February 04 2011
54

couple sleepingI lay still, eyes wide open in the dark, listening as his breath slows, quiet and steady, just like him. His sleep-heavy arm pulls me close.

Too close. Too long. I can’t stay there one second longer.

I turn slow, rolling over and away, then freeze as he stirs, then shifts back to his side of the bed.

Relief.

I stretch out, claim my space, hide from his closeness.

It hasn’t always been like this, me tolerating his physical affection and then retreating to my own space. The very idea would have confounded me thirteen years ago.

Growing up, I’d been insatiably curious about sex and intimacy. This was fueled in part by natural sexual desire and in part by all the warnings, the mystery, the forbidden-ness of it. I’d read everything I could get my hands on about sex: sneaking romance novels home from the library, skimming Cosmopolitan magazine sex columns at the hair salon, and hiding in my closet with a flashlight and one of my parents’ books on marriage.

When we married, I threw myself into our marriage bed with enthusiasm. My husband and I were crazy about each other. We loved spending time together and talked about everything. I believed him when he said I was attractive. Being together came easy.

Fast-forward a few years, a few pounds, a few stretch marks.

I don’t recognize myself:

…alongside the exhausted mania of raising a medically-fragile child and the self-doubt of a mother-shaped body, a self-conscious shyness crept into our marriage. My body image was eroded by the airbrushed images of perfection, the stark contrast in my mirror, and the dirty job of motherhood. The sight of sagging skin and the smell of drooled formula clouded my senses. I stopped believing my husband’s compliments.

…Clingy children touched me flat empty. No more touching, not one more needy human being. I thought I  could last the rest of my lifetime without sex.

…Depression, grieving when our medically-fragile daughter died, and doubt stole my joy.

It was a perfect storm of shame.

Instead of confiding in my husband, I hid. Failing to believe my husband spread like a cancer. When doubt rocked my faith’s core, I kept it a secret. I didn’t trust my husband to love all of me, including the ugly and the scary. I forgot that we can love and be attracted to a whole person, not just the body that wraps our souls.

I underestimated mistrust’s ripple effect. When you don’t trust someone, you can’t be vulnerable with them. And nothing’s more vulnerable than sex.

My sex problem is a symptom of a deeper problem.

Repairs have come slow. With the help of counseling, I saw that my husband gave me no reason to mistrust him. I’ve gained the courage to overcome my fear and share with him some of my ugly secrets. I am practicing the words in 1 Corinthians 13, “Love believes all things,” choosing to take his words at face value. God has blessed me beyond what I deserve with an amazing man who has waited for me and responded with unconditional love.

It’s a daily struggle to choose gratitude for this body, and the children God gave me through it, but I’m gradually growing more content wearing this skin. Maybe one day I’ll even be comfortable in it.

Bit by bit, as we build mutual trust, we uncover the tools we need to cultivate greater intimacy. It will take our lifetime, but I have new faith, not just in our eros, but also in his agape love.

I still like some space in bed. But today, I can enjoy fading into sleep nestled together like spoons.

54 comments

  1. This is so strikingly powerful – words most woman will not speak to themselves.
    Marriage, life, womanhood, parenthood – it’s all so hard and difficult sometimes. But it’s all countered, nay, OVERCOME by the work of Christ on the cross.
    Thank you for writing what many of us are too afraid to confront.

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    • It is hard work. I remember hearing people say marriage is hard work, but I had no idea just what that would look like. I couldn’t figure out how you work at a relationship that was so effortless at the beginning.

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  2. Thank you for bravely sharing your story. No doubt, these words ring true for many.

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  3. Joy,

    Thank you for this…honest reflection of what many can relate to in some way…between mothering my three older children so close in age, my marriage falling apart at one point and the subsequent loss of 3 babies…I know some of that which you write…different but the same too.

    I love how you lean on 1 Corinthians 13, “Love believes all things,” …it was one of the readings in our wedding ceremony, but at the time honestly it was chosen by us because it was commonly used in weddings. Now I see the grace in that selection almost 15 years later…Like a promise from Him.

    Thank you for your transparency…it ministers to others…someone is reading this, probably at this very moment, and will be hiding a bit less often, leaning on Truth, because of your encouraging words.

    Jen

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    • I’m so sorry for your loss. Heartbreaking. I pray that what you say is true – that someone finds hope to come out of hiding.

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      • Lynn

        Thank you so very, very much for having the courage to share this. I’m inspired to try harder to make things better with my marriage. Truly, I am. God is using you in a mighty way!! I pray that he will bless you with peace and joy.

