dear father ryan

“Ask her how she’s doing sexually.”

A strange question for a priest to pass along to a friend to pass along to me (follow that?). She told me about it months ago, and we laughed. Strange, though, that the question still echoes in the back of my mind. How am I doing sexually? As a woman previously active, now alone? As a woman redefining womanhood? As a person redefining my relationship with my body? My heart? My mind?

I thought I was fine. I missed sex, sure, who doesn’t? But as my youthful I-better-not-die-while-I’m-a-virgin phase was over, I didn’t feel it’s absence quite as keenly as I thought I would.

Something changed last week. 

As usual, I was working on my annulment paperwork, the familiar cluster of moths waking up in my chest, fluttering away in a panic. I’m annoyed; I appreciate that anxiety shows up to send it’s own weird little message- Something is amiss! Protect yourself! This time, though, I can’t figure out what the heck today’s offending object might be. The writing was emotional, but not impossible. Maybe it’s not psychological this time, maybe just a hormone imbalance? Nutritional deficit? Too much coffee? Not enough sleep? Nothing stood out, so the herd of flapping wings took up happy residence in my throat and I carried on.

Enter Scene: Therapy

We circle through the chit-chat and Thanksgiving plans until we come around to the strange, unname-able, unblame-able anxiety. We work through EMDR and, voilà, like magic, the knots unravel. It seems my poor little mind was more upset than I realized by the disturbing process of filing through my poor little marriage. The offense this time? Sex.

In general, I thought we had been having fine sex. Good, even. We had chemistry, I thought he was hot, it usually worked out fine. I was, in general, satisfied, and felt pretty smug about being the sexually-enlightened and active wife he so longed for while we were dating. 

It only took a month or two before things started taking a weird turn. Irregularly, unpredictably, he’d be completely uninterested. I’d try to make the moves until it felt like begging, until it was too embarrassing and I walked away. Some nights I’d be wrapped up in hardly anything but a Christmas bow, and he would look at me and groan, with a smirk and a half-laugh, he was too tired, did he have to? Of course, on other days, he’d be in the mood, but my body would not (recall, he adamantly did not want children, and I adamantly did not want birth control). Those days, he would either get a fix his way or leave me feeling deservedly alone (Useless wife! -Another joke that stopped feeling like a joke). Occasionally, on stranger nights still, I’d wake up the next day with bruises or sore throats or other evidence of a night too-rough. 

We unravel the stories again, me ever-baffled at the inconsistency of it all. He wanted me so badly when we were dating! Could hardly be moved when we were married! Had such lazy, inattentive sex he couldn’t even tell when I orgasmed. Refused to talk about it at all. Wouldn’t when I wanted, wanted when I couldn’t, left me feeling used, at worst, unseen, at best, and all more often than I preferred. 

But there were nights that seemed good, we felt close, it felt real! Until he would hold me after, joking that I was gross.

How dare I feel wanted or seen for more than the moment required for him to get off.

I needed love. He needed control.

Hearing that for the first time – He Needed Control – hits in the sore spot that makes the most sense, and now I find myself grieving for the sex life I thought I had. I thought I knew what good sex was, but now I’m coming to terms with the reality that just because it felt good doesn’t mean it was good. 

Where I thought it was safe to be vulnerable, I was disposable. Where I thought I was seen, I was hardly noticed. Where I thought I was loved, intimately, completely, passionately – I was nothing but an urge met. I was competing in a battle I’d never win- to fantasy, perfection, endless flexibility and excitement. 

I grieve the small pockets of our relationship that I mistook for love. Those smallest of moments, when not riddled with dysfunction, were something I thought, occasionally, we got right. We’d had fun, it’d felt good, I felt noticed, enjoyed noticing in return. Now even those moments are gone. They never were.

So, Father, I am not doing well sexually. I am realizing that I was living in my own fantasy of sorts, and now I’m facing the possibility that I’ve never really known great sex, and maybe I never will. It’s a bit of a let-down.

Mostly, Father, I’m worried I’ll never actually be seen. That’s all I want, really, in the end.

Sometimes I’d like to run to the next man – that’ll be the time it comes together just right.

A faulty urge, on my part.

