismus results from a tensing of the vaginal muscles, making sex or other forms of penetration painful or impossible. The pain experienced from vaginismus can range from minor discomfort during sex, to significant pain or the complete inability to tolerate any form of penetration.
Women often describe the sensation of penetration as hitting a ‘brick wall’. If penetration is attempted the woman will generally brace herself in anticipation of pain, causing the vaginal muscles to tense.
Although the manifestation of vaginismus is physical, the causes of it are psychological and emotional. Vaginismus is driven by anxiety and fear: fear of pain; fear of the unknown; fear of failure; fear of embarrassment. Vaginismus causes distress, embarrassment, shame and frustration amongst affected women. It's not a choice, and your partner is not to blame for this condition.
Symptoms of vaginismus
Your partner will experience most or all of the following:
• She may feel very anxious or fearful at the thought of penetration.
• She may feel alienated or disconnected from her vagina.
• She may feel a sense of squeamishness towards her vagina.
• She avoids penetration due to fear of pain or other negative emotions. This may include avoidance of tampons, sex or gynaecological examinations.
• She may feel as though there is a ‘wall’ or other obstacle inside her vagina preventing penetration or imagines her vagina to be physically abnormal.
• She experiences a burning or stinging pain and tightness of the vagina if penetration occurs.
Does her vagina need stretching?
Absolutely not! The pain that she experiences when vaginismus occurs is due to the resistance of attempting to push an object through clenched muscles. It is NOT the result of the vaginal muscles – or any other part of her vagina - being stretched beyond its capabilities. The vagina is an organ that is naturally stretchy and flexible. In the same way that our stomach doesn't need to be stretched before a big meal. When the body is relaxed, it does the things we want it to do without even trying.
But how can she have issues with sex? Sex is great!
Vaginismus is often a misunderstood condition because it can be hard for people to understand how something that can be as enjoyable and 'natural' as sex, can become so problematic.
But actually there are some major differences between men and women...and I'm not just talking about the how long it takes to get ready or how to load the dishwasher. Men's genitals are on the outside of their body and they come into contact with them a number of times a day. Female genitals, however, are tucked away and hidden so they can become a bit of an enigma. It makes sense then, that if they are out of sight, out of mind, a disconnection and alienation can result. This can be compounded by any feelings of shame or embarrassment about sex or their bodies. These negative emotions can then lead to anxiety and pain with penetration.
Interestingly, the unhelpful beliefs and mindset that cause erectile dysfunction (inability to have/maintain an erection) in men are actually very similar to those that cause vaginismus. The difference is only in being unable to get it up, as opposed to being unable to get it in.
Similarities with vaginismus and other mind-body responses
Our minds are remarkably powerful and can have a huge impact upon how our body responds. In anticipation of sex, your partner is tensing her vaginal muscles, in the same way that a nervous airplane passenger may tense the muscles in their hand as they grip the armrest of their seat. Or if someone has a fear of public speaking - their anxiety is having a very physical affect upon their body. As they stand in front of their audience their heart is pounding, they are sweating, their mouth is dry, etc.
With the beliefs that we hold and the power of our imagination, we have the ability to create a whole host of unhelpful physical sensations...
...By the same token, simply the dread and fear of penetration can have a very real and physical impact upon how her body responds to that very thing.
Be prepared to wait to see results
She will really appreciate your patience whilst she works to resolve vaginismus. If she feels relaxed and supported, this can only help her progress. I do appreciate that some men may not always feel patient during this process! Do be aware that any expressions of frustration, irritation or anger are likely to add to the pressure that she already feels, and delay progress.
Your partner's degree of success with penetration will be mainly driven by how powerful and in control she feels about her body...and this takes time to build.
Overcoming vaginsmus is not like losing weight where it's possible to visually see progress week after week. As her partner, you will only get to experience the full extent of her efforts when she is able to finally have sex. Until then, you won’t necessarily be aware of how her beliefs and mindset about her body and penetration are changing week after week. In the absence of any visible evidence of change, you'll will have to have faith that she is doing what she needs to do...
Do try to be patient and reassure your partner that you are in this together. This is likely to result in her feeling more relaxed and comfortable when intimacy does take place, which can only serve to have a more positive impact upon the outcome.
The importance of good communication
As much as possible, try to have open and honest conversations about vaginismus and your sexual relationship, even if it's a subject that's been previously brushed under the carpet. After all, her resolving vaginismus will benefit you both. As she builds her understanding about vaginismus, she will be better able to share the most important knowledge and insights with you. As her partner, it can be difficult for you to know the very best ways to support her, so it's helpful to ask her what she needs from you.
Try to make your partner feels as comfortable as possible discussing her feelings and experiences. The more interested and encouraging you are, the better that will be for both of you.
Don't be surprised if telling her to 'just relax' does the very opposite thing. She is already trying to relax, and hearing that may increase the pressure she already feels. It's as futile as telling someone who's depressed to 'Cheer up!' or someone who's angry to 'calm down'.
