Midlife and The Coupledom: The Perfect Storm, Part 1 of a 2 Part Series

A Collision of Hormones: Much has been written and talked about of the impact of perimenopause and menopause on the lives of women and their relationships. The Huffington Post published an article on February 10, 2010 by Staness Jonekos entitled “Will Your Marriage Survive Menopause? , a good question that deserves more than the typical “gender bashing” often seen online in comments or chats. Instead, what is needed is an informed and sincere exploration into the many variables and solutions to the midlife collision of biology and culture.

Biology: Andropause, the male companion piece to menopause, refers to waning testosterone and is associated with an increase in health problems such as heart disease, weak bones, subtle attitude and mood changes, fatigue, loss of energy and libido (sex drive). Similarly the reduction of estrogen in women can produce a plethora of uncomfortable symptoms, weight gain, hot flashes, sleep problems, mood and cognitive disturbances and vaginal dryness amongst other unpleasantness. Both menopause and andropause can deliver a wallop to the self-esteem, self-image and life time dreams.

The Outing of Menopause: A New Coupledom Weapon of War? After the publication of research linking hormone replacement therapy to some types of breast cancer, millions of American women were advise to abandon their HRT treatments, while others were dissuaded from beginning them. Since then, women entering mid-life have once again been at the mercy of very distressing symptoms. Consequently, menopause has become a rallying cry for many American women to join with their sister sufferers in shedding the shame regarding the “changes” and take this topic out of the closet and into the mainstream media, the coffee klatches, soccer games and supermarket aisles. That is the good news. The not so good news is that this very freedom can be accompanied by the notion that men should understand their partners’ multi faceted experience with empathy on demand. An unfortunate side effect of the menopause “outing” is that it can morph into another Coupledom Weapon of War by both sexes. A tool of campaign against the other.

Andropause, Does it Exist? There is excellent scientific evidence and even more anecdotal evidence that men experience a similar though less intense “change”. The desire for a sports car, more attention from wives, or the onset of worry over sexual prowess, the growing paunch, receding hairline and diminishing earning power is playing a part in the psyche of a man who seemed free from such concerns only months ago. Men are more likely to repress these fears or avoid putting language to them because they see this as weakness, unmanly and humiliating. Instead, they may act them out, becoming angry, demanding, or creating impossible triangles by asking their wives to meet their needs before those of their children, aging parents, work or volunteer jobs. To combat the “aging” process, looking outside the home for a mirror to reflect “youth” can deliver the final blow to what was once a viable marital relationship.

The Perfect Storm: Midlife which spans the ages 40-60 plus (ever-increasing with longevity and a vital boomer generation determined to stay fit) challenges both sexes to deal with real losses that deeply effect self esteem, self image, sexual stamina and dreams of glory. The irony here is that men may not want to admit that anything is “waning” while women may need to have their struggles acknowledged. Here is a collision of sorts, with one half of the Coupledom saying, look at what’s happening here and the other messaging, don’t look, it’s dangerous. What is happening to you may also be happening to me.

A Case in Point: Infidelity, The Empty Nest and Retirement Dreams: Many years ago, prior to the complete “outing” of menopause, I met with a couple who were grappling with the husband’s infidelity. Peeling back the layers of history, with an exploration of emotional and physical variables, what emerged was a powerful convergence of midlife pressures culminating in an infidelity on the part of a pretty decent spouse. There was no one bad guy or gal. Just a train wreck of sorts.

Whose Dreams Are We Living Anyway: This couple had married years earlier, a second marriage for both and were able to blend their children together to make a vibrant family. They were very proud of this shared achievement. At the crossroads of mid-life though, the wife had begun to experience pain during intercourse from vaginal dryness. Unaware that this was a common occurrence during menopause, she began to avoid sexual closeness. The husband perceived this as a rejection and was hurt and angry.

An Emerging Storm:¬† A further complication was the husband’s view that the past sacrifices of time and money poured into raising their blended family were sufficient to allow him finally, to focus on a future retirement south. That was his dream. However, his wife believed that she had not finished her job as mother and now grandmother in launching their family. Weekends were spent working on the children’s new homes, putting up cabinets, loading laundry. Essential to this effort, the husband saw both his time and his money (which was especially biting), consumed by his wife’s goal to secure a future for their children, which she believed was still dependent on both of them playing an active role. That was her vision. Powerless to convince her otherwise, her husband became resentful and hurt. His wife felt the impossible pressure of having to choose between her husband or her children. He saw his dream of retirement washing down the kitchen sinks of his children’s new homes. The only thing missing here was the challenge of caring for older parents. Throw that into the mix, stir with hurt, season with anger, and stand back. The Coupledom, that special domicile where the relationship resides, suffers an 8.5 earthquake and comes tumbling down. Rubble everywhere.

PART 2: A Toolkit of Strategies to Make the Midlife Coupledom Work: Plus Prevention is Key For Younger Couples.

Part 2 will be posted tomorrow.

©Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2010

4 Responses to “Midlife and The Coupledom: The Perfect Storm, Part 1 of a 2 Part Series”

  1. Eleanor

    This is exactly what happened to us. It has been two years now and I feel that my healing is nearly complete. I don’t bring up the subject with my husband any more unless it is in a light, humorous way. I believe that deep down he still blames me for the crisis, though not for his infidelity. He accused me of being “contemptuous”, which came as a total surprise. I may have fallen short in some ways (especially when he became deeply involved in the lives of his grand- daughter and her divorced mother and turned his back on me) but there was never any sarcasm or rolling of eyes and I always defended him when others criticized him. Even when he hurt me so much with his neglect, I was always loyal. I suggested to him that his low self-esteem at the time (he was 62) may have been the real problem and he was somewhat receptive to that idea. We are happy now so I am reluctant to stir the pot. We have worked very hard to improve our relationship and he is content in every way. Is it really important that he understand everything (the way I see it) or should I just let it go? — E.

    Reply
    • jilledelmanlcsw

      Eleanor, Thank you for sharing so much of your Coupledom journey. I don’t think it is necessary to “stir the pot” at all. If you reach a place where you would like your husband to understand something about your struggles, then it would make sense. So much is how the conversation is conducted. Have you read both parts of the post? Good luck and enjoy your happiness together.

      Reply
  2. Eleanor

    I think we both did a pretty good job of communicating our thoughts and feelings about the marital “train wreck.” The problem is nobody teaches you how to get old. (Your tips in Part 2 came too late for us.) Men especially don’t like to acknowledge that aging could be the problem so it has to be the woman’s fault. At least that’s how it was with us. My husband has done his best to help me heal but he has never admitted that hormones (his and mine) were a major contributor to our difficulties. Our crisis has passed but I still enjoy your columns. Thanks a bunch.

    Reply

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