What you need to know to navigate this new phase of intimacy
If you’ve seen Annie Hall, you likely remember this scene. Their relationship has hit a speed bump, and Woody Allen and Annie (played by Diane Keaton) are each seeing therapists. At one point, their respective therapists ask if they are having sex. Allen’s response? “Hardly ever. Maybe three times a week.” Annie’s response? “Constantly. Maybe three times a week.”
It’s a funny scene and one that likely had many a couple simultaneously laughing while also internally cringing just a little at the truth. We all fall in love in our younger years and jump into bed assuming we will magically have the BEST SEX EVER ALL THE TIME. Oh, and we expect—thank you, media and books and social media—that this kind of sex will remain that way forever.
Fast forward to life post-50. After years of working and raising kids and managing all the things, many of us increasingly fantasize about sleep more than sex. Add to that changing bodies—hello, menopause, physical ailments, libido changes—and sex and intimacy can suddenly become a topic about as popular as money or dying. Rather than a place of connection, the bedroom can become a place to avoid or, at worst, a place of friction.
The good news is that it doesn’t have to be this way. The key, experts says, is recognizing that, just like our bodies, our sexual desires and needs evolve as we age. Reaching out to a partner and openly discussing these changes can lead to more satisfaction, closeness and overall happiness.
“Couples say they want it to be like it was when they first met,” says Dr. Bridget Finn, founder and owner of Capital Region Center for Sexual Health. “There’s nothing like when you first met. And when you think that way, you might miss the possibility of something even greater.”
When we’re young, everything is new with our partner. “People think that was the easy time and yes it was, but you were trying to attract somebody, investing time and attention,” Finn adds. “When we go into maintenance and physiology is not on our side, that’s when we need to start redefining.”
“The aging issue is multifaceted,” says Terri St. George, a psychotherapist and certified sex therapist working with patients in the Capital Region. “It feels like overnight you have a new body. Sometimes you look at your hands and don’t even recognize them.”
Accepting this new body can be hard, especially if you have an assumption—thank you, society—that an older body is not as sexy or alluring as that 20- or 30-something body you once had. “There can be a lot of grief and letting go is that first step,” she says.
“The second part is to figure out the new normal,” St. George says. “Identify the things you can change and treat, and the things you have to accept. The new normal is working with what you’ve got.”
The physical changes associated with aging for both men and women are real. Menopause brings about lowered estrogen, which in turn can create vaginal dryness, a leading cause of pain during intercourse, as well as lowered libidos. For men, getting and maintaining an erection can become more difficult. Other health issues, such as heart problems, diabetes and medications, can also impact people’s physical abilities in the bedroom or exacerbate their difficulties.
But workarounds and options do exist. Creams can help with dryness while pills can help with erections. More important, say Finn and St. George, is having conversations about what’s going on. The clitoral manipulation that once sent your 20-something lady skyrocketing to orgasm may now simply aggravate her vulva. Your man, meanwhile, may need a different kind of stimulation to maintain his erection, no matter what pill he is or isn’t taking. Assuming what worked in your 20s and 30s will work now in your later years is one way to potentially ensure frustration all around.
“Erections may not be as reliable and penises may not function as they used to. That’s a difficult change for men even if it’s normal,” says St. George, noting that penises need good blood flow and nerve function to operate maximally. “There can be a lot of emotions associated with a penis that doesn’t “work” as well as it once did.”
“Some women experience some dryness, some sexual pain and some have difficulties with desire and arousal,” says St. George. “Libido might be problematic. You can talk to your doctor about vaginal dryness. What is my new normal and what can I change?”
Differences in desire is another potential minefield as people age. “Desire is a complicated mixture,” she adds, noting that desire and libido are not just hormonal. “We can cultivate desire in our heads.” And if desire is at least partially mental, people can take steps to reimagine and re-create desire, St. George says, adding that “it is a valid route to say ‘I’m not interested anymore.’”
The key to navigating the new normal, both therapists say, is conversation. “The challenge is that couples may go through intimacy together with no issues and no practice talking about it,” says Finn, “so the communication maybe hasn’t been there because there have been no challenges. But now you need to talk more. What do I need now? What would feel good to me physically now? If the communication wasn’t robust through the relationship, it can feel awkward.”
Finn and St. George both advise rethinking intimacy. “Couples need to redefine as they go through life how they define successful intimacy. If you’re still defining it with a rock-hard penis and a vulva ready to go at a moment’s notice, you’ll be continually disappointed,” says Finn.
Step one, suggests Finn, is moving beyond only measuring sex by performance. “Couples need to expand their idea of successful intimacy,” she says, noting that thinking beyond the act of intercourse is critical.
“You have the power to create the intimacy you want because it comes from within. Couples who make it a priority, who decide that being a couple who enjoys intimacy over their lifespan together, can try to culminate in something very good. We have to let go of what we think it was 25 years ago. If we don’t do that, we’re missing what’s possible.”
Finn and St. George both know this can be challenging. Many people aren’t comfortable asking for what they want in or out of the bedroom. But the potential rewards are worth it.
“People don’t know how to talk about sex. You can be together forever, you can feel like you’re close in every way, but still don’t know how to talk about sex,” says St. George.
“We have to be able to communicate to adapt. We can’t envision that this process will involve change in ourselves and our patterns. We gain weight, our bodies change. We will all lose our physical youth and attractiveness. We could say we’re just not going to have sex, but that’s so limiting—sex based on hot bodies.”
Real change, Finn suggests, begins with each individual in the relationship. “Keeping it fresh means keeping yourself fresh,” Finn says. “Take care of your mind, body, and spirit. Feel good about your own body. Know what makes you excited and turned on and then show up and share it. It all starts with you.
“If you have two people who aren’t growing and expanding in their lives, you’re going to have two stale people trying to come together to have something fresh. It doesn’t work that way,” she adds. “We don’t live in a culture that encourages conversation or even permission for pleasure. Make sure you know you’re worthy of pleasure.”
Photos: Images of couple, iStockphoto.com/ljubaphoto. Dr. Bridget Finn and Terri St. George photos courtesy of subjects.