by Lois Mowday Rabey
"Men want to fix everything," one woman told her group. "I just want him to hold me and tell me he still loves me."
Her sentiments ring true for many women. There is no easy fix for every problem that vexes the menopausal woman.
While some things can be done to alleviate some physical symptoms, it's the emotional effects that have women—and men—so bewildered. Combine these two—the physical changes and the emotional ups and downs—and you have a situation that can frustrate a marriage and challenge a woman's identity as a sexual being.
For married women, the comments below will resonate. Further on, we'll see how the mental transition from the childbearing age to the grandchildren-rearing stage does not change—but rather enhances—femininity.
More than having their menopause problems "fixed," women want to know that their husbands will stay connected to them, or begin connecting with them, and walk through this stage of life together.
"Don't give a lot of advice," another woman responded when asked about what she tells her husband she needs. "I want to be able to say how I feel—without feeling like I have to take his advice."
This woman may sound ungrateful, but she is only frustrated. Like so many husbands, her man wants to help. Yet his attempts to fix her only frustrate her.
It is difficult for men to accept that they can do nothing to make menopausal symptoms go away. There are, however, many ways husbands can provide the one thing these women truly need: support. And that support will be awfully hard to offer if they don't accept certain rules of encountering menopause moments.
Be assured that emotional symptoms are (usually) caused by physiological changes, not by husbands. One woman said, "My husband never knows exactly what he'll find when he gets home from work. Some days I'm my normal self, which is pretty calm. Other days, I am off the wall. I am agitated and tearful. He comes in, and I just light right into him. I don't mean to take my frustration out on him, but I do."
The women I interviewed agreed that husbands should be assured that they are rarely the true cause of emotional outbursts, but they may often be the recipients. Now that's a tall order: asking men to bear the brunt of fluctuating emotions—without taking it personally. But if they don't, they may be hurt in ways their wives never intended.
Steve and I talked about how to get through the times I felt like an emotional basket case. He tried not to be detached, but rather to verbalize that he was sorry I felt bad and that he was there for me. I would do my best to remember that he didn't cause my feelings and that this trying time would pass. He didn't pressure me to change; and most importantly, I allowed myself some time alone to regain my composure.
Of course, couples can have interpersonal problems that cause emotional distress completely unrelated to menopause. There may be stress over adjusting to issues such as children leaving home, caring for elderly parents, finances, and retirement. These issues need to be addressed with reference to whatever is the root cause of the problem—communication, self-worth, and more.
Don't make fun of menopausal women. Women don't want to be the object of jokes. A sense of humor is fine, but jokes or remarks about being old or menopausal won't build relationships—especially when these comments are made in front of other people. Most couples are able to laugh together privately about some of the strange behaviors women demonstrate, but only after the symptoms causing the behavior have passed. Steve and I would often joke about my forgetfulness, but this occurred privately, not while I was frantically looking for a vanished item.
Validate that symptoms are real. In the same way that women don't want their suffering to be mocked or minimized through jokes, they do want their feelings validated. They don't want to be dismissed as hysterical or suffering from some imaginary dysfunction. They don't want to be told that their symptoms are cases of mind over matter—change your mind and the matter will change.
Husbands can communicate their support by being willing to read a book or an article that explains menopause. They don't need to be experts, but their interest is very encouraging.
Support new interests. Many women are venturing out into new territory during the mid-life years. A woman may go back to work for the first time in years. She may go back to school or pick up an old interest with new enthusiasm. It is wonderful to be asked about any new area with sincere interest. These conversations are not unlike dinner conversations where men talk about their time at work. A woman is deeply encouraged when her husband remembers and is willing to spend time talking about her interests.
These newfound interests may also require that her husband make some accommodations. If she's the family chef, he may forego a home-cooked meal for take-out if she has a class. He may delay purchasing a new power tool to buy her a sewing machine or other hobby tools. Whatever the sacrifice, she'll appreciate his endorsement as she transitions to this new season.
Remain faithful. There are too many stories of men who have mid-life crises and decide to leave their wives. This term is often used to explain why men become involved with younger women. Unfortunately a man's mid-life crisis often coincides with a woman's menopause.
An article in Woman's Day quoted a rise in the percentage of divorces after the age of fifty-five due, in part, to this very reason:
They enter their golden years and their husband walks out the door, often for a younger woman. That's what's happening to an increasing number of women in their fifties and sixties these days. While divorce among younger people seems to be leveling off, there's a worrisome rise in marriage breakups among the over-fifty-five crowd—up 22 percent in the last decade and expected to climb.
As these women grapple with feelings of low self-esteem and inadequacy, their husbands wrestle with their own feelings of inadequacy. Most women I interviewed whose husbands had extra-marital affairs said privately that they were unaware of how their husbands felt until it was too late. The affairs had already occurred as their husbands sought to have their needs met superficially in relationships with other women.
Mid-life can be a rough time for both men and women, but a solid commitment to weather the storms together will help solve problems. Unfaithfulness by either men or women will only create many more painful problems.
Ask questions, really listen, and respond. Women want their husbands to talk to them. They want their husbands to risk asking them how they feel. Husbands might encounter differing responses to that question—emotional reactions, withdrawal, confusion, appreciative answers—but, whatever the response, most women appreciate interest in how they feel.
"My problem," Marie said, "is that my husband will ask me how I feel, then he won't really listen to what I say. He asks me as he is walking into the other room, or glancing at the paper, or shuffling through the mail. So I answer and that is the end of the conversation. His question was not sincere."
A helpful sequence goes like this: Ask, listen, respond. Husbands who say they don't know how to respond, should simply confess, "I don't know what to say, but I want to try to understand."
Women want to know they are cared for and cared about. They want to know that their husbands think about them. For women, that means discussing the aging processes relevant to themselves and their husbands.