Partners don’t have to be bystanders during menopause. There’s plenty they can do to support their loved one through this sometimes-tricky phase of life.
Every life stage brings joys and challenges. And for many couples, the transition through menopause is no different.
For 20% of women, it’s a symptom-free experience. But for most, menopause can cause a range of physical and emotional changes, from hot flushes and lowered libido to sleep problems and irritability. In around 60% of women, these changes are mild to moderate. But for 20%, symptoms are severe and interfere with daily life.
Unsurprisingly, research shows that menopause can affect intimacy between couples, as well as their sleep and the mood at home.
Issues tend to arise when honest communication is lacking and menopause is seen as the woman’s “problem or fault”.
When 47-year-old Australian aerial skier and Olympic gold medallist Alisa Camplin (pictured) started to experience severe exhaustion, she had no idea it was the beginning of perimenopause. The unknowns were stressful and at times lonely for the AIA Vitality Ambassador. However, she says what helped was patience from her husband as they searched for answers, as well as his asking what changes they could make together.
Alisa says that once doctors came to a diagnosis, her husband’s willingness to learn about menopause “gave a legitimacy [an acceptability] to my symptoms”.
Practical tools and education also played a part. “I really appreciated being able to show him [an online checklist of] perimenopausal symptoms.” Having a diagnosis, or a name for what was going on, “helped me help him understand”, she says.
According to Jean Hailes psychologist Gillian Needleman, a woman’s partner can significantly impact the menopause experience. “Someone you have good communication with, who listens to you, who evolves with you, is going to be very helpful.”
Ms Needleman says that issues tend to arise when honest communication is lacking and menopause is seen as the woman’s “problem or fault”. For example, a partner may take the woman’s mood swings personally or treat her lowered libido as a rejection, she explains.
In healthy relationships, couples have “a well-worn strategy” and treat menopause as a change to work through together, rather than a threat, she adds.
Of course, the process can be complicated. When Kerry entered perimenopause in her mid-40s, her hot flushes, insomnia and night sweats “were a bit uncomfortable”, but largely manageable. It was an entirely different story for her partner Karen who entered perimenopause 10 years later and experienced crippling anxiety. “I was worried about losing the plot and losing the ground that I had gained through counselling [for anxiety and depression],” says Karen. It was a tricky time for Kerry also, as she worried about her partner’s wellbeing.
With extra support from a mental health professional, Karen’s mental health improved. But she still battled dry skin, “suffocating” hot flushes and bloating. She says what helped her in the relationship wasn’t necessarily something her partner did or said, but the simple act of listening and being there as she navigated the journey.
The years surrounding menopause can be difficult for women and families, but supportive communication can help. These tips from Ms Needleman are designed for couples, but some may also apply to women who don’t have a partner.
Learn together – Our newly updated menopause webpages can help you make sense of what physical and emotional changes may occur. Also consider going to medical appointments together. Male partners may find it helpful to talk to other men about their experience.
Negotiate sex – Around menopause, you may need to reshape your sex life. Remember, it doesn’t help to view lowered libido as a personal rejection, or talk negatively about body changes. Instead, communicate honestly with each other about both of your sexual needs and problem solve together. For vaginal dryness, this might mean using lubricant or vaginal oestrogen (as a cream, pessary or tablet), or enjoying non-penetrative sex (outercourse).
Maintain connection – Spend time together and reassure each other that love is still present. Menopause is a time of change, so try to check in with each other regularly to see how you are both coping.
Wait for calm – Menopause can cause irritability, low mood, anger, depression and anxiety. Be mindful of mood swings and try not to react in the heat of the moment. When tensions have eased, a partner could say something like ‘I’ve noticed that you’re more anxious lately – what can I do to help?’
Practise self-care – Prioritise healthy habits together, including keeping active, eating well and managing alcohol intake.