If you’re older, you might think we have nothing to offer you. Think again.
Life can present you with different challenges that you may not expect if you’re retired. You might have extra time, or be wondering what to do if your children have left home. You may be having problems with your children that are affecting your relationship with your grandchildren. Our counsellors understand that life changes when you retire and can help you to regain the balance in your life.
Common problems for older people
The menopause is affecting our relationship, how do I talk to my partner?
“I experienced an early menopause at 37. At first I didn’t know what was happening – I think the hot flushes were the worst to handle. It got to the stage where even my ankles were sweating, it was awful. It is really embarrassing-you just have to get cool, it literally pours off me. I tried herbal remedies to begin with and they helped for about three years, I’m now on HRT and feel much, much better and don’t have sweaty ankles now!”
There is an expectation for women between 45 and 55 to go through the menopause, and at last it is being spoken about publicly but it still remains a ‘taboo’ subject for many women and their partners.
If a women doesn’t go through the menopause in this ‘normal’ time frame then she can often become fed up, tired and agitated, feeling odd.
“I went through an early menopause and thought I’d turned into an old hag over night.”
Many women, more so now, struggle with the idea of ageing. We are a society that values youth, supple, smooth skin and fitness above experience, slightly less elastic skin and maybe a bit slower to run the ‘Race for Life.’
Body shape alters with age and women need to be able to accept this rather than fight it, I’m not suggesting they give into it and stop exercising, having a healthy diet etc.. But not to pressure themselves with unrealistic expectations. The pressure to remain young comes from both inside and outside the person and being able to share her thoughts with a non-judgemental, supportive partner really helps. However, no matter how many times she hears “you look lovely”, she has to believe it for herself.
Many perimenopausal and menopausal women experience a loss of sexual desire and this can be the result of multi-hormonal problems related to oestrogen as well as androgens. This combination of oestrogen deficiency leading to vaginal atrophy and reduced clitoral sensitivity, and androgen deficiency leading to loss of libido, can obliterate sexual satisfaction and cause the woman to feel she is no longer sexually attractive.
Attitude to menopause
These days most women can expect one third of their life to be post-menopausal.
So it’s essential for them to be able to explore attitudes and their own beliefs regarding menopause if they are to enjoy a full, healthy and respectful relationship. The idea that the menopause signals the end of women’s sexually active years is losing ground.
The notion of sex as a purely procreative activity has all but disappeared from society but many women can still feel that sex is only about procreation and the idea of indulging in a purely recreational sex life is alien to them.
Vaginal dryness, atrophy, fear, hot flushes
Biological problems account for the majority of sexual problems in menopausal women. It is important to recognise that these problems hardly ever exist in isolation. Psychological, sociocultural, and/or relationship issues may also contribute to difficulties experienced by women and therefore it’s important that a thorough assessment is made to address these and other nonphysilogical factors.
Effects on men/partners
Knowledge of menopause and HRT
Some men may feel that the menopause is ‘women’s business’ and that there is no need for them to be informed or even involved. This is insensitive, not even trying to understand can isolate both partners and a mutual protection racket can exist. One partner may collude with the other not to address the changes that are happening at this meaningful time in a woman’s life.
Women may want sex more/less often
For some women, the menopause brings with it a sense of sexual liberation, not having to concern themselves with unwanted pregnacy, or worries about when they can have sex (due to menstruation).
More than 50% of menopausal women report no decrease in desire at all in sexual desire, and fewer than 20% report a significant decrease.
For other women, the declining levels of oestrogen result in less vaginal lubrication which can result in intercourse becoming painful (dysperunia) and in anticipation of pain some women may also cause women to develop vaginismus, (a reflex where the muscles of the vagina contract such that penetration isn’t possible).
Dysperunia is relatively easy to treat but vaginismus is more difficult to correct and often a sex therapist must be consulted. These conditions could cause a woman to want sex less, coupled with a low appreciation of her body image, or the perception that her partner is less interested. Partners can feel rejected and this can cause them to give up initiating sex, thus creating a physical distance between them. It’s also possible that situations where one partner has had a higher need for sex than the other is also feeling the effects of age, beginning to suffer performance, age related problems and sometimes in these cases libido levels can become more equal.
“I’ve always had a higher sex drive than my partner, but as I’ve aged I have found my need for sex to be less, I don’t fancy my partner any less, but now it feels as if we are at the same place regarding desire and frequency of sex.”
The menopause can mask other sexual problems. If a man is experiencing difficulty with his erections he may have withdrawn from sexual contact and could feel relieved that his partner requires less sex than before – more collusion.