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  4. This is incredibly beautiful, and you are brave to be so vulnerable. While the reasons might vary, I know many women, myself included, have trouble receiving unconditional love from their spouses. That inability, on my part, has often made things hard for my dear husband who has loved me so much more than I ever dreamed a person could love another. I am going to take that part of I Corinthians 13, “Love believes all things,” and apply it to my own situation.

    Thanks for sharing your struggle. Peace to you.

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    • “Love hopes all things, believes all things, endures all things. Love never fails.” These are words to cling to. It was hope that made me push forward and tackle my issues – hope that it didn’t have to stay this way forever. And my husband endures with hope as he waits on me to grow in this area. I’m so glad you are blessed with a loving husband!

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  5. you are amazingly brave! i applaud your vulnerability – I can only imagine how hard it must be!

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  6. Mutual trust is vital for love to have it’s way in a relationship… Without it we will all wear our masks.

    Shame caused me to put on my mask. The problem was my mask received the love, not me. I ended up feeling empty and longing deep in my core to find the love that Jesus talked about. The hardest person to love is me. Yet without loving me I won’t really be open to love another, not really. I guess that’s why Jesus said “love your neighbor AS yourself…” He knew.

    It’s in the discovering of who Jesus knows me to be that I am finding the courage to take the mask off and lay it aside. I’m standing out in the open, allowing myself to be known, strengths, weaknesses and all. In some beautiful, mysterious way I am finding love, complete, total love. For there’s something about being loved more in the telling of my weaknesses that is a reality.

    Your heart shared here is a beautiful story unfolding. I have no doubt in my mind that Jesus is desperately wanting to tell you of the beauty He sees in you.

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    • I’m not sure why we think we need the masks to be loved, but you’re right — it becomes a wall. Maybe it’s fear that we will be rejected. I know that I fear that the ugly inside me will be too ugly and he will turn away. But as you said, Jesus loves us where we are, the way we are. When we can accept his unconditional love, it gives us courage to take the mask down to the one who vowed to love us, every part of us, til death.

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  7. My husband and I are going through something similar at the moment. Mark Driscoll’s sermons on Song of Solomon kind of rocked out world about a year ago, and some skeletons in the closet came out to play. I find myself still longing for the mediocrity that was our intimacy just a year ago. I don’t like being in this fragile place where I admit my husband has the power to break my heart. I’d rather pretend I’m stronger than broken hearts, and just turn a cold shoulder. While I’ve read many posts/articles/books on women’s role in lack of sex in a marriage, I’ve never read an honest soul appraisal like this that gets to the heart of the real issue. Thanks for taking the time – and using your guts – to write this for the rest of us to ponder.

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    • Gen, I totally relate to that fear of being broken. God keeps taking me to a place where I have to face that I’m already broken, we are broken. I am a proud person (even though I’ve struggled with my body image — isn’t that a strange pairing?) and I bought into the lie that I had to live up to the mask I put up in order to be loved. But God loves me there in my brokenness. And he is giving me courage to let my husband love me there too. I hope that you and your husband can find that sweet and simple intimacy, or an even better one.

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      • I guess I’ve always thought pride and body image struggles go hand in hand, because I hold myself – in all areas – to such a high standard. (I am failing miserably, let me just say!) Yes, I am praying it works out. But the in-between is such a miserable place to be in!

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  8. Joy… this is one of the most honest pieces I’ve read in a long time. It struck deep. What a redemptive story… what a powerful post. Thank you.

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  9. Superb testimony. Thanks so much for sharing so bravely!

    Another thought which came to mind as I read your post is that we have been bought with a price and are not our own. We are now slaves of a righteous, holy, merciful and life-giving Master. That is to say, it’s not about us; it’s about Him.

    On that basis, each of us must ask, “Why am I doing what I am doing?” Surely, personal satisfactions and delights come into play, as we eat, drink, work, play and love. But beyond this there is a higher place which brings a deeper contentment. Our Lord explained to His disciples, “I am among you as the one who serves,” and called us to follow His example in loving one another as He has loved us (with sanctified, sacrificial passion).

    This foundation of selfless yet satisfying sacrificial love will bless all we do, even in bed, as we seek to bless others (including our spouses) while doing our best to honor the Lord. In this way the marriage bed is not only kept undefiled but is consecrated as a place of soul-satisfying respite and holy pleasure.

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    • Todd Erickson

      Within the spirit of mutual submission laid out in Ephesians, the loving husband must also be willing, in submission to his wife, to not engage in marital relations wish his wife, for however that takes…even if it’s forever. To do otherwise is, in fact, to defile that bed.

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      • Todd, it may be that in Eph. 5:21, “submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ,” Paul is speaking of what follows in the subsequent verses: of wives submitting to their own husbands, children to parents and slaves to masters. That is one possible interpretation shared by a number of expositors.

