Emotionally supporting each other through the menopause
How to help restore and build your relationship when everything’s topsy-turvy
Midlife can be a time of great change – and that’s even before you think about hormones. Many of us will be affected by the loss of a loved one, changes in relationships with parents or children who are growing up or leaving home, or a career transition. Leading psychotherapist Julia Samuel MBE, author of This Too Shall Pass, calls these experiences Living Losses – changes that happen to us that are not in our control. They can feel like death and the experience of them is a type of grief.
The menopause is another significant change, not just because of the symptoms, but because it’s a time where you may start questioning your sense of self, your purpose and your identity. This doesn’t signal an end – instead it’s an opportunity to discover a new version of yourself. As Julia explains: ‘When life events hit us, as human beings we are wired to adapt, but we want control. To manage that tension, you need to examine it, and to feel supported. The quality of your relationships will help predict the quality of your life.’
Of course, your partner may not be as well versed in all things menopause. Even if they’re aware of your symptoms, they might not realise the impact on you and could be hoping it’s something that will blow over soon. Confusion, resentment, fear and tension can increase, and lead to relationship breakdown. According to a survey of 1,000 women by The Family Law Menopause Project and Newson Health Research and Education, 7 in 10 women (73%) who responded blamed the menopause for the breakdown of their marriage, while 67% claimed it increased domestic abuse and arguments.
Why can couples grow apart during the menopause?
The perimenopause and menopause can have a big impact on a woman’s quality of life, and this has a ripple effect on those around her. A lack of awareness of the menopause can cause issues that then plant seeds of doubt in even the healthiest of partnerships.
Arguments can occur when our partners don’t offer enough support or understanding, but also because we can let our fears spiral.
Julia says: ‘Surges of hormones can act like the threat system in our brain – we go into fight or flight or freeze mode. It’s as if there’s an alarm going off in our heads, which affects all of our actions and the ways that we think. So someone doing something as simple as waving at us can be misinterpreted as an attack and we may respond inappropriately
‘In some ways it’s a design fault – as human beings, when we’re suffering, we become difficult and intractable and not that easy to have relationship with. Yet when we’re suffering, having a relationship is the thing we need most. It’s paradoxical that when you’re happy, well and calm, people are drawn towards you. The reverse is also true. The communication then shuts down and people blame each other. Misguided beliefs then inform their relationship. “She doesn’t love me anymore.” “She can’t be bothered.” “I’m bad, I’m ugly, I’m fat now. He’s not going to love me.”’
Julia continues: ‘Menopause can break your relationship – I’ve seen couples who haven’t been able to communicate and work it through together. But actually, the thing that will help couples most is love. Love is not a soft skill. It’s talked about as this easy thing, but love is hard because where you love most, you hate most, hurt most and make our deepest mistakes.’
It’s easy to regard any pain you are feeling about your partner or relationship as purely negative but consider it as a signal or wake-up call that something’s not right and now is the time to adapt and resolve it. It’s perfectly possible to re-establish an emotional connection with your partner during the perimenopause or menopause, but it will require a multi-faced approach.
Consider how you think about yourself
Connecting with your partner will require you both to consider how you feel about yourselves, and how that may be affecting your relationship. ‘Be aware of your own inner critical voices – what I call our Shitty Committee – and turn down the volume on those. Turn up the volume of self-compassionate voices and practice being kinder to yourself. We are wired evolutionarily with a negative bias, and if you have a compound of, say, a difficult childhood or a lot of bad things have happened to you, then you get menopausal and your relationship suffers, it feeds into the story you tell yourself about yourself and your life. You might be thinking, ‘Well, it just shows I’m a failure, I’m useless’. But the story you tell yourself is the person you become. If you can have a kinder view of yourself, you’ll have more capacity to manage events, including menopause, and find a way to adapt and grow through what is happening to you.’
Learn to work through feelings
It’s unrealistic to expect to be positive all the time but a capacity to be flexible and adapt when going through difficult times will help you weather the storm. Julia says: ‘You can develop a toolbox of mechanisms and behaviours that help you rebalance. Consider the fact that emotions only last 90 seconds. It’s the story you tell yourself that gets you locked in the rumination of them. So if you can acknowledge the feeling, slow down and breathe, then let it pass, you’ll be able to think more objectively about a problem.
‘When a particular set of thoughts get locked in your head, it can be helpful to get outside, move your body, breathe deep, it can shift your thinking. There is also a technique called the Television Screen – put the negative on the TV screen, take a breath, switch the channel and put a positive image on the screen – then take a breath and move your attention to something else. Every time you have the thought, you go back and switch the channel again.’
Work out your calming toolbox – the things you can do that calm you down. ‘It might be exercise, meditation, a breathing regime or yoga. And consider things that give you joy in your life,’ says Julia. ‘Having pillars of regulation – what you eat, how you sleep – will also help build stability in you so you can weather the storms as they come through your body.’
If you’re not used to talking about your feelings or menopause, consider where that comes from – for many of us, there can be a fear of being seen for who you really are. Are you a family that can talk about these things or do you always have to be fine? Be aware of how you’re communicating in your relationship and look at how that might have changed.
‘One way to open up communications is to take 10 minutes each day to say what’s happening. Say, “I am feeling this” and the other person just listens,’ suggests Julia. ‘The power of just being heard and the person isn’t rehearsing what they’re going to say to prove you are wrong is amazingly potent.
‘When you understand fully what’s going on in the other person, you ignite your feelings for them because you have empathy. Your partner might realise, “Oh, it’s not because she can’t stand me or whatever. There’s all this going on.” And then you can slowly build the bridges of connection and understanding and kindness, which can reinvigorate the relationship.’
Have shared rituals
Building in little moments in every day can help forge an emotional connection. Small gestures – such as a cup of tea in bed each morning – can help make the other person feel valued so each agree one little thing you could do for each other every day.
Bring back the memories of the good times you have shared, perhaps by playing songs you used to dance to or looking at holidays or times you were happy together – sharing the memories will evoke those joyful feelings.
Regularly check in with each other. Julia suggests: ‘Walking and talking is really good therapy – being outside, moving your body, not eyeballing each other as you talk. Share how the week has been, what’s been difficult, any symptoms that you’re struggling with. Let you partner share his experiences and just listen.’
Build in regular treats, such as going out for a meal or to the cinema. You might want to do it after your walk and talk so that you have space to process how you both feel.
A loss of libido is a common menopause symptom and even if this isn’t one of yours, a strained relationship certainly can cause it! Sexual desire is “use it or lose it” but, as Julia says. ‘you can’t get hot from cold’. In order to build on your emotional connection and create an erotic energy, focus on giving each other more attention and touch in your daily lives – hold hands, snuggle up on the sofa together, etc.
It’s quite normal in a relationship to put each other last, especially when you are juggling children, elderly parents, jobs, etc, and your partner can be relegated to the bottom of your to-do list. That can often mean you take each other for granted. A small way to help validate them is to give each other genuine compliments or positive feedback. For instance, if you notice your partner tries to be supportive about your symptoms, even if it doesn’t quite hit the spot, thank them – knowing your efforts have been noticed can really help. Good relationships are built on hundreds of small moments of kindness rather than grand gestures every now and again.
Finally, remember that you both have agency about how you manage your feelings and your relationship – by taking some steps you can restore your emotional connection and restore that loving feeling.
Julia Samuel MBE is a psychotherapist, bestselling author and podcaster of Therapy Works. juliasamuel.co.uk