I am going to tell you something personal. It may even shock some readers – although, probably, it shouldn’t. The reason I feel I should open up is to prove my point: that we need to start talking about these things a bit more. On Wednesday night, my husband Matthew and I had sex. Not only that – to my surprise, and his, I instigated it.
Why? Well, the truth is that, although we celebrated our 15th wedding anniversary this week, my libido has taken a significant nose-dive.
For most of our marriage, and despite having three children, we’ve enjoyed an active sex life. Matt, 47, a former Welsh rugby international, has made no secret of the fact that he enjoys making love three or four times a week. Until about a year ago, so did I. The thing is, I still find my husband irresistibly attractive, physically and emotionally.
But for the majority of every month, I am just… not in the mood any more. He’ll catch me on the hoof in the kitchen, during another dry spell, with that look. Sometimes I’ll cave in. Other times it’s a flat no. I don’t believe in inventing excuses, so I’ll say: ‘You know what, Matt? I’m not in the right headspace. You’ll have to wait.’
What’s less well understood is the perimenopause, a period of fluctuating hormones that can go on for years before the menopause kicks in, writes Michelle Griffith-Robinson (pictured)
Of course, I have felt guilty – and more than a little confused. But a while back, I started to do my research, and discovered the reason: I’m perimenopausal.
It’s well known that the menopause, when a woman’s periods stop, can cause havoc. The female sex hormone oestrogen, which keeps tissue supple and moist, dwindles. This can lead to dryness, itching and pain during sex. And levels of testosterone – a hormone more associated with men but in women’s bodies too – also drop.
Anxiety, low mood and exhaustion are a result. Hormone swings are also responsible for the dreaded hot flushes, sweating and aching joints.
These symptoms can, happily, all be treated with medication and hormone replacement therapy. But what’s less well understood is the perimenopause, a period of fluctuating hormones that can go on for years before the menopause proper kicks in. Periods continue and, because hormone levels fluctuate, it’s hard to diagnose even with blood tests. Women report exhaustion, insomnia, brain fog, poor concentration, painful breasts and, as I’ve found, a dramatic drop in sex drive.
And while the menopause naturally starts anywhere from the age of 45 to 55 (I am 48), the perimenopause can kick in from a woman’s late 30s – and continue for years before periods finally stop.
I haven’t seen a GP because at the moment, with my limited symptoms, there isn’t much they can do.
The only mammals that have the menopause are humans… and four species of whale.
But everyone in my house will tell you I’m definitely more irritable.
These days, I’m forever being told to ‘calm down’. My only other symptom, so far, is complete disinterest in Matt sexually. For the ten days after my period, my ‘ten-day window’ as I now call it, I’m at my peak in terms of libido.
After that, it becomes a chore. It coincides with the drop in oestrogen and progesterone after ovulation – which can vary depending on whether an egg is actually released. It means the last thing I want after jumping into the shower and getting into bed is to embark on a night of passion.
‘Matt, I’m tired,’ I’ll complain if he tries to instigate something.
‘You’re always bloody tired,’ he’ll reply. And we’ll laugh about it – because, well, we have to. I know I’m not alone. The thing many women hate the most about the menopause is their dwindling sex lives – but no one really talks about it.
At this stage in a woman’s life, many of us are at our peak in terms of our careers. We have confidence, and we look good. Often, I look at other women of my generation and feel, in some odd way, we’ve cheated ageing. But looks can be deceiving. Some of us might be swinging from the chandeliers and enjoying ‘the best sex of our lives’ – as many magazines seem to suggest – but it’s not the norm.
I’ve been out to dinner with girlfriends and mentioned my lack of libido. Suddenly everyone is saying, ‘Yes! Me too!’ ‘I’ve just told him I can’t do it. I don’t fancy it.’ One even admitted: ‘I find the idea of sex repulsive.’ Some husbands are very grumpy about it, apparently, while others have been understanding.
Many have resorted to exercising more – running, weight-lifting, or cycling. Does it burn off their frustration? I know Matt has done some of that. But how many men are being left bemused by what’s going on because of a lack of real communication?
I realised I needed Matt to understand – and didn’t want him to misinterpret my disinterest in sex as a rejection of him completely.
Keeping close: Michelle and her husband Matt. We’ve been together 18 years and this is another journey we need to make together, writes Michelle
So I told him I thought I was perimenopausal. He took it in his stride and was glad we’d talked about it. He didn’t think I’d gone off him – probably his ego talking there – but had been wondering what was going on. During lockdown, I bought him a book on the subject. There are tons of guides for women, but I discovered few aimed at the other half. Eventually, after much Googling, I found one.
The title? Where Is My Wife And What Have You Done With Her? A Spouse’s Guide To Her Menopause. ‘This is what’s happening to me,’ I said, proudly. He needs to know it all. After all, we’ve been together 18 years and this is another journey we need to make together.
