“There will be dry spells, perhaps sooner than you think.”

“Some days sex will be more like a chore than a joy. Do it anyway. Even when it doesn’t feel like magic, it is building intimacy.”

“Sex is messy and awkward. Don’t expect it to be great on your honeymoon. Be ready to laugh off the weird stuff and have fun with it.”

Such were the well-intentioned words of advice from my closest girlfriends at my bachelorette party. But there were things I was still unprepared for, things my friends couldn’t tell me.

What happens when your sexual baggage is larger than a carry-on? What happens when sex in marriage feels too much like the time when sex was coercion?

Haunted by My Past

In college, I was in a three-year, on-again-off-again relationship with Mitchell (not his real name). Though we both professed to be Christians, a few months into our relationship he began pressuring me to have sex—and I gave in. His subtle coercion gradually became barely disguised demands for sex, and soon I equated sex with both physical pain and “love.” He desired sex anytime, anywhere, and he made me believe that it was the only real way I could communicate my love to him.

Every time I “loved” him that way, I felt filthy and violated; he would fall asleep or walk out of the room, and I would sob silently—hoping there was more to sex than this but doubting that it could be true.

I spent many years after that relationship as a single woman, and slowly but faithfully, the Lord healed my broken pieces.

When I eventually started dating my now-husband, Dan, we committed to waiting for marriage. However, a few months after our wedding, I realized I wasn’t fully free from my past. Despite the knowledge that I was forgiven by both Christ and Dan, I said yes to sex only as often as necessary to keep my guilt at bay. I found myself feeling ashamed at my inability to enjoy my husband, berating myself for not being the kind of wife I thought he deserved.

My body and my heart felt disconnected. I longed to desire sex, but I didn’t. I longed to want to please Dan, but I didn’t. And if I didn’t desire sex when Dan asked for it, Mitchell’s voice would creep into my thoughts, invading what should have been a private, holy moment: he’s only asking because he needs to gratify himself. You have to show him love, even if you don’t want to. This is the only way you can make him feel like a man. Push through the pain.

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My husband has never made me feel this way; he has never tried to guilt or persuade me into sex. I trust that Dan initiates sex for good reasons: to connect with me, to give and receive love, and to increase intimacy. But the wounds from my past were still haunting me.

Seeking Healing, Moment by Moment

I know there are many women who love sex and have high sex drives, and let me just say, I think that’s wonderful. I hope to be among your number someday, and I hope the same for the other women who struggle as I do. But for those of us who have been burned in the past or who just don’t enjoy sex, what are we to do with these feelings (or lack thereof)?

Sex should be entered into with love, affection, and desire—not merely out of obligation. But how, then, should we understand the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 7:3–5?

The husband should fulfill his wife’s sexual needs, and the wife should fulfill her husband’s needs. The wife gives authority over her body to her husband, and the husband gives authority over his body to his wife. Do not deprive each other of sexual relations, unless you both agree to refrain from sexual intimacy for a limited time so you can give yourselves more completely to prayer.

While there is a clear sense of obligation to each other in this passage, it isn’t saying one needs to have sex anytime his or her spouse desires it. Instead, this passage makes it clear that we need to continually work on our hearts so that we’re soft toward the desires of our mate—and toward our own desires as well.

This is not an easy road to walk, and I still struggle with the pain, sometimes daily. But I’m slowly healing. Here are a few things I’ve learned in the process:

1. It's okay to say no and suggest alternative acts of intimacy.

Some days, we just can’t shake the pain of the past. Other times, the headache is real. We get sick. We have tough days at work. We start our periods and feel decidedly unsexy.

I hope that someday sex with Dan will be a release and a refuge when I’m struggling in other areas of life. For now, it’s not. I’ve learned to say no when I need to, and I look for other ways to grow love and intimacy. In these moments, cuddling close, exchanging back massages, or going for a hand-in-hand walk can build your marriage and allow room for healing.

2. Communicate your pain to your spouse.

You don’t need to (nor should you) tell your husband every detail about your past. Though I’ve withheld many gritty details, I’ve shared with Dan the weight of my scars, the feelings that sex can conjure up for me, and the debilitating pain that I sometimes just can’t put aside.

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Because I’ve been honest with him, he can better understand what is going on in my heart when I say no, and it creates space for me to keep healing, and it creates a way for us to move forward together. Consider wisely which parts of your story you need to share—which emotions and scars you need to show your husband to help him better understand what sex feels like for you in those dark moments.

3. Seek help for underling sexual issues, especially sexual abuse.

If you’re a victim of sexual abuse, what happened to you is serious, and there’s no shame in seeking professional therapy or marriage counseling. God can heal any situation, and he often brings that freedom through the help of trained professionals. Continually give your struggles over to the Lord, asking for healing, strength, and patience.

4. Consider your purpose for sex.

I’m still learning that sex is about more than just satisfying physical desires. I know in my mind that sex creates intimacy, that it continually cements the holy bond between a husband and wife, and that it can be enjoyable and fun. When I see the purpose of sex as to satisfy Dan and pacify my own guilt, it’s an act that, at best, feels like going through the motions. But when I consider that a home is built brick by brick, one choice at a time, and I apply that reasoning to our intimacy, it presents a new purpose for sex.

You and your spouse may want to consider setting goals for your sex life, whether that’s by finding new ways to love each other in the bedroom or by trying to turn toward each other when you’re stressed. Open up to the possibility of greater fulfillment and connection with your spouse.

5. Choose your marriage over your pain.

When my husband initiates sex and I feel inclined to say no because of the pain of my past, denying Dan hands the victory over to my ex-boyfriend, and to the Enemy. And then the barrier between me and my husband becomes thicker and darker.

In the moments when I can step outside of my pain, I choose my marriage over my past. Dan didn’t commit those sins against me; he shouldn’t have to pay the price for them. And I’m forgiven and redeemed for my part in my past. I don’t have to keep paying the price either.

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When I choose intimacy with my husband (even if it feels like I’m still fighting an uphill battle), our marriage wins. Wives, I’m not saying that you need to say yes to sex all the time. But when you choose intimacy in your weariest moments, you choose to strengthen your marriage for the long-term. Strong marriages are built not on grand, sweeping actions but through a series of small, everyday choices. I want to build a foundation for intimacy, so I try to say yes as often as I can.

Celebrate the Victories

When you injure part of your body, a ligament or a muscle, you sometimes need physical therapy to repair it. If you move too quickly, you run the risk of re-injury, but you can’t regain your range of motion or build your strength back up if you don’t push through some pain to get stronger. It’s much the same with intimacy.

Rely on the Holy Spirit to help you discern how much is too much and share that openly with your spouse. Figure out what it takes for you to get into a positive emotional space and truly enjoy sex. Celebrate each victory even if it seems small because victories point toward the possibility of what’s to come: long-term healing and a thriving, enjoyable sex life.

Brittany Bergman is TCW regular contributor as well as an assistant copyeditor at Tyndale House Publishers. You can connect with her on Twitter at @NestedNomad or read more at her blog TheNestedNomad.com.