Now menopause isn’t something that I’m likely to experience but it is something that half of you are going to go through, or have gone through, and the other half will observe. And since it’s going to impact your marriage, we might as well be smart people and make sure we’re prepared for it!
Menopause can be a tricky time for marriages. Wives have to come to terms with changes in their body while dealing with all the hot flushes and night sweats life can throw at them. And husbands can often feel like they’re walking on eggshells trying to support their wives through unpredictable mood changes and other unpleasant side-effects.
The research shows that menopause can impact marriage in some surprising ways, but the overall picture is more nuanced, and overall more positive, than the simple perception that menopause = BAD.
Menopause and Marital Satisfaction
A survey of 326 midlife women[i] showed a significant negative correlation between marital satisfaction and menopause symptoms: as symptoms went up, satisfaction went down.
They also noted a correlation between menopause symptoms and feelings of anger and depression. As symptoms went up, anger and depressive symptoms increased too. However, they did note that married women reported fewer feelings of depression than non-married, suggesting that marriage guards against these feelings of depression. That fits with other research we’ve covered that shows that good marriages offer resilience against the challenges of life.
But the quality of your marriage is key: so if you’re listening today and not yet menopausal, this is another reason to work on your marriage! Check out what these researchers said: “Women in dissatisfying marriages, characterized by less social support, less depth, and higher conflict, reported increased stress and more menopausal symptomatology (symptoms such as sleep disturbance and vasomotor or blood circulation problems) than did women in satisfying marriages.[ii]”
So this is fascinating because now your marriage is impacting your menopausal symptoms. A supportive, stress-free marriage reduces the strain of menopause and makes the symptoms less severe and easier to deal with.
But menopause also affects one’s sex life.
Menopause and Sex Life Satisfaction
Menopause produces changes in a woman’s body, which may also decrease the enjoyment of sex: issues such as reduced libido, difficult orgasming and dryness in the vagina[iii]. However, these do not necessarily have to lower sexual satisfaction or the quality of your sex life. This merely becomes another life transition that couples go through and can learn to successfully navigate.
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A study by Deeks & McCabe in 2001[iv] interviewed 304 women aged 35-65. Menopause predicted higher rates of sexual dysfunction (inability to orgasm, reduced desire etc), but sexual satisfaction and frequency were better predicted by age than by menopause status.
Meaning that yes, complications came in, but it didn’t necessarily derail sexual satisfaction and enjoyment — for some it was getting better as they got older.
To understand this, we have to look at how couples going through this phase of life are facing the potential challenges of menopause. A study in 2003[v] interviewed 30 women about their sex lives post-menopause and found that “few women focused on menopausal changes when they discussed their sex lives”.
Issues like relationship quality, communication and willingness to change sexual activities were more important. Many women with lower sexual satisfaction after menopause stated that this was due to their husband’s reaction- for example complaining about their wives’ vaginal dryness or getting frustrated when the woman doesn’t want to have sex because it is painful.
“These accounts suggest that some women continue to enjoy their active sex lives regardless of menopausal changes because they communicate openly with their partners and change the ways they have sex.[vi]” Focusing on activities other than intercourse, recognizing that it can take longer to orgasm, and using a lubricant to compensate for dryness are all strategies that post-menopausal couples used to still enjoy sex.
So we come back to the communication issue. You can either take these changes and take them personally or you can choose to face them with maturity and compassion and explore your way through this new phase of life. Menopause doesn’t have to spell the death of your sex life — it might create a couple of practical hurdles but these can certainly be overcome in the context of an open and supportive marriage.
To help you with this we’ve created a bonus guide for our much-appreciated patrons, aimed at helping husbands support their wives through this stage of life.
Supporting Your Wife Through the Menopause
This informative guide will help you understand what your wife is going through and share some practical and emotional ways you can make things easier for her, which in turn will make things easier for you! This guide and all our other resources are available immediately to our existing supporters, or you can get the guide by becoming a patron of the Marriage Podcast for Smart People.
One other thing to keep in mind is that our wives are also facing a change in perception of attractiveness as they age. Research from 2005[vii] found that women’s perception of their own attractiveness decreased with age (although it was not directly linked to menopausal status), and lower self-rated attractiveness predicted lower sexual satisfaction and less sexual activity. Higher perceived attractiveness was linked to increased sexual desire, higher rates of orgasm and greater frequency of sex.
We went in-depth on how your body image impacts sexual functioning in episode 88 — we don’t need to rehash that here — but the important point is that you are the determinant of your body image and that plays a key role in this part of life, too.
Menopause and Wellbeing
The other thing to keep in mind is that wellbeing also plays a role in menopause, and by extension, your marriage as well.
Rates of depression are high among midlife women. High levels of menopause symptoms can lead to decreased mental wellbeing and lower perceived quality of life[viii].
