Menopause isn't just a rough time for women -- it's also hard for the men who love them. If your spouse or partner is in the throes of "the change," unpleasant symptoms like hot flashes and mood swings will probably affect you and your relationship.
You may not be able to prevent hot flashes, but you can help the woman in your life get through this trying time -- and preserve and strengthen your relationship.
Know what to expect. The average age of menopause in the U.S. is 51, but many women start to get symptoms in their early 40s. They can begin as early as 7 years before a woman's final period and last 5 years or more afterward -- that's some 12 years of disruptive symptoms, like hot flashes, night sweats, and insomnia.
What causes them? "Changes in hormone levels [like estrogen and progesterone] during menopause can affect the body's ability to regulate its core temperature," says Rebecca Brightman, MD, OB/GYN, assistant clinical professor at Mount Sinai Hospital. Some women may also have vaginal bleeding at unexpected times, vaginal dryness, and pain during sex.
Be empathetic. Along with the biological changes, the emotions surrounding menopause can be difficult. For example, "even if no one wants more children, menopause can still represent a certain loss of youth and potential that may strike your wife as sad," says Gail Saltz, MD, author of The Ripple Effect: How Better Sex Can Lead to a Better Life. "Try to imagine yourself reaching some biologic milestone that changes your body -- and how you might feel about it. By standing in her shoes, you'll be better able to be supportive about the changes."
Talk about it. Many men are uncomfortable discussing menopause, Saltz says, but try to talk about ways you can help relieve her symptoms as a team. Ask how you can ease her stress. Also, encourage better sleep habits, or start an exercise regimen together. Some women may need encouragement to see a doctor to look into various hormonal and non-hormonal treatments.
Keep up the romance. A woman still wants to feel desired and appreciated during this time, Saltz says. Don't avoid intimacy; embrace it, as long as your partner feels comfortable. "A romantic dinner or holding hands on a walk can make a big difference in her view of both herself and the two of you as a couple."
What can you do to keep the spark alive? Brightman has some ideas.
Communicate. Maybe sex is painful or uncomfortable. Talk to her about what feels good and what doesn't.
Experiment with lubricants. Many over-the-counter moisturizers help ease vaginal dryness. Try several till you find one you both like.
Be patient. Just because she may not want sex now doesn't mean she never will again.
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