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Relationship Issues

Among Americans age 65 or above, there are only 7 men for every 
10 women.

Lack of a partner. Not having a sexual partner may be the most basic of sexual challenges, but it’s one that’s pretty common for women at midlife and beyond. For instance, among Americans age 65 or above, there are only 7 men for every 10 women. This is largely because of the 5-year difference in the average life span of women (80 years) and men (75 years) in the United States. Throw in the fact that US women marry men who are, on average, 3 years their senior, and a woman’s risk of eventually becoming a widow increases further. High divorce rates in recent decades have also raised the chances that women (and men, for that matter) will be unattached at midlife and beyond. The lack of a partner is also more likely with advancing age even for women whose sexual partners are other women, since the death or disability of a partner becomes an ever greater possibility as we age regardless of the partner’s gender.

Even if a woman dates or meets a potential mate after losing a partner, turning that new relationship into a sexual one is not always easy. Some women who haven’t had a sexual partner for a long time may fear that they’ve “forgotten how to have sex” or won’t be able to become aroused or have an orgasm with a new partner. Others may feel self-conscious about being naked with someone new. Still others may be plagued by guilt about “betraying” the memory of a longtime partner by being sexual with a new partner. 

Relationship challenges. Of course, just having a partner is no guarantee of a fulfilling—or even an active—sex life. Couples’ sexual problems may stem from tensions or distance in the nonsexual spheres of their relationship, or a sexual issue may be at the root of broader relationship difficulties.  Many sexual challenges that couples face are linked to one or more of the following:

  • Anger and frustration. When anger, injury, or disappointment accumulate and linger in a relationship, resentment can build and undercut intimacy and trust. Desire almost always suffers as a result. Anger and frustration can interfere with arousal for both men and women, and they undermine the enjoyment and pleasure of sex. These emotions sometimes lead one partner to subconsciously withhold sex as a way of signaling anger or exerting power, which further poisons the sexual dynamic.
  • Communication is particularly critical as 
    the physical changes 
    of middle age emerge.

    Inadequate communication. Trust is key to a healthy sexual relationship, and communication is key to trust. An honest exchange of feelings, needs, and preferences between partners is the best way to avoid disappointment, find mutual solutions, and nip resentments in the bud. Communication is particularly critical as the physical changes of middle age emerge. For instance, without good communication, the challenges posed by vaginal dryness might be misinterpreted as a woman’s loss of interest in sex, which might lead her partner to feel rejected. Good communication allows couples to identify and address the real issue.
  • Boredom. Some degree of sexual “routine” is to be expected in any long-term relationship. Here again, frank communication and mutual trust are essential to the openness needed to explore ways to keep sex fresh. What’s more, as traditional sexual activity subsides somewhat with time, it’s important to keep other forms of physical affection and intimacy from waning as well.
  • Infidelity. People have affairs for any number of reasons. Some affairs are primarily emotionally or psychologically driven, while others are more physical or sexual. Often affairs stem more from issues that the straying partner is grappling with than from shortcomings of his or her partner, although motivations are often complex. Regardless of the motivations, an affair poses a serious threat to a relationship, and the threat may express itself through a couple’s sex life. The straying partner may not be able to respond sexually to his or her mate because of guilt, fatigue from the two relationships, or an unfavorable comparison to the new lover. A mate who discovers an affair is likely to withdraw both emotionally and physically.

It’s important to recognize when relationship issues are at the base of sexual problems and to focus on the underlying relationship when that’s what’s really needed.

No matter what steps you might take to address sexual problems in your relationship, if you are no longer close to your partner emotionally or if there is anger or mistrust in the relationship, you’re not likely to have a satisfying sex life. It’s important to recognize when relationship issues are at the base of sexual problems and to focus on the underlying relationship—through counseling, if necessary—when that’s what’s really needed. Sex therapy can be an important part of counseling for couples, as discussed later in this program.

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