I’ll only ever be seen by One, I know that theoretically, but I can’t help but want it ever so badly from a man. It annoys me, how much it distracts me.

Maybe you can pray me through that bit, if you’re up to it.

Thanks,

Me

a year of celibacy

Not exactly the most exciting anniversary in the world, but interesting, yes? In the absence of being naked with anyone but my GYN, I’ve been on a very educational journey.

For starters, I’ve learned some lessons in self-worth. The binge-eating misery of divorce (college/grad school/night shift) has re-shaped my body. While I am on my way towards healing my relationship with food, I am also finding that the size of my jeans should not correlate with how confident I allow myself to feel. I don’t need to lose weight to be happy, and whatever that number says, or doesn’t say, I deserve to take care of myself. If that means I don’t even know what I weigh, then that’s great too. 

Either way, I deserve to feel beautiful. And I deserve to buy some damn bras that actually fit.

Speaking of undergarments, the next time I let anyone else take off this fancy-ass bra things are going to go a little differently.

Next time, I will not allow myself to feel manipulated into doing anything I’m not comfortable doing. This is good bedroom behavior, but, not surprising, also applicable to daily life. I am not to be taken advantage of.

Some other tidbits I’m going to keep in the back pocket of my high-rise jeans:

Crying after sex means that things are no bueno. RED FLAG.

Sex should not be selfish. At my most open, most vulnerable, and most intimate, I should not be left feeling used.

I am worth the work. I am worth the time. I am worth the effort. Sex is good and it should feel like it!

Also good: being a woman. Women are homes. Soft places to land and safe places to hide, built on strong, durable, brave, unbreakable bones.

We don’t just exist to be attractive, and our femininity is not defined by our desirability. I am still a woman if no one sees me, wants me, or validates me. 

Of course, on the other hand, women are inherently beautiful. Beauty is good and our bodies are good. We are worth celebrating and uplifting and appreciating. This does not allow for casual use and degradation. Also to be avoided: gossip and comparison. Two very reliable thieves of joy.

Anyway, here I am, a year untouched, living in a body I’m finally growing to love. I’m grateful for this year of alone-ness in my skin, and I’m grateful for this Creator of mine Who was kind enough to take as much time on me as He did sunsets and oceans and wine. Maybe more.

How magnificent. 

sex and disrespect pt. v

What I Want You to Know

Your body is your home, and you deserve to protect it.

It’s okay to have boundaries. It doesn’t make you crazy, or too demanding, or weird. It doesn’t matter what everyone else is doing or what culture has bred others to expect in bed. I’m sure I sound like a broken record, but it only matters what you are comfortable with and where you want to go. You are not to be blamed for having too many rules, and you are not to take on guilt for making demands. You are a person to be respected, and physical intimacy is not the place to start making compromises. 

Your body is the home to your soul and you deserve to keep it safe. You deserve to choose who to allow into that home, when they are allowed in that home, and what they are allowed to do in that home. They aren’t allowed to make you feel bad for setting the rules there. 

Even when you’re married- when you’re opening up your home to another- that is not a license for your spouse to go exploring in rooms and cabinets that they have not been invited to. You are allowed privacy and boundaries and respect. You deserve to create a safe space within which it is fun to explore. 

And when you say no, it means no. Don’t feel guilty for that. Don’t compare yourself to what everyone else is okay with doing, because there will always be someone willing to go a little farther and get a little kinkier than you. That doesn’t matter. If your partner is there for you, to respect and honor and love you, they will do it in a way that serves that love. They will take no for an answer, and they will be okay.

That’s not to say that no isn’t frustrating. It can be frustrating as hell. Sometimes pushing the boundaries can be tempting, and it’s hard to remember why you had them in the first place. Sometimes you’d like to throw a big, crazy party in the place you call home, but you know there will be a mess and a hangover the next day so it’d be best to just avoid it entirely. So when your partner starts bringing in the vodka and the chips and turning up the music, its okay to ask them to stop. No, thank you. This seems fun, but I have something better-for-me in mind. Please go put those Doritos back in the car. 

