Yesterday afternoon, I was wiped out from having gone to the dentist. It was a simple exam and cleaning, but every time I visit the dentist, tension grips my muscles like zipties secured two notches too tight. It occurred to me that some of you might have the same experience with sex that I have with getting dental care.
Let’s talk about ways in which sex can feel a bit like going to the dentist.
You’ve Experienced Pain.
I have a very sensitive mouth, had several cavities as a child, and only in adulthood realized that I have an insensitivity to the local anesthetic commonly used for most dental procedures. All of which means that going to the dentist historically HURTS.
Ask me about the worst pain I’ve ever been, and childbirth doesn’t even come close. It’s either the time I got a root canal retreatment, when the anesthetic worked some but not enough, or when I received a filling with no numbing whatsoever. Dental care is not supposed to hurt that much!
Likewise, many women in particular have suffered pain or discomfort during sex. Sometimes their husband knows, but oftentimes he doesn’t. One review of the 2018 U.S. National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior suggested that half of women don’t tell their sexual partner about the pain they experienced. Reasons for pain include dryness, vaginismus, infection, pelvic floor dysfunction, and many more, but almost every cause can be addressed in some way. Sex is not supposed to hurt!
And even if an encounter is not painful, you may have past pain and discomfort imprinted in your memories that makes it hard to relax. This last dental appointment was only mildly uncomfortable, but I was on edge the whole time—because my mind and body remember. Yet, I believe with several positive experiences, the mental and emotional scripts will shift, my tension will ease, and I might even come to enjoy having my teeth cleaned. Since good sex is way more enjoyable than any dental procedure, couldn’t the same happen for you?
What to do:
- Acknowledge your pain or discomfort.
- Share your struggle with your husband.
- Look for ways to eliminate or address the problem.
- Give your mind and body take to adjust the script.
Your Needs Have Been Minimized.
While no dentist I’ve visited has been like Orin Scrivello, DDS from Little Shop of Horrors, some have been more sympathetic than others. The same with hygienists, who varied in how gentle they were cleaning and polishing my teeth. While my mouth sensitivity and anesthetic insensitivity couldn’t be controlled, it made a real difference in my trust level whether my needs were honored or minimized. If a dentist wants to get on my bad side, they give me lidocaine anyway when I’ve repeatedly said that it doesn’t work on me.
Can anyone relate to this in the sexual arena? For instance, if you’ve repeatedly told your spouse that you need more foreplay or additional lube, but they ignore that request and expect you to just go ahead with it, your reasonable requirements aren’t being respected. Or perhaps the way you get aroused—that is, your particular sex drive—isn’t heeded as an acceptable way to be. Rather, you’re criticized for not being in the mood all the time or having stronger sexual interest in sex than your spouse.
I’m not addressing sins against you here—the Little Shop dentist version of how to approach sex, which should definitely be opposed—but rather ignoring or downplaying what would make sex so much better for you. And that ignoring can come from your spouse, but also from a healthcare provider, pastor, or counselor who doesn’t take your concerns seriously.
It has taken me decades to get to the point where I now speak up boldly for what I need at the dentist. “What is that anesthetic? [Their answer.] Nope, that won’t work. Get something else!” “Yes, I want the nitrous oxide.” “Please pause for a moment while I take a few cleansing breaths.” “Excuse me while I put in my earbuds and turn on my meditation music.” Being my own advocate makes the experience better for all involved. They don’t unnecessarily hurt me, and I feel more comfortable and confident.
What to do:
Be your own bedroom advocate.
Speak up for what you need.
Pause what’s happening if needed and reiterate your reasonable request.
Cooperate with good care, but don’t let your needs be minimized.
You showed up out of duty.
Given my history with dentistry, you’d think I wouldn’t go very often. But other than a few lapses due to other issues in my life, I’ve gotten regular exams and cleanings twice a year and accepted treatments deemed necessary for my health. Nearly every time that I dreaded, despised, and despaired going to my appointment, I still did so—because it was my duty. It struck me as what responsible grownups did to avoid worse outcomes, such as tooth decay or gum disease.
Too many spouses—and it’s almost always women I hear this from—have too long showed up for sex in their marriage out of duty. Maybe they believed that’s just what grownups in marriage do, or they succumbed to pressure from others, or they wanted to avoid presumed worse outcomes, such as a husband turning to pornography or another woman for sexual release.
