It’s a topic a lot of people reaching middle age are concerned about but are too scared to discuss. The truth is, a side effect of menopause is its impact on sex – but you can take control.
Peppy’s Director of Menopause Services, Kathy Abernathy, shares her top tips for regaining control of your post-menopausal sex life.
How menopause can impact sex life
One of the effects of menopause is its impact on intimate relationships. Some women experience a decrease in sex drive during and after the menopause. They may lose the inclination to have sex and may also experience vaginal dryness – a common symptom of menopause.
These factors, coupled with a feeling of being “out of sorts” and unattractive, as many women do during this life stage, can mean that sex becomes a rare occurrence – or may disappear entirely from your relationship.
In a study published in the medical journal Menopause, based on surveys of more than 24,000 women aged 50 to 74, about 30% of women said their sex lives had halted because they had “no interest.”
“A couple of women friends told me they stopped bothering with sex after the menopause,” says Emma, 57. “They just totally lost interest. I was determined not to let this happen to me so when I found around age 50 that my sex drive declined, I spoke to my doctor who put me on HRT. It’s made such a difference. I’m too young to give up on sex just yet”.
Why this is happening:
The loss of oestrogen and testosterone following menopause can lead to changes in a woman’s body and sexual drive.
“The loss of oestrogen can slow down the sexual response quite significantly and affect spontaneity in relationships. But our sex drive is way more than just hormones. It’s also to do with relationships, self-esteem and body image, so a woman can still get the sexual response by building up to it a bit more slowly”.
Most women who go through the menopause will also have very low levels of testosterone and some will be more sensitive to this than others. These low levels also affect libido and sex drive. What’s more, lower levels of oestrogen can cause a drop in blood supply to the vagina. That can affect vaginal lubrication, causing the vagina to be too dry for comfortable sex.
Impact on relationships:
If you are in a relationship and lose your sex drive as a result of the menopause, it can have a huge impact. Frustration, embarrassment and misunderstandings over why you’re no longer interested in sex can cause tension and hurt feelings.
Says Abernethy: “The first approach has to be to communicate with your partner because otherwise, it could put up barriers between you and them. Perhaps you’re embarrassed that you don’t have your usual sex drive or that sex is causing pain. They won’t know if you don’t tell them. Communication is key to developing an understanding and building intimacy.”
A loss of sexuality can be distressing as it feels like one of life’s pleasures is being taken away. It can make you feel old and less feminine.
“The key is to stop thinking about this in terms of feeling sexual, which can seem like an on-off button. Think instead in terms of sensuality, which is an ongoing process as a woman. What happens as you go through menopause is you often lose that sensuality and that feminine feeling for all sorts of reasons, partly due to lack of oestrogen. You need to build up that feeling of being a sensual woman by looking after yourself, believing in yourself and, hopefully, having a partner who’s affirming you in all of those things as well,” says Abernethy.
A loss of desire can affect our self-confidence. And a loss of self-confidence can make re-connecting with our sensuality impossible.
“You can lose your identity as a woman during the menopause and may feel, if you’re in a long-term relationship, that it isn’t worth the effort. But once you’re past the menopausal symptoms you may learn to love your body again and your self-esteem should improve because you will, hopefully, no longer be struggling with all those difficult emotions. Meaning, you can get your sex life back on track,” says Abernethy.
Help things along:
“No-one tells us that it’s normal to get a dry vagina as you get older, but it is. So you need to build extra lubrication into your sex life,” says Abernethy. If you apply oestrogen gel to the vagina, this carries none of the risk of the side effects of HRT.
Testosterone can also be given as a gel, but it’s not always available via your GP. You may have to go to a specialist to get this prescribed.
Regular exercise not only improves your mood and confidence, via the release of endorphins, but will also strengthen your pelvic floor, making you more sexually receptive.
Everybody is different, so don’t compare yourself to anyone else. It may take a little more effort, but your sex life is in your control – whether or not you’re going through menopause. “It’s absolutely normal to want to carry on having a good sex life and there’s no reason why it should be over after the menopause,” says Abernethy.
- Address any physical issues – vaginal dryness, pain during lovemaking and bladder symptoms may need exploring, as well as negative thoughts around body image.
- Encourage intimacy – for most women, it’s an emotional closeness that leads to the desire for sex. You may need to think about how to rebuild this, after years of taking it for granted, putting family first and pressures of work and home.
- Communicate – assumptions and guesswork can lead to misunderstandings. Take the time to talk honestly with your partner about this important area.