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Intimacy and Playfulness

Written by Karin Blak, Psychosexual and Relationship Therapist

Author of The Essential Companion to Talking Therapy


The impact of menopause


It pleases me no end to see the menopause becoming a topic fighting its way out from the chamber of taboo subjects. Recognising that the menopause is an issue for many women and their families, is beginning to change attitudes and make this stage in life less confusing and lonely; it is becoming a shared experience. This in itself is cause for celebration.


As a psychosexual and relationship therapist I have worked with many couples who have struggled through the menopause, not knowing why their relationship has changed or what they can do about it. One of the issues we often talk about, is the changes around intimacy and how to regain an intimate connection.


The effects of the menopause be it physical, hormonal, emotional or psychological, often all four, can cause a change to the way women think about their body and their own sexuality. It is rare to find a woman who easily glides through the menopause without experiencing some sort of change.


We might become more emotionally sensitive, and our energy could take a dive. Perhaps we become more aware of our bodies, how it feels to us and what it’s like to be touched by our partner.


On a physical level our oestrogen will be dropping resulting in the thinning of the vaginal walls and a reduced flow of natural lubricant. This causes penetrative sex to be painful. Some of my clients have described it as feeling like the vaginal walls are being rubbed with sandpaper.


With so many changes going on that directly influence our inclination for physical intimacy, it is little wonder our libido disappears, and we can feel the connection with our partner drifting away.



The intimate links to a positive sex life


We might instantly think of sex when intimacy is mentioned, but there is so much more to it than that. If we lack a psychological closeness, in other words if we find it difficult to understand one another’s opinions and actions or we feel our own are not respected, this will affect our psychological intimacy.


Similarly, if our emotions are not recognised and accepted, we will likely feel dismissed or lacking in worth to our partner.


If our lives are too busy for us to connect as partners and lovers, it could be that our physical intimacy will be lacking in meaning and volume.


These are all links to intimacy that directly affects our sex life and how we feel about one another. The natural changes of the menopause often emphasise these missing links and they tend to become clearer and likely to have more power over how we experience our connection.

I’m sure there is a book ready to be written about menopause and relationships, but for now I will talk about a snippet of it all: how to build and maintain an intimate connection during and beyond the menopause.



Developing intimacy during menopause


There are two sides to developing intimacy during the menopause: a personal nurturing side and the relationship side.


Because there are a lot of information about nurturing yourself during every stage of the menopause, I have instead chosen some of the subjects my clients have found useful to explore and that will help you and your partner deepen the intimacy in your relationship.



The intimate links to a positive sex life


We might instantly think of sex when intimacy is mentioned, but there is so much more to it than that. If we lack a psychological closeness, in other words if we find it difficult to understand one another’s opinions and actions or we feel our own are not respected, this will affect our psychological intimacy. Similarly, if our emotions are not recognised and accepted, we will likely feel dismissed or lacking in worth to our partner. If our lives are too busy for us to connect as partners and lovers, it could be that our physical intimacy will be lacking in meaning and volume.


These are all links to intimacy that directly affects our sex life and how we feel about one another. With the changes that come with the menopause these missing links tend to become clearer and are likely to have more power over how we experience our connection.



Menopause will be affecting your partner too


One of the reasons why the menopause has been kept a taboo subject for so long is because it’s been named a woman’s issue, men need not pay attention. But, if we think about the symptoms that we experience, it is clear that while we are the ones going through it, what we experience is bound to affect our relationship and our partner.


Find time to talk

Talking about how you both experience the menopause will help you and your partner understand and accept what it is going on for you both. Making it clear that your experience might change from one conversation to the next and that you might not know exactly what is going on. This will help to create an understanding of what is going in on your relationship.


Build a better team

Pulling together as a team will deepen your relationship and allowing yourself to be honest and open not just about your experiences but about the kind of support you need, will give your partner a chance to come on this journey with you.


Introduce moments of playfulness

Laughter and light-heartedness are some of the ingredients of a happy intimate connection with your partner. These are some suggestions that have helped some of my couples:


  • Taking it is turns to choose a piece of music to play for one another. See how your conversation develops from this

  • Have a regular games night. There is plenty of choice: computer games, card games, board games or maybe you already have your favourite game to play.

  • Take it in turns to cook for one another. If you can’t cook, provide a surprise take-away.

  • Watch a movie together. Whether it’s in the cinema or Netflix, try to watch a movie of your partner choice and visa versa.

  • Spontaneously instigate a dance with your partner.

  • While it can be a test during the menopause, taking a lighter view of life can bring smiles for both of you.


Foreplay begins the moment you wake in the morning


Foreplay, as I often talk about in therapy and in my writing, starts the moment you open your eyes in the morning.


