Sex and Getting Older
Sex and getting older different phases in life
There are those who say that it’s impossible to sustain sexual interest in one person forever and that anyone who says different is giving people false hope. I say it’s not only possible, it’s essential. But that one person is you.
This article has offered a wide spectrum of possibilities to nourish new vistas in you—alone or with a partner—to enhance, gain, or regain sexual aliveness. Not everything offered here will be your cup of tea, nor should it be. But I’ll bet some of the things you have read have noticeably perked you up. Those are at least ideas to play with.
Besides, we go through different phases in life. We get older. What we value at one stage, we’ve completed by a later stage. Energy naturally shifts, ebbing and flowing in response to what’s currently going on, and our sexuality varies in the same way. We do not want to pathologize these natural peaks and valleys of interest.
Love and Libido Together Again. Sex and Getting Older
What I have especially wanted to communicate is that love and libido are not completely independent but are intricately connected from the beginning of life until its very end. Whether we call them drives, needs, or behavioral systems, emotional attachment and the sex drive are intertwined and linked together in the brain and the nervous system. The dynamics of that connection can affect everything: your moods, self-confidence, and optimism as well as how you handle stress, your resistance to illness, how you get along with a partner, the quality of your orgasms, and your ability to abandon yourself to pleasure and to celebrate life.
Sex and getting older. The body has always occupied a central role in these explorations. This approach emphasizes body-mind methods to encourage a quality of relaxed and alert presence: breathing and letting go, coming into the moment, being mindful, calming as you energize. It promotes an awareness that the pleasures of love and libido are life affi rming and relationship enriching. This approach fi ts in well with the new emphasis in psychology on the positive—on what makes life worth living and helps individuals and society to flourish.
Sex and getting older
Flourishing, Resilience, and Loving Connection. Sex and Getting Older
According to the dictionary, to flourish is to be strong and healthy, to thrive and prosper. Psychologists Barbara Fredrickson and Marcial Losada have defined flourishing as “living within an optimal range of human functioning, one that connotes goodness, growth, and resilience.”
In examining the dynamics of human flourishing, these researchers cited a broad range of evidence that good feelings have multiple benefits. These benefits include generating positive moods, widening the scope of attention, altering people’s mindsets, broadening behavioral repertoires, and increasing intuitionand creativity. The research clearly demonstrates that a key predictor of flourishing is simply the degree to which a person’s positive emotions outnumber the negative ones.
Sex and getting older. A major benefit t of the capacity to sustain positive emotions is that good feelings make us more resilient. Resilience is the highly adaptive ability to recover quickly from setbacks or adversity.
The studies showed that positive emotions ameliorate many of the ill effects of negative emotions by lowering the level of cortisol in the blood, reducing inflammation and pain, increasing a subjective sense of happiness, and boosting the immune system. In fact, the tendency to focus on what’s good is even predictive of life expectancy.
Naturally, any ongoing stress is not good for you, but stress in a relationship can be particularly damaging. Researchers at the University of Utah found that women in marriages marked by hostility and strife were more likely to be depressed and to suffer high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and other factors that signify scantly raised their risk of atherosclerosis, the narrowing of the arteries that carry blood to the heart.
For men, it wasn’t hostility that made the difference, but rather control. Those who had controlling wives or were themselves controlling had a significantly higher incidence of atherosclerosis. Sex and getting older.
Sex and getting older
Sex and getting older. In contrast, laughter was found to be good for the heart. In another series of studies, blood flow increased 22 percent during incidents of laughter among volunteers viewing comedy clips and decreased 35 percent while they watched stress-inducing clips.
Clearly, two people who hold and massage each other, look into each other’s eyes, are playful, laugh together, and are respectful, appreciative, and generous are dosing each other with the best medicine of all: your own endogenous medicine — endorphins, dopamine, oxytocin, and the right balance of adrenaline and serotonin. Add a few shots of testosterone and estrogen, and you have a veritable elixir of love and a connection that enables you to flourish with each other.
Flourishing in a Secure Relationship. Sex and Getting Older
Another factor that consistently correlates with flourishing, resilience, and feelings of subjective happiness is a secure love style.The research of psychologists Phillip Shaver, Mario Mikulincer, and their colleagues has done much to connect the dots between infant development, neuroscience, romantic love, and sexuality.
