The Emotional Challenges of Menopause
By Lisette Thooft
She woke up one morning and her libido was gone, Hanny Roskamp writes in her uplifting account of menopause (See: The Meaning of Menopause). To her surprise, she discovered she didn’t mind at all; on the contrary, she felt as if she’d been liberated. Free at last. No longer a slave to her hormones.
That may be fine for a single woman without children like Roskamp, but the majority of women have a partner. Isn’t it a little cold and unfeeling to say, “You’re on your own now; I’m through with sex”?
And what if you’re still raising teenagers and working a demanding job? Closer to 60, menopause might be welcome, a “spiritual gift” to unwrap at your leisure, as Roskamp says. But at 50, all those frustrating symptoms are decidedly unwelcome. In short: It’s time for an article about menopause that does justice to the situation for women with partners and children.
Two distinct questions are at play here. First, how do you keep yourself going in a busy family and hectic job while the symptoms of menopause are wreaking havoc with you? Second, after menopause, how do you and your partner deal with your lack of interest in sex?
Let’s start with the first question. The timing of menopause would be vastly better for many women if it waited until their children were grown; that much is clear. And isn’t that more or less the natural order of things? You gaily wave your adult progeny out the door and embrace your newly silent, restful house. Where you can pamper yourself with herbal teas and a fan within reach. But not everyone is so lucky.
A relatively high percentage of women above 50 still have children at home. That’s because women began postponing motherhood in the 1970s. Education and work took priority. But there have probably always been women entering menopause with children at home, if only because women used to keep having children longer into their childbearing years. In fact, the youngest child in yesteryear’s large family often arrived after the mother had passed 40. Didn’t those mothers have a hard time as they approached menopause? And why do we know so little about this?
In earlier decades, women didn’t talk about menopause. My mother still had a house full of high-school students when she reached 50. All I remember is that she briefly thought she might be pregnant when her period was late and instantly set to knitting an entire chest of baby clothes. I never once heard her mention hot flashes or night sweats.
Of course, much has changed in recent decades. These days, we chart our own lives. We determine our educational paths and how long they will take, when we’ll have children and how many. It’s a logical step to think, Oh, menopause, I’ll plan that, too. It’ll fit nicely into my life once I’m 60 and ease up at work. Now won’t do at all.
But the complicated thing is that internal resistance exacerbates the symptoms of menopause. Just the opposite, an attitude of conscious acceptance, lessens them. A study conducted by James Carmody and others at the University of Massachusetts conclusively demonstrated this. A hundred women, all menopausal and moderately to severely bothered by hot flashes and night sweats, participated in a mindfulness training program. “In this mindfulness training,” the researchers write, “the women learned to more finely distinguish among the different components of their experiences, such as thoughts, feelings and physical sensations, and to become aware of these components without forming a judgment about them.”
Mindfulness creates a kind of psychological distance from our experience: We watch it as an observer rather than immediately starting to grumble and groan. The training took place one evening a week for eight weeks, an entire day during the sixth week, plus CDs for daily practice at home. The control group consisted of similar women who did not participate in the training, but were placed on a waiting list. After the program, subjects reported they were 22 percent less perturbed by their hot flashes and night sweats. Not that their symptoms had lessened in frequency; rather, they felt less severe and the women experienced less discomfort from them. Participants also experienced much less insomnia, fear and stress. Subjects’ quality of life had drastically improved by the end of the program and remained high three months later.
But the control group also experienced a measurable reduction in discomfort: 10 percent. Apparently just the fact that they were on a waiting list for the mindfulness program helped. The placebo effect is usually quite strong in menopausal symptoms; in studies, more than half the misery usually vanishes after taking bogus medications prescribed by a friendly, attentive specialist. That doesn’t mean women are imagining their symptoms but that the symptoms are highly psychosomatic. Body and mind are a single unit, and when the mind suffers, the body suffers with it. Our attitudes toward this watershed event greatly influence the severity of our symptoms. Awareness and acceptance help.
But how do you manage it, sailing through menopause while your busy life as a partner and mother continues unabated? Well… you don’t.
You’ll do better to take the time and space you need and to pamper yourself with quiet time and herbal teas. Time, especially, to meditate. The harder you fight against it and want everything to keep going the way it’s always gone, the worse it will be for you. Your husband and children will just have to accept that you’re changing, that you’re less available. You may have to accept that you’re no longer the omnipresent and essential center of family activity. And so the great letting go begins.
