I felt like I was losing my mind. My second-born daughter was a few weeks old, and I could not shake the shudders of fear. This was not only postpartum anxiety. This fear was linked to a specific person: my husband, Matt.
When he walked into any room with me in it, I felt myself curl up inside and try to emotionally hide. I wanted to scream at him, but I detached my mind from my emotions and tried to act as normal as possible (without much success).
But Matt wasn’t the actual problem; he was triggering a traumatic memory from my past. My second daughter’s birth unlocked a memory of being sexually assaulted by a stranger as a child. My right-now life was waking up my childhood life, and it sent an earthquake through our marriage.
Our relationship became so fractured that any time Matt approached me physically—to hold my hand, to hug me, or do anything remotely sexual—I simultaneously felt like ripping my skin off and jumping out of a window.
“Something is not right,” I finally concluded.
I was right, and it was about time to do something about it. We began a two-year emotional, theological, and transformational journey of discovering the meaning of physical intimacy in marriage.
Tools for Healing
Here are seven tools we forged in the furnace of suffering. I offer them to you with tenderness, knowing you may be miles ahead of us or dealing with similar pain today.
1. Ruthlessly eliminate shame.
“Laurie, shame still has a grip on you,” a mentor, Carolyn, said to me one year into the journey. “You need to study it until you hate it.”
Shame is a feeling of, “I am worthless.” We saw it enter when Adam and Eve sinned. Pre-Fall they felt no shame at their nakedness, but post-Fall they did. If shame is a feeling of “I am worthless,” guilt is a feeling of, “What I did is not worth it.” Adam and Eve needed to feel guilt for eating forbidden fruit, not shame at their nakedness. It was not sin. However, the enemy of our souls has a way of attaching a feeling of self-loathing when we make a sinful choice. Instead of confessing sin, we confess personhood.
The only way to remove shame and confess the real sin is to have someone outside of us see us in our mixed up shame-guilt mess and point out what we need to confess. God did that. “Who told you that you were naked?” He asked, noting Adam and Eve’s unnecessary shame. Then He addressed actual sin: “Have you eaten from the tree whose fruit I commanded you not to eat?” (Gen. 3:11 NLT). The punishment came as a result of eating forbidden fruit, not nakedness.
Was Carolyn right? I wondered. Did I feel shame? Did I feel worthless? Am I hating myself and not confessing actual sin? Having an amazing husband, I did feel shame at my inability to love him well. I unknowingly bathed in the sticky feeling of shame all the time. As I studied shame’s characteristics, I learned to adjust my conversations with myself from, “I am not a good wife or person because I am wrestling through this,” to, “I am loved just as I am today. There is nothing I could do to make God love me more or less. I will confess actual sin, ruthlessly eliminate shame, and celebrate that I am on the journey.”
Take tender care of those who are weak (1 Thess. 5:14 NLT).
2. Consider counseling.
Can I be honest with you? I dislike needing to go to counseling—and my husband is a licensed therapist! But because he is (and because I have gone in for just a few therapeutic, soul check-ups), I know counseling includes digging up past pain. I wouldn’t put “digging up past pain” into the “fun” category of life, but I also know of nothing good that also comes easily.
If you have a history of sexual trauma, if your marriage needs an unbiased helper, or if you have childhood wounding to process, ask God to guide you to a human mirror who can journey alongside you.
We did this, and it helped.
In an abundance of counselors there is safety (Prov. 11:14).
3. Let people in.
So here I am, writing about some very personal things very publicly. Guess what? This is easier for me to do than to look eye-to-eye with a real friend and say, “I am in pain.” If my friend chooses to reject me, I can’t click my thumb onto her real-life face and block her. I have to awkwardly end the conversation, put my coffee cup in the bin, walk to my car, and go home and cry.
But I will never forget the moments where I chose to risk with eye-to-eye friends and they received me. They did not shame me. They did not completely understand, but they understood enough. They demonstrated this in the way they sat with me in my pain, cried, offered truly encouraging words of hope, and never gave up on me.
Love never gives up (1 Cor. 13:7 NLT).
4. Lean into all the forms of intimacy.
In the middle of all of this, Matt and I were working together in ministry. We had a podcast. We were raising two daughters. This side-by-side ministry and parenting offered moments of sideways glances where we would silently say, Oh, yeah! I like you. I forget sometimes. Just because one area of our lives was in pain didn’t mean we had to give up on all the areas.
Another place where we could lean in was emotionally. Focusing here actually helped me understand physical intimacy more clearly.