I don’t mean that you have to be touching each other up or that you need to get ‘in the mood’. What I mean is this: the way we treat one another from the moment we awake and throughout the day and evening, will pave the way for how we communicate and feel about each other. Being nice to one another is the link to feeling emotionally close. Here are some suggestions:


Being nice isn’t about the big gestures, it’s things like:

  • When you wake up, say ‘good morning’ and notice each other before you pick up your mobile phone to check what has come in overnight.

  • Kiss each other goodbye, on the mouth, as you leave the house.

  • Send a short, pleasant text message during the day just to say hello or I love you.

  • Seeking out one another on returning home.

  • Sharing the workload at home and being willing to help.

  • Noticing the effort, you both put into your life together.

  • Making time to be together just the two of you.

This is not the complete list, there are many more suggestions and perhaps you have your own suggestions that mean a lot to how you feel in your relationship.



Sex can be functional


If we for many years have swept the links to intimacy to one side in favour of the demands of life, we can end up with a sex life that is functional; if we are lucky, it satisfies a physical need but that is about all. Having an enjoyable sex life takes time, energy and willingness to talk and have fun together.


The menopause brings an extra aspect to physical intimacy; with a decrease in oestrogen in a woman’s body, comes thinning of the vaginal walls and a decrease in the natural lubrication. Consequently, penetrative sex becomes less enjoyable and for many, painful. A client once told me that penetration was like having her vagina rubbed with sandpaper.


If this resonates with you, then seeing your doctor to get a hormonal vaginal cream, will help enormously with this aspect, but I’m guessing you want more than just the ability to have penetrative sex.



Make intimacy something to rediscover


If any or all of what I have mentioned so far resonates with you, the menopause will likely highlight this as our sensitivity increase and we as women begin to rediscover ourselves and our needs. This increased sense doesn’t have to be a bad thing, it can be a prompt to rediscover your relationship and to build something that is fun and nurturing for you both.


Perhaps you by now are thinking that your partner won’t be interested. Well, I wouldn’t be so certain. When working with couples, I frequently hear partners say that they too have been missing the connection that they used to feel when they first met. Now might be the time to start the conversation and see where it might lead.


So, these are my suggestions:


1. Begin by setting time aside to be together.

This is a time where the two of you can talk and explore with curiosity, how you experience intimacy, the effect of the menopause and what you would might like to change. This is usually a time when couples begin to express unfulfilled needs and that is ok too, though try to talk about our wishes rather than your disappointments. Wishes you can work with, disappointments tend to spark blame and defensiveness.


Imagine having a conversation where your partner is accepting of your experiences without having to take them on as theirs to sort out. Expressing understanding and a willingness to know more about one another, without needing to agree or to blame. This is some of the most non-confrontational and sensual ways of communicating.


2. Connect physically on a regular basis.

Hugs and tactility can be incredibly nurturing. A touch on a shoulder or an arm around a waist, maybe a kiss as you pass each other in the corridor or kitchen. Perhaps a foot massage, one of my favourites. These small gestures can do magic for turning up the intensity of your connection.


Making an appointment with one another, or if you prefer, plan a time each week when you can make space for nurturing your intimate connection. Here is how:


3. Sex can be fulfilling without penetration.

Non-penetrative sex is not a requirement, though it can be a wonderful experience and very enjoyable. Removing the pressure to perform penetrative sex or even to have an orgasm, can ironically ease the way to developing a more intense physical intimacy. Imagine being free to enjoy one another’s nakedness, without feeling the need to sexually satisfy or to reach an orgasm. What would that be like?


Touching, stroking, kissing and exploring one another’s bodies, I don’t mean just the sexual organs, but the whole body giving each part the same attention: try giving a head massage, stroke the ear lopes, kiss the inside of the elbows, and so on. And, while doing this notice what it’s like and how our partner reacts to the touch. This can spark many giggles and soften the connection between you.


It may be that a man gets physically aroused. Being prepared for this and knowing that an erection doesn’t have to control the intimacy shared, might be quite a relief. The focus doesn’t have to be on stimulation to orgasm.


Many women, while enjoying sex, reports that for them it is the physical closeness that is most important, not the penetration or the orgasm. This view and need seem to increase with the menopause. In my experience working with couples, there are many men who have similar feelings. For them it is ok to self-satisfy if they feel the need, as long as they are able to have a physical connection.




Is this Christmas a time for you to reconnect?


So, this Christmas might be the perfect time to seek out the first steps to building a stronger intimate connection between you.


  • Notice and enjoy the small moments of emotional, physical or psychological connection throughout the day and evening

  • Find regular time to connect and make it a regular event

  • Try feeling good about just touching without paying specific attention to sexual satisfaction

  • Be patient with each other, developing intimacy take time.


If all else fails, psychosexual and relationship therapy will help you to create a deeper connection. I can recommend looking at qualified therapists on COSRT, the member association for Psychosexual and Relationship Therapists.


Wishing you a very happy Christmas and an intimate New Year.



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