Bond through life passages — 26 December 2004
Menopause – the misunderstood life-stage

Menopause is a maligned, normal developmental stage in a woman’s life. It is misunderstood by both women and men and thus seen with dread and helplessness.

The medical description of menopause is: “The transition period in a woman’s life when the ovaries stop producing eggs, menstrual activity decreases and eventually ceases, and the body decreases the production of the female hormones, estrogen and progesterone”.

Menopause is precisely what it states, the cessation of a woman’s cycle and fertility era. It is not a disease, an illness, or a mental or neurological disorder, but it is a phase in a woman’s life in which she may temporarily feel some unsettling physical and psychological changes.

Physically, aside from the cessation of menses, women may experience hot flashes, vaginal dryness, sleep disturbance, mood changes or decreased libido.

Psychologically, this stage of aging underscores the loss of youth and fertility. Some women accept this normal developmental stage, while others struggle with it. This is a time when clear unwelcome signs of aging appear, (wrinkles, sagging, body changes). Our culture associates youth and beauty with sexual appeal and desirability. Once a woman feels that she is losing her standing in these categories, she may experience grief, sadness and a reduced sense of attractiveness as a woman.

This midlife crisis for women may span several years from a pre-menopause period, (prior to loss of fertility) and through menopause. There may be gradual changes in affect, ranging from a sense of malaise, to irritability and agitation or even depression. These emotions vary greatly with hormonal changes and impact women differently. Some women barely notice any emotional changes while others are very troubled by the “highs” and “lows” of their mood fluctuations. These emotional reactions are unpredictable, unpreventable and very frustrating to the women, their partners and families.

Spouses of menopausal women are often bewildered by some of the reactions they encounter. Since the responses sometimes do not appear connected to observable events, they are deemed overly reactive and irrational. Men have a great deal of difficulty dealing with irrational behavior or excessive emotionality. They are at a loss of how to help their women and how to not accept the unpleasant reactions as reflective of their own self-worth. Not uncommonly, this is a time of stress between partners.

The woman is equally frustrated by her behavior, which is unfamiliar to her as well. She is upset by the disruption to the previously easy connection with her partner and her children. The menopausal woman is physically uncomfortable and her lack of sleep only exacerbates her moodiness. She often fears that her emotional fluctuations may become permanent.

An additional stressor for the couple is the change in the woman’s level of sexual desire. It indeed becomes a “MEN-O-PAUSE”, a pause in the desire for men. Unfortunately, the woman’s loss of sexual interest may coincide with the man’s midlife crisis, a period of self-assessment, reflection and introspection. As the man begins to doubt his own desirability, he may fear that her reduced libido actually reflects his lessened appeal. Both partners suffer and without a candid discussion their relationship may be further strained.

For some women, the pre-menopause years (40-55) may involve changes that are more impactful than menopause, such as: divorce, sandwich generation, parenting adolescent children, ailing parents, empty nest, reentry (school, work), death of a friend or relative, relocation or retirement. Yet, less emphasis is often placed upon these stresses and more on menopause. Men also tend to attribute any new stress-reactions of their women to menopause. Perhaps it is easier to blame that which is beyond our control, rather than become responsible for the behavior we can control.

Menopause becomes the scapegoat for all midlife issues, when in fact it is only one sign of aging, which is the real issue. Accepting and adjusting to our own aging process is difficult. All losses affecting our beauty, fertility, sexual appeal, vitality and youthfulness, are fiercely resisted by most women. We may resort to beauty products, makeovers, and even plastic surgery to fend off signs of aging. We pride ourselves when told that we look younger than our chronological age. Yet, aging beyond our fertile years is a gift and a blessing reserved almost exclusively to humans among all mammals.

Relationship and temperament difficulties are not created by, only accentuated by the symptoms of menopause. Here again, we tend to blame nature and absolve ourselves from becoming accountable for our personality inclinations that may have always been prone to depression or quick anger.

Women, who are dealing with pre-menopause, or menopause, are wise to consider the following:

•Menopause is not a disease, it is a passing developmental stage that has it’s own benefits.
•Avoid blaming your body for your pre-existing personality traits or aging frustrations.
•You are likely to have reached your midlife point, cherish the options for your second half.
•Welcome the age of freedom from menstruation and pregnancy- rather than view it with dread and misery.
•Today’s age 50 is yesterday’s age 40. You are as youthful and desirable as you act.
•Sexual desire begins in your mind, be creative in redefining sexual contact and enjoying it. Sex is the physical manifestation of love, which is ageless.
•Minimize the limitations of menopause by using medical and natural remedies to reduce its symptoms.
•Defy the physical discomfort by magnifying your positive personality. A happy and cheerful woman is appealing and attractive to all.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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