For the average Orthodox couple, marching to the huppah is akin to crossing the finish line of a marathon that began long before the spouses met. Over the course of their lives, a coaching committee of family, friends, teachers, rabbis, and mentors have coached the individuals into marriageable “shape” so that one day they could cross the finish line and build the long-awaited Jewish home of their own.
All throughout the race there was a feeling of excitement and apprehension. What if he doesn’t make it to the end? What if she is the last one to finish or doesn’t finish at all? They may have each suffered injuries that forced them to stop moving altogether or at least slow down to a walk. But nevertheless, the individual, along with the coaching committee, always kept an eye on the prize with hope for a triumphant finish.
At last, the day arrives and the couple gets married. Each partner is overjoyed to be done with their individual marathon course and the subsequent week of Sheva Brachot feels like one victory party after another. But then the party is over, the dust settles, and perhaps the couple starts to feel like they have just begun a new, less glamorous marathon called marriage. It’s different, with less familiar terrain than the previous marathon, but the spouses are excited and feeling relieved to have a running partner. Nevertheless, each of them may have moments where they question what they just signed up for, whether they have what it takes to last, and how to keep pace with one another. As they search for a map for this new course, they may feel confused and unsure of how to navigate this next chapter of life.
Sexual intimacy is an area of newlywed life where it is normal for there to be an adjustment period. Regardless of religious observance or relationship history, building a vibrant sex life as a married couple takes patience, communication, and a willingness to be vulnerable. This journey doesn’t happen overnight; especially not on the oft-overrated wedding night. It takes time to get comfortable and entails a parallel process that reflects marriage itself: know your partner better, know yourself better. Education, expectations, and attunement all contribute to how the couple connects through this learning curve.
Sometimes, there can be obstacles that persist that can get in the way of developing an enjoyable sexual relationship –when it’s not “just a phase.” Causes for concern include low libido, difficulty with arousal, anorgasmia, painful intercourse, difficulty/inability to penetrate (vaginismus), erectile dysfunction, ejaculation issues, challenges with body image and sexuality, as well as difficulty communicating about pleasure. Assuming that all sexual difficulties will naturally resolve with time — that roughing it out on your own is a rite of passage and will make you stronger — can create unnecessary distress and can often result in ramifications extending beyond the bedroom.
Reaching out for help can be daunting, especially when it comes to sexual- and relationship-functioning, but struggling alone can prevent the situation from improving. When a newly married couple is wondering if something is “normal” or looking for help, they may be inclined to reach out initially to a Rav, Chosson or Kallah teacher, friend, relative, teacher, or mentor, which can be a wonderful first step in addressing the issue and getting support. Speaking to someone with whom one already has a relationship can be comforting and provide a familiar sounding board. Sometimes a little reassurance, a few suggestions, a book recommendation, or a warm hug of empathy can go a long way.
But sexual issues are often deeply personal and contain multiple layers, which is why it can be beneficial to pursue additional resources for help. Sexual intimacy is a mind-body experience, and sexual dysfunction is often not “all in your head.” Thus, evaluating sexual functioning should consider both psychological and physiological factors. Going to counseling with a licensed psychotherapist can provide support and guidance in a confidential and emotionally safe setting. Exploring medical options and interventions can be crucial in ruling out causes and clarify appropriate treatment goals. Getting the holistic picture of functioning can make a world of a difference not only in the duration of treatment but the impact on the couple’s relationship throughout the process.
Sadly, many couples feel ashamed to reach out for help regarding sexual issues and suffer for years, or even decades, untreated. There are numerous reasons for this (that’s for another article), but among them is stigma. People will hesitate little to get assistance for a cell phone problem or a leak in the ceiling, as those are things that impact day-to-day living and people are not embarrassed to share with others. Yet with sexual issues, which can become a daily emotional drain on a relationship, there is often much trepidation, compartmentalizing, and postponement of getting help.
Whenever I go to a wedding and I’m watching the couple standing under the huppah gazing at one another, I think about how in that moment, marriage doesn’t look complicated. It can seem as though now that the search is over, the work is over. While the huppah is indeed a joyous milestone, it is really but the starting line of a journey where the work continues, both individually and as a couple. Cultivating sexual intimacy doesn’t happen magically, and that reality is a fact, not a failure. Reaching out for help isn’t a sign of weakness or doom. In context of the wish to spend many happy years together, it is a brave gesture of hope, strength, and desire to grow.
Portions of the above were previously published on the Eden Center website.