        More simply, it might be describing what it means to be filled with the Spirit in our relationships “to one another” in the church — equivalent to showing deference to (or preference for) one another (e.g., Rom. 12:10).

        I’m not sure it can be exegetically defined as a husband submitting to his wife’s wishes to never engage in marital relations, as you expressed, “even if it’s forever.” This would seem to go against what Paul taught in 1 Cor. 7:5a: “Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time”.

        Husbands are to live with their wives with understanding (1 Pet. 3:7), and to love them selflessly, sacrificially and singularly as Christ loved the church (Eph. 5:25-33). But I do not know of any place in Scripture where a husband is commanded to submit to his wife.

        I agree with Joy’s remark below, “sometimes serving looks like waiting and loving and praying.” Certainly, “love is patient . . . kind . . . not self-seeking . . . always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails” (1 Cor. 13:4-8). This is a challenge, however, for each partner in a marriage to consider and practice. Paul makes it clear that he is advising against extensive deprivation created by one spouse, “so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control” (1 Cor. 7:5b).

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        • I speak from my own practice in my own marriage, Rick. The Lord has been helping me in learning self control for the good of my marriage.

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    • Thank you, Rick. I have been blessed with a spouse who has worked hard to serve me in the midst of my hiding. He has lived out a self-sacrificial love even when he didn’t understand what was going on and wondered if he was at fault. His patient love as I worked through this has brought us to a deeper level of trust and openness than we had before.

      Sometimes serving one another looks like pursuing and confronting and challenging; sometimes serving looks like waiting and loving and praying. May God give us each wisdom to know how to serve each other in each struggle.

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  10. I second what Emily said… the vulnerability in sharing this reaches deep. The lies we believe and the trust lost in the believing is so powerful, holding such sway in our emotions, our actions. I think all of us have experienced some form of this, in life as well as in sex, and I hope everyone can find the grace you did, to see the truth.

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  11. This is indeed, incredibly brave and vulnerable. I certainly identified with it especially as being “touched out” by the end of the day. All of these babies to carry, to nurse, to hold, to soothe, to snuggle that I just want to sit in absolute silence sometimes, like a quiet island, at the end of the day. We’ve found our rhythm for this season of life as well. Now the bits about being grateful for the mother-body…still working on that. God’s grace.

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    • Oh yes. The mother-body is so difficult to accept, let alone be grateful for. I need God’s grace to get there.

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  12. Some of us husbands are actually entirely aware that this condition exists, and we live in a state of quiet defeat.

    After all, the battle has already been won inside of our wives. No amount of wooing, romancing, comforting, encouraging, or anything else is going to resolve this issue, and doing anything that will add to her guilt (including, it seems, failing at encouraging her) will help.

    A quiet malaise has invaded our homes.

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    • This makes me sad, Todd.

      One of the things that I craved the most in the midst of this was for expectation-free touch. I wanted to be hugged or held and know that nothing more was in mind, that I could take this moment, this being together, at face value, for what it was. But I could never find words to express that, so I shied away from physical touch altogether. I think if I could have put that out there, that sometimes I just want to be hugged, we would have both gotten through this season feeling less distant.

      Love hopes all things. Maybe the battle isn’t won. I pray it is not.

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      • Also remember that different people have different love languages, and that no matter how strongly you express your love language, that doesn’t make the other person any more capable of perceiving it.

        We cannot be who God did not design us to be.

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      • “One of the things that I craved the most in the midst of this was for expectation-free touch. I wanted to be hugged or held and know that nothing more was in mind, that I could take this moment, this being together, at face value, for what it was.

        THIS.
        A thousand times.

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  13. Joy, this is beautiful and so true for many women, including me. I love this sentence though:

    “I forgot that we can love and be attracted to a whole person, not just the body that wraps our souls.”

    Thanks for sharing from your heart!

    (P.S. Maegan and I have been talking about a day trip to IKEA. I want to see if Jess is interested too. A little reunion sounds fun!)

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  14. So beautiful, so, so beautiful. Thank you for your honesty and for a look at intimacy from a different angle.

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  15. Thanks you for being so bravely and achingly honest!

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  16. Sharon O

    Incredible and so powerful in words. Yes we all have done the same. Silence. I am ‘asleep’ please don’t bother me. When touch becomes a ‘trigger’ therapy helps us dislodge the reasons. Oh that we heal and heal in a good way. ‘sleeping nestled like spoons’ is a wonderful goal. Let us encourage each other in the journey to wholeness.