“What does my reaching out to you physically do for you?” I asked Matt during a date night. I was trying to break apart my paradigm of men as sex-focused fiends. I believed for many years Matt was different from other men, but the emerging memory was clouding my sight. “Does physical connection do something to your heart?”
“Yes,” he said, putting down his fork. “It tells me that you like me.” He walked into the next part tenderly. “When your perpetrators stole from you physically they said, ‘I only like your body.’ When you don’t want to be close to me physically, it says, ‘I only like your emotions.’ But my body is a part of me. I am holistic.”
Oh my word. I can steal from Matt emotionally, I thought. I suddenly had a fraction of sympathy for my perpetrators who physically stole from me, and empathy for Matt when I demanded from him emotionally. I didn’t want to steal from him like my perpetrators stole from me.
“Men are bigger than women physically,” Matt continued. “You probably innately know that we can overpower you.” I considered this and nodded. “But women are stronger emotionally. You can overpower us with your emotional prowess. We can feel helpless and at a loss at your emotional dominance. So when you step into the physical world of mine, I feel simultaneously loved and like I need to tenderly care for you there. But when you step into the emotional world of yours, you feel loved and like you need to tenderly care for my heart there.”
This conversation launched a huge mental shift in the way I viewed emotional and physical connection. Matt does not get to demand physical intimacy from me. Neither do I get to demand emotional intimacy from him.
Let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband (Eph. 5:33).
5. Study oneness.
Another piece of this healing puzzle was theology. I never do anything because I have to; I want to know the reasons. So if I was going to do all of this inner work, I wanted to know why. And that meant learning God’s thoughts on the matter.
Why marriage? Why sex? Why is it such a place of pain in most marriages? The blessing of my job in ministry is that I am in the marriage and sexuality business. But God knew when He called us to this work we were not only supposed to talk about it from our mouths but also to experience it in the marrow of our bones.
The greatest lesson I learned from all the study of Scripture is the simple reality that human marriage is not the pinnacle relationship. Marriage is a metaphor of the actual ultimate relationship between Christ and us—the Church.
When the world sees the fruit of Matt and my grueling work to be close mentally, emotionally, spiritually, vocationally, and yes, physically, they see a metaphor of how much God wants to be close to us. Jesus was born, He gave, He was rejected, He sweat blood, He was tortured, and He worked harder than anyone else to be close to us mentally, emotionally, spiritually, vocationally, and yes, one day forever physically.
This is a great mystery, but it is an illustration of the way Christ and the church are one (Eph. 5:32 NLT).
6. Ask questions.
I am quite sure I was decently annoying in this two-year season. I peppered trusted married friends with questions about their sexual relationship. I didn’t need details, but I wanted to know, “Do you enjoy the physical relationship to your spouse? Why? What does it tell you? What’s the point?”
I could not find a single couple married more than eight years who had had no issues sexually. I could read it on the face of the husband or the wife. Is no one happy? I wondered. If marriage is a beautiful metaphor, why is everyone’s metaphor so seemingly ugly?
I discovered the answer was in the question. The human marriage can be so ugly because it is a metaphor. It isn’t the real deal. It isn’t Jesus and us in the new heaven and new earth, spotless, and without wrinkles or blemishes (Eph. 5:27). We are covered in spots, wrinkles, and blemishes. We work toward the perfect metaphor, but we are always working.
However, all of my questioning was not in vain. I found a few older, married couples into whose eyes I could look and receive helpful answers to my questions. Yes, I heard pain, but I also heard hope when they did not give up. These saints were right-now examples of hope, and they fueled us when we had none.
Older women . . . are to . . . train the young women to love their husbands and children (Titus 2:3–4).
7. Pray your guts out.
This is a phrase I learned from my precious mom. It used to elicit images of my intestines falling out, but now I get it. She was talking about guttural honesty before God.
A year and a half into Matt and my two-year healing journey, we sat side-by-side on our blue 1950s chairs finally ready to pray our guts out. All the difficult questions, the theology, the pursuit of oneness in all ways, letting people in, the counseling, the shame-removal led here: Not to sex but to true intimacy. It had brought us to going to the Father together with the memory that had wedged between us.
I lamented. I spoke about my grief and past pain to the only One who could do something about it and alongside the person I was called to link arms with for life. God broke through. The Holy Spirit uprooted. I was set free.
After all of this, physical connection was still not easy. No form of connection with another fallen human is easy. It takes work.
But it was worth it. Forging these tools not only changed our physical relationship, it changed our entire marriage, and it transformed (and is transforming) me.