Having open and honest discussions that promote closeness and bonding can benefit you both in an emotionally and sexually rewarding way. Whilst you may feel a little uncomfortable or embarrassed about discussing intimate matters, she is also learning to challenge any fears of embarrassment or judgement. The more you do this, the easier it gets. Feel free to ask her questions or discuss your feelings. You might be nicely surprised at how rewarding opening up can be.
There may be changes in how she responds to you sexually
Having vaginismus can often have an impact upon other physical expressions of love and affection within a relationship. Any negative emotions that she feels about sex, can expand into areas such as kissing, cuddling or other sexual activity, causing her feelings of awkwardness and discomfort. She may fear that by showing you affection that she is leading you on, as she will ultimately be unable to have sex. Any sexual engagement can have negative connotations as it serves as a reminder that there is a bigger unresolved issue. As a result, she may have withdrawn, both physically and emotionally, in her attempts to reduce ambiguity.
Be aware that she may feel a little apprehensive about initiating affection or intimacy because it involves engaging in behaviours that she has previously avoided. However, by doing so and by you responding favourably, you are both taking helpful, constructive control in moving your sexual relationship forwards.
This increased physical contact also enables you both to learn more about your bodies and your sexual responses. She may also feel a little self conscious about revealing a new sexual side of herself that may be unfamiliar to both of you. The more accepting and encouraging you are towards her, the easier it will become for her to relax into being a more confident, sexual person.
Be aware of YOUR expectations about sex
After experiencing months or years of a disrupted or non-existent sex-life, partners of women with vaginismus can also adopt a hopeless and pessimistic outlook on the possibility of ever having sex. You may have got accustomed to her unfavourable responses to sex, which could be anywhere between complete avoidance of it, or seeing her wince in pain if sex is attempted. If sex has become associated with pain and disappointment, it is understandable that you might expect that future attempts at sex will equally unsuccessful.
As your partner starts to resolve vaginismus, her feelings towards penetration should change. With her new-found sense of control over her body, and desire to engage in penetration exercises, be prepared to see a new side to her.
This may require you adapting your own mindset, expections and responses to be more in line with your partner's more empowered approach to penetration.
Men can respond to these changes in their partner - and in the dynamics of their relationship - in quite different ways. Some men are delighted about these changes and feel positive and excited about the prospect of a new, improved sexual relationship.
For other men, these changes can sometimes be a little challenging. As the status quo shifts, you may have fears about how this might affect your relationship. It can feel a little unsettling: it's new, different and unknown. This is where good communication skills are key, as the best way to navigate through this is to have good, open and honest communication to express and discuss how you are feeling.
Your first experiences of sex
Often, the first attempts at sex can feel like a project to be undertaken, i.e., clinical, methodical and not very sexy! To help things along, engaging in foreplay is really important. The sexual pleasure you both get from that should help you to relax and make the experiences more enjoyable.
The best way to introduce sex into your relationship is in a slow, gradual way that feels more natural and not too contrived. I have known couples to attempt sex despite the absence of any other physical intimacy in their relationship. This is doomed to fail! It’s unrealistic to expect to make that transition to sex after having little or no sexual contact for months or years. By the same token, you wouldn’t expect someone with a fear of driving to build up their confidence on the fast lane of a motorway...
The steps to enjoyable sex
If the first time you attempt to have sex doesn’t go brilliantly straight away, tolerate that there may be a step or two involved prior to this happening:
Step 1 – You are able to insert your penis, but she might still find it uncomfortable. The good news is that her vaginal muscles are relaxed enough to allow you entry (even though they are tense enough to cause her discomfort).
Step 2 – You are able to insert your penis, and whilst it’s no longer uncomfortable for her, it might not be particularly physically satisfying. She may still be a little nervous and hesitant and perhaps doesn't yet know how to position her body to maximise her pleasure.
Step 3 – It’s in and it’s good. Her mind and body are relaxed. Bingo!
Any further penetration difficulties are likely to be due to either technical issues (such as getting the position right or being unable to maintain an erection), or anxiety due to the unfamiliarity or pressure of the situation. Whatever the cause, expect some trial and error! Particularly if both of you lack sexual experience.
This is a learning process so try to be kind to yourselves. The more comfortable you feel around your partner and the better your communication about the situation, the smoother this transition will be. Any difficulties or awkwardness with communication between you and your partner is likely to result in a barrier that can impede progress. The ability to have good sex is a skill that you can learn and develop so it’s important that you hone your communication skills.
If your first experiences of sex aren’t as breathtaking as you had anticipated, do not worry! It often takes practice to achieve good sex, and as you both learn to relax and discover what works for you, your enjoyment will continue to grow.
Success stories from past clients
"The Thrive Programme has been absolutely life changing"
"I don't feel pain anymore and I'm seeing life in a very postive way"
"I never expected to get the results so quickly...the world is my oyster"
Want to overcome vaginismus in 6-8 weeks?
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