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Poor Self-image and Changes in Your Partner

Although midlife can be an opportunity for growth and transformation for women, it also represents the end of “youth.” In a society that celebrates youth, the menopause transition can cause some women distress in terms of how they perceive themselves.

Along with being a frank reminder of one’s mortality, the physical changes of midlife and the end of fertility can take a toll on a woman’s self-concept, self-esteem, and body image.

For women from cultural traditions that particularly value females for their fertility, menopause can bring a feeling of diminished usefulness or worthiness. For those from religious traditions that emphasize the child-producing aspect of sex, menopause may make sex seem less purposeful or even impure.

Feeling bad about your body. Then there are the effects of aging and gravity on your body and body image. As reviewed earlier, the effects of aging and hormone changes may leave you heavier or a bit more apple-shaped at midlife. They also can bring a newfound sag to your breasts, wrinkles to your skin, and a little less thickness to the beautiful hair you always took pride in. These changes may make you feel less sexy and self-conscious in relation to your partner. These feelings can drain your sex drive and motivation for sex. Or they may lead to new limitations on sex—only with the lights out, or only under the covers—that kill spontaneity and can undermine your enjoyment. To the extent these changes curb your enthusiasm for sex—or dampen your partner’s interest—they can fuel relationship conflicts and resentment, creating a vicious circle.

Don’t forget your partner. Of course, your partner is not immune to the same age-related changes. Women in same-sex relationships may see these very changes in their partner. In a midlife male partner, an expanding bald spot, “love handles” or a growing paunch, loss of muscle mass, and sproutings of hair in the nose, ears, and back are common signs of aging that are hardly a turn-on.

The millions of adults who remain happily sexually active into old age are proof that these issues, which may seem distressing at first, can be overcome with time.

No quick fixes, but there is hope. There are no quick fixes for age-related physical changes in yourself or your partner and the way they may make you feel about yourself sexually. At the same time, the millions of adults who remain happily sexually active into old age are proof that these issues, which may seem distressing at first, can be overcome with time. Open communication with your partner about them is a must, as discussed on the following page in this program. The sidebar below details other strategies that may prove helpful in boosting your self-esteem in this area.

Strategies for boosting your self-esteem as a sexual partner

Focus on your positive attributes. What enduring characteristics have others always found attractive in you? The flash of your smile? Your dreamy blue eyes? Your sultry voice? Those characteristics have probably not changed with time and are likely to still hold a powerful sway over your partner.

Concentrate on giving and receiving pleasure. Give yourself over to the pleasurable experience and sensation of sex itself, drawing on the depth of your emotional connection with your partner. Issues with physical imperfections can melt away in the face of this focus on mutual sharing of pleasure.

Consider exercise and weight loss as aphrodisiacs. If you’re overweight, see a nutritionist, consider joining a weight loss program (such as Weight Watchers), and exercise! Exercise can yield many benefits beyond weight loss. The activity is likely to lift your spirits and improve your circulation, which promotes your sexual interest and response. Even if your weight loss is modest, your body should be more toned and your body image is likely to get a boost.

Adapted, with permission, from Shifren JL, Hanfling S. Sexuality in Midlife and Beyond: Special Health Report. Harvard Health Publications, Boston, MA. Copyright  © 2010 Harvard University.

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