When Sex Hurts: Dealing with Shame

Melissa Abello, MA, LPC

When Sex Hurts: Dealing with Shame

I cannot tell you how many clients come into my office complaining about how painful sex is.  They share with me how sex has caused them burning, stinging, or sharp pain. No matter where the pain is coming from, it tends to cause emotional pain in the lives of those who struggle. These challenges range from emotional distress in their marriage to grief, shame, deep seated loneliness, and intense anxiety. 

In the next series of articles I am going to pick apart the different feelings associated with pain during sex in hopes to help those who struggle.  Hopefully this can help pull back the curtain on what is going on inside of you emotionally.

In This Article

About the Author

This article is based on scientific evidence and clinical experience, written by a licensed professional and fact-checked by experts.

Melissa Abello, MA, LPC, is a Licensed Professional Counselor specializing in Marriage Counseling, Sex Therapy, Anxiety and Depression in Women. You can schedule an appointment with Melissa for online counseling or in-person at our Columbia, Missouri counseling center.

Watch this video on YouTube.

When Sex Hurts

I cannot tell you how many clients come into my office complaining about how painful sex is.  They share with me how sex has caused them burning, stinging, or sharp pain.  These pains can be caused by a few different things.  The pain could be radiating from the vulva, the vagina, or the pelvis.  No matter where the pain is coming from, it tends to cause emotional pain in the lives of those who struggle.  I well up in tears thinking about the emotional challenges and hardship my clients have endured because of pain during sex.  These challenges range from emotional distress in their marriage to grief, shame, deep seated loneliness, and intense anxiety.

In the next series of articles I am going to pick apart the different feelings associated with pain during sex in hopes to help those who struggle.  Hopefully this can help pull back the curtain on what is going on inside of you emotionally.

To learn more about the different kinds of sexual pain please refer to an article written by one of my colleagues Josh Spurlock: Sex Shouldn’t Hurt – It’s Supposed to Feel Good | Better Sex for Women

Shame and Sexual Pain in Marriage

The first emotional challenge we are going to explore that is caused by pain during sex is shame. Shame is one of the deepest emotions in tandem with sexual pain I hear during my sessions for both husbands and wives.

From the wife I hear phrases like:

  • I am the one with the problem
  • This is my fault
  • I feel so broken
  • I feel so ashamed I have never had sex with my husband
  • If people only knew how we have never had sex
  • These problems are not normal

Shame tells us that there is something wrong with us.  That we are defective.  That we should feel ashamed of who we are.  Sexual pain can cause these feelings for the women struggling because they feel as though they should be able to do something that seems so natural.  After all, this area seems so easy for their friends, who don’t talk about any issues with pain.  Women who struggle with shame in this area will tend to:

  • Avoid talking about their sexual relationship with others.
  • Avoid addressing the issue with their spouse all together.
  • Play through the pain and have sex even though it hurts because they feel as though they should be able to do this.
  • Self depreciate and become severely depressed, blaming themselves for being so broken and unlovable.

For the husband, I hear phrases like:

  • I am a failure because I cannot please my wife sexually.
  • My sexual desire for my wife ends up causing her pain so it is bad.
  • It does not feel right for me to enjoy or even want something which causes my wife pain.
  • I wish I could  turn off my desire since it hurts my wife so much.  I feel like a pig.
  • I have enjoyed having sex even though it has caused my wife pain.  There is something wrong with me.

Often times the husband is grappling with the idea they waited to have sex until marriage and now they cannot enjoy it.  The husband feels sad and angered by the idea they cannot enjoy sexuality with their spouse without being met with immense shame and guilt.  They love their wives and do not want to cause them pain.  Often times, men in this scenario do not know where to turn for help, so they do a few things:

  • Turn to someone else or to pornography to fulfill their sexual desires.
  • They turn their sexual desire and pour it into work and work themselves into the ground.  Often times, they emotionally shut down in relationship with their wife.
  • They become demanding with their spouse and encourage her to play through the pain, which then causes serious relational issues, as the wife feels unimportant and devalued.  Her hurt is ignored communicating a lack of care.

Shame is known to be the second most powerful emotional aside from love. Brene Brown, a well known researcher of shame states: “Shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change.”  It can drive us to do some things we never knew we would be willing to do. I want to offer an alternative to those struggling in this area of their marriage.

The Antidote for Shame:

Brene Brown whom is an avid researcher of shame says, “Shame, blame, disrespect, betrayal, and the withholding of affection damage the roots from which love grows. Love can only survive these injuries if they are acknowledged, healed and rare.”  In order to kill the cat we must allow our shame to come into the light. We must discuss it. We must be vulnerable about it.

First: be vulnerable with yourself.  You cannot begin to be vulnerable with others until first acknowledging what you are feeling to yourself. Often times when we feel shame we avoid it like the plague. We feel it we run to shopping or alcohol.  We feel it we bury ourselves in work.  Instead, take some time to identify what it is you are feeling and why. Take out a feeling wheel and write down what you are feeling and why. Being unpacking what is going on.

Second: be vulnerable with others.  Often times, once we have identified what we are feeling, we can more easily communicate it in a way that can be known by others.  Find someone who you know cares about you and that you feel safe with and attempt to share what you shared with yourself.  Brown says, “If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive.” It is important we choose someone who will be safe for us because if we do not we will likely repeat the shame story in our heads.  Brown states this, “If we share our shame story with the wrong person, they can easily become one more piece of flying debris in an already dangerous storm.” 

Third: be vulnerable with a therapist trained to help with sexual issues.  Not every therapist can be helpful to you when you are struggling with sexual pain. Research says that our clients will see a total from anywhere between 8-12 therapists before arriving with someone who knows how to be helpful with their sexual pain.  Making sure you are working with someone who has experience navigating both the sexual issues and the emotional struggles that pain during sex brings up.

These are just three of the few things I would suggest for those struggling with the shame that comes from pain during sex.  Stay tuned for my next article unpacking anxiety and how to overcome it.

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