I am not a dog whisperer.
As a small child, I was jumped on by a dog that either scratched or bit me. I don’t remember the experience itself—but I do know that was when I began to feel terrified of dogs.
After that, I avoided dogs. Other children would greet a dog and want to pet and kiss it; I tried to hide behind an adult and figure out an escape route. Thoughts and fears about the dog attacking me would sometimes stay with me for several days.
When I was eight years old, we spent the summer living in a small town in Vermont. I was walking home from the post office. I walked past a house where there were two big dogs lying down on the porch. Being dogs, they barked when I got near. When I reached that house, the sudden and loud presence of the dogs scared me so much that I ran across the road without even thinking about traffic. I was nearly hit by a county sheriff who was out on patrol.
Over the years, I tried to conquer this fear. It was an act of bravery to pet a dog, even with an adult holding onto it. When I was a teenager, I became friends with girls who had dogs. I forced myself to take a deep breath before walking into their houses. As I observed the dog in the context of family, I learned to relax—but only with those specific dogs.
As an adult, I’ve gotten mostly comfortable with dogs—so much so that our family had a beloved dog for eleven years. Now my oldest has a young dog, and I enjoy my grandpuppy a great deal.
The Body Remembers
If you asked me, I would probably tell you that I’ve lost my fear of dogs.
To a point, this is true. I have lost my mental fear of dogs. When I see a dog, I no longer think, That dog is going to hurt me! My thoughts are not about hiding or protecting myself. In my head, I understand that most dogs are not a threat to me.
I’ve lost the mental fear—but the visceral fear remains firmly planted.
Recently I was walking through a nearby neighborhood when out from the shadows came a large dog, charging toward me and barking loudly. I could feel that visceral fear welling up from my gut.
My stomach clenched. My heart began to race. I looked around for an escape route. The only thing in my mind was the thought, Big bad wolf. I could feel my body wanting to turn away and run into the street, just as I did as a child.
A 50-year-old incident no longer occupies my mind, but it has left its invisible mark on my entire body.
Many of us carry invisible marks from events we may or may not remember: an abusive childhood, bullying on the playground, an unpredictable alcoholic relative, a controlling parent, abandonment, a broken arm from climbing the monkey bars, an awareness of parents’ constant fighting, and more. All sorts of things can evoke those visceral feelings of fear, isolation, and pain.
Most of us can understand that our childhood scars run deep. But we don’t stop experiencing traumatic events when we grow past childhood.
Difficult experiences can scar us even throughout adulthood: childbirth, illness, a hard situation at work, the death of a loved one, and accident, and even difficult dynamics in our church communities.
These invisible scars can affect our lives unexpectedly.
It might be a chance encounter with someone from work or church who was part of a distressing situation. Or you might hear a phrase that was once spoken to you when you were in shock. Or maybe it’s a tone of voice or a similar situation.
A variety of things might provoke a visceral reaction that you don’t even understand—but you can feel your stomach clench and recognize the physical sensations of panic or fear. The feelings might stay with you for hours.
Invisible scars can affect our marriages, too.
What happens when in the midst of a visceral reaction, your husband approaches you for sex?
When you’re in the middle of feeling afraid, trapped, or unloved, it can be hard to process even the most tender words of love.
After enough times, those same tender words can become associated with those bad visceral feelings—and we may not even understand why.
I think back to the difficult years in our marriage. Big Guy would tell me he wanted to feel close to me and make love with me—and I often felt that same visceral sense of panic. It likely can be traced to an especially hard time during our marriage when I felt emotionally abandoned by him.
The Big Bad Wolf Meets the Good Shepherd
As I recently stood frozen at the presence of a dog on my walk, the only words that came into my mind were, Big bad wolf.
I had enough presence of mind (barely) to recognize that I was experiencing fear—and I asked for God’s help.
For I am the Lord your God who takes hold of your right hand and says to you, Do not fear; I will help you. Isaiah 41:13
With God’s help, I forced myself to take a deep breath. That was when I recognized the presence of the dog’s owner. In my mind, I knew I was safe. My body still felt unsettled. My heart began to slow down and I no longer had that panicky feeling, but I still had to walk past the dog.
In the presence of the big bad wolf, I called on the Good Shepherd.
I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. John 10:14-15
I pictured Jesus, the Good Shepherd, walking by my side between me and the dog. I glanced at the dog and saw it lick its owner’s hand—and just like that, the dog had turned from a big bad wolf into a giant puppy. I felt my body settle.
The Good Shepherd in the Bedroom
This is the same approach I took when I experienced physical feelings of panic or anxiety when I was working on my attitude about sex.
My most frequent prayer was, God, help.
And He did. He showed me what I was feeling. He helped me take deep breaths to clear my mind.
Every time I asked for help in doing whatever task was in front of me—even just removing my bra and allowing my husband to see my breasts—I knew the Good Shepherd was there to protect me from whatever was provoking my feelings of fear or panic.
If your husband is generally a good guy trying to be a good husband, it is disconcerting to experience feelings of panic when he approaches you for sex. You may understand what scars have led to it and even recognize that this is a different situation or that there is no big bad wolf that is after you—or maybe you have no idea why you feel that way.
You may never be able to prevent a visceral reaction—but you don’t have to give that reaction power over your life and your marriage.
If you feel like the big bad wolf is after you but you know that he isn’t, call on the Good Shepherd to help you move forward.
. . . for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control. 2 Timothy 1:7