My friend has a story that her family laughs at now. She was a young adolescent when her mother hit menopause. She recalls tiptoeing to her mom’s bedroom with breakfast on a tray, opening the door very carefully, and sliding the tray through on the floor.
Then she braced for the explosion. Sometimes it came; sometimes it didn’t.
While this story became just a funny anecdote about mom’s menopausal years—part of the family lore—sometimes, the damage of menopausal misbehavior cuts deeper. Rather than a fond and humorous memory, when severe menopausal symptoms go unacknowledged and unrestrained, they can tear a family apart.
As I mentioned in my last post, many women suffer from sudden and uncontrollable emotional extremes. They truly can’t control the overwhelming depression, anger, and anxiety. But for every woman I see who is suffering from difficult menopausal symptoms, a family is often suffering right along with her. And just as often, this family consists of teens in the throes of their own hormonal stew and a spouse who may be confronting a mid-life transition as well.
The family doesn’t understand what’s happening to mom, and information is scarce as aphids on ice cream.
In the book, Sex, Meaning and the Menopause by British author Sue Brayne, one husband lamented, “I wanted to know about these hot flushes, so I trawled the internet. All I could understand is that the menopause is tied up with a system failure of some kind, which can end up with a hysterectomy. I’ve read virtually nothing about how relationships can become difficult at this time. GPs have leaflets on everything from bunions to teeth whitening, so why not this?”
Forums on the Internet sag under the weight of sad or angry comments about the state of life at home. “My mother’s menopause was the worst two years of my life,” writes one woman. “Unfortunately, it coincided with my being a teenager and living with her.”
“Our house is like a war zone,” writes another. “My mum behaves like a woman possessed... nothing seems to get through to her anymore.”
In her book, Brayne spoke with four men about their experience with menopausal wives. Of the four, one had become divorced, another had had an affair, which he ended. All four spoke with deep feeling about how the menopausal years had affected them.
And often, the most poignant regret has to do with sex.
“Sometimes it got so bad that I thought our marriage was over,” said one man. “I didn’t want to go near her. It was too dangerous because I never knew what response I would get.”
“The word I would use is despair,” said another. “It’s the recognition that, at the age of 62, I’ve had the best of my sex life. I don’t feel ready to give it up and I don’t want to give up my marriage either.”
“But sex was the glue that bound us together,” said yet another. “It helped us to feel warm towards each other. When that went, we were thrown back on our differences.”
The misery in these comments is mirrored in statistics. While divorce rates among younger people have stabilized, rates among those over 50 have tripled in the last 10 years and are mostly initiated by women. During menopause we tend to drop our pretenses and lose the filters. Doing what’s expected of us no longer seems as important as reclaiming who we are. These are all good things. But when our behavior is abusive, out-of-control, and damaging to our family, well… we wouldn’t allow our hormonal teens to act out like that, would we?
No matter how we feel, it isn’t okay to unleash our hormonal rage on those closest to us just because they have to take it. It isn’t okay to deny the damage or blame the hormones or model that behavior for our children.
And it’s critically important to keep the sex alive. You’ll find lots of solid information, suggestions, and products to help with that on this site. In the next post, we’ll talk about treatment options and strategies for dealing with out-of-control hormones.
Dr. Barb DePree, M.D., has been a gynecologist and women’s health provider for almost 30 years and a menopause care specialist for the past ten.