However, higher depression rates are not always due to biological changes from menopause but are most often predicted by having multiple roles and causes of worry such as holding a full-time job while looking after adolescent children, aging parents or physically ailing husbands.[ix] Managing different responsibilities or being sandwiched between caring for toddlers and aging parents can definitely create a strenuous stage of life, and this stress can often be more of an issue than anything relating to the menopause.
This is important because we can make menopause the whipping boy of these issues and fail to recognize the number of challenges that we can have on our plates at a time of life like this. I think when that happens we lose the ability to show healthy compassion for all that we do carry through this phase of life.
Fortunately, there are things we can do. As an example, Elavsky & McAuley[x] found that physical activities such as yoga and walking reduce the severity of menopausal symptoms and improved mood and psychological wellbeing.
Another study showed that remaining physically active can reduce the perceived severity of menopause symptoms and help retain good physical health[xi]. So we can respond well and choose self-care and choose to find ways to show compassion and care for ourselves in this part of life.
Stress is also a significant issue during menopause. And menopause increases the cardiovascular response to stress. And, menopausal symptoms are exacerbated by life stresses (including marriage stress, amidst others). Then menopause makes the stress worse. And now you have a cycle.
However: in the midst of this, marriage can also be a buffer against stress. Here’s a quote from some researchers:[xii] “supportive relationships in which couples demonstrated care and concern, affection, helpfulness, and sensitivity toward one another appeared to provide a buffer against emotional distress for each other.”
Menopause and Marriage
Overall: yes, there are biological consequences. There can be sexual difficulties that arise[xiii], as well as depressive feelings[xiv] and increased reactivity to stressful events[xv]. But relationship factors have a strong influence on all these variables. So create a thriving, passionate marriage — and know you can lean on that in times of change.
It’s just so important that we create a strong marriage so that we do have that in place for this time of life. Listen to this quote: “The less satisfying the marriage, the less perceived social support, and depth and more perceived conflict in the relationship, and the more distress related to self, husband, and family, the more menopausal symptomatology reported.[xvi]” So instead of worrying about how menopause may affect your marriage, take hold of the ways your marriage can improve your experience of menopause.
Maybe you’re going through menopause right now, or maybe it’s a long way off. Either way, I hope this is an encouragement to you to create that marriage that is thriving and resilient and strong, and that acts as a buffer against challenges such as menopause.
[i] Sharon E. Robinson Kurpius, Megan Foley Nicpon, and Susan E. Maresh, ‘Mood, Marriage and Menopause.’, Journal of Counseling Psychology, 48.1 (2001), 77–84 <https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-0188.8.131.52>.
[ii] Katherine Vaughn Fielder and Sharon E. Robinson Kurpius, ‘Marriage, Stress and Menopause: Midlife Challenges and Joys’, Psicologia, 19.1–2 (2005), 87–106.
[iii] Julie A. Winterich, ‘Sex, Menopause, and Culture: Sexual Orientation and the Meaning of Menopause for Women’s Sex Lives’, Gender and Society, 17.4 (2003), 627–42.
[iv] Amanda A. Deeks and Marita P. McCabe, ‘Sexual Function and the Menopausal Woman: The Importance of Age and Partner’s Sexual Functioning’, The Journal of Sex Research, 38.3 (2001), 219–25.
[vii] Patricia Barthalow Koch and others, ‘“Feeling Frumpy”: The Relationships between Body Image and Sexual Response Changes in Midlife Women’, The Journal of Sex Research, 42.3 (2005), 215–23.
[viii] Steriani Elavsky and Edward McAuley, ‘Physical Activity, Symptoms, Esteem, and Life Satisfaction during Menopause’, Maturitas, 52.3–4 (2005), 374–85 <https://doi.org/10.1016/j.maturitas.2004.07.014>.
[ix] John B. McKinlay, Sonja M. McKinlay, and Donald Brambilla, ‘The Relative Contributions of Endocrine Changes and Social Circumstances to Depression in Mid-Aged Women’, Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 28.4 (1987), 345 <https://doi.org/10.2307/2136789>.
[x] Steriani Elavsky and Edward McAuley, ‘Physical Activity and Mental Health Outcomes during Menopause: A Randomized Controlled Trial’, Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 33.2 (2007), 132–42 <https://doi.org/10.1007/BF02879894>.
[xi] Elavsky and McAuley, ‘Physical Activity, Symptoms, Esteem, and Life Satisfaction during Menopause’.
[xii] Fielder and Kurpius.
[xiii] Deeks and McCabe.
[xiv] Elavsky and McAuley, ‘Physical Activity, Symptoms, Esteem, and Life Satisfaction during Menopause’.
[xv] Fielder and Kurpius.
[xvi] Fielder and Kurpius.