In most cases, that won’t present a problem, with children who are over 12 and a fiftysomething husband. The children want nothing more than their independence, and of course your husband is growing older, too. Men’s hormone levels are also affected by aging: Testosterone production declines steadily. The drop begins at 40 years of age, but after 50, the decline becomes drastic. Testosterone influences typical male behavior such as goal-orientedness and the willingness to take risks. An older man naturally becomes a little more feminine, you could say: more caring, calmer and more attentive. You can expect more from him in terms of being there for you, actively providing you with help and emotional support.
That brings us to the second question. What do you do when you’re no longer interested in sex? First, know you’re not alone. You’re in good company—and lots of it. The Dutch broadcasting company Max polled 1,100 people over 50 regarding their sex lives. One in six said he or she no longer had sex. Thirty-seven percent of respondents reported making love just once every month or two months. Those with active sex lives gave them a measly 6.7 out of 10 in quality. And, when asked how they dealt with their greatly diminished libido, no less than 70 percent of participants said this: You just have to accept it; it’s part of getting old.
They’ve got a point. It used to be par for the course when a woman resolutely banned her husband from her bedroom after menopause. The idea that you can have a sex life in your 50s, and thus should have one, complete with the vigor and frequency of your youth, is characteristic of our modern times. But is it realistic? Viagra users are predominantly men between 50 and 60 with erection issues. Vaginal dryness is the most common complaint among post-menopausal women.
More important is the question of whether you even want to maintain your prior habits. For many women, it’s precisely the usual sexual routine that’s no longer appealing enough after menopause. A normal sex life generally means several short lovemaking sessions a week, each lasting five or six minutes and ending in the man’s orgasm. Often this kind of routine acts as a smokescreen, hiding the lack of true intimacy between partners. As long as the sex is “as it should be,” you don’t have to work on your relationship.
That may have been okay with you for years—until you reach menopause and your trusted hormonal availability vanishes. According to Rik van Lunsen, head of the sexology department at Amsterdam’s Academic Medical Center, there’s one thing women can no longer do after menopause, and that’s have sex when they don’t really want to. The vagina of the postmenopausal woman can become just as engorged with blood and thus well-lubricated as that of a younger woman, but only if she’s truly aroused. The permanent moisture is gone.
In addition, the most important factor in achieving erection for a man over 50 is not attractiveness but the receptivity of his female partner, according to urologist Erik Meuleman. In other words, if she wants him, he’ll get it up. That means an older couple’s sex life depends completely on whether the woman is open to contact and truly enjoys their lovemaking.
That turns sex after menopause into a kind of hypersensitive barometer for the quality of your relationship, because that is linked to sexual arousal in women. All the day’s tensions translate into distance and impotence in bed. There’s no way to plow ahead with sex or to make things better through sex; it simply no longer works physically. On the other hand, the greater the sense of intimacy, familiarity, safety and mutual affection, the better things will go.
It seems to me the most important thing is that partners experience a shared sense of responsibility. Know that it isn’t the fault of one partner or the other if things are physically iffy; it’s the result of aging and increasing sensitivity. Talking and looking for solutions together will deepen your relationship.
Spirituality works. There’s a reason why the North American Menopause Society (NAMS) recommends yoga for every menopause symptom. Not just for insomnia and heart palpitations but for vaginal dryness, pain during sex and low libido. Everything you do to stay healthy—exercising, eating well, getting enough sleep, not smoking and maintaining a positive attitude—also helps your sex life, says the NAMS. Above all, you’ve got to love yourself enough to give your health priority.
Meditating, doing yoga, loving yourself, taking your relationship deeper into intimacy and authenticity—that’s a pretty tall order. It’s good to know that the “gift” of menopause isn’t immediately greeted with cheers by every woman. It’s more like a hero’s journey. But apparently it’s what life is asking of us at this age. And if you respond to the question, you’ll ultimately reap a hero’s rewards.
Read more of Ode’s stories on menopause at OdeWire. Discover the meaning of menopause for yourself in OdeNow’s menopause course. For a free digital copy of Ode’s entire Menopause Series, email email@example.com.
The Meaning of Menopause