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The One Thing That Can Absolutely Kill Your Sex Life

I know because it happened to me.

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illustration of puzzle with couple making love on bed with pieces missing
Kiersten Essenpreis
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Why don’t all the recent publications tell the whole truth about menopause? All of them are correct in what they do share; yet few honestly detail the possible realities of postmenopausal sex. You want to talk about a change of life? Menopause can completely destroy sex and sexuality — never mind “change” it. It happened to me.

I knew all about hot flashes from my mom, but what she failed to tell me (or perhaps hasn’t experienced herself because not all women do) is that menopause can cause the walls of your vagina to thin out, making intercourse painful. It can also dramatically lower your libido. As if those weren’t bad enough, even if you’re still interested in sex and it doesn’t hurt, menopause can completely dry up your natural vaginal lubrication. Or, it can be a real bitch and alternate on one or more of these attacks to your physical enjoyment. I’ve been the lucky recipient of this triumvirate of sex killers.

In fall 2017, my husband and I separated for eight months. We had marital issues that needed time and space to be addressed, but we still had sex occasionally before we lived apart. It wasn’t the spectacular kind, due to the fractures in our emotional relationship. But it wasn’t problematic aside from the lack of frequency and passion. I had entered full menopause early the year before, but had not experienced any effects on my sexuality or sex life. Upon returning to a shared bed with my husband, I found myself completely uninterested in any form of sexual contact. Worse, when we did try to have intercourse, it was shockingly painful for the first time in my life, and not just because of a lack of natural lubrication. I had never experienced any of this before and was left feeling sad, angry, confused and sexually frustrated. I worried I had become clinically frigid and our reconciliation would quickly end.

My husband also struggled with this new challenge. He had almost no understanding of what menopause is or what it can do to a woman’s body, and sometimes wondered if my low libido was more residual emotional resentment from our previous marital strife than an actual physical affliction. Even a therapist I consulted about that possibility agreed I should give it some time for us to reconnect emotionally before we tried to rekindle any physical intimacy.

Months went by and, while our marriage was much improved, nothing changed in the bedroom. We tried various kinds of lube, which definitely helped mechanically, yet also presented procedural concerns: Do we keep it by the bed, or in the bed for quick access? We learned early that lube gets cold sitting in your bedside drawer and requires warm-up before application to your sensitive bits. The self-warming variety set both our sexual parts aflame and required an urgent shower to rid the burning sensation. Further questions arose: Do we stop whatever sexual acts we are engaged in to apply the lube, or apply it before starting any contact? Do we apply it to him as well as me? Does it need to be used externally for stimulation as well as vaginally for penetration? I had to forgo the pleasure of oral sex a number of times because we applied lube too early and didn’t have the edible kind. We were inexperienced, fumbling, confused teenagers learning how to have sex all over again. My husband asked more than once, “Do you need the lube tonight?” — as though menopause would magically disappear at some point and our former sex life would be bestowed on us as a reward for our patience and efforts.

I attempted to research and read up about our concerns, but found little practical advice. One article I came across quoted a sex therapist saying, “Use it or lose it!” about libido and women’s vaginas, making me feel I alone had destroyed our sex life with my decision to work on our marital differences from separate homes. Was this a punishment for not continuing to engage in my wifely duties in preservation of my own sexuality? I wasn’t ready, nor was my husband, to give up on sex entirely, yet we couldn’t seem to find viable solutions.

I consulted my family doctor, hoping she could provide answers. She suggested vaginal laser therapy. My husband didn’t bat an eye at the $2,000+ price tag, calling it a bargain for the return of regular, enjoyable sex. I actually considered it initially. However, once I began reading about the process, the mixed reviews of its success, the possible side effects and a warning by the FDA that it had not approved this form of treatment for menopausal vaginal thinning, I decided to pass. I wasn’t comfortable with taking HRT, with a history of childhood cancer treated by chemotherapy and radiation treatment coupled with numerous courses of fertility hormone drugs in my 30s. Even naturopathic supplements left me with physical and emotional side effects I wasn’t willing to endure to get back my sexuality.

I wish I could end this story with the discovery of a fairy-tale cure and the restoration of our former sex life, but that hasn’t happened. It annoys me how much money and effort get poured into maintaining the sexuality of men, yet female sexuality seems to be completely ignored. My husband and I are still working out how to maintain a satisfying sexual relationship, and continuing to engage in some very blunt conversations in that regard. We’ve both had to rethink the intercourse-based attitudes we used to hold around our sexual encounters to clear a path for a new phase in our sex life. We've learned to keep our minds — and bodies — open to creative sensuality versus penetration. Sure, intercourse is still on the menu, but exploring additional ways to satisfy one another is as pleasurable as goal-oriented sex — and definitely more intimate.