What happens to sex in marriage when menopause hits? Or when men’s bodies start to slow down and erectile dysfunction becomes more common?
On Wednesdays during the month of October I’ve been talking about the different stages of sex. We talked about:
- The “Figuring Things Out” stage--or the honeymoon years (which aren’t always that great!)
- The Busy Years of Sex (when kids come and job pressures are the highest)
- The Glory Years of Sex (when sex tends to work really well)
And now I want to cap off this series with menopause and what can be the slowing down years.
All about Menopause and MidLife
I’ve written a lot about menopause in the past, and I don’t want to repeat all of it here, so I’ll point you to some of the big posts:
- The Menopause Pep Talk You Actually Need
- Why Can’t I Hit Orgasm Now That I’ve Reached Menopause?
- 5 Tips for Great Sex During Menopause
- 10 Tips to Help with Menopause and Hot Flashes in the Bedroom
And here’s one about erectile dyfsunction:
But now there are a few things that I do want to say specifically about sex in these years.
Try Not to Panic about How the Best Years Are Behind You
I get these vibes from a lot of reader questions. Even one from a guy that I featured on yesterday’s podcast--part of what he said was:
I get the feeling that my wife goes through the motions… doing her duty. If I bring the topic up, it doesn’t go down well. The strange thing is we are in love and have a good marriage but I’m panicked about menopause and what time we have left.
I hear that a lot–“I know our bodies are only going to go downhill from here; we never really had great sex when we were in our prime; so we’ll never have it now.”
First, that’s not necessarily true at all. Lots of people in menopause/midlife have great sex! Some even say that it’s the best of their lives, because they don’t need to worry about noise since the house is empty; they don’t have to worry about pregnancy; and they’re less stressed in general. And remember that the physical aspect of sex is only one piece of the puzzle. If the other pieces are fitting together well–the emotional closeness and the spiritual oneness–then the physical often feels better anyway.
I’ve also had people on the blog for whom impending menopause was the impetus they needed to finally sort out some things in their lives. They realized: sex isn’t great; I’m not getting any younger; I have to figure this out NOW. One reader wrote a 2-part series on how, after 26 years of marriage, she finally reached orgasm. She went on a research project that year to figure it out. She was confident enough in herself finally to realize, “I need more than just this, and I deserve this,” and she did! So impending menopause can often be the impetus that gets people to prioritize their sex life and make it even better.
Last year I wrote an important post (or, at least, I think it’s an important post) on why older women often long for more adventure in bed. Here’s part of the common scenario that I painted:
One day, Jane wakes up and realizes she doesn’t know who she is anymore.
And she gets mad.
She has spent her whole life trying–and it hasn’t gotten her very far. She threw her all into her children, and they’re gone now. She’s spent her whole life feeling not good enough, and her husband seems to agree. She knows she bores him, because he’s never around. But quite frankly, he bores her, too.
Why, when sex didn’t feel very good, was it something she had to fix? Why didn’t he think to himself, “wow, my wife isn’t getting much out of this. Maybe I should be a better lover!”
In fact, sex seems to be the heart of a lot of her anger. Sex was always something she did for him. She had to be beautiful–for him. She had to want sex enough–for him. She had to learn to be a good lover–for him. And so she never really enjoyed her own body. It was something that someone else got to use. And she’s tired of it. She wants to be all who Jane can be!
And so it’s her turn now! It’s her turn to discover that ball of fire she was in college, when the world was stretched out in front of her, and the possibilities were endless. Because she finally realizes that if she doesn’t do something now, she’s never going to do it.
The danger in this scenario is that women will get so angry at their husbands that they’ll pull away and try to find fulfillment elsewhere, or that the husbands will read her dissatisfaction as an attack on the marriage, rather than a cry to be noticed and heard and valued. But it doesn’t have to be a bad scenario. When women wake up, they can choose passion with their husbands, if both are ready to embrace it.
Read the post on older women and sex here.
Think of the Menopause Years as Another “Figuring Things Out” Stage–you may have to go back to the beginning
Okay, we’ve covered the group of people who have never had great sex, and menopause becomes that ticking clock that inspires either panic or change.
But then there’s another group–the kind that HAS had great sex. And for a lot of those women especially, menopause can bring that to a halt. I’ve talked to a number of post-menopausal women who have told me that their ability to orgasm has just disappeared. They used to be quite orgasmic, and now they’re not at all anymore.
I’ve asked a number of gynecologists about this, and they all say the same thing: Orgasm can be more difficult after menopause, because blood flow to the genital area is decreased; hormone levels, which are largely responsible for arousal, have changed; and lubrication is decreased. However, in no way does that mean that orgasm is impossible.
So here’s my anecdotal, not-based-on-science-but-only-based-on-commenters-and-the-people-who-talk-to-me theory: I think menopause affects orgasm for women very differently depending on what group women find themselves in.
