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When guilt damages intimacy

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Before the job I have now ,I lived in Lubbock, Texas and worked as the head of the psycho-oncology unit at University Medical Center. While there, I received training with hospice as well as going through a clinical pastoral education program. This program taught me how to support dying patients with their end of life concerns. Many of the patient's concerns centered on guilt they felt in their intimate lives with their significant other.

This letter I received last week was a reminder to me of the importance people feel in regard to guilt, their religious upbringing and their sexuality. For the most part, many of us grew up in homes where sex was thought to be sinful, and our parents may have told us terrible things about hell and sin when the topic of sex came up.

Here is the letter I received:

Dear Mary Jo,

I have struggled with this issue in my past and it continues to be a problem in my present relationships. Because of my strong religious upbringing (Catholic), I am dealing with an overwhelming amount of guilt when it comes to sex. It was a factor in my failed relationship with my ex (although it is not an excuse for his decision to cheat). What sort of advice would you give me or anyone like me who has a belief system that sex is sinful? How do we go about getting over this belief so we can experience healthy relationships?

Thank you, Jill

Dear Jill, This is not an easy question to answer as it involves morals, religious upbringing and our beliefs in what happens when we sin. You don't explain, and I don't know if your feelings of guilt involve sex with a boyfriend or if they expand into feeling guilty about having sex with a husband. Guilt about having sex may generalize into marriage, and I counsel married couples who feel intense guilt when they enjoy sex with their spouse due to their religious upbringing.

Although we are raised to believe certain rules and moral codes as children, when we become an adult it is important that we rethink our childhood teachings. What were our parents trying to teach us, what were they trying to protect us from, and what does our own belief system and worship of God teach us? Blaming our parents or our religion for our feelings is not taking full responsibility for our own growth and re-evaluation. Most people grow up, and evaluate what their parents did right and what they did wrong. After this evaluation, they decide what they will do differently in their lives, and the way they parent their children. What happens with guilt is oftentimes different. No matter how we change our thinking, we may continue to suffer guilt when we engage in something that we grew up thinking was verboten. Sexual guilt is one of those areas that affect many couples' lives. As with most issues in a relationship it will be easier if you address and talk about it with your committed partner.

There are things you can begin doing now that may help you understand why you feel guilty in your intimacy/sex life, and how you can use those feelings to actually deepen your relationship with your partner.

1. Guilt is not the worst thing in the world. In fact, a healthy amount of guilt is part of being a compassionate person. Begin by talking to your partner about how you were raised, and what part of the messages you remember actually helped you choose your partner. Your partner will be more understanding if they can understand and value the good parts of your guilt feelings.

2. Get honest about your guilt and what it is protecting you from. Are you afraid of being intimate and using the guilt as an excuse for not exploring all parts of the relationship?

3. Understand that God is not part of your guilt. It's the interpretation of God's message that can have a strong effect on the meaning. I once heard a theologian say if Christ were here, he would be saddened by how all of the people who say they are Christians behave.

4. If you have a strong belief that sex is bad even while in a committed relationship, it would behoove you and your partner to talk to a Reverend, Rabbi, Priest or counselor of your choice to better understand the interpretation you are clinging too. Frequently, people who suffer from sexual guilt also suffer from childhood emotional, physical and/or sexual abuse. Talking to a religious leader and a counselor about this can help support your ability to heal.

5. Any physician can tell you that healthy sexual relations between loving couples is heart healthy as well as emotionally healthy. For some of us that means you must be married, and for others that means you must be committed and monogamous. Everyone has different viewpoints with this issue, but what is important is both you and your partner understand one another and resolve to work toward helping one another feel comfortable expressing themselves intimately.

Experiencing guilt in your intimate relationship does not destroy the relationship. Not communicating the guilt and feeling too embarrassed about your feelings, and avoiding your partner may. Guilt thrives on feelings that are locked inside, and intimacy thrives on sharing and expressing feelings. If you want an intimate relationship, begin by sharing the feelings of guilt.

–Mary Jo Rapini

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