Learn how the physical and emotional changes that accompany menopause will affect your physical intimacy.
How will menopause affect my sex life? I've just started to experience irregular periods, hot flashes, mood swings, etc. These physical and emotional changes have already impacted my sex life, and I’m assuming that this aspect of the problem will grow over time. My husband doesn't understand, and I’m not sure I do either. What should we expect as I move through this phase?
There’s a great deal of myth, misunderstanding and ignorance surrounding the question of sexual intimacy during menopause. Past generations tended to assume that a woman becomes de-sexualized after passing through “the change of life.” They viewed this stage of feminine development, when the menstrual cycle ceases and childbearing is no longer possible, as difficult and embarrassing. We now know that these attitudes are based largely on prejudices and misconceptions.
As with any other major change, menopause can have both positive and negative implications. It’s true that the condition is often associated with physical, emotional and mental discomfort in varying degrees. But menopause can also open up new opportunities and lead women to new discoveries about their lives. This can be particularly true as it relates to the issue of sexual intimacy in marriage. While a great deal depends upon the mental and physical health of the individual, in a general sense it would not be unwarranted to say that, where post-menopausal sex is concerned, “the best is yet to come.”
A few moments’ reflection should be sufficient to clarify our reasons for making this claim. The fact of the matter is that many women find considerable sexual freedom in menopause. Wives who have spent their lives fearing pregnancy or avoiding it for physical or lifestyle reasons may now be able to relax and enjoy sex without worrying. Those who have dreaded heavy periods and the uncomfortable side effects of menstruation may be relieved to see the cycle come to an end. And while menopause does put a stop to a woman’s ability to conceive and bear a child, it has no effect whatsoever on her capacity for love and sensuality.
This is not to say that menopause is a bed of roses. It also comes with its share of thorns. During the transitional phase, when periods are irregular, it is important to understand that you can still become pregnant. You should also be aware of the potential mental and emotional effects of estrogen loss, including depression, insomnia, fatigue, irritability and a decreased ability to cope with stress. Meanwhile, lower levels of testosterone (yes, women do have testosterone) may cause a decrease in libido. And on the purely physical side, you may experience a dryness and thinning of the vaginal membranes, resulting in discomfort during intercourse. Fortunately, this problem can be remedied through the application of creams and personal lubricants. Hormone therapy (the administration of estrogen and progestin, or estrogen alone in women who have undergone a hysterectomy) can also be helpful for women who are dealing with the emotional and physical symptoms of menopause. In addition, your doctor may address decreased levels of sexual interest by prescribing a low dose testosterone cream. As a matter of fact, there are solutions to most of the difficulties that accompany the onset of menopause. For more detailed information, we suggest you consult your physician.
If for any reason these physical and emotional changes were to make normal intercourse impractical or infeasible for you and your husband, this still would not necessarily spell the end of your sexual relationship. It’s important to keep in mind that physical intimacy in marriage is a lifelong process and that it is possible to broaden its definition to include forms of physical affection outside the range of intercourse proper. Different types of expression may be appropriate at different phases of the relationship—in youth and old age, in times of stress and times of joy, during pregnancy, childbirth and child-rearing, during and after menopause—the list could go on and on. Touch, physical closeness, skin-to-skin contact, even intimate conversation can be extremely satisfying in the absence of other forms of sexual pleasure. At every stage of life, healthy attitudes toward marital sex should be characterized by candor, prayerfulness, vulnerability, flexibility, and willingness to communicate.
Although menopause is most clearly defined in women because of the changes in their menstrual periods, you should recognize that just as a man who is going through midlife, you are also undergoing changes in sexual drive and functioning. You may need to be patient as the two of you learn these lessons together. Because it coincides with so many other mid-life pressures (including raising teenage children, experiencing an “empty nest,” or caring for aging parents), menopause can be a difficult passage in any marriage. Some couples don’t make it over this hump, but you can improve your chances by cultivating an awareness of and a sensitivity to your husband’s needs and perceptions. A man tends to assess his worth in terms of sexual prowess, and as a result it’s easy for him to feel personally rejected when his wife seems less interested in sex. This in turn can leave him vulnerable to the lure of affairs, infidelity and pornographic material. It won’t be easy, but somehow you need to help him understand sex isn’t the answer to everything—that there are other ways of building his self-image and realizing his significance as a person. You’ve also got to show him, in every way you can, that you love him and that you’re still committed to him despite the temporary emotional and physical disturbances you’re going through.