As a psychosexual and relationship therapist I work with many couples on ways to improve their communication. One general piece of advice is to talk when you are both calm. There are good reasons for this, not least because trying to get a good understanding of one another is virtually impossible when the heat is on. When you are calm, you see life through more realistic lenses, and are better able to make rational decisions and reach a positive outcome.
When working with relationships affected by menopause, irritability, brain fog, and anxiety are looked at as symptoms of that menopause, rather than diving into their deeper meaning. This is especially the case if the symptoms have recently become stronger and more frequent.
Under these circumstances, while the standard communication advice still counts, there are some additional pieces of the communication puzzle that will make it easier to talk together about menopause:
- You are jointly experiencing the effects menopause
- Making yourself understood and listening to your partner
- Managing expectations and aiming for a realistic outcome
Your joint experiences of menopause
In long-term relationships, you get to know each other’s patterns and over time learn how best to support one another. Because of this intimate connection you will be aware of any changes affecting your partner.
When patterns change, as often happens during menopause, the way a partner used to support you may no longer be relevant, leaving them confused and at a loss of what to do.
An example of what I often hear when working with couples, is this:
Mark noticed that Hannah had become snappy, easily irritated and tearful at the slightest thing. He didn’t know how best to support her anymore and had begun to avoid certain situations so as not to upset her.
In healthy relationships, when a partner is struggling, it is natural for the other to want to help and support. However, if they don’t understand what is happening it can be hard to find the best way to provide this support.
Understanding one another
Talking as a couple about how you each experience the changes as you move through menopause, is the beginning to a better understanding and re-defining of how you can support as well as strengthen your relationship. While the changes during menopause can make it confusing for you both to know what is happening, it is important to talk about it. Even if it can be difficult to find the words to explain, talking during this time is vital for the closeness in a relationship to be nurtured.
In the case above, Hannah and Mark expressed some of their experiences:
Hannah: “I feel lost. I don’t know who I am anymore, it frightens me … makes me want to hide.”
Mark: “I feel as if I don’t know how to support you or be with you anymore. It makes me pull away.”
Allowing the space to express how you are affected, without putting blame on each other or feeling guilty, will allow you both to develop a better understanding of yourself and your partner.
This alone can bring huge relief and create a lovely feeling of closeness, though it is just the first step to developing new supportive strategies, you both need to know what is expected.
Managing expectations might sound a little business-like, but it is a vital part of nurturing your relationship and establishing a new structure of support. Setting expectations at a level that is realistic is the secret to a positive outcome.
Let’s see what happened when Hannah was asked what she needed when feeling irritated or angry:
Me: “How can Mark best support you when you are angry or irritated?”
Hannah: “When I’m like that, all I need is a hug.”
Hannah was probably right, all she needed was a hug, but at the right time. If Mark had tried hugging Hannah when she was feeling irritated or angry, she would have pushed him away. He would have felt rejected and confused, believing that he had done what Hannah had asked of him.
When feeling lost or confused, it is often a loving gesture like a hug from a partner that will make you feel better. When feeling irritated or angry, the energy is too strong, and you need space and time to let those feelings pass before a hug can be accepted.
When feeling calmer, coming back to each other to hug, talk and reconnect becomes key to avoiding the damage to your relationship bond.
Being willing to try out different strategies, will create an openness that allows for being flexible and change support strategies when needed.
The end result
It takes practice and perseverance to update your style of communicating. Most of all, it takes both of you to be willing partners, but with added patience the benefits are worth the time. This two-way supportive communication means that you both:
- Are able to express your experiences
- Have a forum for understanding each other
- Can talk about your needs while managing expectations
- Can find a joint solution with the flexibility to change when needed
By having conversations like this, you will know that in situations that trigger your confusion, anger or fear, your partner understands what is going on and will know the best way of providing support. Because your partner has been allowed to express what is going on for them, you will know what their reaction means, so avoiding misunderstanding.
The old belief that menopause is only women’s problems is not true. When in a relationship, this time in life affects both partners and it takes teamwork to get through it with the relationship bond intact.
By having positive conversations, you will both feel understood and supported, a closer bond and a stronger relationship.
Karin Blak is a psychosexual and relationship therapist and the author of The Essential Companion to Talking Therapy.
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We understand there’s a lot of information out there on the menopause. You can read through the NICE guidance on menopause management, as well as the NHS overview on the menopause.