It’s wonderful to hear how his wife ‘sailed through it.’ Lucky, lucky her – and him come to that. But I was taken aback that someone who is championing women’s health concerns does not believe that the menopause is a profound experience.
I can only repeat that for me it was. And it certainly seemed to be for most men and women I interviewed for my book Sex, Meaning and the Menopause.
Similar to most women who go through the menopause naturally (average age the UK is 51), I was still menstruating as I turned fifty and feeling pretty invincible. By the time I was fifty four, I was forced to confront the painful fact that my looks were fading and my libido had plummeted. Even though Patrick bristled at the suggestion that men are governed by sex (his expression was ‘sexist pigs’), of course this had an impact on my marriage.
I agree with Patrick, some couples, especially if they have been married for eons, have brought up a family and are now focused on grandchildren and growing old together, will survive just about anything, even if one or the other’s libido fades.
For other couples, it seems much harder, and I do believe it depends on the emotional maturity of the man. One example I gave on the programme was of husband I interviewed for the book, who said watching his wife turn daily from an attractive woman into an older woman reminded him of his own aging process. Both Patrick and presenter Jenny Murray exploded with indignation on hearing this, and I was unable to finish what I was saying.
The point being that he couldn’t handle it. So he had an affair with a much younger woman. Eventually he realised the relationship couldn’t work. The young woman wanted a family of her own. He’d already got four children. He went back to his wife, who was big enough to deal with the trauma and grief that he had put her through (goodness knows what the young woman went through when he left her). They are still together, but their relationship has never been the same and is completely non-sexual.
Another issue that seems to confuse men is that most information about the menopause is about how HRT can fix it. One husband I spoke to said he couldn’t understand why his wife had gone off sex (same old story), and how rejected he felt. So he started looking it up on the internet and found medical information that recommended HRT. He thought this would solve everything, until his wife said she had no intention of taking HRT. They too, are still together, but they’ve been through a rough time.
It seems that second marriages are even more at risk when the wife reaches the menopause. Perhaps it’s because there isn’t the glue of children and decades of marriage to hold the relationship through difficult stages.
A close friend of mine who has just turn sixty is coping with the aftermath of her 63 year-old husband walking out after being together for 12 years. He left her a note saying he how longs for tenderness, gentleness, and heart. She admitted she had gone off sex for quite a while, but she thought that caring for him and being his companion as they grew older together would be enough. For this particular husband, it obviously wasn’t. He now wants to sue her in divorce for lack of sex. Her solicitor told her that apparently he can. It falls under ‘unreasonable behaviour.’
He told me, ‘I wouldn’t have married her if I knew she was going to go off sex as soon as she hit the menopause.’ I didn’t know how to respond to him.
I should add that I am not wishing to feed into the ‘all men are sexist pigs’ rant that Patrick referred to. I am merely reporting what men themselves have told me.
Women are also leaving.
It’s not just the men who are walking out. The highest rate of these late divorces, or ‘silver separations’ as they are called, are instigated by wives who, after a life-time of caring for a family have decided to live independently and enjoy life on their own terms. One woman approaching sixty told me that since she left her husband after thirty-five years, she wakes up every morning and counts her blessings. She said, ‘My sex drive is non-existent and I have never felt so relaxed and content.’
Whoever instigates the divorce, the cause is normally blamed on the babyboomers sense of entitlement and need to do things differently. But I would suggest that a key issue which is hardly ever mentioned is the profound and enduring changes that a woman experiences as she goes through the menopause, especially sexually.
I think this is born out by how older men are more likely to leave the marriage for a new sexual partner, whereas an older woman is more likely to leave to live on her own.
Nevertheless, sexual issues in later life are, in fact, relatively new phenomena. In the old days a woman’s life expectancy was longer than her husband’s. So, many older women didn’t have to think about sex, or, considering our extended life-expectancy these days, be forced to confront the prospect of living with her husband for another thirty odd years postmenopause.
In short, some relationships blossom as the couple grow older together. Others do not, and these broken relationships are on the increase. What a tragedy that this should be happening to people at a time of their lives when the possibility of on-going health and well-being begins to wane, and time becomes precious. Then again, that might be, and probably is, the thinking behind so many of these silver separations. However, I do wonder if the grass is really greener for some of these older people as they begin to confront their mortality and reflect on their lives.
It would be very interesting to follow up on these later-in-life divorces to see which partner is the happiest in the long run.
I want to return to Patrick, and his comment that the menopause is not a profound experience. I had to laugh when I read the following tweet from a Woman’s Hour listener: I UTTERLY GIVE UP. Man on Woman’s Hour has decided that menopause isn’t profound. OH F**K OFF, you man.