For women for whom orgasm was never much of a problem, and who figured it out without much effort early in the marriage, menopause often brings orgasm to a halt. For women who struggled with orgasm earlier, menopause can be just a blip in the road, and all you ned is a little bit of lubricant.
See, some women are orgasmic largely due to physical responsiveness. Their bodies responded; they didn’t have to concentrate very much; and sex just worked. So they never actually had to “learn” how to make sex good. For other women (like the woman who had an orgasm for the first time after 26 years of marriage), orgasm was a huge learning curve. You had to learn how to clear your mind of everything else. You had to learn how to concentrate on your body and on what was happening. You had to learn to pay attention to your body’s arousal cues and try to ride the “wave” of arousal. It was all a deliberate act, rather than an automatic act.
All of that is to say that if you are finding that orgasm has disappeared, you may have to just do what many women did when they were first married: You may have to learn to orgasm deliberately, rather than experiencing it as something automatic. So go back and do all of the things that we talked about earlier this month on ten tips if you’ve never reached orgasm as a newlywed. Work through 31 Days to Great Sex and spend a lot of time on the days when you figure out how to get her aroused. Go back to first principles and try to imagine that your starting all over again. Don’t assume you know what should happen next. And see if that can help!
Do you want MORE for your sex life?
If You’re Just Desperate, Seek out More Help
I’ll be honest–menopause wasn’t really that bad for me (I’m just officially through now, though I’m pretty young for it). For my mom, though, it was awful. She needed to go on hormones just so that she could sleep, because doctors decided that the risk of her driving a car when she was so sleep deprived was worse than the risk of her developing heart disease or cancer.
I’ve known other women who have radically changed their diet, started other supplements, or done other things because they couldn’t cope with everyday life anymore. If you’re in a situation when you can’t cope, seek out help.
Also, this is a time of life when men need to start seeing the doctor, even if they don’t want to. Especially if erectile dysfunction is hitting, you need to figure out what’s going on. Here are 10 ways to encourage your husband to see the doctor!
See Sex As More than Just Intercourse
I’ve talked about how we need a new definition of sex that is more than just man-puts-penis-into-vagina-until-he-climaxes in order to take her pleasure into account. But I think midlife also gives us a need for a new definition of sex, because sometimes man-puts-penis-into-vagina doesn’t work as well at this stage, especially if he does have intermittent erectile dysfunction, or if she’s having trouble getting aroused. We need to start seeing sex as something that encompasses far more–being intimate; being naked together; touching each other. Even if you can’t have intercourse, that doesn’t mean you can’t be sexual.
Many men, especially, when sex stops working, retreat from sex altogether because they’re grieving and they’re humiliated and they don’t want to face it. That’s a mistake. Even if you can’t have intercourse, you can still do other things, and you still need that closeness. Now’s the time to embrace being together, whatever that looks like for you. Don’t just become roommates.
Thoughts for Younger People–before the slowing down years start
If you want menopause and the years after to go well, there are a few things you can do NOW to set yourself up well for them.
Take your health seriously before menopause and midlife hit
Ever notice how when you’re going out for lunch with a bunch of women in their 50s and 60s everybody gets salads and not cheeseburgers? Many people don’t pay much attention to things like cholesterol, blood pressure, even their weight when they’re younger, because you can skate by even if you’re treating your body terribly. But eventually that catches up with you. You develop all kinds of different digestive issues. You suddenly start gaining a ton of weight because your metabolism slows down, even if you’re eating the same. The things you could get away with when you were younger you can no longer get away with anymore.
Menopause means hormonal changes for everyone. But it does not have to mean being super tired; it does not have to mean being chronically short of breath. It does not have to mean having no energy, or having chronic back pain. A lot of that can be avoided if you just treat your body well when you’re younger. Don’t wait for pain or huge weight gain to signal that you need to make changes. Make them while it’s still a lot easier, and you’ll find that menopause is easier to navigate, and a lot of the problems that can cause ED don’t even surface at all.
Work on having fun together
At midlife people naturally start questioning a lot of their life choices and their vision for their life. It’s going to be a time of turmoil. Your kids are moved out; your primary identity as a parent is gone, and now you have to figure out who you are all over again. It’s a time of life when many couples grow apart.
o that’s it for our stages of sex series! I think if I could sum up the one thing that applies, no matter what stage of sex and stage of marriage you’re in, it would be this: Keep talking. Things are going to change. Life happens. As long as you can keep the lines of communication open, and find a way to talk about sex, then you’re going to be okay!
Let me know: If menopause has hit for you, what have you found helps? Or what are you doing now to prepare for health challenges that may come? Let’s talk in the comments!
Posts in the “Stages of Sex” Series:
- The Figuring Things Out Stage & our podcast on the Figuring Things Out Stage & what to do if you never really had honeymoon stage
- The Hectic Stage (kids & jobs)!
- The Glory Years
- Menopause, MidLife and Beyond: This one!