A supportive and loving partner says okay, sure, I’ll put this away, and I’d love nothing more than a night in our sweatpants because I love you either way. I might be in the mood for a party but I respect that you’re working in the morning and had a busy day running errands. There is no storming out of the house to drink the vodka at a friend’s then blaming you for why you’re left at home alone. I know we’re deep into the metaphor here, but it makes the point. 

Struggle: OK. Abandonment and blame: Not OK. There should be a safe space to be vulnerable and enjoy intimacy without the looming fear of neglect.

So those blurry moments when you aren’t really sure if something is wrong but your gut doesn’t feel right? Trust that. When things are ever-so-slightly off, and you don’t think it’s bad enough to talk about and aren’t even sure what you’re trying to verbalize? That’s a flag. When you are feeling used, when you are feeling pushed, when you are feeling neglected, you aren’t crazy. You didn’t make that up in your head, and it might feel too vague to pin down, but you aren’t wrong. Someone might tell you you’re imagining things or overreacting, but that’s not right. You didn’t imagine it. All those little things you let slide and rationalize- the discomfort here, the odd word there, the ever-so-slightly excessive aggression there…They add up. They still hurt. And just because no one else saw doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. 

You are good.

Love,

Me

sex and disrespect pt. iv

Explicit Content

I’d like to tell you that incident was one of a kind.

Unfortunately, it started becoming more common. We would start down a road under the pretense he’d be okay getting pregnant, and end with him wanting to finish in places that weren’t exactly my cup of tea. He knew I didn’t care for it but asked anyway, which left me in a weird spot.

It can be a confusing place to stand when you feel torn between your faith/self-respect and your husband. I knew I could recover and God would still love me tomorrow, but I wasn’t so sure of my husband’s affection. I wish it would’ve been different.

Eventually I learned that it didn’t matter what boundary I had, he wanted to cross it. I think whether you’re a church girl like me or a girl who doesn’t mind doing a little of anything he’d have found a way to go where you didn’t want to go.

If you can’t tell by now, there was a pattern that just got worse as the years rolled by. He used to ask to finish in weird places when there was pregnancy on the table, but by the end it didn’t matter much what my cycle was doing. He just got bored with normal sex. Sometimes he had stopped being able to finish during sex at all. Regular sex wasn’t good enough, and regular me wasn’t good enough. Not interesting enough, sexy enough, thin enough, whatever.

And then he started trying to get me to do anal. Once in a while he would start trying and I’d have to turn around and remind him I didn’t want that there. Thinking all the while I’m pretty sure that wasn’t an accident, but we can brush it off like it was and move on.

One time was too much to brush off. I couldn’t just laugh and redirect- I actually had to say no, and say no more than once. Nothing about it felt good, and why I had to explain that no meant no to my husband felt even worse. 

Also, I know he said he wasn’t watching porn, but the thing with him trying to choke me seemed a little weird. Especially when that started happening more often too.

Some of it just felt uncomfortable and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it- sometimes I just felt a little used but things hadn’t quite crossed a line so I didn’t know how to talk about it. 

Was it porn? Was it someone else? Was it me? All I know is that it wasn’t good. He didn’t know no. He pushed back. He was disrespectful. He was a lot of things, and none of it was loving. 

sex and disrespect pt. iii

Things Get Weird

I’m going to walk you through a particular evening that sums up years of disturbing behavior. 

It was December, a winter month made colder by my husband’s lack of affection. I thought he was just having a hard time at work, and in the meantime it had been a lonely few weeks. I was desperate for his attention and feeling isolated in a town far from family, friends, and familiarity. 

Christmas came and my family rented a house near us by the beach. It was a little spot of much welcomed warmth, complete with a plastic tree and decorations from back home. We did puzzles and walked by the water, and while the husband disappeared to work my mom taught me to sew. We were working on a quilt for him made of football shirts he’d been collecting over the years, and I was feeling very thoughtful and wife-y about it. 

We met Christmas Eve as cheerfully as any family, dressed up and crammed into a church hall for the overflow mass. I was glad to have him sitting next to me in a place that I loved, his poor attitude to be ignored. We feasted our hearts out on pierogi after church until we were ready for the looser waistbands of new PJs. It was a happy little bubble where we were all warmed by grace and magic and wine.

