And now a glimpse into the story of Steve and Helene from Helene’s side:
I will start with the here and now – Steve and I have been married two and a half years and together six years. I feel very blessed and fulfilled by our physical intimacy, and am looking for many years of exploring what that will look like in the various seasons that await us. Knowing where the other comes from with respect to sexual history makes us want to honor the other, and bring healing and peace and respect to the other in a way that no one else can. With that comes a humbling responsibility and great power, but also a deep desire to bless the other and receive the joy of sex that God intended for us to experience together. I am sure it will not always be like it is now – sometimes it will be better (whatever that will look like, I don’t know yet) and sometimes it will be worse, but I have a deep trust that this is something we both want to prioritize because we have been uniquely placed by God in a position to offer that to the other. I would say that right now, our biggest challenge is that we often feel like life gets in the way of us making time to be intimate as often as we’d like. Thankfully we are quick to notice it and since we don’t have children and have a fair degree of freedom in our activities, we plan impromptu time in bed or put a hold on our calendar for a romantic evening on short notice to remedy the situation. Life is good.
But it wasn’t always like this. What I had to bring to the table on our wedding night was a soul and body so disconnected by a misguided sexual past that I thought I would never be able to fulfill my role in sharing wonderful physical intimacy with my husband. And it really broke my heart, because I felt that Steve had spent so many years (mostly) holding back from physical intimacy until he found someone to marry, while I was out carousing with any guy who wanted to lay a hand on me, and now all that brokenness made me unable to give something to Steve that he so rightfully deserved. I felt shame and disappointment and guilt. I felt unworthy and dirty. And more than anything, I felt scared to give him access to my body and my soul together as one – which is something I’d never done with anyone.
You see, my body hadn’t always been mine. My childhood, despite my wonderful parents’ love and care, was filled with physical attacks from a violent brother as well as the unwanted advances of a male babysitter before I even reached puberty. At a young age I learned that my body was something people could use to hurt me. I learned that those closest to me were the ones who would hurt me. So I simply dissociated my soul from my body – if people wanted to use my body for evil that’s fine, I could keep it at arm’s length and not be affected by it. In teenage years I became very promiscuous – which seems counterintuitive but I learned later that it is a very common way for survivors of childhood sexual abuse or violence to cope with a feeling of powerlessness. It was as though I had to affirm that my body didn’t matter, therefore what happened to me as a child didn’t matter. What it did however, was widen the chasm between how I related to my body and how I related to my soul – I didn’t understand how the two could coexist together as a whole. It also taught me that you can have countless partners but that you never have to trust anyone, especially the ones you become closest to. So in a weird way sex became a tool to keep people at a distance, not bring them closer. I had no concept of what it could mean to have sex with someone and respect them, or be respected for that matter. By the time I entered my thirties I had left that wildly promiscuous past behind, perhaps more as a result of finding fewer people willing to engage in the practice because of my age, or perhaps because unbeknownst to me I was growing up a little. Then Steve entered the scene. We started dating and he told me about not wanting to have sex before marriage. I thought “well heck, I’ve never tried THAT before!” Since nothing else had worked to that point with respect to finding eternal love, I was willing to give it a shot. Not only was I attracted to Steve in the conventional way at the onset of dating, but I was also very intrigued by the idea that someone could value a relationship with me that wasn’t based on the physical. In hindsight it is an incredible story of redemption that the Lord would have put Steve on my path, because out of that relationship came a deep reconciliation between my body and my soul, and a feeling of wholeness has emerged that I had never thought possible.
It was not easy at first though. I didn’t know how to be sexual and at the same time stay engaged emotionally and spiritually with him. I knew that I could not treat this incredible person the way I had treated sexual partners in the past – by using him as an object. At the same time, I did not know how to stay connected with him during physical intimacy because I had trained my soul to just go hide somewhere deep inside whenever I was naked with somebody and to leave my empty shell of a body for the person to use as they saw fit. At that point, we’d just gotten married and I wanted desperately to give him a wonderful sexual experience, but it all came crashing down on me. All those years of protecting myself had essentially disabled me from knowing how to let somebody in, body and soul, into my life. So in the first few weeks/months, I remember letting “it” happen but feeling pain and incredible sadness that I couldn’t connect with Steve in that way. I felt a lot of rage and guilt that all these years I had been able to have “great sex (whatever that means!)” with strangers and now with the one person whom I loved and trust, I couldn’t do it. But that was actually a blessing, because what was happening was that for the first time in my life I cared enough about someone that I did not want to use him and let him use me. I wanted to experience what God intended for us to experience, but I didn’t know how. I felt too broken to have anything to offer. I was at an impasse, so I went to see a counselor who helped me sort out all these feelings I was having. She gave me and Steve tools for overcoming this initial difficulty in our intimacy. She gently encouraged me to start trusting Steve in a way that I had never trusted anyone before. At first, I sometimes had to make him stop in the middle of the act because I couldn’t stay with it emotionally and I did not want to let myself dissociate from my body. It was better to make the whole thing stop than to let myself go back to that secret place inside and leave my empty shell in bed with Steve. It was awkward of course, and I am forever grateful that Steve gave me the space and unconditional love to work through all these emotions – all the while he was experiencing his own disappointment that sex with me wasn’t quite the amazing and exciting experience he had hoped it would be. What made the difference was that I knew he trusted me and trusted that I was committed to getting past this and having a wonderful physical connection with him down the road. He never pressured me, something for which I am, again, so grateful to him. Within that sacred, safe place I began to heal.
After about a year, things started getting better. I found myself looking forward to sharing intimate time with Steve whereas before I had to talk myself into it a little. I started trusting him, trusting my body to be a source of joy and pleasure and not a source of pain, trusting that it is possible to have someone touch me with respect, with love, with care. And I feel so incredibly grateful when I find myself wishing we spent more time in bed together now–after my journey it is such a blessing to find myself in such a mundane, simple predicament: simply to wish for more intimate time with my husband. More importantly, all the time Steve and I spent not being fulfilled sexually has created a relationship that is based on trust and mutual respect and we have learned to find other ways to feel valued and loved. I look forward to and love the times that we spend physically intertwined together, but I also look forward to and love the times when we just sit and talk about what we’ve been reading and thinking about, cook together, kayak together or serve others together. We were able to develop an incredibly supportive and challenging relationship even as we were struggling with relating to one another sexually, which had two pretty awesome outcomes: one, we appreciate the lightness and depth of our physical intimacy even more because we worked hard for it, and two, we don’t worry about how it would affect our relationship if for some reason (sickness, distance,…) we couldn’t show our love physically to one another. We know so many ways to show and receive love and to feel connected to one another, one of which happens to be sex. It’s a wonderful gift, but not the “end all be all” of marriage in my opinion.