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Health & Sex

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Experts Solve Major Love Disasters (Their Own)

Sometimes, professionals struggle with the very things they're hired to fix - and that's when they learn the most. Three of them drop the thera-speak and get honest.

WebMD Feature from "Redbook" Magazine

By Celeste Perron

Redbook Magazine Logo

They teach women to have better sex, stronger relationships, and fewer fights about money, yet the women you'll meet here didn't have all the answers, especially when it came to their own marriages. Now they tell us what they learned the hard way - and how it can help you.

"I'm an OB/GYN who hated sex"

Lissa Rankin, M.D., is a huge believer in frank talk, which is why she recently authored the book What's Up Down There? Questions You'd Only Ask Your Gynecologist If She Was Your Best Friend. She could have used that kind of support when she was launching her medical career. Lissa suffered from vulvar vestibulitis, a condition in which the entrance to the vagina gets inflamed, making sex excruciatingly painful. "It feels like you're being stabbed," she says. "You anticipate the pain, and that makes it even worse." Her husband was understandably frustrated. "It became a huge issue," she says. "There was no way for me to experience sexual pleasure." She tried most of the standard treatments, which include a topical numbing agent ("but that's numbing for your partner, too, which sort of defeats the purpose").

Eventually they divorced, in part because of the strain caused by Lissa's condition. The pain of her failed marriage was especially acute since so much of her work was with happy couples starting families. She reached her lowest point when she helped deliver a friend's baby. "As I was holding this sweet newborn, I thought, I'm going to be an old maid delivering other women's babies. I'll never have that experience myself."

But after a year and a half of celibacy, she mustered up the courage to have sex again. "I explored some emotional issues with a therapist, worked hard, and when I met a new man, I was amazed that sex didn't hurt at all," she says. "Fortunately, he was a bit smaller, if you know what I mean, and I think that helped both with my confidence and my vagina." She now believes that vulvar vestibulitis has a psychological component, and that her prolonged episode of it was caused largely by the stress of her medical residency and the strain in her marriage. "There was a lot of trauma in my life -- I was finishing up grueling training, my husband and I had to live in different states for a while, his mother died -- and those stresses were being reflected in my body," she says. After a few not-quite-right boyfriends, her luck finally turned in a big way at 33, when she met her current husband, Matt. Now they have an adorable 4-year-old daughter and, yes, an extremely satisfying sex life.

Lissa says she wouldn't change a thing about her 20s because her experience has made her a better doctor. "I go further. My intake form asks, 'Are you happy in your relationship? Are you satisfied with your sex life?'" she says. Many of her patients have been suffering in silence with a painful vaginal condition or loss of libido and are grateful to be asked. "When I make the diagnosis, I tell them about my personal experience," she says. "They're so relieved to know that they're not the only ones, because everybody in the movies is having effortless orgasms."

Her history also has made Lissa doggedly determined to help these women overcome their disorders. "I treated one woman with vulvar vestibulitis who was engaged but whose fiancé was about to call off the wedding over it," she recalls. "In addition to prescribing the standard medications, I taught them both sexual and romantic techniques that would help her get more comfortable with penetration. It took about six months, but it worked, and they wound up inviting me to their wedding. It was so satisfying, and moments like that have totally redeemed that hard chapter of my past."

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