As was his tradition, Die Hard went on when everyone else tucked into bed. How cozy were we! How sweet it was to have my husband near me, snuggled in on my favorite night of the year. The tree lights glowing, the candles burning… Could anyone resist a little romance? Unluckily for me, my ovaries were not cooperating and the possibility of Christmas babies loomed large. However, in a surprising turn of events, he didn’t seem to mind. Can you imagine my excitement! My little heart had been longing for both his attention and his baby. And look at us! Reunited and unafraid of the future bathed in the artificial glow of the tree. 

How disorienting when he decides halfway through he’s changed his mind. Instead, he asks me if he can finish in my mouth, and I am pulled out of my Christmas-magic fantasy to the reality of my marriage. Instead of choosing life and a future with a man that I love, I am now explaining why I think that’s gross and makes me feel like a trash can.

So, that Christmas Eve when I chose to say no, he turned away from me and I fell onto the floor. I was naked, rejected, embarrassed, lying on the ground, and emotionally jarred. I was no longer the trash-can, I was the actual trash. He did not care. I pulled my clothes back on, turned the tree off and went to bed. He followed later and did not touch me the rest of the night. I was discarded. Not a mother, not a wife. Just alone. 

The next day he opened his quilt and barely cracked a smile. 

I thought about talking to him about it, but I’d tried to talk to him about behavior like that in the past and it never went well. How do you explain how it feels to be used? Especially to someone who thinks it’s your fault because I don’t do what he likes? He thinks I choose my values over letting him do what he wants because I don’t love him. He feels rejected too. And just like that, I’m in the wrong, and maybe I imagined it. 

sex and disrespect pt. ii

Memory Lane

Dating

I did a lot of rationalizing. I would try to assert myself and my boundaries, even tried to break up with him a couple of times. One time I decided we were breaking up because we were going to stay in a hotel with some friends and I didn’t want to share a bed. Yes, to most people this is not a big deal. I’m not even sure today I’d be that concerned about it, though I do believe it fosters an intimacy that is best reserved for marriage. Anyway, at the time, he threw a huge fit. He was angry and weird, and we got in the usual you-chose-religion-over-me argument.

I realized that more than the actual problem was the fact that every time I had a boundary he could not find it in himself to simply respect it. Just be respectful and and support me if I’m feeling uncomfortable. Don’t act like a crazy person and make me feel guilty for trying to love my God in the way I believe in. No tantrums, no guilt-trips, no arguments. I was being disrespected, so I tried to leave.

Obviously it didn’t work. He fed me some lines about how I was beautiful and he would cope. I believed him and we moved on. Except we didn’t move on! It would come up and up again where he would be a nice little boyfriend until he cracked. He would start being pissed we weren’t having sex and I would say, fine! Go date someone else! Go have sex somewhere else! If you can’t deal with this, then don’t. Be free. Then he would COPE. 

Always coping, and I always rationalized. It was hard in today’s culture for guys to deal with physical boundaries. They have hormones and wild friends and porn. I let it slide. I started carrying the guilt for having so many needs and rules. He was really struggling for me and he must really love me.


Engagement

Then there was a ring. When we got closer to our wedding the reality of natural family planning started to hit home. For those of you unfamiliar, NFP/fertility awareness is a cycle-tracking system where you avoid sex when your body gives you signs it could get pregnant. I’m into science, and aside from the fact that this is encouraged by my faith, I believed in it from a purely biological standpoint. I was always open that this would be the path I would be walking, due to my religion/love of God/choice for what was best for my body. I had been tracking my cycles for years for purely health-related reasons. 

Welcome back, Moody Boy. Beyond moody, actually. Hurtful and angry more than ever before. Isolating me, withdrawing affection, ignoring me. Where there should have been supportive respect out of love, there was hurt. The guilt of enforcing my rules weighed even heavier. Again, I tried to go. Again, I started to feel like it was less about that actual issue and more about the lack of respect. Why was it so hard for him to be kind and supportive? This was my body, anyway. I didn’t want to put chemicals in it! 