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  17. Dear Joy,
    How appropriately you are named! You must be my other half I always knew I had ;-)
    Thank you so much for sharing that. I was checking my phone early in the morning, still laying in bed next to my sleeping husband. I found my mouth slowly dropping open, never in my life thinking someone actually knew and understood the feelings I had struggled with. After I read it, I found myself forwarding it to my husband, who has wrestled with understanding my feelings of distance, trying hard to not take it personally. While I have reached that stage of being aware how my body image affects my willingness/comfort to be intimate, I still have looming questions in my head about the way I view sex. Growing up it was the black sheep at the table. We all knew it was there, but you didn’t talk about it openly. No one in church every discussed it in a real tangible way. In my home it was used as a means to manipulate the other partner. In my grandparents home it was viewed as a sin to enjoy even in marriage- only to be practiced in child making. Then enters my generation. I probably overtalk sex, just because I couldn’t growing up. But that doesn’t mean I’ve figured it out. It’s more like my subconscious trying to pretending I know what I’m talking about in an oversexed society. Even though I love my husband and he adores me, even though I love the art of physical touch, closeness, even though as times I want sex like no other; there are those moments when sex enters the conversation that I feel disappointed- as if something was spoiled. I really want these thoughts to be banished from existence. They have no place in my head or marriage bed. But where did they come from? How do I really view sex? How am I suppose to? What scares am I carrying into my marriage from my first family? It sounds overwhelming, but I’m taking it one step at a time. First by admitting these questions to my husband. Second seeking help from those older and wiser (excluding my family of course :-) ). And third but most important, allowing myself to feel. Experiencing my own thoughts in a non-judgmental manner. Listening to me. Because I think, I have a beautiful story of redemption to tell. I just have to find the words.

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    • I’m so glad that our story opened up a conversation for you and your husband. Just being able to admit what is going on inside your head will help him love you through it. So nice to meet another Joy!

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  18. Thank you. For writing this.

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  19. thank you, Joy, for many, many reasons, thank you.

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  20. You testify of redemption, hope and so much love. Thank you. <3

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  21. Joy, what you say about taking your husband at his word really resonates with me. It seems like this is a problem for a lot of women, myself included. I often find myself appreciating the “nice sentiment” behind my husband’s compliments but never allowing myself to believe them, telling myself I know better, that he can’t be looking at the same things as me–because I hold myself to a ridiculous standard. But I deceive myself if think that it’s only damaging to me when I do this. The ripples spread outward to every area of the relationship.

    I think when you combine body image issues with how much shame and how little genuine conversation most Christians have about sex (particularly for unmarried people), it becomes a recipe for disaster. I’m grateful for this space, and for people willing to enter into discussion about it.

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    • You’re exactly right — the ripple effects of believing the lies go far beyond ourselves. I hope that we can continue to talk about sex in a healthy and honest way here, because I agree — we don’t talk about it enough.

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  22. I can so relate to this….except the part of losing a child. I’ve never been through that before. But everything else, I can very much relate to. Thank you for being so honest. It’s nice to know that I’m not the only out there.

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  23. I love this, Joy. And I think many of us can identify, especially coming to terms with the mama-body. I’ve been chewing on a sex post of my own, your honesty gives me courage to share mine.

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  24. I know everyone else has said this but I will repeat . . .

    THANK YOU FOR BEING BRAVE.
    and humble.
    and honest.

    Your vulnerability gives the rest of us reading more courage and comfort than you’ll ever know. Thank you for taking the risk and writing-real.

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  25. Thank you for your honesty. I’ve been where you are now.

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  26. Thank you for your honesty and sharing your story. Being vulnerable is hard for me and God has been taking me on the same journey of being vulnerable and honest instead of hiding myself. My husband has loved me through it also.

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  27. Wow. Thanks for this very important message. You nailed it! Fear of vulnerability is hurting so many marriages. Thanks for being willing to be vulnerable here & bless so many readers!

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  28. Joy,
    It seems that I am coming across the subject of intimacy quite often. I desire to be an encouragement in this area (using my blog as a tool as well) to women who need encouragement. I totally appreciate your openness in writing this. So many women have experienced similar times. I certainly can identify with the idea of being touched all day by little ones and not needing more touch from anyone else. So thank you so much for this.
    The more honesty and openness we can have the better. :)
    This is my attempt at some honest talk about sexuality:http://mamamiamcmasters.blogspot.com/2011/02/newleywed-bed.html

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  29. Joy,
    I just wanted to let you know that I included this post on my list of “Great Links to Honest Sex Talk” today. I think it’s a great one that lots of women can identify with.
    Linda

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  30. Ashley

    I struggle with the same core beliefs that you talk about here and as time passes in my marriage to my incredible husband, and children added to our family, I’m terrified that I’ll retreat to myself and not let him in and believe the truths spoken by him to me everyday.
    Thank you so much for your honesty, Joy. You ARE beautiful because you are a daughter of the Highest King.

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