Understanding your Partner’s Traumatic Experience of Painful Sex

Are you frustrated with your sex life? Don’t know why your girlfriend is experiencing painful sex? Unsure about how to help her overcome the chronic traumatic sexual pain that she experiences? Maybe your partner has disclosed that she just received a vaginismus, vulvodynia, or Genito-Pelvic Pain Penetration Disorder (GPPPD) diagnosis. Maybe you knew that she has always struggled with painful sex and that you are not the cause of her sexual dysfunction.  


If painful sex is something she has struggled with for years, but brand new to you, you and your partner will have very different needs along the way. It’s likely that you have been patient for a while and are starting to get tired of walking on eggshells in the bedroom. Painful sex is physically challenging and emotionally draining for each person and can be challenging to each person for very different reasons.


If painful sex is a brand-new issue for you and her, you have an opportunity to confront these issues together and heal together.  As you start this journey together, it is your job to recognize that at times your needs may compete with hers and the healing process will require a constant juggling act that will demand a level of communication that is far superior to anything you ever experienced before.  


Women who have experienced chronic pain during sex tend to need to make sex intentional so that they can take the steps necessary to decrease the risk of experiencing sexual pain.  At times, intentional sex can reduce the spontaneity and fun that a lot of “normal people” experience in their sex lives. Successful spontaneous sex requires the woman to pre-plan sex, and simply not tell you so that it feels “spontaneous” to you. Planning for sex can also be exciting. When you have planned for sex, you and your partner get to look forward to something sexy all day. Setting the date and approximate time is the start of your foreplay. The arousal will build up long before you even kiss or touch each other. 

Many women who experience painful sex learn to expect that all penetrative intercourse will be painful This expectation of pain makes prevents your brain from signaling the vagina to lubricate and stretch to prepare for sex.  This change occurs when a woman is excited and expecting a pleasurable experience.  When the brain signals fear from pain the body shuts down, and the vagina tightens.


In the most severe cases of painful intercourse, women struggle to sit down and ride bicycles, cannot use tampons or have an internal gynecological exam.


Your job as her partner is to imagine what her experience is like without taking it on yourself so you can be emotionally empathetic and help her reset her expectations.  Talking her through her fears, and engaging in slight shifts of touch can change her experience of sexuality.   Your role of being positive, encouraging, non-judgemental and supportive is essential in helping her to rewire her own brain that used to associate sex with pain. From a practical perspective this means initially focusing on sexual behaviors that she does not associate with pain, and then with sexual behaviors could be painful but have nothing to do with penile-vaginal intercourse.  Your goal is to help her widen her enjoyment of outercourse. Looking forward to, and being aroused by a partner is a critical component of having pain free sex.    


Steps to Pain-Free Sex for the Partner of a Woman with a History of Painful Sex


Developing your own language to conquer the painful sex can help you team up together to make sex not only pain free but fun.


When you notice pain….. stop

  • Engage her brain
  • Use Touch
  • Focus on outercourse (any activities usually reserved as just foreplay)
    • making out
    • massages
    • manual stimulation
    • oral sex
  • Let her initiate intercourse when, if, and how she is ready
  • Encourage her to masturbate and teach you about her likes
  • Go slow


Make failure safe

Channel the playfulness you have with your partner in other areas of your life where the trauma of painful sex has not interfered. The debilitating aspect of the brain<->vagina relationship is how hyperaware a woman becomes about her partner’s reactions to her before, during, and after sex. This makes each failure along the way throughout dating and/or marriage more evidence for her body betraying her and the possibility of a relationship failing because sex is painful.


Using code words to communicate

  • 1 safe word for discomfort
  • 1 safe word for pain
  • 1 safe word for stopping sex


Redefine what failure means

  • Is a failure having to stop?
  • Neither of you getting an orgasm?
  • Crying?
  • Turning away from each other? -> Feeling lonely and disconnected


Plan to fail when your clothes are on

  • Create a list of sexual activities where you assume they will not work for you
  • Ask her what she needs from you in those moments where she needs to stop due to pain
    • Stay naked and hold each other in the spooning position
    • Hold hands
    • Make a point to hold eye contact
    • Talk about the fantasies you both have
    • Determine three nonsexual activities that you could do together 15 minutes after your sex was not as successful as either of you hoped it would be


Debrief sexual interactions the next day with your clothes back on by asking the following questions:

  • What did you like about our sex last night? What about that particular behavior/experience worked for you?
  • When did you experience the most pleasure?
  • On a 1-10 scale, how much pain were you in while receiving the pleasure?
    What was the worst pain? What did you do to express your pain? If you are learning new information, ask her what she could do to make it more obvious to you?  


Your Experience is Also Valid


Unfortunately, there are not many resources for men to go to for help with this experience. Sometimes disclosing your partner’s experience of painful intercourse feels like it would be betraying her need for privacy that it becomes too unsafe to bring this important issue up with anyone.   


You need support in dealing with the guilt, frustration, anger, annoyances that painful sex has caused in your relationship. You may feel you can only go to your partner for this support. Yet, she is dealing with different sides of the issue and you do not want to put more on her during this process. Your partner cares a lot about your experience and may want you to talk to her about it. The traumatic experience that her chronic sexual pain has been for her impacts her ability to be there for you. Your direct feedback can actually hurt your progress. Hearing how frustrated you are with the situation may confirm her worst fears. She could internalize it as her that you are mad at, not just the situation. It could shut her down from feeling safe enough to be vulnerable again.


You need somewhere else to go to for the different support you need.

To gain support:

    1. Keep reading. We have lots of tips on this topic
    2. Schedule an appointment with a sex therapist

  • Pick a trusted friend who is not a mutual friend of both of yours to go to about everything awful that this does to you.



Grieving Easy/”Normal” Sex

This situation is tough for any guy to go through. It is not fair that you have to help your partner through a sexual issue that you did not cause, nor perpetuate. You are also just learning about the realities of this issue so it may take you a while to accept this new type of sex life. This is a grieving process for you. Sex may not be as spontaneous or easy as it once was with other partners, or what you imagined it to be if you have not had any other partners. This is the hardest part for the partner of a woman with chronic pelvic pain. You are sacrificing carefree, fun sex for the relationship you have with her. This does not happen overnight. Your frustration, anger, sadness, helplessness, and loneliness in dealing with it will be around for a while. Some relationships endure years of treatment to figure out a good dynamic to help her overcome pain and find out what she likes. For other couples, this may only take 3-6 months. Hang in there. Despite what you have read about this never gets better, many couples find a path toward more satisfying and pain-free sex by working through it together.


Your partner has been traumatized by sex not being possible. Trust her that she knows her body well enough to let you know when and how sex is possible. She may be confused about what she needs from you for a while. If you can be patient with her and come up with non-intercourse required sexual fun to take the pressure off, she will begin to feel more secure with you. This will help her be vulnerable enough to take the risks required to rebuild your sex life and communicate her needs with you.

If you find yourself still struggling with your partner’s experience you don’t have to do this alone.  Help is available. Contact a therapist for a consultation today!