Archive for March 26, 2010

Men And Menstruation

Menstruation is a difficult topic for blokes.  I remember travelling in India and meeting a young couple on a gap year after ‘A’ levels.  They had been travelling through some of the more isolated and impoverished parts of the sub continent.  Both were traumatised by the experience and took several days to settle down and start talking to people.  When I chatted to the bloke on his own, it was clear that he was not just traumatised by the poverty, but travelling in intimate proximity with a women menstruating in hot insanitary conditions.  It wasn’t just the hygiene he found difficult, but the pain she went through, and the emotional vulnerability she felt, which was exacerbated by being in an alien and unforgiving environment.

Like most blokes, this guy had been spared the harsh realities of menstruation until he was an adult.  Women, of course, don’t have this luxury.  They are catapulted into the reality of menstruation in their early teens, and for many, find it deeply traumatic.  The founder of The Samaritans, Chad Varah, had the idea for the telephone helpline because, as a priest, he had to conduct a funeral service of a young girl who had committed suicide at the onset of her first period.

The 28 day cycle, and women’s emotional reactions to it, then informs their psychology for the rest of their lives.  To truly know and connect with the women in our lives we need to make their menstrual cycle our business.

Given the ‘trauma’ of menstruation, it is little surprise that cultural and religious taboos have emerged to ‘manage’ the trauma, and shield it from public gaze.  It’s a little like ‘war trauma’ for men, something that is ‘managed’ and ‘contained’ … but not expressed.

Just because menstruation is a difficult topic for men, doesn’t mean to say it’s OK to ignore it.  The women in our lives need our understanding and compassion so they feel supported, validated and accepted.  Here are a few tips.

First, make it your business to get informed.  There are plenty of great web sites offering advice about menstruation and the problems women experience during their cycle.  Try NHS Direct or netdoctor.co.uk.  Possibly as many as a third of women could relieve some of their menstrual distress and pain with appropriate treatment.  You will only know if your loved one is suffering unnecessarily if you take the trouble to show an interest and offer her support.

If you want to understand, from a man’s perspective, what menstruation might feel like, try this great post.  It just might make you think twice about dismissing her moods and her cramps next time!

Second, get engaged.  Starting the conversation about her period is a difficult one for many guys.  A great way to start is to show an interest in the brand of tampons she uses.  Why does she use that brand? Why does she find it the most comfortable?  If you don’t live together, why not try buying her some, and just having them in the bathroom cabinet ‘just in case’.  It will show you care and are thinking about her.

Women, of course, are intimately connected to their monthly cycles.  It’s easy for men to forget this.  There is a great resource aimed at both men and women at PMSbuddy.com.  Here you can enter details of your partners, daughter or mother cycles, and it automatically sends you emails reminding you of when she is due, and offers tips about how to cope as well.  If you’re a women reading this and can’t wait for your fella to take the initiative, you can register too, and send the emails to up to five guys in your life.

Third, know what she needs.  Every woman is different and menstrual problems change throughout the life span.  Take time to know what she needs from you emotionally and physically.  Women often feel vulnerable, in pain, and unattractive during her period.  She needs you to support her through this.  Give her lots of love and understanding.

There are some things, though, best avoided.  One is asking ‘are you on’ or something even less sensitive.  Women often experience this as an accusation and become defensive.  It’s not hard to see why.  You are reducing their unique experiences in the moment to a ‘thing’ which is hardly respectful.  The second is avoiding humour as the only strategy to help you navigate her needs.  Humour is great from time to time, but if it’s your only strategy, you’ll be sending the message that what she is going through is not important to you.

I do understand this is a difficult topic for blokes to get to grips with.  But doing so will reap rewards in your relationship.  She will feel closer and more loved by you.  Do be sensitive to her needs for privacy and her own embarrassment talking about the subject.  This isn’t an easy conversation for both men and women, but if you love her, it’s a conversation worth engaging in.  Over time you will both become comfortable with it.