Is sex an obligation in marriage? We can certainly argue that it is, but that’s not the reason to have sex! You shouldn’t ever schlep yourself to the bedroom to “get it over with” because you “owe him” (or her). Nor should you feel that you must have sex, or your spouse will sexually betray you.*
Even with dentistry, I’d rather go because I want healthy teeth and gums, because I like the look and feeling of cleaned and polished teeth, and because I want to have a mouth that my husband wants to kiss. Continuing to show up out of pure duty has only made me more anxious about going to the dentist. Finally, I’m seeking out ways to both reframe the experience and to make it much better so that I’ll look forward to caring properly for my teeth.
How much more should this be true for sex?! If a sense of duty does anything, it should motivate us to figure out this area of sex, but not just have it. If you continue to show up solely because you feel obligated, then sex will never be something you look forward to doing.
If you continue to show up solely because you feel obligated, then sex will never be something you look forward to doing. @hotholyhumorousTweet
Instead, reframe the experience as something you get to do and work on how to make it better! If sex becomes truly intimate and enjoyable in your marriage, you won’t need anyone to guilt you into having sex. Rather, you’ll want to have sex! And you’ll appreciate how it adds to your own and your marriage’s health and happiness.
What to do:
- Reframe the experience as physical intimacy with your spouse rather than a marital duty for your spouse.
- Don’t let your spouse (or anyone else) guilt you into having sex, because you and your marriage deserve better.
- View any obligation toward sex in marriage as an obligation to figure out your desire, pleasure, and intimacy. (It’s not about the destination as much as the direction.)
- Take concrete steps to make sexual engagement better for you.
You’re Ready to Try Something Different.
My parents long told a story from my childhood that I don’t personally recall. But apparently, they once took me to the dentist and, despite every dangled carrot or threatened stick, could not get me to open my mouth. They finally had to take me home, hoping the next time I’d be more cooperative.
Now that I know about my specific dental issues, I think that was a rather understandable—and even wise—choice on my part. Giving me enticements or ultimatums didn’t change what would happen when I eventually opened my mouth. Rather, my dentist was going to perform his tasks the way he always had. If only he could have offered something different—something less uncomfortable for me.
But the last time I went to the dentist, they cleaned my teeth with something I’d never experienced before. Some dentist reader may correct me, but I think it was a magnetostrictive ultrasonic scaler, which feels a bit like waterpik. Anyway, it wasn’t a terrible experience like teeth scraping has been for me. It actually felt pretty good when it wasn’t hitting a few extra-sensitive spots in my mouth—and the dentist shifted around those spots when I indicated mild discomfort. What a difference it made to try something different!
If having sex has felt like going to the dentist, you may need to try something different. And there are different things to try! I don’t know what your sex version of a magnetostrictive ultrasonic scaler is. (Though I can imagine the sex-toy jokes some of you are now making from that analogy. ~smirk~) But seek out different strategies, activities, ways to communicate, etc.
What to do:
- First, visit your healthcare provider if you’re experiencing pain, discomfort, dryness, or no sexual interest at all.
- Then, consider seeing a counselor if past trauma or mistreatment are a part of your life story.
- Read articles on this blog or others that provide helpful tips to make sex better for you.
- Listen to Sex Chat for Christian Wives, where we cover a lot of practical stuff about sexual interest and satisfaction.
- Get my how-to book for wives, Hot, Holy, and Humorous: Sex in Marriage by God’s Design, for lots of ideas!
- Sign up for a sex seminar or marriage conference package through my shop and watch it with your spouse.
Please don’t settle for painful dentistry or bad sex! Especially not bad sex!
Sex as God designed it should be many multiples better than a visit to the dentist. It should make you happy you went there and eager to return. If it doesn’t feel that way for you, don’t just keep showing up, tensing up, and gritting your teeth through it. Discover the physical pleasure and relational intimacy God wants you to have in your marriage! Prioritize it. Pursue it. Persist for it.
Sex as God designed it should be many multiples better than a visit to the dentist. It should make you happy you went there and eager to return. @hotholyhumorousTweet
*If your spouse sexually betrays you, it’s their sin, not yours. Even if you withheld sex, your spouse has many options besides cheating, and God calls your spouse—and all of us—to sexual integrity.
Resources: “Why Do Only Half of Women with Sexual Pain Tell Their Lovers?” Psychology Today. Sussex Publishers. Accessed April 12, 2023. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/all-about-sex/202005/why-do-only-half-women-sexual-pain-tell-their-lovers; Cedars-Sinai Staff. “What Women Need to Know about Pain during Sex.” Cedars Sinai, September 12, 2018. https://www.cedars-sinai.org/blog/pain-during-sex.html.