When the River Runs Red: A Man's Guide to a Woman's Menstrual Cycle

Originally posted on GoodMenProject.


The modern man has to face few hazards in life. If you live in the first world, your daily threats are probably not even 1% of what our ancestors once had to deal with.

However, if you are a man who is partnered with a woman, there is at least one territory that still offers nature’s mystery and danger: the menstrual cycle. Yes, it can be a treacherous terrain. For those of us who do not menstruate it can seem confusing, daunting, and have us question our self-worth.

It shocks me how little most men know about the menstrual cycle. I meet middle-aged men all the time who still seem clueless about a woman’s cycle. Men have been mating with women for thousands of years. You would think someone would pass on a little info.

So, to my brothers in arms, here’s a guide for the female cycle. Not only will you be better equipped to get through the month, you will also be able to be a better partner to your lady, regardless the state of her uterus.

Note that this guide does generalize some experiences. Remember that real women will have different experiences at different times. And there’s a lot more to a woman’s emotions and behavior than just her hormonal cycle. However, following are the common experiences of women in the different phases and what you should know about them.

Day 1: Bleeding Begins (Menstruation)

The menstrual calendar starts on the day of first blood. (For a long time I wrongly assumed that bleeding occurred at the end of the cycle.) It’s arbitrary of course. Does the week start on Sunday or Monday? Depends if you want to start it at work or at home. Knowing what is considered “day 1” will allow you to speak intelligently about the menstrual cycle at parties, which you’ll surely want to do after reading this.

Besides bleeding, what else is going on?

There are two cycles occurring within the menstrual cycle.

First is the uterine cycle, what’s happening in her uterus. On the first few days, the main thing happening is that her uterine lining is shedding. This stage is simply known as menses. (That’s also the name of the blood coming out of her.)

The second cycle is the ovarian cycle, what’s doing in her ovaries and the eggs. The first half of the cycle (approximately 14 days) is what is known as the follicular phase. All you need to know now is that this is fresh start for her ovaries.

Menses usually lasts 3 to 5 days but 2 to 7 is considered normal. The average blood loss is 35 mL which is a shallow pour on a shot glass. I know, I thought if she’s bleeding for 5 days she’s probably losing a gallon or two. Not the case.

It’s likely that she’ll be experiencing cramps during this stage. So, you know, don’t chest bump her or anything.

What about her emotions? She might have a few of those. Beware. But unlike the luteal phase (coming later), she’ll likely have her attention inward.

Of course, every woman’s experience is different. But in general, a woman tends to be slower than her usual pace at this time given that her body is excreting reproductive waste. This is actually not the most challenging part of the cycle for her. That is yet to come.

What should you do?

Don’t panic. She’s been doing this every month without your help and will keep doing it until menopause. But if you want to be a good partner, offer her a tummy rub. Maybe get her some chocolate. Run her a bath.

The thing to understand is that her body is physically purging. That taxes her body and therefore her mind. If you’re ever going to spoil her during her cycle this is the time to do it.

Is sex off the table?

Well, that’s up to her of course. But I hear a lot of couples say things like “I am/she is on her period so we can’t have sex.” It’s terribly common sentiment. And it’s bullshit.

First, sex is more than just penetrating the vagina. Even if she doesn’t desire vaginal penetration, physical affection and manual stimulation of her vulva can be just as pleasurable, if not more so. Soft stroking of her clitoris and labia, and massaging the area above her pubic bone can be very pleasurable. Just remember to err on the side of gentleness.

And if you’re able to go slow enough, vaginal intercourse can be great during menses.

The title of this piece comes from an adage I heard in high school: “When the river runs red, take the dirt road instead.” (I won’t explain it to you.) I heard this prior to ever having sex and just assumed that no one ever has intercourse on their period. But you can totally have intercourse on a period. In fact it can be very therapeutic for her. It’s just a different kind of sex.

Given the extra fluids, vaginal intercourse can feel particularly amazing. But she’s likely sensitive, so save your jackhammer stroke for… actually, just save it. Forever. Go slow. Her vaginal walls will be sensitive.

During menses, think sensuality instead of passion.


Technically she can’t get pregnant while she’s bleeding. Her egg is exiting the building. But… sperm can live inside a woman for up to five days. So if you come in her towards the end of her bleeding, your boys can hang out till the next ovulation, which yes, can result in conception.

Those who follow the rhythm method of contraception may report that there’s no chance of pregnancy on day 1. But know there’s always a chance of pregnancy when you have sex. It’s possible for a woman to ovulate at an unexpected time. So use contraception if you’re not looking to procreate.