Opening up to him has been good for my confidence – so much so that I was able to instigate sex this week. I’d go so far as to say it’s brought us closer together rather than driven us apart. So how do you keep the magic alive when you’d rather go to bed with a good book? And how do you talk to men about the menopause? Here’s what I wish I’d known a year ago, when it started happening to me…
START TALKING ABOUT IT…. IN THE KITCHEN
The menopause can be a lonely place. But, as I know from my athletics training – I represented Britain in the triple jump at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, and retired in 2006 – if you feel supported by someone who’s cheering you on, everything is easier.
The menopause isn’t just about the physical symptoms. There’s anxiety, guilt, the loss of confidence that comes with the first sign we’re leaving our youth behind.
It’s so easy for women to tear themselves down when the opposite is necessary – we need to be built up. That’s why I believe it’s vital the person you’re closest to, your partner, understands what you’re going through.
And there’s science to this: a 2014 study involved giving 100 couples in Iran ‘menopausal health training’. The couples completed detailed questionnaires before and after the three 60-minute teaching sessions and all reported improvements in their relationship, emotionally and physically, afterwards.
The menopause isn’t just about the physical symptoms. There’s anxiety, guilt, the loss of confidence that comes with the first sign we’re leaving our youth behind (file photo)
Of course, you don’t need to go to a class. I know that wouldn’t have been right for us. Most of my conversations with Matt about how I’m feeling have come while we’ve been doing other things.
I brought up the subject of my lack of sex drive, and my concerns about being perimenopausal, while seasoning a chicken in the kitchen. There’s less pressure than in the bedroom, when you might have just rejected them again. Drip-feed it into the conversation. Be honest and don’t sugar-coat it. Matt knows I only feel like sex some of the time. I’ve told him it’s nothing to do with him. Don’t pre-judge how your partner will react.
It’s hard to be vulnerable but they probably feel vulnerable, too – they might suspect there’s something wrong in your relationship, rather than with your hormones. So it might come as a huge relief.
WHAT FEELS GOOD TO YOU?
If not having sex has become a habit, try to think about what you would like. What feels good? It might all sound embarrassing but consider experimenting with dressing up, steamy films, or sex toys – studies show women who use them have improved sexual function, sleep better and suffer less pain or stress.
About 13million women in the UK are perimenopausal or post-menopausal.
And increasing blood flow to the vaginal area can improve symptoms of dryness.
On the relationship side of things, it might also be fun for both of you. It’s about doing what feels most comfortable and makes you happy. Just reassessing your sex life in an open conversation can help you reconnect with your partner.
Even though I’m not full-blown menopausal, it takes me longer to react physically to any stimulation. For many women, though, recurring vaginal dryness can cause pain. And if sex becomes painful, it’s hard to get enthused about it.
One way of introducing moisture is to use a lubricant during sex. Some products sold in supermarkets, such as K-Y Jelly, contain chemicals that can irritate sensitive skin further. Doctors recommend products such as Yes or Sylk, which are made with inert chemicals and are less likely to cause further problems. They come in oil-based, silicone and water-based versions, but be warned – oil products can make condoms less effective.
GO WITH THE FLOW – YOU MIGHT ENJOY IT
Like most women, I do want to please my husband. But it’s a difficult conundrum. I don’t like the concept of giving my body to someone when I’m not in the mood.
What I can say is, when I have allowed myself to be drawn into sex, I have always ended up enjoying it. It takes longer to warm up. But once I’m in that zone I think: ‘Yes, this is nice.’
It’s normal to have sex less as a relationship goes on. Large-scale studies show that married couples who’ve been together for ten years or more make love two to three times a month, on average.
Unsurprisingly, couples who do have sex report being happier. But the studies show the most satisfied sexually also consider a broad range of intimate activities – not just intercourse – as sex. So, maybe, broaden your definitions, and one thing might lead to another.
EXERCISE PUTS YOU BACK IN CONTROL
Just because you’re not interested in sexual gymnastics doesn’t mean you need to lose all confidence in yourself.
I train a lot to maintain my fitness. It helps me feel in control of how I look. You don’t need to do that much. Studies have shown weight training can stave off osteoporosis, which is a risk after menopause, and yoga can relieve stress. And research found women experienced increased sensitivity and arousal after exercise.
Of course, sometimes I just want Matt to hold me. I’ve told him, bluntly, that he’s not to go any further. Sometimes you just need that cuddle without the pressure of it automatically turning into something else. Lots of women start to shy away from even putting their arms around their husband in case it’s interpreted as a cue for sex. That drives a further wedge into the relationship.
Studies have shown weight training can stave off osteoporosis, which is a risk after menopause, and yoga can relieve stress (file photo)
Psychosexual counsellors, available on the NHS, build up couples’ physical relationship again by advising them to only touch and kiss, removing the pressure to go further. Try just being naked together in bed, skin-to-skin, feeling that closeness. Eventually that might be enough to get you in the mood for sex – which will then be on your terms. If so, your husband will likely be delighted. And it’ll really boost your confidence, too.
