Problems with sexual harmony
All married couples confront sexual obstacles in their lives together. There are times when they are separated from each other by distance and circumstances: jobs, emergencies, illness, or by occasions when the wife takes the children to visit their grandparents, or when they rent a summer cottage at the sea and the husband comes to spend week-ends with his family.
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These are all the result of external forces or personal choice. In addition, there are the weeks when they must abstain from sexual intercourse for a specified period before and after childbirth, obeying the doctor's instructions or the wife's inclinations.
These are all interruptions to sexual love which every husband and wife expect, and accept with the philosophy, or lack of it, inherent in their individual personalities. Two problems which derive from the way women are constructed are much more complicated. There is the question of intercourse during menstruation and, though it is not a matter of sex per se, there is the irrational way women behave before their periods begin.
Both husband and wife have a hard time understanding personality changes in the half of the partnership which affect her whole outlook on life and, naturally, sexual intercourse.
Why does a normally healthy loving wife, who meets her husband halfway in making love, sometimes turn into a dismal caricature of her usual self?
Within very recent years has medical science solved some of the mystery of woman: that her body and personality change with the phases of her menstrual cycle.
This has had far more publicity, but it is doubtful that even now people understand it. When the husband and wife argue bitterly about their boy, aged two, and end up with father flouncing out of the bedroom with his pillow and the extra quilt seldom does either of them associate all that sound and fury with the time of the menstrual month.
A girl and woman has her periodic ups and downs. Half of the time she has a song in her heart, loves the whole wide world, and she feels like the Queen of the May. At other times she is so depressed she knows that she could touch bottom. All she wants to do is lock the door and have a good cry.
A woman admits that often she cannot understand this. She knows that there are days and weeks when she is equable, and happy, and then she wakes up in the dumps—irritable, nervous, achy.
These variations are not mere manifestations of female temperament but definite responses to recurring physiological events.
As a matter of fact, Hippocrates, father of medicine, is said to have ascribed the quirks and complaints he observed in women before menstruation to "agitated blood" seeking release through the uterus. It was not until the early 1930s that modern physicians recognized woman's psychological and physical changeability as effects of genuine occurrences that are taking place within the body.
Since then doctors have investigated the problem and concluded that these vicissitudes are triggered by the two female hormones. Owing to the cyclical increasing and decreasing action of these hormones produced in the ovaries, a woman lives on an emotional and physical seesaw from the menarche to menopause.
To complicate matters, no two girls or women on this planet are altogether alike in their responses to their female hormones; and no woman is herself the same from one month to the next. Many different factors, such as current activities and tensions, health, outside pressures, and personal problems, affect her.
If, for example, Junior breaks out in a rash when his mother feels "normal," she is not especially disturbed; she thinks it is probably chicken-pox. But if the rash should appear when she is "not herself," she is sure it is nothing less than the seven-year itch. There are physical as well as emotional conditions that vary from one cycle to the next.
This month a woman may have a headache; next month she may not have a headache, but her breasts may be so swollen and tender that her bra seems an instrument of torture.
The following cycle she may be afflicted by either of both discomforts or by neither -- or by something entirely different. Once she learns to understand the general pattern of her own shifting characteristics and to relate them to the phase of her menstrual cycle, she is able to live more comfortably with herself and others. And if her symptoms are severe, she is able to recognize them as symptoms and to seek medical help.
During the first part of the cycle, which begins with the onset of menstruation, an egg, as we know, gradually matures within its own tiny sac, in one of the two ovaries.
This phase is like springtime. In a woman's body the seed of new life is growing. This is the time of hope, of promise. A sense of exhilaration, of well-being and happiness - it is called the follicular phase. It reaches its climax in ovulation, approximately midway between the periods, when the egg leaves the ovary and conception may take place.
During the follicular phase the estrogen level is high and makes a woman feel her best. The ovaries also secrete the second hormone, progesterone, produced by the sac in which the egg develops. After ovulation, when the egg has left its covering, the empty shell becomes the source of progesterone, the substance that prepares the lining of the uterus in case the egg is fertilized.