Their data consistently showed that people who feel secure tend to have a healthy sense of self-worth, are trusting, have positive feelings about their partners, and have faith in their ability to resolve conflict. They are also good at regulating their stress; they deal effectively with disappointment, loss, and trauma and are generally optimistic. Manifesting many of the same attributes as Abraham Maslow’s self-actualizers, they are hardy, happy people who enjoy close relationships.
Sex and getting older. Mikulincer and Shaver have demonstrated how intricately the bonds of love and attachment are intertwined with sex. Their data clearly showed that secure people are more likely than insecure people to enjoy the pleasures of sex and the emotional connection that accompanies it.
For insecure people, despite all the pleasures and benefi ts of sex, sexual arousal, sexual activity, and orgasm can be accompanied by negative feelings like ambivalence, guilt, or concerns about performance and lovability. Under those circumstances, the inability to regulate intense excitement can generate a sense of urgency for immediate release, which serves to limit the sexual experience.
Sex and getting older
Worries and anxieties about performance are distracting and distancing. A lack of attunement to a lover or an inability to read the other’s cues can result in misreading or being insensitive to his or her desires. As a result, insecure people tend to be less able to enjoy confl ict-free sex.
A person’s sexual diffi culties are a sign of insecurity, and we’ve looked in depth at what works for becoming more secure or for helping a partner to become secure. Some major components aresustained affectionate connection, the willingness to self-regulate, and the generosity to help a partner regulate his or her bodily stress.
Sex and getting older. In a sense, security is learned, and if both partners are insecure, it can help to seek the guidance of a good relationship therapist. Albert Einstein once said, “The mind that created the problem can’t solve the problem.” It helps to have another set of eyes and ears to see what does or doesn’t work to promote intimacy. A couples therapist can offer a more realistic set of expectations and guidelines about how to maintain a loving relationship.
A Good Relationship Is Healing. Sex and Getting Older
Highly successful people who show impressive resilience in the face of childhood hardship can usually identify someone in thei past who was sympathetic, caring, and simply “there” for them. A loving adult relationship can have the same impact. Stony Brook psychologists Arthur Aron and Elaine Aron cited evidence that when people develop greater security not as children but as adults, the most consistent positive infl uence is also a close relationship with another person. In essence, a relationship is therapeutic when it helps people to revise their distorted mental models of themselves and their unrealistic models of relationships.
Sex and getting older. Obviously, the relationship that has the greatest potential to be that kind of positive infl uence for someone insecure is the on with the person he or she loves. A more secure partner can help a less secure partner feel lovable, deserving, and special — especially when the insecure partner is motivated to learn and to grow.
Aron and Aron observed that people who earn their security through their intention to do so “can enjoy a level of depth and insight rarely found in those who have been continuously secure.” In this sense, overcoming insecurity may actually bestow an evolutionary advantage. The researchers suggest that it may be that insecure people who are motivated to grow have a greater incentive than consistently secure people to expand the self and to find meaning in their pain.
Sex and getting older
Flourishing and Sexual Aliveness. Sex and Getting Older
A rich sexual experience is all about the abundance of emotions, sensations, and qualities of experience that are possible through physically intimate erotic play and sexual pleasure. There is a wealth of evidence that marital satisfaction and stability is greatest when both partners are sexually gratified. Mikulincer and Shaver cited an interesting study that tested the effect of sexual experience on the perceived quality of a relationship.
Cohabiting partners were asked to keep a diary for forty-two days and to indicate how they felt about the quality of their relationship each day. They were also asked to record each time they had intercourse and to report their thoughts and feelings about it. The results showed that experiencing positive feelings during intercourse one day had a signifi cant positive effect on the partners’interactions the next day and on how they rated the quality of their relationship.
Sex and getting older. Now, if we broaden our defi nition of sex to include kissing, stroking, caressing, massaging, and erotic play, we can add a reliable and ongoing source of good feelings in everyday life.
New Models of Marriage and Partnership. Sex and Getting Older
In the summer of 2009, social commentator and Los Angeles Times contributing editor Gregory Rodriguez wrote a thoughtful column about the decline in the divorce rate during the economic crisis. He suggested that it wasn’t necessarily a sign that people were working things out better, but rather that they were staying together because they couldn’t afford to part. He predicted that once the economy recovered, we’d be back to our “astronomical” divorce rate. His take on why the national divorce rate was so high was that “in a rapidly changing society, it’s harder to fi gure out what kinds of arrangements we should make with our spouses.”
