No matter how much our culture would like to hide them under the proverbial rug, yes, periods are a thing, and no, they're often not fun. A lot of menstruating people experience the painful side effects of premenstrual syndrome (PMS) and other premenstrual disorders (PMDs) — but it turns out that your partner can make PMS easier to deal with, according to new research. It's likely welcome news for many of us, especially those of us who like to keep a supply of strategies to cope with their periods at the ready.
PMS (which may also be known as premenstrual tension, or PMT) is the name given to the physical, psychological and behavioral symptoms that usually happen one or two weeks before someone starts their period. For some people, PMS is just a mild irritant, but others can find themselves in conditions that are nothing short of debilitating. Known as premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD), this is a severe premenstrual disorder that affects around three to eight percent of all menstruating people. Both PMDD symptoms and those of PMS are similar, but the key difference between the two is that PMDD is often severe enough to prevent you carrying on with your normal work and social activities. Regular symptoms of PMS, meanwhile, include breast pain, acne, headaches, bloating, feeling irritated, and a loss of interest in sex, among others.
Lifestyle changes and prescribed medications can help some people deal with PMS and PMDD, (although it is worth noting that every person is affected differently) but new research has shown that a menstruating person's partner can also help alleviate some common PMS symptoms. And although the research won't be applicable to everyone who suffers from period pains, the study is worth taking a look at for anyone in a relationship who finds that PMS adversely affects their life.
A study published in the journal PLOS ONE found that in cisgender, hetereosexual couples, a woman's male partner can help reduce PMS symptoms through couples' counseling. Those women who suffer from moderate to severe premenstrual symptoms found they had improved relationship satisfaction when they talked things through with their partners. The study followed the logic that the women with particularly bad PMS also experience relationship stress at the same time due to a heightened level of stress in a relationship — pain and mood swings can increase the likelihood of an argument with their partner. But staging couples' therapy was shown to help this.
The three-year-long study involved 83 women, most of whom (95 percent) were in heterosexual relationships, and divided them into three groups: A one-on-one therapy group, a couples' therapy group, and a waiting list group, which acted as a control. Study author Jane Ussher writing at the website Stuff explained that the women in the two therapy groups said they experienced fewer premenstrual symptoms, including reduced "emotional reactions" and stress, compared to the control group — but, those in the couples' therapy group reported significantly better behaviural coping strategies than the women in both other groups. In fact, the couples' therapy lot had 58 per cent of women stating that they felt an increased level of "self-care and coping" after therapy, compared to 26 percent in the one-on-one group and nine percent in the waitlist group.
According to Ussher, the results shows how PMS can put additional pressure on a relationship. "When we interview women who experience PMS, it's common to hear they are dissatisfied by elements of their relationship — whether it is the emotional support they receive at home, or the dishes left in the sink at the end of the day," Ussher wrote. "The pent-up anger and resentment finally reach boiling point and women feel they are no longer in control. This can lead to significant distress and relationship tension."
Ussher noted that although previous studies showed how medical treatments such as antidepressants can help women deal with premenstrual stress, it's actually psychological therapy which has a more positive impact long-term. The current research suggests that — for heterosexual, cisgender couples, at least — therapy with both partners present at the sessions can help bridge any potential information and empathy gaps between the couple, possibly because it gives the men a better understanding of PMDs. Indeed, Ussher noted, "Women in lesbian relationships have reported greater premenstrual support and understanding from their partner. This kind of support is associated with reduced symptoms and improved coping. Male partners who are supportive can have a similar positive effect."
Of course, the main drawback of this very focused study is that it was very focused on heterosexual, cisgender couples; they're only one of the many types of relationships that might feature one person who menstruates and one who doesn't, so it's not as inclusive as it could be. Obviously, to obtain a clearer idea of how couples' therapy can help menstruating people cope with PMS and other PMDs, we'll need to to repeat the study with a wider cross-section of people that includes the LGBTQ community.
But it's a start, especially given that research into PMDs is still sorely lacking. And hey, if your partner can actually help a tough time of the month be less awful for everyone, thanks to all involved being open and more understanding? That's got to be a good thing.