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Religious Wife Regrets Premarital Sex; Won't Sleep With Husband

Question:

My wife and I have been married for over 6 years, we got married young, 20 & 22. But her past has always bothered me she had been with 9 guys before me. I keep reading about this subject and I know the past is the past and to just leave it in the past. But my problem is my wife told me she slept with guys to get the attention and the affection. As soon as the guy stop giving her those items she would find another new fling. Well after we got married I made the mistake of judging her harshly about her past because I had only been with 3 women before her and all of which I was serious about. I was always taught Sex is the most sacred part of marriage and that was when you were suppose to engage in it, Catholic School for 12 years. Now 6 years later I have caused her to clam up about sex and she feels too vulnerable about opening up about sex because of how hard I was on her early on in our marriage. I know I was wrong for holding this over her head and I have apologized a million times. But she really has a tough time being intimate with me. She also had an abortion when she was 19, which she truly hates herself for what she did. It bothers her a lot. We have two wonderful healthy sons now and she is a teacher in a Catholic school. She feels as if she is a hypocrite because she teaches this children how premarital sex is wrong and abortion is a mortal sin. She is truly sorry about her abortion, But we have no idea how to help her become more affectionate. We are thinking about going into counseling again, or if just she should go? I want to help her with her baggage as I have baggage too just not of the sexual nature.

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Answer:

I will preface my remarks here by stating that I’m not Catholic, and have an outsider’s appreciation of what it means to be raised Catholic and to live a Catholic life. With that understood, you’ve asked me for help, and I’ll do my best to provide some perspective. If I get something wrong, please feel free to write and educate me so that I will get it more correctly next time. This is a sensitive area to talk about, and I want to be sensitive to your painful situation.

The problem you describe, perhaps the problem you both are experiencing, is that there is a conflict between enjoyment and ease with your sexuality and the beliefs and values you aspire to uphold. One belief or value is that sexuality is a thing to be reserved for marriage alone. Your acceptance of that belief has caused you to criticize your wife’s premarital sexual activity even though you yourself had premarital sexual activity. And since (I suspect) she herself also believes that premarital sex is a negative thing, she was more than willing to accept your criticism and add it to her own self-criticism, which seems to be pretty vicious right now. And though you’ve apologized (good for you!) the damage there has been done. I wouldn’t beat yourself up too hard. It is impossible to not make mistakes in life. You’ve tried to undo this particular mistake with some substantial sincerity it would seem, and thought that ought to be enough, it hasn’t been. So it is hard for your wife to let go of things and that is her issue more than yours.

In a related vein, your wife had an abortion when she was young and unmarried, and today continues to feel terrible about that. Yet another thing for her to criticize herself about. The fact that she is teaching children to not have abortions and to not have premarital sex only heightens her internal sense of inconsistency and hypocrisy. She is holding herself to a standard that she can never meet. Even if she never again does anything sexual outside of the church’s teaching, there is the past to contend with. And I suppose that confessing the sin and doing the required penitence is insufficient for her, because she has probably done that by now (right?) and it hasn’t helped her to feel better about herself. So, my working conclusion is that she has trouble letting go of things, even when those in authority around her are sending clear signals that it is okay to let go.

The nature of the problem is thus that she can’t forgive herself for being human and having made mistakes. It seems to me, with my outsider’s understanding of Catholicism, that the church does intend for people to feel guilty about violating its teachings concerning what is a sin, but then that sense of guilt is supposed to go away with penitence (confession, prayer, etc.). And that failure to let go of the sin, after the church (and, we would expect, God, too) has let go of it, is the core of the problem. I’d like to think that she (and you too, because you seem to have a similar if lesser problem) could go to visit with a priest and get this straightened out so that she would have the full understanding that the church and God are really okay with her being sexual in her present married state and with her having sinned in the past so long as this past sin has been properly confessed and so long as future sexual activity is done within appropriate marital bounds. But I don’t know if that would help. Maybe, if you think it would help, you might try it.

Sex is supposed to be fun. It is an adult form of play, and it is sensual and pleasurable and exciting in a positive way when you do it right. But it cannot be easily enjoyed when there is a specter of sin and guilt and moral failure hanging over it. So, I think part of what needs to occur besides getting a sense of having done proper penitence, is that sex has got to be accepted by your wife as a permissible and pleasant aspect of your married life. And I just kinda doubt that any priest is going to give you or her that sort of permission and instruction. I can see them telling you it is okay to procreate, but not to enjoy yourselves. Again, my outsider’s perspective which I fully acknowledge may be wrong. My sense is that, for the most part, in life no one in position of authority gives you permission to enjoy sex. That is something you have to take for yourself. Without your wife deciding to make this mental shift (that it’s okay to have sex and to enjoy it within the bounds of church teachings), well, it seems likely that she won’t.

I think that with regards to helping your wife feel more self-accepting about enjoying sex, that is a situation where she might benefit from counseling, and possibly with talking with other Catholic women in her position in some sort of support group setting, whether online or in person. She is surely not the first Catholic woman (or man) out there to struggle with acceptance of sexuality in the context of a religious life. Since part of what needs to sink into your wife’s brain is that you accept her, it would be a good idea for you to go to counseling with her so that you can say and mean that.

I suspect that you may be more likely to get a good result from counseling or support groups if you do in in a secular counseling setting, where the counselor is not also a priest, but rather is free to explore sexuality topics free from church dogma. I say this because I am having a hard time seeing a priest sort of figure (really, any orthodox religious sort of figure) suggesting to your wife or you that you should go and enjoy sex rather than just procreate. Sex has to become something that is not bound up with sin and guilt before it will be something your wife can enjoy with you, and that can only be accomplished if you both relax a little and let yourselves be human rather than saints.

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