Rodriguez refl ects that with more women in the workplace, with the ability to outsource household tasks (such as cleaning and cooking), and with some men at home while their wives work, modern realities can strain the traditional notions of marriage. Although he acknowledges that many couples have found happiness making peace with untraditional marriages, he adds, “We haven’t fi gured out a new marriage model that takes into account the greater range of choices for both women and men.”
That may be because marriage is no longer a one-size-fits-all institution. A greater range of choices naturally begets a greater range of models for how to be in a committed relationship. Here we are in the twenty-first century. We’re a diverse crowd. We can customize.
Sex and getting older
Renegotiating Your Contract. Sex and Getting Older
Renegotiating your contract in a relationship may be a new concept for people who aren’t aware that they ever negotiated a contract in the first place. They probably didn’t. Maybe both partners silently assumed that they were on the same page about what was expected of them. In this new era of relationship awareness, people are recognizing that they can discuss the kind of relationship they want.
Some couples have explored open marriage, in which the partners give each other permission to be sexual with others, within certain parameters. The rules may be that you can flirt, but no touching; that it’s okay to kiss and fool around a little, but no intercourse; or that you can do whatever you want with people I don’t know when you’re out of town. These are all possibilities that work for some people. When it stops working for them, they can reassess it.
Sex and getting older. I was recently interviewed for an article on alternative lifestyles for a women’s magazine. The journalist was asking me about a young couple who had met at a swing party, had fallen in love and married, and had continued that lifestyle. Weren’tthe partners playing with fi re if they truly loved each other and wanted the relationship to last? Not necessarily, I said. They both seemed to be into it, they were in their twenties, and their responses to the journalist’s questions indicated that it was a lifestyle and a social community with friends they both valued. It seemed to be working for them.
However, I added, it may or may not continue to work for them. Priorities change as we get older or have children, and at some point that couple might choose to renegotiate the contract. The best thing they could do is to keep checking in with each other on how it’s going for them.
The journalist then described another couple with a young child, who had decided to open up the relationship but weren’t doing well. The partners argued about it. She thought that he was always on the make, so she would punish him by feigning interest in men who threatened him.
I told the journalist that this couple seemed to have some real issues. The partners seemed incapable of setting boundaries in a loving way and instead were emotionally blackmailing each other to gain an edge. I wondered whether they even enjoyed having sex with other people or whether the real kicker was just spiting each other.
Sex and getting older
These two people seemed to need some help, not only in their relationship but also in their personal healing. That kind of punishing behavior is usually indicative of long-term hurt and possibly abuse, and their willingness to put up with such relationship chaos suggests that each may have had a tough childhood. They certainly needed to renegotiate their contract, and if they sought therapy to do that, it could start a process that would be illuminating on many fronts.
Sex and getting older. Eventually, in every relationship, tacit assumptions surface and are challenged, and a process of negotiation may be initiated for the fi rst time. It can be a painful time for people who aren’t well practiced in the fi ne art and grace of give and take, but it can also be an eye-opener and an impetus for growth.
Changing Views of Sex
In this postmodern world of breaking the social molds of the past and crafting new models for singles, couples, and families, more people are willing to explore their sexuality. News magazines have been trying to keep up with the trends.
Periodically they report on the growing incidence of college students and older adults who are experimenting with various forms of sexual activity and sexual nonexclusivity. Same-sex sexual activity by heterosexuals, bisexuality, threesomes, polyamory (maintaining two or more ongoing intimate relationships), and the increasingly acceptable phenomenon of older women with younger men are just a few of the possibilities in the sexually diverse panoply.
Under the circumstances, does it make sense for modern women and men to assume that once they become part of a couple, they have to defi ne the relationship according to the old standards and then stick to them forever? That doesn’t seem right to psychotherapist Esther Perel.
Sex and getting older. Appreciating the wealth of intimate configurations available today—marriage and domestic partnerships, successive marriages, serial monogamy, cohabitation, or never marrying—Perel has assailed a “monolithic monogamy” of absolute sexual exclusivity. Instead she has encouraged an acceptance rather than a denial of the lure of the other, “the shadow of the third.”
For some couples, she noted, just the acknowledgment that one partner has his or her own sexuality, fantasy life, and desires that don’t include the partner bestows a sense of freedom that may be enough to spice up their sex life. For couples who do experiment with sex outside the relationship, fidelity is defined not by sexual exclusivity but by emotional exclusivity. Perel suggested that the less people choke off each other’s freedom, the easier it is for their desire to breathe in a committed relationship.
