Motherhood POV: I wasn't interested in sex anymore (Part 2, Our Healing)
In Part 1, I described the beginnings of my aversion to sex. Part 2 describes my journey toward healing.
To begin healing, the first thing my husband and I did was schedule strict “no-sex days.” On no-sex days, no matter what other forms of intimate contact my husband initiated with me (hugs, shoulder rubs), I could trust that it was not going to lead to sex. When discussing my issues around sex, something I realized was that while pregnant I existed in a constant state of (at least subconscious) anxiety about sex because sex was never not “on the table” for us. It felt like the “threat” of sex just constantly loomed over me every day, especially in the evenings. While acknowledging that viewing sex as a threat was probably not ideal, my husband agreed to give me three no-sex days during the week while I worked through my aversion, so I could just let my guard down and breathe a little easier.
On those no-sex days, as part of my healing and restoring our relationship, I insisted that we connect in more intellectual and emotional ways. I felt that in order to have any hope of restoring my sexual desires for him, it was important to cultivate my intellectual and emotional connection to him by doing a lot of the same relationship-forming/strengthening things that we used to do when we were dating and abstinent.
I remembered that I had loved just sitting at his feet listening to him talk about something he was learning from his spiritual reading, being a sounding board for a talk he was preparing to give at church, or even just hearing him explain an engineering problem he was working through at his job. So that’s what we did in the evenings.
We didn’t go on many fancy dates or plan any elaborate activities – for the most part, we just talked, and I loved it! I loved seeing his mind at work and being reintroduced to all the little facets of his personality that initially attracted me to him when we were first dating. We had lost those moments since we started growing our family. It was so refreshing and comforting to be able reconnect to the man I married on those evenings, when I knew that none of that connection would lead to sex.
With this reignited and growing flame being tended to, I forged on, working my way through the Among the Lilies sex series to learn more about what Catholic married sex looked like for other real women. I listened to their stories and their struggles, and I cried and laughed with them. Not only did I gain a lot of solid tips from listening to that series, my understanding of the sacramental nature of sex within a Catholic marriage fundamentally changed. The series really stressed the importance of regular sex for the good of the marriage, but in the most stripped down, deep, and spiritual way. It was much more than just figuring out how to climax consistently or satisfying a man’s sex drive (and simply “keeping the peace” in a marriage). It was about accessing the powerful graces that came from the marital embrace.
I’d always loved the tangibility of the Catholic faith. When I converted I leaned heavily into the Sacraments of Confession and the Eucharist because I understood them to be as vital to the health of my soul as food and water were to the health of my body. I didn’t overcomplicate the process of receiving the Sacraments by preoccupying myself with the state of my emotions or how I was feeling physically while receiving them. I didn’t suffer the illusion that I had to be dressed to the nines or already riding a wave of spiritual ecstasy in order to attend Mass and receive communion. No, all I had to do was intellectually assent to the reality of God’s presence in these spiritual gifts and make myself available to them. In essence, all I needed to do was trust God and show up.
Once I began to see the sacramental nature of sex, I began to decouple my secularly-formed understanding and experience of sex from the true spiritual reality of sex. And not only did this make sex more beautiful to me, it simplified it for me!
I mentioned earlier on that I believed our early use of that romance book in our marriage set me up for my aversion. This is because I think it made me associate sex, first and foremost, with needing to feel and act “sexy” (at least by the book’s standard of sexy). The prompts in the book glorified the sensual aspects of sex and rarely touched on the emotional or spiritual aspects of sex. My prompts encouraged me to dress a certain way, act a certain way, and even have sex a certain way in order to cultivate what the book considered “romance.” And while I enjoyed that stage of our marriage, I didn’t stop to think of how this way of consistently approaching sex would impact my heart. I also didn’t realize how ill-prepared I was for the seasons of life I would soon enter, where this kind of “performative” sex just wouldn’t be possible for me, either physically or emotionally.
Instead of expecting and smoothly transitioning into this new season of life, I fell flat on my face into it – dismayed, confused, and embarrassed. Especially with a constantly-changing, foreign-feeling body, I felt that I fell short of both my husband’s and my expectations of what sex was “supposed” to be like. I was never ready to play the part of the “lust-worthy vixen” and, thus, I never felt up to the occasion. I hadn't considered that simply joining together was all that was necessary.
I hadn't considered that a more “stripped down” version of the marital embrace was not only worthwhile, but deeply spiritually beneficial. I didn’t consider that nothing more was expected of me than to simply show up. But thankfully, after expressing all of these insecurities and frustrations to him, my husband allowed me to hear him enthusiastically affirm that all he needed was me. That meant the world to me to hear.
