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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