Sex and getting older
In my own practice I’ve noticed a number of creative solutions to resolving sexual dilemmas. For one heterosexual couple in which both partners were in their forties, the man had little interest in sex, and the woman lobbied for change.
She had heard about a lifestyles convention in Las Vegas and suggested that they go to it and see what it was like to be around “a bunch of oversexed people.” As it turned out, they really enjoyed it and found themselves having hot sex with each other in their hotel room. From then on, they continued to go to swinging parties but had sex only with each other. She said that they were inspired by the lack of shame and everyone’s openness and ease with sex.
Sex and getting older. In another situation, one very attractive and fit woman in her ffties had been single for many years and missed having sex with a committed partner. Pam had met men through Internet dating services and had been fixed up by friends and coworkers. None of the people she met suited her, and she lamented that most of the men her age were looking for women much younger.
Pam had struck up a friendship with a woman at the gym, and as they discovered mutual interests, they started to spend a good deal of time together. A surprising turn of events occurred one evening after the theater when Pam’s friend, Irene, admitted to being a lesbian and to falling in love with Pam.
Pam’s initial response was to cut off contact with Irene, but she really missed her. After several weeks of soul-searching, Pam decided to call Irene just to see if the chemistry between them was still there. It was, so Pam and Irene got together again and made love. Pam described it to me as “magical.” It took her a while to deal with this late-in-life switch in sexual orientation, and she wondered if this meant that she had always been a lesbian.
I shared with Pam the research that shows that many women demonstrate a flexible sexuality capable of being responsive to both men and women as objects of desire, yet often they don’t let themselves become aware of it. There are also women who do notice that they can become turned on to another woman and who enjoy the feeling, but they choose to make nothing of it because they prefer to mate with a man.
That information appeared to reassure Pam that she had not been lying to herself all these years. When she finally came out to her friends and her grown sons, Pam was doubly shocked to discover that everyone was happy for her and supported her love relationship with a woman.
Pam and Irene have now been in a domestic partnership for more than five years, and they are one of the happiest couples I know. Pam has also confided to me that sex with Irene is the most loving and fulfilling sex she has ever experienced.
Sex and getting older
Cultural Sexual Evolution
Today’s young women and men have benefited from the sexual culture wars of the last decades and the ongoing sex scandals and civil rights issues that sustain a national dialogue on sex. Open discussions of oral sex, infidelity by public figures, purportedly heterosexual (and publicly anti-gay) men seeking sex with other men, the controversies over whether sex can be an addiction, as well as the current battles over gay marriage, gay parenting, and homosexuals in the military, have all been newsworthy topics. This generation is already more flexible in its understanding of sex and is redefining for itself a new set of sexual standards.
Sex and getting older. On the blog site Collegecandy.com, Kelly from Simmons College gave the following advice to college students exploring sex: “It’s completely normal to be a virgin in college, and you shouldn’t feel pressured to lose it. . . . There are more than three sexuality, gay, straight, or bi. Sex is on a spectrum from completely heterosexual to completely homosexual (Kinsey would agree). . . . Casual sex can be hard if one person cares more than the other.” She also offered that “monogamy is not the gold standard” and suggested that college students should “explore open relationships and multiple relationships. Find out what type of relationship makes you happiest and pursue it.”
Love, Sex, and Getting Older
It’s not only the hormonal fueled younger generation whose attitudes are changing. Older adults are also getting in on the action. Sex and getting older.
Contrary to popular myth, we never have to outgrow our enjoyment of loving sex. In fact, there’s plenty of evidence that sex in midlife and late life may hold even better prospects for sexual satisfaction than in youth. When people work through insecurities that held them back when they were younger, get past their disappointments, and come to appreciate what they do have, many find that mature sex may be the best of all.
That’s what Harry and Marie, who were in their early sixties, were hoping when they came for sex therapy. Harry had recently recovered from a life-threatening illness and had told Marie that he was no longer willing to live without sexual fulfillment.
They both looked scared as they sat on my couch during their first session. Harry told me that his colon cancer had been found early, the treatment was successful, and he was in complete remission. He and Marie had been high school sweethearts, had been married almost forty years, and loved each other very much. They both agreed that sex had been “not great, but good enough” in the early years, but after they started a family it had deteriorated.
