Marriage, menopause and the art of good listening

summer flowersFollowing the article, Will YOUR marriage survive the menopause? (adapted from Sex, Meaning and the Menopause) in the Femail section of the Daily Mail (2nd June, 2011) I received an email from a distraught reader.

He was very concerned about the state of his own marriage. According to her GP, his wife had gone through the menopause a few months ago, but he recognised many of the symptoms discussed in the article, particularly anger outbursts and ‘behaving like a crazed lunatic’.

‘I love my wife,’ he said, ‘and would do anything to save our marriage and help her.’ He went on to ask how to broach the subject of couples counselling with her.

Sitting your wife down and saying ‘we need to get some help’ can be a tough, if not courageous thing to do. Her reaction will depend on how you have both communicated with each other throughout your relationship.

For some couples, this won’t be a problem. You may just need a good chat to sort out what matters.

For other couples who have never spoken in any depth to each other, it can be much more challenging and threatening.

As my book Sex, Meaning and the Menopause points out, the menopause is a time of profound change for a woman. It brings all kinds of issues to the surface, and also makes a woman question how she wants to spend the rest of her life. She may not even know what she is thinking or feeling about the inner shifts that are happening to her, and may have no idea how to put it into words anyway. However, distress leaks out in different ways, such as irritability, mood swings, depression, and/ or a loss of interest in sex. Or even, as described in the Daily Mail article by one husband, a complete change in character.

If you are concerned about the way your wife or partner is responding to the menopause, you need to take a deep breath, and tell her straight out. Voicing your disquiet will certainly stir things up. However, if you look at this as an opportunity to air what’s troubling you, the outcome can be positive and reassuring. It’s also a chance to think about how to do things differently between you.

The key to success is good listening skills.

Here are a few golden rules of good listening I have included in the book, which can help open up communication between you.

Basic listening skills

Give yourselves time. These are important issues. Turn off the television, mobile phones or anything else that is a distraction. If necessary, book a date with each other that is specifically for this conversation.

Choose somewhere you both feel comfortable. For instance, it may be better not to have the conversation at home. Instead, try going for a walk together, or a cycle ride or find a private corner in a café or restaurant.

Be careful with alcohol. Alcohol can loosen tongues, but it can also create further conflict.

Be respectful. You each have your own experience of what’s happening. Try and put other issues aside so you can listen to what your partner is saying and feeling, without interrupting them.

Be honest. It takes courage to admit that you might be feeling fear, guilt or rejection. But don’t blame your partner for this. Blame shuts down communication.

Show you are listening. Be attentive – look your partner in the eye. If it’s getting fraught, agree to take a break and then come back again when you’ve both cooled off.

You may feel embarrassed or ashamed to talk about sex. This may be the first time you will ever have had a conversation like this. Some couples never talk about sex. Others may only allude to it. If you value your relationship, it’s worth the risk, and you may be amazed at what you find out about each other.

Be aware of each other’s past. One or both partners may have experienced some kind of abuse or neglect in childhood. This can have a drastic affect on how a child develops and is able to relate to other people as an adult. Many people never talk about what’s happened to them and, with age, those childhood secrets can become increasingly toxic. Sexual changes during the menopause can bring old issues into the open. This is often a perfect opportunity to confront and deal with things that sometimes have been waiting decades for resolution.

Don’t feel you have to fill silences. Silence can be the space where the greatest insights are gained. So don’t push your partner or yourself if either of you need time to reflect on what you want to say or how you are feeling.

You can’t fix each other. The mere act of naming difficult issues with a partner who is willing to listen can be hugely releasing and healing in itself, and can open a door to honest communication about how you might improve your relationship.

Get help. If it becomes too difficult, do consider talking with a professional counsellor.

Finding help

Often your GP surgery can offer you up to six counselling sessions free on the NHS. Or there may be a counselling organisation in your area that provides more on-going support. Relate also provides counselling to couples, or you can find an accredited therapist through the BACP (British Association of Counsellors and Psychotherapists) or UKCP (United Kingdom Council for Psychotherapy) websites.

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