I offered him a way out and told him if he couldn’t find a way to respect me then he could find another woman to be with. To be clear, this wasn’t an ultimatum, it was honesty. There are many women in the world who are happy to go on the pill, but it just wasn’t for me. I didn’t feel like he could manage to meet me where I needed, so maybe this wasn’t going to work out. He told me no, he’d cope, he didn’t want to lose me. After months of arguing, we didn’t talk about it again. 

And again, I rationalized. He was just struggling with the stress of engagement and graduation. This would be fine. 


Marriage

We did fertility awareness and it did work fine. He didn’t make a big fuss about it anymore, but things were worse in a different way. Every month I was anxious. Whenever I couldn’t have sex because he didn’t want to get pregnant, I would hold my breath, hoping he didn’t want to that night. If I said no, sometimes he was fine. Or sometimes he would tease me and tell me I was useless. Sometimes he would roll away and not even want to hold me. It was everything or nothing, those nights. Message received. If I wouldn’t be available for sex, he wouldn’t be available for love. 

I can’t tell you how long the weekends were when we both were off from work and I was fertile-myrtle. It was constantly in the back of my mind. What a relief when I was in the clear- I wouldn’t have to be on guard, I could relax, I could be available to him whenever he wanted. 

And the relief when I got my period month after month! I can’t tell you how many pregnancy tests I hid in the bathroom garbage. Because, obviously, if we got pregnant it would be all my fault for choosing NFP. If we got pregnant he would be mad and it would be my fault and then I would really be alone, and so would that baby. 

How twisted that I lived in this place for so long. I was the gatekeeper ready to serve at the pleasure of his moods and somehow felt I deserved it. He was burdened by my rules and my faith, and he was really great for not making me go on the pill. What an angel. 

Unfortunately, whatever he wanted sometimes didn’t mean sex. This is personal and probably a little graphic, so if you’re feeling easily scandalized or aren’t in the mood, wander somewhere else or fast forward to part five.

sex and disrespect pt. i

Pick your Player

I asked my therapist today (shout out, hey) if sex would be too much to talk about here. Verdict: this needs to be talked about. The times are behind us when it was okay to stay in the dark. Now, when a man (or anyone) does something shitty we can shine a light on it. We get to say we didn’t like that. We didn’t want that. We didn’t ask for that. I don’t care that other girls are doing it, all your friends are doing it, or porn or Chive or Barstool says its normal. I said no, and that meant no. And now I get to talk about it. 

As a Catholic girl growing up in a Catholic world, I was raised in the purity culture. Yes, I went to the talks, signed the pledges and wore the ring (slight eye roll, I know). Thankfully, I grew out of the trendy purity bit and matured into an adult embracing chastity. In short, choosing chastity was choosing to love my partner and myself according to where I was in life. This meant when I was dating, sex was for marriage. For a little while I fell for the “we can do other stuff” line until I raised my standards and started avoiding the “I’ll take what I can get” bros. 

Insert Nice Boy. I let him know right off the bat what my boundaries were. Sex was in marriage, “other stuff” not going to happen, and it wouldn’t be “I’ll take what I can get.” This would need to be a joint endeavor. This was something I believed in and I truly valued intimacy enough to save it for the man who could commit to me for always. Nice Boy might not have understood it or believed in it, but I expected support out of respect, at minimum, and love, at best. He agreed. 

They say actions speak louder than words. They are correct.

Over and over we struggled with this. Obviously, we were attracted to each other and tended to be touchy-feely people anyway. We never had sex, but the “other stuff” still found its way in. Not for lack of trying to avoid on my part, but he had started enforcing a system that followed us into our marriage. We would start toeing the line. I would put the stops up and re-direct the situation. Either a) it didn’t work and I was left feeling guilty or b) he was moody. This taught me several things. 

Option A. I couldn’t talk about the guilt or make suggestions on how to improve in the future. He wasn’t on the same page and wasn’t as invested. It stopped being worth it to talk about. I would swallow the shame, go to confession, muscle along quietly trying to choose what I believed in. Lesson: It wasn’t worth the discussion. I am alone here.

Option B. Moody Boy. Withdrawal of affection, a little or a lot of anger depending on the day. Conflict. Loneliness. Blamed for choosing God over my boyfriend (fiancé, husband). Lesson: Don’t do what he wants and you are isolated. It’s your fault you have so many rules. 

Good luck making your pick!