Harry felt that Marie gave in to sex to please him but that her heart was not in it. Marie agreed, saying that sex was just not that important to her, but she wanted Harry to be happy. That didn’t work for Harry; Marie’s lack of enjoyment made sex empty for him, and he believed that his health depended on the joie de vivre after sex that can come only with the full participation of both people.
Sex and getting older. As we examined the many factors contributing to this couple’s stagnant sex life, we found a deep lack of information and imagination about what constitutes enjoyable sexual contact. Marie, who was a virgin when they met, had always been passive, and Harry, who had one sex partner briefly prior to Marie, had assumed leadership in sex from start to fi nish. They had three children, and once they had begun having babies, Marie became distracted during sex and wanted it to be over as quickly as possible. She had never had an orgasm and had some sadness about that but had given up on it.
Sex and getting older
We clearly had some catching up to do. We looked at many of the factors that I’ve raised in this book, all of which were very helpful. We examined how they made love and how Marie’s passivity and discomfort with pleasure and Harry’s focus on intercourse and ejaculation had contributed to routine and boring sex. We looked at the childhood influences that led them to accept this kind of contact and had allowed them to keep it this way for so long.
Sex and getting older. Mostly, however, we explored how they might expand their repertoire for being present with each other and playful. They saw that if Harry was less commanding, it would give Marie room to assert herself.
They also decided to experiment with oral sex, and we talked about the basics of how it’s done. It worked out amazingly well. Marie had her first orgasm—at sixty-two years of age. Their broad smiles lit up the room when they told me about it.
Loving Sex for All Seasons
Mature sex can be better than young sex when people have learned from their experiences. Sex educator Carol Cassell has observed that more women today, whether married or single, are better at asking for what they want in sex. Many men too can enjoy more fulfi lling sex as they get older because the rush to intercourse of their earlier years is tempered by a slower rate of arousal and a desire for emotional connection.
When author Joan Price found herself, at age sixty, having the best sex of her life with a man she loved, she began to research the phenomenon. She discovered a 1998 study by the National Council on Aging on thirteen hundred Americans that found that 70 percent of the sexually active women over sixty indicated that they were as satisfied or more satisfied sexually than when they were in their forties.
Price decided to solicit interviews with other sexually active women over sixty to see what insights they could share. She found that many women were eager to discuss what often amounted to a newly discovered level of sexual pleasure. Price attributed this enhanced sexuality to a variety of factors, including older women knowing their bodies better and accepting themselves, taking the time with their partners to enjoy touching and stimulating each other, and recognizing that “great sex is what’s happening between two souls, two minds, two hearts — not just two bodies.”
Sex and getting older
Older women and men of today are healthier and more fit than their parents at the same age. Popular culture is providing more images of middle-aged sex. From Diane Keaton and Jack Nicholson in Something’s Gotta Give to Meryl Streep and Alec Baldwin in It’s Complicated to the sexual innuendos between the older characters played by Karen McCluskey and Orson Bean on the television show Desperate Housewives, attitudes about age and sex are shifting. No longer disparaged as dirty old men or women, today’s sexy seniors are considered healthy and vibrant.
Sex and getting older. Recent studies are showing that as long as people stay healthy, many men and women continue to be sexually active in their seventies, eighties, and beyond. In one study, almost 25 percent of sexually active adults between the ages of seventy-five and eighty five reported having sex four times a month.
In a book about love and sex for people over the age of sixty Pulitzer Prize–winning physician and longevity expert Robert Butler and gerontologist Myrna Lewis have suggested that sexual activity provides older people with many benefits. These include the opportunity to express passion, affection, and romance. Enjoying sex, they said, is an affirmation of one’s body and of life itself; it provides the impetus to create new excitement and experiences in long-term relationships and to grow in new directions.
The authors suggested that older people may be able to bring love and sex to new levels of development because they have learned from experience and appreciate the “preciousness of life.” They are more present-centered because they are less focused on the future, and they usually have more time available that can be used well by focusing on their sexual relationships. Finally, Butler and Lewis suggest that old age can be a time “for bringing the experience of a lifetime and the unique perspectives of the final years of life to the art of loving one another.”
Sex educator Peggy Brick, who is in her eighties, has become a major advocate for the sexual health, education, and rights of older adults. She has encouraged people to examine their old scripts about sex and aging, to be realistic and accepting about body changes, and to recognize that sex is much more than just intercourse.