“I think I actually enjoy our sexual relationship more now than when we first met, it’s more about the emotion, knowing one another’s likes and dislikes than performance, which is really good because I’ve found getting and maintaining erections more difficult as I’ve got older. The fact that my wife takes longer to become aroused since reaching the menopause suits me just fine as we have found ways of pleasuring each other which doesn’t always include penetration.”
How s/he views her/him
Shy conversations and secret fears may not get talked about. So if there are any other sexual, marital or relationship problems they can get ignored leading to assumptions being made and misunderstandings becoming more common, which in turn can lead to arguments. Low self-esteem then becomes a problem as neither partner feels supported or able to give voice to their emotions.
Coping with mood swings and other menopause symptoms
This is a time when real amounts of understanding and patience can be tested. It’s useful for partners to recognise that the mood swings, distress, anxiety etc are not really anything to do with them. Being there emotionally is a skill that requires individuals to suspend their own emotional needs, not to try and ‘fix it’ but to simply be there. It’s more than empathy.
Many couples enjoy going to bed together at the end of the day and for many couples it is a time to catch up, chat and cuddle, it may be the only time they have to be close and physical. If night sweats or insomnia have become problems, then sleeping apart may be an option that the couple take. This can mean that a physical distance develops and couples can feel isolated if there isn’t any other form of physical intimacy in the relationship.
Effects on family/friends
Coping with mum/friend and how she feels
It’s useful if friends and family can be supportive at this time, and to do this they need to be informed, sympathetic and supportive.
“I had a hysterectomy 15yrs ago and was put on HRT for a short time – then the doctor stopped it. After some time I was crawling up the walls, my family hated my mood swings and I begged my G.P. to put me back on HRT. He eventually did and now I have enough energy to play with my grandchildren and my husband likes me again”
“I’m 49yrs old and just started with hot flushes. When they come I get 4-5 a day and if I’m at work I have to get my little fan out which annoys my colleagues; I just have to get cool…”
Is it different for sons and daughters?
Daughters may be able to demonstrate more understanding and learning, as they will experience this for themselves later and therefore may be able to feel more empathetic. Sons may not want to acknowledge their mother’s sexuality, not even the end of it, and they may be less able to empathise, but could support dad.
Neither sons or daughters may be able to cope with mum changing as she has always been there for them and to let go of their perception might be challenging for them, they also have to acknowledge that mum is getting older and this causes questions of mortality.
Impact on couple relationships
Day to day/sexual relationships
The daily relationship can be adversely affected by lack of sleep and intimacy, a lack of understanding and no little or no communication. This will have a knock-on effect to the sexual relationship. It is hard to get close to someone who is being moody, anxious, sort tempered and non-communicative.
“I’m happy to continue HRT, off it my life is a nightmare, moody, angry, arguing over anything and everything. Not sleeping because of night sweats made me really horrible to be around.”
Talking about menopause
It’s important for women and their partners to remember that menopause is natural and normal. It is an important milestone in a woman’s life which can mark the beginning of a fascinating new era. Each woman will experience menopause differently and it is important not to use comparison to other women at this time.
Fear and anger… Life stages
These are just two of the emotions felt by both partners at this time in a relationship. There may be other contributory factors adding to these emotions, such as empty nest, retirement, ill-health and also many women may be looking after elderly parents as well as dealing with their own fears.
“I didn’t know what was happening to me….I wanted to get out of my skin.”
Renegotiating the daily and sexual relationship
The couple may have to re-negotiate who does what as energy levels and motivation alter – especially if depression is an issue. The couple may also have to discuss and experiment with different sexual positions that would make intercourse more comfortable.
“I was on HRT and because of all the scares I came off it, my life became a total misery with mood swings, night sweats and depression. I tried all sorts of natural remedies, checked my diet and continued to exercise, but just felt really down. Recently I went back to my GP and he put me back on HRT. I’ve got my life back.”
Other areas for discussion and ongoing communication
The menopause may mask other problems, dysperunia, erectile dysfunction, inhibited sexual desire.
Is it all down to menopause?
Many women (and men) feel that their hormones must be responsible for the things that are going wrong in their sexual/daily relationships – this isn’t necessarily the case, but it’s easier to look at the menopause rather than at the underlying issues.
knowledge of the menopause and it’s affects makes it easier for them to offer support at a time when their partner may need more reassurance.
Be aware of other influences that may need to be explored, such as:
- Cost HRT/natural remedies
- Hysterectomy and menopause
- Disability and menopause
My sex life is over-complete and utter nonsense.
There is no reason why you can’t continue to have a full and enjoyable sexual relationship.
I’m no longer attractive to my partner.