Back to Basics
With my new broader understanding of what “normal” sex could be like in different seasons of life for Catholic spouses, I began to think of sex as existing in two basic categories: one type of sex was like laying on a warm beach, soaking in the sun, feeling the salty breeze, and listening to the slow rolling waves hit the shore; the other type of sex was like dawning a wetsuit, paddling out to the more choppy waters with great effort, and surfing on huge waves. Both were good. Both were enough. Both endowed necessary graces for the health of our marriage. But only one seemed more accessible in my current state.
I was so happy about having these intellectual breakthroughs, but I still had the challenge of overcoming the physical impulses that had become wired into my brain over years of conditioning myself to reflexively shrink away from my husband’s advances. I began addressing these impulses by setting little challenges for myself, starting with the commitment to not push away from any of my husband’s hugs for one week. I didn’t tell him I was doing this because I didn’t want the added pressure of his expectations about this commitment – if I failed, I wanted to fail privately and without hurting his feelings. It was difficult at first due to how ingrained the habit had become but sure enough by the end of the week, I found that the impulse had quieted and that I was actually allowing my muscles to relax into the hug.
The next thing I did (at least on the days that weren’t “no-sex days”) was actively reminding myself about sex during the day. It sounds silly, but when I got into the groove of a day in the life of a stay-at-home mom sex rarely crossed my mind. When sex wasn’t on my mind throughout the day, I would often feel blindsided by my husband’s more forthright invitations to join him in our bedroom, which only served to increase my anxiety about it. I didn’t want to be blindsided anymore. Even if I physically didn’t have any desire for sex, it helped immensely to keep sex in my conscious stream of thought throughout the day with little reminders here and there.
For example, while doing more monotonous chores like washing the dishes or folding laundry, wherein I usually thought about the other things I planned on doing that day, I would add in sex: “ok dishes are being done – later I’m going to fold some laundry, prep dinner, pray a Rosary, and have sex.” I didn’t dwell on it long or try to hype myself up or anything – I just stated it as a matter of fact and moved on with my day. Sometimes it helped to put on some lacier panties in the morning – not for the performative value of them – simply for the logistical benefit of having another physical “cue” to remind me of sex throughout the day. If that sounds too much like making sex an item on a to do list, well, you gotta do what you gotta do when sex isn’t coming naturally to you.
The last thing I did involved having a more logistical conversation with my husband about sex. Thankfully he’s really mature about these kinds of conversations so I felt totally free to be as descriptive and clear as possible. As I mentioned, I began to think about the two different forms of sex (surfing and sunbathing) and how one of those forms was more amenable to my current mental state. I asked him if he would be ok for the foreseeable future to stick to only the sunbathing form. Since regular sex in any form was a step up for my husband, he was more than happy to accommodate. I shared with him the positions and “order of operations” that I found most comfortable and explained that if we just stuck to that I would have a much easier time “showing up” for sex more frequently. If that seems overly regimented and boring to you, well, again, you gotta do what you gotta do when sex isn’t come naturally to you anymore. And so we did. Again and again and again.
The Light at the End of the Tunnel
Day in and day out, I stuck with my little commitments, my husband graciously continued accommodating my comfort zone, and slowly, almost imperceptibly, the change I never thought was possible began to unfold. My aversion gave way to neutrality. Neutrality gave way to enjoyment (once I was “in the moment”). Enjoyment gave way to desire.
And then one magical day, when my cycles had returned after baby #2, I even experienced desire on par with what I had experienced as a newlywed.
Never in a million years would I have thought that it would be possible for me to desire sex again. It was a long, but delightfully boring, journey. I did push myself to face my aversion, but I never felt like I had to be someone I wasn’t in order to overcome it. In fact, the whole experience was a beautiful integration of my identity as a mom and my identity as a wife.
I was also able to experience firsthand how powerful even “boring” sex is for the spiritual health of my marriage. Learning through the Among the Lilies podcast about the power of regular but simple sex was one thing, but actually seeing the tangible fruits of regularly accessing the sacramental of sex was another entirely. We’ve gone through some pretty rocky times, circumstantially, as a family over the past few years including more difficult pregnancies and a cross-country move. If not for those graces, I don’t know if we would be in the same place that we are in our marriage now – that is, happy, healthy, and a wholly united front.
To give a life update, one baby and two pregnancies later, I’ve still been able to maintain my progress and have yet to backslide into anything close to an aversion. I’m still open to regular sex (and even enjoy it), even when dealing with the challenges of pregnancy, postpartum body image issues, and pregnancy- and breastfeeding-impacted libido. And, in case anyone is concerned, don’t worry – it’s not all sunbathing anymore.
If I could go back in time to give my newlywed-self one piece of advice it would simply be this: have lots of sex, even if it’s boring.