The Unconsummated Couple
They present for therapy with so much shame, sometimes blaming themselves, sometimes each other, or just one of them, often feeling like they’re the only ones who can’t “figure this out.”
They are the “unconsummated.”
The couples who got married with little or no prior sexual experience, often inadequate or inaccurate preparatory education, and were told they needed to consummate immediately.
Sometimes they’ve only been married for a couple of months, sometimes a year or more. (This is not exaggeration.)
Is it his erection, her tightness, his frustration, her fear, their anxiety, repressed trauma, impatience, guilt, shame, pain?
Do they need doctors, medication, surgery, Rabbis, therapy, dilators?
They often feel pathologized, but there are so many; it’s a norm, really.
It’s often a cultural/religious/psychological/sexological/relational intersection.
Culturally/ religiously, there are norms and beliefs about refraining from sexual activity, or even touching before marriage. This can be, and often is an inspired way to sanctify the physical intimacy reserved for the exclusive commitment between spouses. But there is another religious teaching, requiring these newly sexual partners to have penetrative intercourse as immediately as possible. Again, for many, this can be and often is an inspired way to sanctify the erotic. But for many thousands of couples, this immediate transition is too difficult. Some are prepared that this is to be expected, to take their time. But many are pathologized, confused, even traumatized.
In general Western culture, where sexual activity has been de-sanctified and casualized, kids might experiment with a first kiss as early as elementary school. By middle school, they’re exploring a bit more. By high school they are gradually (or rapidly) expanding their sexual repertoires, and some hold out all the way til prom night for intercourse. For these teens, they’ve had approximately 4-6 years of “foreplay” to warm up, practice, discuss, and learn what feels good, what gets them aroused, what their bodies crave sexually, by the time they eventually “consummate.” While presenting its own set of very real challenges, dangers, and traumas, this is a norm that surrounds even the most insular religious communities and is portrayed, often as larger than life, and unrealistically, in the mainstream (and alternative) media. (This is not to suggest that it’s in any way wholesome or recommended for kids or young teens to be sexually active, but to illustrate that there is a natural learning curve, even in a very sexualized culture, when it does begin.)
In contrast, the average strictly religious young person in many communities may have had very limited interactions at all with members of the opposite gender. They’ve been discouraged, even forbidden, from masturbation or fantasy, and often date somewhat briefly before getting engaged. Sexual education is often minimal, hasty, and last minute. Again- this degree of abstinence and insulation can often be experienced as an inspired way to sanctify the body, the mind, relationships between the sexes, and their future exclusive relationships. And, sometimes, it can lead to newlywed spouses who have little or distorted sexual awareness when they actually marry, which can often create serious problems.
One of these very common problems is pain when intercourse finally does occur. Often this is because the body parts have technically “achieved” under pressure, what the rest of their bodies including their nervous systems might not be quite ready to do. This sad reality of painful intercourse can and often does go on for too long in many couples, depriving them of what can be a pleasurable and passionate experience.
(And sometimes “unconsummated” relationships and/ or sexual pain occur with people who have different backgrounds from the general profiles described above, religiously, culturally, or personally.)
So what can we do about this?
1. Knowledge is (sometimes:) power. If you were or are among the “unconsummated” please know that it’s not just you, it’s not your fault, and there is absolutely a strong possibility that if you and your partner are otherwise reasonably happy, healthy people and partners, you can still have a beautiful, mutually pleasurable, sexual relationship, including affection, outercourse, and intercourse.
2. Try not to blame yourselves or each other. This can be a stressor, and it can be tempting to point a finger, but generally, there is no one at fault. (Unless someone is acting abusively or coercively, in which case that individual is responsible for that behavior, which can certainly be a factor in sexual safety.) But assuming you’re both moral people who treat each other well, get in the habit of framing this (and most issues as): “I’m not the problem, you’re not the problem. The problem is the problem and we’re on the same team trying to figure out a solution.”
3. See a specialized professional. A general professional might not know the specific interventions you need for this particular issue. A non-professional even more so, even if “specialized.” There are physical, emotional, and relational factors that need to be considered. If you have concerns about how the advice you may be offered will intersect with your religious beliefs, values, and needs, then try to be sure that the professional is willing to work within those requirements and/ or can (help you or) collaborate with a religious expert of your choice. As with any area of medicine or therapy, it can sometimes take a few tries to find a professional who is a good fit for you and your needs.
4. Be kind, honest, and patient with your partner and yourself while on the journey. Be extra careful to nurture the relationship in other ways that feel good and not stressful, so that you can maintain the emotional intimacy, and whatever experiences of mutually pleasurable physical intimacy you have, while addressing your concerns.
There are many ways to find, explore, give, and experience pleasure. With the right support, education, and patience, both from professionals, and within your relationship, most couples can figure out what they need in order to have the kind of emotional and physical intimacy that’s not only pain-free but in harmony with your religious beliefs and predicated on mutual desire and pleasure.
*If you'd like to learn how to educate the next generation, or your own "inner child" about healthy, holy sexuality and intimacy, come check out the free sample lessons from this course: Sacred, Not Secret: A Religious Family's Guide to Healthy, Holy Sexuality Education