It's normal for sexual urges to slow down a bit as we age, but that means intimacy is more important than ever.
Q. My wife is very interested in spirituality but seems to have lost all interest in sex. She says most of her friends her age (mid-50s) feel the same way. I’m committed, but I didn’t sign up for celibacy.
We’ve been to three different counselors. Each time there is a little change for a while but then it goes right back to the same place. I’m not ready to let go of this part of our life, but I’m starting to feel hopeless about it.
A. I like sex therapist David Schnarch’s formula: TA = PA + MA. That is, Total Arousal is the sum of Physical Arousal and Mental Arousal. When people are young, physical arousal is easier. The body leads the way. As we get older, nature’s imperative to regenerate the population of the planet begins to wane, and mental arousal becomes more important.
The important thing for men to know about mental arousal is that it’s not just a sexy movie or outfit or a nice dinner out. It’s not even just trying to follow the adage that foreplay begins in the kitchen. Intimacy is what’s most mentally arousing—not sexual intimacy, but emotional and spiritual intimacy.
Finding your sexuality as a couple again will take more than instruction in techniques or communication styles. Resurrecting sexual intimacy will require you to deepen every other kind of intimacy. It will likely call for deeper and more consistent confiding and vulnerability and deeper and more consistent affirmation. It also helps greatly if affection is strong in the relationship and is not tied primarily to sexual initiatives.
Affirmation, vulnerability, and affection are inherently spiritual. They bring us to the place where our bodies and spirits intersect. That’s also the place where sexuality comes alive.
If you ask men and women what makes them feel close to another person, men will often say “doing something fun together.” Women will often say “talking openly about life.” I find it interesting that many women prefer the term “making love” to “having sex” even though it is more often men who believe that having sex actually makes love like you can make a batch of chocolate chip cookies! Women usually need to feel deep love and intimacy in the whole relationship for sexual interest to show up. The love must be made before the sex for the sex to make sense.
I find it interesting that many women prefer the term “making love” to “having sex” even though it is more often men who believe that having sex actually makes love like you can make a batch of chocolate chip cookies!
It is difficult for partners to have an ongoing, open conversation about sex in part because talking about it can require being so vulnerable. It’s also challenging to discern whether it’s okay to let go somewhat of sexual frequency and intensity even as you’re still working to keep that energy alive. We don’t have a soulful conversation in our culture about what sexuality is like as we age. Viagra ads showing a gray-haired guy throwing a football through a tire or pulling his truck out of the mud with the horses he was hauling do not give us a full understanding of what it takes to negotiate this terrain with a partner.
Trying three counselors is a good start, but I urge you to keep looking. I think you need someone who is very comfortable talking openly about sex (which many therapists are not) and who has a deep understanding of the work of three important people in marital and sex therapy: John Gottman, Susan Johnson, and David Schnarch.
Want more? Read our series on mindful sexuality, which starts here.
For your reflection or journal time:
- What has been my experience of growing with sexuality through all the stages of my life?
- Can I bring a mindful acceptance to all the joys and struggles that have been part of my experience of sexuality?
- Can I embrace the paradox of accepting my sexuality as it is now and continuing to explore how erotic energy can enhance all aspects of my life?
- Is there a conversation I need to have with a partner about sex? Are we ready to be vulnerable and listen deeply to one another in such a conversation?
Send your questions to [email protected]. Questions may be edited for clarity or length. Dr. Anderson cannot respond to all letters. Sending a letter, whether answered in this column or not, does not create a doctor-patient relationship. Information in this column is for general psychoeducational purposes and is not a substitute for assessment and care provided in person by a medical or mental health professional.