Day 3~5: Bleeding ends (Proliferation)

Ah, the storm has been weathered. Well, not really…at all. But right after the river has cleared up she’s likely closest to what you perceive as her normal self**.

**The idea of ‘normal’ is a patriarchal perception. What’s normal is for women (and people) to change their moods periodically. It’s only our industrial society that promotes the idea that a person should show up the same each day.

She’ll be renewed.

Many women report feeling refreshed right after the bleeding stops. Purging has ended. Her reproductive system has “grieved” the unfertilized egg and it ready for another go.

Studies have shown that in this stage, women tend to be more empathetic and socially adept during proliferation. During menstruation, she has been fatigued and focused more inward. Now during proliferation, her uterus is rebuilding and she’ll be more likely to put her attention outwards.

Day ~14: Ovulation

For the ovarian cycle, this is the big show. Ovulation is when the egg is released. It occurs towards the end of the follicular phase and it marked by a surge of estrogen and other hormones. (The luteinizing hormone and follicle-stimulating hormone work together in stimulating the release of the egg. But you don’t really need to know those words outside of impressing people at parties.)

Her cervix (should you care to inspect) will have a distinctive mucus. Most women can recognize the change in her vaginal fluid during ovulation.

But the more observable marker will be in her mood and behavior… She’ll be the most fertile, and it will likely show in her sex drive. Her body is most fertile, so it wants her to make a baby. She’ll be most desirous during this phase.

Just remember there’s more to sexual desire than her ovarian phase. So if she’s ovulating but she doesn’t want to sleep with you, then maybe she’s not that into you.

It may also show in her desire for connection. Her fertility also means she’ll be more driven to pair bond. Her body is telling her “Find a mate! Winter is coming!”

As far as her hormones go, this is the most amicable she’ll be during the month. So seriously, if you’re not getting along when she’s ovulating, then she’s really not that into you.

Day ~16: Luteal Phase

The luteal phase in the uterine cycle technically starts at the halfway point (day 14 on a 28-day cycle). But for practical man purposes, the observable phase shift is when she has stopped ovulating.

If she did not conceive during ovulation, then it’s time to shut down. For the last week of the cycle especially, her body will be preparing for the next day 1.

This is the time that sometimes can be referred to as premenstrual syndrome (PMS). She is most likely to be bloated, irritable, tender in her breasts, moody, and lethargic.

Personally, I find labeling these symptoms as PMS is disempowering to both women and the men in a relationship with them. For a man in a relationship with a woman, it’s super important to be aware of these possible symptoms. However, calling it a syndrome when it happens to half of every month pathologizes the nature of being a woman.

Both you and she will be happier if you anticipate this phase of her cycle and act accordingly. Her body is under stress, so don’t take it personally

If she is being “difficult,” remember it’s probably not about you. The hormonal shift during the luteal phase is literally like taking a light dose of a disagreeable drug. When people are under stress, they tend to be less agreeable. That’s human nature.

When my partner snaps at me during that time of the month we’ll joke that she doesn’t hate me, she’s being “luteal.” When she’s luteal she might not be what you consider rational. Honor her emotions and remember:

If she wants to claw you to death because you are breathing too loudly… it’s not about you.
If she resents you and all your life decisions… it’s not about you.
If she says “This is all because of you!”… it’s (probably) not about you.

Of course, if you continue irritating her despite all your best efforts, maybe you’re best off taking some space. That may be the kindest thing.


Other Important Notes:

When a woman is on hormonal contraception, her body is being tricked into thinking it’s pregnant every month. So her hormones will not necessarily fluctuate as described above. The best way to get to know your partner’s cycle is to track it. You can mark “Day 1” on your calendar, or get a period-tracking app. Then when you notice a shift that might be hormonal, you can refer to where she might be in her cycle.

If you’re in an intimate enough partnership that it’s useful to be aware of her cycle, then you should be able to talk about it. Most women would love to share her noticings about her cycle. (TIP: Have that conversation when she’s ovulating not when she’s luteal– you’ll get better feedback.)

Again, there’s more to a woman’s mood and behavior than her menstrual cycle. But her hormones do have an effect on her monthly.

You may never menstruate, but if you relate to women, you ought to learn about it. Not only will you become a better partner for her, you’ll be able to navigate the experience of a woman with more grace.

Don’t fear the red river. Learn how to swim.

Ruwan Meepagala

Ruwan brings people back to their instincts. He writes, teaches, and coaches on expressing creative energy. He hosts a video series about relationships and has a podcast on Perpetual Orgasm and Infinite Play. You can find more of his work at Ruwando.com. He lives in Austin, TX with his girlfriend and sometimes reads books while hanging upside down.