Noting the physical and psychological benefits of sexual activity at all ages, Brick has expressed particular concern about the rights of mutually consenting residents in assisted living facilities to engage in discreet and safe sex. It is especially critical for these couples for the staff to be respectful of their wishes and to provide access to private space if requested.
A minister and pastoral counselor recently shared with me a tender story about one of his parishioners. An energetic ninetyfive-year-old woman had come to him to grieve over the passing of a male friend of the same age. The two had become inseparable since they had met in a nursing home five years earlier. The minister comforted her as she cried over the loss of her dear companion. Then when she stood to leave, a wistful smile crossed her face. As the minister helped her up, she leaned toward him and whispered, “I’m really going to miss the sex.”
Sex and getting older
I saved a clipping from an Ann Landers column that’s now more than ten years old. In it, “Stunned Sisters in Philadelphia” wrote that one Sunday, when they went to visit their eighty three- year-old mother at the nursing home, they walked in on her and got the surprise of their lives. They caught her on the sofa in a silk negligee necking with an eighty-four-year-old widower. Even more shocking, their mother announced that she and her friend were getting married. Does it make sense? they asked Ann Landers. Can two people in their eighties possibly be interested in sex? They needed answers.
Sex and getting older. Landers replied that she thought it was wonderful, and she added, “Whatever they want to do together (or perhaps I should say can do together) is their personal business. Be happy for them. If I lived in Philadelphia, I would offer to be the flower girl.”
Added Years Mean Added Pleasures. Sex and Getting Older
Before the 2010 census, the U.S. Census Bureau projected that there would be 114,000 people living past the age of one hundred. That’s more than twice the number of centenarians in 1984. Centenarians are the fastest growing age group in the world. By 2050, there may be at least six million people worldwide over the age of one hundred. If we take care of ourselves, we can look forward to long and healthy lives, and we want to live them well.
That’s the realization that Harry had when he told Marie that he felt that loving sexual pleasure was crucial for his health and vitality. Getting sick had been a wake-up call. He realized that he had been accepting much less than he really wanted in a lot of areas in his life and that he had been given a second chance. He loved Marie dearly and would never leave her, but he couldn’t continue to have sex with her if things didn’t change. He believed that his continuing survival depended on fixing their sex life—and they did it in their sixties.
A midlife crisis can be a correction rather than a crisis—a mid course correction. Many of us get very caught up in the fast pace of the full lives we’ve created for ourselves. Often, our lives are fueled by adrenaline and stress, and we rely on automatic pilot to get everything done. When something comes along that makes us question how we have lived our lives thus far, that’s a good thing. It’s a sign of waking up from a stupor and taking charge, of gaining the courage to explore new options, and of a willingness to make choices and changes toward what’s truly nurturing and life affirming. That’s evolution in action.
Sex and getting older. People may also reach a point in life when they can no longer tolerate living an inauthentic existence. Maybe they have put up with bad treatment from their partners or have been denying an aspect of themselves that can no longer remain submerged. The hunger to be true to oneself is a powerful motivator— it’s a yearning to be wholehearted and undivided within.
Sex and getting older
Then there are people who are lying not just to themselves but also to a partner. What happens when one discovers a partner’s infidelity or a hidden life of infidelities? Can that be repaired, or has the relationship been so damaged by the scope of the situation that it is impossible to repair?
That depends on many factors specific to each couple. Not the least of these is whether the partners have young children and want to keep the family together. Another major factor is whether they genuinely love each other and want to work it out. If they have the will to see it through, then all it takes is patience, remorse, forgiveness, self-forgiveness, courage, and determination. Clearly, it’s not easy.
Sex and getting older. I have witnessed many couples in crisis as the result of one partner discovering the other partner in an affair. I have gone with each couple through the multiple layers of anger, grief, guilt, and shame, the slow gains and the sudden tailspins that put the relationship back at risk. I have also seen such couples come out of it better and more in love than they had ever been before. As it says over and over in the I Ching, the ancient Chinese book of wisdom, “Perseverance furthers.”