This is unlikely to be the case, this may be more about you feel about yourself rather than a partner finding you less attractive.
Menopause means I’m aging and being post-menopausal means that I’m old-not any more.
Most women experience the menopause between 45 and 55, but women can look forward to an average of another 30 years of living, so enjoy, life isn’t over!
How you manage this ‘phase’ of your life together will colour how your relationship will be once the menopause is over.
Things to do
- Listen to concerns, fears and frustrations; be there for your partner.
- Research together the menopause. You may find tips on diet that will help.
- Be patient, with your partner and yourself, if mood swings occur or if forgetfulness is an issue.
- Exercise can help reduce some symptoms of menopause so why not join an exercise class together, go for a swim or walk together more often?
- Develop your sensual relationship
- Talk about concerns and changes – it’s not just the woman who’s changing at this time of life.
Our children have left home and we don’t have anything to talk about
Empty nest syndrome
One of the more vulnerable relationship times is when children leave home either to go to University or permanently move out. This can bring about a mixture of emotions, as it signifies the end of a particular life stage. This phase can sometimes bring about feelings of loss commonly known as empty nest syndrome.
Parents experience empty nest syndrome in different ways but feelings of loss or lack of purpose are common and can affect your relationship with your partner.
Tips on preparing for children leaving home
- Preparation: If your children are planning to go to University in a year, or move out to live on their own, then start preparing now.
- Focus on the positive steps that they are taking in their life.
- Acknowlegde that you will miss them. Be honest that although it will be a challenge for the whole family at first, it will also be a great opportunity for growth and adventure. This will help your children feel able to grow and move on.
Reconnecting with your partner
The empty nest syndrome is not as bad as it is made out to be. After an initial bumpy year or so, many couples report rediscovering life after parenting as a time of creativity and renewed pleasure in each other’s company.
But if you feel you’ve lost touch with your partner, here’s some ideas to help you cope with this phase of your relationship:
First, tell your partner how you feel. Carrying on when you are feeling miserable without the children around prevents your partner from offering the comfort you crave.
If you are not sure you know who your partner is anymore, try a light-hearted personal quiz to help break the ice. For example, ask them:
- What is your favourite meal? Why?
- What film have you most enjoyed in the last five years?
- What music would you take to a desert island? Why?
- What colour would you choose for a coat/scarf/hat etc?
- Name two favourite TV programmes.
- If you could learn a new talent, what would it be? Why?
- What was your favourite read in the last five years?
Think up your own questions based on your relationship. The object of this is not to demand answers but to get you chatting about what may have changed in the last few years. You may be surprised at the answers. Use the opportunity to share your own feelings and thoughts.
- Think of a leisure pursuit you enjoyed when you first got together. For example, did you like motorcycling, dancing or backpacking? Now think of a way you could relive this. OK, you may not want to hike around India anymore, but maybe you could enjoy walking together in your local area or watching motorcycle racing, for example.
- Do some things you have always wanted to but lacked the time or money for while the children were growing up. For instance, think about what kind of holidays you might have now or how you might spend an evening out. Consider doing something just for the fun of it. For example, ride a roller coaster or go bowling.
- With no children in the house, sex can be more spontaneous and interesting. Invest in a good, basic sex book and follow some of the ideas in it. Put whole evenings aside for love making and enjoy the journey as much as reaching the destination.
Congratulate yourselves on arriving at this stage of your lives together. Many couples don’t get this far so be proud that you made it through together. Take a little time to reconnect and your relationship will grow in strength.
My partner and I are retiring but I’m worried about how we will adapt
Over the years of work, you would have developed routines and a way of living that worked well. Suddenly finding each other in the house every day can have a negative impact. Social interactions also change, as your colleagues no longer play a daily role in your life.
Many couples retire having never spoken about how they felt about the transition or how they would cope with the changes.
Tips for planning retirement together
- It is a very positive step to prepare for retirement at least five years before it actually happens – that way, you will have developed hobbies and interests so that by the time you stop working you have other things in place to put energies into.
- Plan now, for your future self. Make a list of things you’d like to do – whether it is learning a new language, taking cooking lessons or doing more travelling.
- Talk to your partner about what interests you can develop together so that you spend time together and have interests in common that you can share.
- Choose and then emulate a positive mentor. This could be anyone you admire who has coped with changes and challenges in a constructive way.
- Widen your circle. Most people go through this, and many find it difficult, so don’t be afraid to talk to family members and friends about their experiences and how they dealt with the change.
Retirement can be a great time to reconnect with your partner and share experiences and interests again. If you are anxious about planning for retirement or you’re already retired and finding the changes difficult talking to a Relate counsellor can help.