For me, the biggest benefit of blokes getting to grips with this is the help you can then extend to your daughters.  If you can engage with your partner, you will be more able to ‘be there’ for your daughter when the time comes.  Daughters need their fathers to be comfortable about menstruation, to normalise it for her, make her feel accepted, and to give her a good role model of how to manage this aspect of her life with other men.


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Is It Ok To Fancy Other Women?

We all like a little bit of eye candy, but is it OK if you’re in a loving relationship to still fancy other women?

When reflecting on this remember that both Hollywood and the advertising industry spend millions of dollars on attractive men and women to entice us to buy their products.  They know that men (and women too) can’t resist looking at beautiful people.  The truth here is that it is simply not possible to stop noticing and fancying other people.  The problems start with the significance people attach to such casual glances.  Let me explain why.

I have worked with countless men who have been told by their girlfriends that they are ‘not allowed’ to fancy other women.  This is like asking a man to stop growing a beard because it irritates her skin … it’s not going to happen.  The important point is the significance the woman attaches to the glance.  Some women are extremely insecure about their partners, and often for good reason.  If a girl’s family split as a child due to one parent’s infidelity, she has witnessed the pain of relationship and family breakdown at first hand, and often vows never to let that happen to her.  Alternatively, she may have been cheated on in the past, and is hyper sensitive to any flirtatious glance from her fella aimed at other women.

Of course we need to be sensitive to our partner’s feelings; after all you wouldn’t want to hurt her.  Neither should you feel that you are doing something despicable either.  Continually monitoring your reactions to other women lest you inadvertently slip is no way to conduct your life.  The best thing to do is pick a moment to quietly talk about your behaviour and its impact on her.  Make the point that a quick glance is normal and natural, and it would be wrong of her to expect you to suppress it all the time.  But above all, address her underlying insecurity about you and the relationship.  With trust and open communication, in time, you will become more accepting of each other.

Some men, however, have unrealistic expectations of themselves.  I’ve worked with a number of men, usually in their 30’s, who present with ‘relationship problems’.  When we explore the relationships they have had we discover a string of healthy loving relationships.  Each of which the man has terminated because ‘he still fancies other women’.

What is going on here is the man has formed a core belief in childhood that if he is with the right women, he will stop fancying other women.  Of course this is completely unrealistic.  He needs to change the core belief to something more realistic, like ‘I will continue to fancy other women, but this doesn’t pose a threat to my loving relationship because I will not act on it’.

At the other end of the spectrum are men with slightly obsessive natures.  These men tend to think things like ‘having a bad thought makes me a bad person’, or that ‘if I have a thought I’m likely to act on it’.  For these men, fancying other women is a source of great threat.  Because their thinking is characterised by what therapists call ‘thought-action fusion’, they think ‘I fancy this women, therefore I want to have sex with her, and if I don’t control my thoughts, I will be helpless to stop it from happening’.

This is a more serious problem in that the underlying obsessive assumptions about thought and its relationship to behaviour need talking through in general.  These men don’t usually only get upset by thoughts of fancying other women, but is part of a pattern of getting caught up in a whole range of ‘distressing’ thoughts.

Men, of course, don’t just notice attractive women, but notice attractive men too.  For these men, for similar reasons to thought-action fusion described above, they become obsessed with the idea that they might be gay.  Let me reassure these man, being able to spot an attractive man does not make you gay, anymore than spotting a good looking dog makes you into bestiality.  Our brains seek out symmetrical healthy looking features in both men and women.  The more ‘attractive’ a man or women is, the more likely we are to be positively disposed to them, and think positive things about them.  This should not be confused with being gay.  If you know this but are still concerned, you might need to talk your obsessive thoughts through with a therapist to give you peace of mind.

Finally, just because it’s normal and natural for the eye to notice attractive women, this doesn’t give you carte blanche to do as you see fit.  Ogling other women is both intimidating to the woman, and potentially upsetting to your partner.  You still need to be sensitive to other people’s feelings, take responsibility for your behaviour, and act in a socially responsible manner.  If you can’t restrain yourself, you are well on the way to becoming a ‘dirty old man’, and you wouldn’t want anybody to think that of you either!


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