Flourishing in a Fulfilling Intimacy. Sex and Getting Older
Taking a relationship to a new level of satisfaction entails more than just resolving problems. As psychologist Diana Fosha has pointed out, when people have expressed stuck feelings and worked through their distress, the next stage of growth is a naturally activated process of transformation, what she calls “wired-in dispositions for self-healing.” These are pleasurable feelings that release great stores of vitality and energy. When partners work on their insecurities and come to a loving and trusting place in their relationship, the emphasis in life changes from fixing what’s not working or is missing to enhancing what they have.
New research in the science of happiness in a relationship has identified several positive factors that make a fulfilling intimate relationship. In a review of the many studies, University of Rochester psychologists Harry Reis and Shelly Gable highlighted several positive interactions that were consistently found to be significant. The four that I want to emphasize here are accommodation, capitalization, shared fun, and affection.
Accommodation is the tendency to respond in a constructive way to a partner’s “bad” or annoying behavior. We examined this in the context of learning to avoid picking up emotional contagion. When one partner can regulate stress during a rapidly escalating stress point, he or she is more likely to respond compassionately, speak nicely, or use humor to voice an objection. Sex and getting older.
Sex and getting older
The researchers pointed out a tendency of many couples to let the good stuff slide and to talk only about what isn’t satisfying. The research demonstrated the importance of a couple’s ability to make the most of—to capitalize on—happy occasions: to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays together and to share pleasant experiences.
Sex and getting older. One of the most consistent effects in the many studies reviewed was the value of having fun together. Being playful, or enjoying energizing and engaging activity together, is particularly associated with relationship satisfaction.
On a physiological level, doing new and exciting things together stimulates the reward centers of the brain, which releases dopamine. The excitement becomes associated with the relationship, which tends to inspire feelings of romantic love. The research showed that this can happen simply by taking a class together or traveling to new places with each other.
Also important is the excitement and satisfaction that comes with behaviors and gestures that communicate tender feelings of love, warmth, and appreciation. Reis and Gable cited findings that expressions of affection demonstrated by a couple during the first two years of marriage were predictive, thirteen years later, of whether the couple would stay together or divorce.
Moreover, there is evidence that affectionate contact spurs oxytocin, which in turn increases a person’s feelings of connection and the tendency to be nurturing. Physical affection that includes eye contact, hugging, touching, and making love particularly increases oxytocin levels. Oxytocin reduces the stress level and, as we have seen, is associated with multiple health benefits and feelings of well-being.
Reis and Gable concluded that flourishing in a relationship requires a focus not just on solving problems but specifically on enhancing the interactions that make relationships most fulfilling, enjoyable, and growth producing. They emphasize, “Relating well is not the same as not relating badly.”
Clearly, the ability to enjoy emotionally gratifying sexual pleasure has much to contribute to flourishing in a relationship. Sex and getting older.
Sex and getting older
Truly Great Sex
Sex and getting older. What does it really take to feel sexually fulfilled? I continually hear people describe great sex as “hanging from the chandeliers,” but that sounds like a bunch of rich people having a drunken orgy, and not a very sexy one at that.
Sexologist Peggy Kleinplatz and colleagues at the University of Ottawa set out to shed light on the components of what people consider their “greatest sexual experiences.” The researchers were hoping to gain a better understanding of what kinds of sex are worth having and to help individuals and couples access more of what they intuit is possible in sex.
The study was based on a series of interviews with sixty-four volunteers who self-identifi ed as currently having great sex or who had had great sex in the past. The wide sample of people included men and women, older married people, gay men and lesbians, sexual minorities like bondage and discipline (BDSM) players, and sex therapists. The data were analyzed by themes, and eight major components of optimal sex were identified. All of these have been described in various sections of this book. I’ll emphasize a few of them again.
The most frequently articulated quality of great sex was “being present, focused, and embodied.” The participants said they felt totally absorbed in the moment-to-moment sensations of the experience. Sex and getting older.
Another component frequently cited was “extraordinary communication and heightened empathy.” Here people described being able to respond sensitively and non-verbally by reading their partners’ responses through their own bodies.
Many also talked about “authenticity” and “transparency,” the freedom to be genuinely honest with themselves and feeling no self-consciousness with their partners. Another vital characteristic for the participants was exploring themselves in the context of “fun and play,” having a sense of humor and even enjoying laughter during sex. The participants also said that “allowing oneself to be vulnerable and to surrender to a partner” made sex truly exquisite.