If conception does not occur, the level of both hormones drops on about the twenty-fourth day. The reproductive function has no need of them at the moment. This represents one of Nature's failures. This is the phase during which a woman may move into the doldrums. Doctors call it the luteal phase. Nature, however, is not given to mourning.
With menstruation comes the beginning of another cycle and the next follicular phase. Once more the woman feels serene and in hill control of her life and herself—always, of course, depending upon her unique basic personality.
This then is the clue to the emotional cycles of women. Fluctuating levels of ovarian hormones and their effect on her physiology.
As soon as medical scientists showed that these periodic changes in spirit and body were real, not whimsical, they find out some of the whys and wherefores, for the ovaries are not independent glands but are part of the endocrine system that influences mind and body in many ways.
A girl or woman can forget all about this mechanism during the first half of her menstrual cycle. When the ovaries are producing plenty of their hormones in properly balanced quantities, she is as well and happy as she can be.
Barring limitations from other causes, life is as smooth as a bowl of cream, and she is completely her "normal self."
The second phase of the menstrual cycle brings emotional and physical changes.
Actually these changes are also normal and can be so interpreted. The trouble is that they vary in kind and intensity to such an extent that a person may not always recognize them.
Interestingly enough, she may be subject to yeast infections at a particular point in her cycle - and indeed she may then pass it on to her partner, who may not understand where he caught it!
The brief eight-to-twelve-hour period following ovulation, during which a woman can become pregnant, constitutes the yellow light that flashes a change of signals and warns that the second, the luteal, phase of the cycle is about to begin.
Usually a woman cannot pinpoint the ovulation signal, but she is justified in assuming that during the ten days to two weeks before the onset of menstruation she may experience change in emotional and physical climate that begins with slight overcast and becomes gradually more cloudy.
During the luteal phase of the cycle, the imbalance of the ovarian hormone is responsible for changes in certain physical processes. One is a small increase in the rate at which the body burns up its normal supply of sugar.
During the luteal phase of the menstrual cycle a woman's body consumes its sugar supply somewhat more rapidly than during the first part of the cycle, and therefore the level of sugar in her blood falls, although very, very slightly.
This in turn lowers the supply of oxygen to the brain a little, for by a series of complicated chemical steps, blood-sugar is the chief supplier of the brain's oxygen.
The amount of the drop may affect the way a person feels and behaves for the time being.
Whatever other symptoms this drop may be responsible for, authorities agree that it causes increased thirst and appetite and a craving for sweets.
This is all part of the nervous stress and strain that might be likely to occur during the luteal phase and to get worse as the onset of menstruation approaches.
Somehow it seems to change a woman's attitude towards herself and her life. The transient fall in blood-sugar level is, however, so slight in degree that most doctors feel it is only one factor in a situation where hormonal imbalance, nervousness, and psychological factors all act and react upon one another.
The drop in blood-sugar may not prove to be a problem, but if it does, the average healthy woman can count on the fact that it is temporary. The condition may, in some cases, cause enough trouble to warrant medical help. This is likely to consist of a simple recommendation.
Although the symptoms are acute they are not actually dangerous, they are usually complicated by other psychoneurotic or even psychological factors.
Other possible changes in emotions and temperament that can surprise a woman in the luteal phase.
A placid person can become irritable; she may become so cranky and irritable that her husband wonders whatever became of the dream girl he married and wishes to goodness he could trade this woman in for a woman with more technique and self-possession during life in general and sex in particular.
Her sense of humor is not the same as it is during the follicular period. She loses perspective, so that trivial events seem catastrophic.
She may be so bad-tempered and erratic that she upsets anybody around her. She may become exceptionally talkative, rattling along, till she bores everyone within range into a coma.
A demure, pleasant girl may have moments of anger and be annoyingly aggressive, surprising her family and friends. A woman usually with inner calm and security may, for the time being, nurse a sense of guilt, anger and anxiety.
Most girls and women occasionally find it hard during this phase of the cycle. A normally competent woman has difficulty making decisions. If she drives her car, she may be involved in more accidents during this phase than during the first half of the menstrual cycle.