DON’T SCHEDULE SEX… BUT TIME IT RIGHT
Some couples advocate a ‘maintenance session’ – time scheduled into the diary every week to make sure they continue having sex. I don’t buy this at all. If it becomes a duty, rather than a desire, it breeds resentment. And where’s the fun if there’s no spontaneity? Instead, work out when you feel most interested in making love and try to capitalise on those moments.
For example, Matt comes to bed much later than me. By then, I’m asleep and don’t take kindly to being woken. I’ve said to him: ‘You know what, Matt, I really want sex with you in the daytime but at night I’m just floored.’ It was good for him to know. ‘That’s OK. No big deal,’ he said. Less pressure all round. This involves give and take.
One study found that couples who were more inclined to consider their partner’s needs as a high priority also had more frequent and more enjoyable sex. So it’s worth thinking about how good it feels to make a partner feel loved and desired.
Research shows that when one partner endlessly rejects another out of hand, it’s damaging. Both report increasing anxiety, depression and poor relationships. Instead, open the conversation, and help him become as much of an expert in the menopause – or perimenopause – as you are. It may not be easy. But you’ll find it’s worth it.
Covid Q&A: I can sit with mates in the office, so can we get together in the pub?
Q: Why is it OK to sit in the office all day with dozens of workmates but not OK go to the pub with more than six of them afterwards?
A: The ‘turning on and off’ of various restrictions in order to limit spread of the virus, as opposed to total lockdowns, is something experts have long talked about.
There are grave long-term risks of depriving children of a face-to-face education and, along with the economic decimation of town centres, returning to work and school have been a priority.
Although the Government’s rumoured campaign to galvanise Britons to get back to the office never quite materialised, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said employees should do so where it is ‘safe to do so’.
Similarly, the reopening of schools last week was celebrated by Ministers, with thousands of pupils returning to small ‘Covid-secure’ (following stringent corona guidelines) classrooms.
We’ve been encouraged to support the hospitality industry by visiting pubs and restaurants across the UK, as part of the Government’s ‘eat out to help out’ scheme.
But last week, with cases rising at the highest rate since May, the Government decided something must be done to limit spread of the virus, while enabling schools and workplaces, which are essential, to remain open. Social situations, which are less essential and also higher risk, were an obvious target.
So, as of tomorrow, in England the number of people legally permitted to socialise with those not in their household has been cut from 30 to six.
This covers gathering inside homes, outside and in restaurants and pubs.
Each nation has different rules. In England, people from any number of households can gather, so long as the total number does not exceed six.
In Wales, up to four households can gather indoors. Outdoors, 30 people from any number of households can meet. In Scotland, six people from three different households can meet indoors or outdoors.
In Northern Ireland, it’s up to six people from two households.
The rules will be enforced by specialist ‘Covid-secure marshals’, who will issue £100 fines for flouting them.
It may seem punitive but Liam Smeeth, Professor of Clinical Epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine points out: ‘A national effort to tighten up on social distancing and steps to reduce viral transmission are needed if schools are to remain open.
‘Some short-term inconvenience and further economic hardship for some people may be what is needed.’
Q: Are there any exceptions to this rule?
A: Yes. Some groups are exempt – weddings and funerals can have up to 30 attendees, and team sport events are still permitted and spectators are allowed but must be restricted to spread-out groups of six. Schools or workplaces are exempt, as these are not social events.
Support bubbles are still permitted as a way of easing the isolation of those who live alone.
They were introduced in June following concerns about a wave of mental ill health among older, isolated Britons. Those who live alone or single parents with a child under the age of 18 can form a support bubble with one other household of any size, in which they do not need to socially distance.
Now, if you are in a ‘support bubble’ with another household, you can socialise indoors, outdoors and in restaurants and pubs even if the group is more than six.
Q: What is the ‘hands, face, space’ slogan about?
A: The public health message regarding Covid-19 has changed twice since the start of the pandemic, in keeping with the rate of transmission.
Now, with the priority being keeping the virus under control while reopening society, the focus is on behaviours that limit the spread.
The Government highlights three vital strategies – hand-washing, followed by mask-wearing and keeping one metre apart from others.
But scientists have questioned the order they are placed in.
Dr Jennifer Cole, Biological Anthropologist at Royal Holloway, University of London, says the strategies should be in ‘reverse’ order.
‘Space is the largest mitigating factor indoors or outdoors,’ she says. ‘If social distancing is difficult in an indoor setting, people should not assume that a face covering and washing their hands will protect them.
‘Hand-washing is important, but surface transmission plays a much smaller role than exhaled droplets, so it is odd that “hands” has been listed first.’