This post is longer than usual, but we wanted to share all of Elizabeth’s vulnerable story with you. Read to the end to see how God brought hope and healing. If you have pain in your past related to sexuality that could be triggered, be gentle with yourself and skip the posts this week if you that is what you need to do.
It was late 2018, and my body was breaking down. My mental health was disintegrating, and my sex life, which had always been a source of strength and joy in my marriage, was all but disappearing. My struggles seemed so shameful. I felt betrayed by my body, I was constantly anxious, and I couldn’t imagine asking anyone for help about my sexual issues with my husband.
I was living in a developing country with reduced access to mental and physical health care. And I was working in ministry, too nervous to admit my problems to anyone. My husband and I had spoken and written on marriage and sex in the past, so my need to preserve our image as a happy, healthy couple felt especially pronounced. We knew what we were doing; we’d taught on the subject. We needed to have it all together still.
Not only that, but my husband was the de facto marriage counselor for global workers in our city. He would never have made this claim himself, but I knew it was true because I’d heard the stories from people he’d helped.
The combination of these factors turned out to be a pressure cooker for me. I walked through that dark season of my life cloaked in secrecy and shame. Even after it was mostly over and the light was shining through, I carried enough shame that I could only speak or write about my troubles obliquely. Never explicitly.
What I’m bringing you today is my story. But it’s more than that.
It’s confession: in the past few years I have struggled deeply with my sexuality.
It’s sisterhood: if you’re walking through a trial, you are not alone.
It’s compassion: if life seems unbearable right now, I am so very, very sorry. I wish things weren’t so difficult.
And it’s hope: things really can get better. Freedom and healing are possible.
I’d been married for 18 years when my struggles began. That was long enough for me to think I’d figured out a few things about sex and marriage. I assumed marriage and sex would continue to flow as smoothly in the future as they had in the past. I’d always enjoyed the companionship of marriage, and sex had for the most part been mutually enjoyable.
That was my vantage point five years ago as I wrote about sex for Velvet Ashes. In that article I explained my approach to married sexuality and what I want to teach my daughters about it. I believed every word of it. But I’d never walked through a situation capable of destroying both my sex life and my relationship with my life partner.
This is how it happened. After a few years of life in Cambodia—and a few rounds of antibiotics—I began experiencing something I’d never experienced before: yeast infections. They arrived once a year at first, nothing to be too concerned about. But as time went by, I began getting them more and more frequently. After I had four in one year, I hit a breaking point.
I was frustrated beyond measure. I tried pinpointing my personal physical triggers, but each time I figured one out, something new triggered an infection. My body felt bruised and beaten. The physical pain was intense, especially during the times I’d been unaware an infection was just about to begin, and I’d tried having sex with my husband. The last infection had lasted longer than usual and had been extra painful. Certain medications can heal the infection but can trigger irritation and long-lasting inflammation, which means the pain doesn’t always go away right away. And I could not shed the memory of the pain.
I had so much shame tied up in it all. The infections themselves felt so shameful to me. I felt unclean, incapable of taking proper care of my body. What was I doing wrong to keep getting these blasted things? I know now that yeast infections are common occurrences, and they are not shameful, but that’s how I felt at the time.
Worse than the actual medical issue, however, was the mental health issue it triggered: the pain of undiagnosed OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder). Looking back now, I can see signs of OCD earlier in my life, especially during my four pregnancies. But those OCD flares were passing, and I had other supports, so the OCD didn’t take over my life in the same way. We all know that life abroad can become a breeding ground for anxiety, depression, and other issues. When we lose our support systems, issues that lurk at the edges of our lives in our passport countries can eventually find their way front and center in our host countries.
The reappearance of OCD (and its specific focus on my sexuality) was the point at which my marriage really became strained. I was terrified of another infection, and since my brain had associated pain with sex, I also became terrified of sex. The infection may have been over, but I could not unlink the pain from sex. The shift from a thriving love life to a nearly non-existent one was devastating for my husband, but initially I was too caught up in my own pain and fears to notice the effects on him. (At the time neither of us knew it was OCD.)
I became terrified of other things, too. Like needing another round of antibiotics. Or consuming the hidden sugars in foods. Or finding fragrances in my soap and laundry detergent (seriously, why did every detergent in Cambodia have fragrance?). I scoured the shelves for non-irritating menstrual products. I searched for difficult-to-find supplements and probiotics. I carried extra underwear with me everywhere I went, so I could change if I sweated through my current pair—a common occurrence in the tropics. I was desperate to stop the pain and the shame, and I latched onto any idea that promised relief.
But I became obsessive about it. My anxiety over infections and their triggers was so intense that I was often unable to sleep at night for fear that I would wake to another dreaded infection. I noticed every twitch and twinge and obsessed over each one. Eventually the truth about the situation began sinking in: my relationship with my husband was buckling under the weight of all this fear. He felt rejected all the time, and he missed his wife, a woman who had become so distracted by obsessive fear that she’d turned into someone he didn’t know. She certainly wasn’t the same woman he’d married. Sometimes he wondered if we would ever have the same marriage again.
