Okay, ladies, it’s time for some real talk. Relationships are hard. Period. I follow some friends from high school on social media, and their Instagrams are what I refer to as highlight reels: photos, stories, or reels of all of the family fun moments they want people to see. But I know that in the background of those grammable moments are the day-in, day-out efforts of making a marriage or partnership work. And you know what? It takes a lot of effort to make all the pieces of any marital-esque partnership work.
Sometimes, life hits couples with something that makes the work of a relationship even harder, like couples coping with the effects of vaginismus. But, like anything that affects a relationship, there are ways for couples to work through having a partner with vaginismus. In an article for the Atlantic1, Ashley Fetters explains that living with dyspareunia often feels like “a profoundly isolating experience” and “having all the frustrating everyday complications of any other chronic condition plus the added hardship of being shut off from one important and primal way to feel close to a partner.” But, she also notes that “how partners respond can greatly affect the relationship quality of couples” living with vaginismus. She references research that found that if partners show affection and encourage other kinds of behaviors, it leads to better sexual and relationship satisfaction. Additional research2 found that partner support for women experiencing dyspareunia is “essential.” In yet another qualitative study3 of partners of women experiencing dyspareunia, researchers educated the partners about dyspareunia, its treatment, and how it impacts relationships. Following the study, researchers polled women and their partners about the impact of their partners participating in the education seminar. One partner specifically said that if partners understood “what their female partners are going through…maybe it would save a few relationships.” Another reported that “‘normalization of it was the biggest factor—like there wasn’t something wrong with us.’” And “several cited the program as nevertheless helpful in facilitating a better attitude toward coping” with dyspareunia in their lives and in their relationship.” The same study reinforced previous research about sexual satisfaction and communication, in which the original researchers found that “‘better communication about sexuality is a robust correlate of increased sexual satisfaction.’”
So, what does all of this research mean for couples coping with dyspareunia? A few things. First, to use a cliché, communication is key. In the Journal of Public Health4 study, they were able to find so little data about patient communication about dyspareunia, they concluded that communication on sexual issues is low, both from women to providers and women to partners. Scientific studies aren’t the only evidence about the importance of communication. In a post on Hello Giggles5, Kelly Gonsalves spoke with several couples about painful intercourse. One couple, together 28 years, reported that “open dialogue was a really huge part of our success and the fact that we were both still very sexually active with each other and didn’t go dormant like many relationships that go through this.” So while communication is important, working with a partner regarding dyspareunia isn’t just about communication; it’s also about maintaining intimacy and sexual activity.
In Fetters article in the Atlantic, she interviews sex therapist Stephanie Buehler who notes, “sex is not the be-all, end-all for every couple.” Buehler works with couples, and sometimes with couples affected by dyspareunia. She explains that the first step is working with couples on “integrating some forms of affection back into their lives—kissing hello and goodbye…sitting together on the couch…holding hands,” and on how to “engage sexually in ways that don’t involve penetration.” In short, she helps couples re-establish intimacy. More couples from the Hello Giggles post explained that they “tried different positions for fun play [without vaginal intercourse] to make things more interesting,” and “‘redefining expectations has helped,’” and that having intimacy in relationships in ways other than intercourse is vital, because “sex is more than penetration,” and “‘there’s more to life than sex.’”
A couple together for 14 years, perfectly describes the importance of communication and intimacy for couples affected by dyspareunia. While they “always knew non-penetrative sex was satisfying” for both of them, they discovered an approach to intercourse that is “‘slow and steady.’” They describe their sex life as “relatively normal,” after dyspareunia treatment, and stress that penetrative sex can happen with “‘lots of foreplay and lube, being cognizant of what your partner wants and/or needs and value your time together…your partner is worth the extra time and effort.’”