In the past I’d sought out counselors when I needed help, even on the field. But this time around I was too ashamed to reach out for help. I didn’t know how to talk about these issues, whether it was the infections themselves or the problems in my marriage that my fears caused. Everything seemed far too personal. There was a counseling center in Phnom Penh, but I didn’t want to confide in anyone there. My husband worked at the center, too. How could I tell anyone I was having sexual issues in my marriage when I was married to the guy who helped marriages all over the city?
I did have two dear friends I could confide in, and my husband had a few safe friends of his own. But as a couple we were worlds apart. Neither of us knew what could bring us back together. Then one of Jonathan’s friends, a licensed counselor, listened carefully to his story and asked Jonathan to consider whether my particular brand of anxiety could actually be OCD.
The symptoms of OCD fit mine, and we began to find the language to understand what was going on inside my head, but our marriage was still suffering. Every conversation revolved around my fears, and I shut down every attempt at physical intimacy. So as ashamed as I felt about my medical issues and my sexual issues and my mental health issues, I knew I had to reach out to someone at the local counseling center. I didn’t really want to. I was still so embarrassed about everything. And we knew it would be weird: my husband still had to go to work with this counselor. But I was desperate, and so was he.
I’ll be forever thankful that my husband’s coworker agreed to see me in the midst of an already full client schedule. I only saw her a handful of times, but it was enough to get me crawling out of a deep pit of anxiety and depression. I slowly started living outside my head. I slowly started living beyond my fears, including my fear of sex. I slowly regained the weight back I’d lost in my fear-induced refusal to eat carbs as a way of preventing yeast infections. (Cruelly, I lose my libido when I’m underweight, which only compounded my problems.) Slowly, slowly, I rebuilt my relationship with my husband, who had suffered a lot over the previous year.
I began to heal both mentally and physically, but it was a long, slow process. On a physical level, I eventually identified my personal triggers so I could avoid them. I even had certain medications shipped to me overseas. And on a mental level, I eventually learned to identify symptoms of OCD in other areas of my life. Somehow with the help of dear friends and a good counselor, we made our way back to each other and reclaimed our marriage from the pit.
There are days when we look at each other and think, sex and marriage are better now than they were before everything happened. But there are still reminders sometimes, reminders of dark days gone past. And there are still occasional dark days now, times when my OCD flares in some other area and reminds my husband of the panic and fear of those days. This is a path of healing where I’m mostly walking, but occasionally stumbling.
I wasn’t sure I would ever tell this story. Then the leadership at Velvet Ashes asked if I would consider writing on sexuality again. They told me that I could update my original post or write something completely new. I knew the old post needed more than just a quick timeline update, but I wasn’t sure if I was ready to tell a brand new story. And I wasn’t sure if my husband was ready, either. This was an intensely private and intensely painful battle for both of us. But when we talked about it, he surprised me. He said yes. And he wondered out loud if a post like this could be the first step to redeeming a heart-wrenching period in our life and in our marriage.
The truth is, sex in marriage is intended to be a beautiful connection between two people who have promised their lives to each other. It’s supposed to be this spacious place where they go together to celebrate and remember and simply enjoy. But it can all too easily become this cramped, tense, ugly, distancing thorn in our sides. So many things can interfere with our sexuality. Anxiety, depression, pain during sex (which may or may not have a cause), pregnancy and childbirth, past trauma, and even your basic garden-variety stressful modern life can all present roadblocks to physical, emotional, and spiritual intimacy.
Worse, when we work in ministry or live abroad, we sometimes feel the need to preserve a public image of ourselves as a couple or as a family. We can’t admit to having struggles – not in this area. And that hurts all of us, because in a fallen world we all have issues in our sexuality. We all need compassion, encouragement, and an environment with no shame or judgement. My hope is that in telling this story, I can open up conversation for someone out there who needs to know they’re not alone. And my hope is to offer hope that when we seek help for our sexual issues, we really can experience growth and healing.
I still believe, as I wrote five years ago, that the foundation of a healthy marriage is to be naked and unashamed. How we get there, how we begin to know each other body and soul, is a journey that will look different for everyone. And many of us will need outside help along the way. But today the most important thing I can say is that God’s intentions for your sex life are good. If sex isn’t good right now—whether it’s painful, nonexistent, or unfulfilling—God’s heart is for you. He wants to walk with you and your husband to heal your sex life and maybe even bring your entire marriage back to life.
Resources to Consider:
The best book I’ve ever read on Christian female sexuality: The Great Sex Rescue.
You can also read and listen to our other content on sex and marriage – because even after walking through the last few years, we still believe everything we’ve written on the subject, and in some ways we believe it even more strongly.
This post may have triggered deep pain for some of you, and I’m so sorry. If you are in the middle of a difficult journey and you want to contact me privately, you can email me at [email protected]. I’m not a counselor—all I can offer is connection and compassion. But I am someone with whom you can share your story. If you’re needing counseling, Velvet Ashes recommends Valeo. You can also check out the VA Resource Page.