What was most surprising to Kleinplatz and colleagues about the findings was that they painted “a radically different picture of optimal sexuality than portrayed in the mass media.” Great sex had little to do with erections, vaginal lubrication, intercourse, or orgasm and everything to do with emphatic attunement and being present and focused.
The authors suggested that focusing on sexual performance for those with sexual concerns is counterproductive, because really great sex is all about “being in the experience,” enjoying the connection, and letting it unfold rather than achieving any particular sexual goals.
Sex and getting older
Everyday Eroticism Is Everyday Love. Sex and Getting Older
In other words, great sex depends not on how the encounter ends — in intercourse or with an orgasm—but on how you get there. When there is intercourse and orgasm as well, that can be the beginning of something more: an opening into a whole new level of physical abandon, exquisite pleasure, and spiritual union. The critical factors are all of the elements that serve emotional and erotic attunement: arousal, affection, focused attention, empathy, humor, generosity, gratitude, and a willingness to relax and physically enjoy the other.
Taking a broader perspective, we can see that what we’re looking at here is a style of running a relationship that generates “juice” on a daily basis: energy, enthusiasm, loving feelings, and sexual playfulness. Some days, naturally, will be juicier than other days, but that’s just the way it goes.
This is also an attitude that honors the primacy of the body and the crucial role of pleasure. It’s supported and informed by the cutting edge of research in the sciences of sexology, psychology, physiology, neurology, developmental neurobiology, and flourishing.
Sex and getting older. Most especially, this is a way of life. Positive interactions support positive feelings and the capacity to enjoy the pleasures of true love and sexual aliveness.
The Key to Success in Everything: Relaxed Excitement. Sex and Getting Older
I hope I’ve expanded your perspective on love and desire as present-centered, body-based experiences that offer a wide terrain for exploration and a whole lifetime ahead of you to do it in. It’s a worthy journey, and it begins with a single breath. As the twentieth-century German playwright Bertolt Brecht wrote, “What has happened has happened. The water you once poured into the wine cannot be drained off. But everything changes. You can make a fresh start with your final breath.”
Once again, the key to success in everything is nurturing the capacity to be energized and relaxed at the same time. You do that by remembering to take a few conscious breaths periodically throughout the day, especially when you feel yourself growing tense. Conscious breathing puts you in touch with the moment, and during times of stress it balances the nervous system by triggering the parasympathetic nervous system.
Deep breathing is also a way of self-soothing during difficult times or when you’re worried. It’s better than popping a pill. Taking just a few complete breaths or deep sighs alters your biochemistry, producing an internally manufactured mood-altering drug that’s good for you.
Sex and getting older. Breathing and relaxing during physically intimate times is at the core of being in touch and attuned to your lover, allowing your sexual desire to build slowly and naturally.
Sex and getting older
Most important, this is an everyday practice. Relaxed excitement is about breathing and stretching periodically throughout your day to regulate your stress. Checking in with yourself and taking an emotional inventory allows you to deal with things sooner rather than later—before they become big deals. If you have a partner, it’s important that you help him or her to do the same.
It has been said that how you do anything is how you do everything. Your patterns follow you everywhere. Practicing emotionally gratifying sexual pleasure is a great way to learn the principle of relaxed excitement. Developing the impulse to breathe deeply, rather than tense up, as your body energizes can have a positive effect on your work, stamina, creativity, optimism, and health as much as on your love life.
Sex and getting older. All it takes is practice, day by day by day by day.
The New Sexual Evolution
In January 1964, Time magazine ran an article on what it called “the second sexual revolution.” It identified the fi rst sexual revolution as the era after World War I, the 1920s, known as the Jazz Age. The fl apper and the New Woman challenged the double standard and gained the right to vote, to work, and to enjoy sex. Still, the authors noted, it was not a time of marked change in sexual behavior.
The second sexual revolution was the one in the 1960s, and it turned out quite different. What the article saw happening was a complete change in sexual morality. The change was reflected in a new sexual explicitness in books, movies, and the theater; sexual experimentation and non marital sexual activity were extolled. Sexual experience, not purity, was becoming an asset.
Just as the birth-control pill separated sex from reproduction, the article’s authors lamented, the Sexual Revolution appeared to be separating sex from love. Although they saw many positives to the new movement, particularly that “Americans are becoming more sophisticated, and less inhibited in bed,” they also cautioned men that now “American women must be wooed more than ever.”
Many people feel a need for a “reaffirmation of the spiritual meaning of sex,” the article said, and it ended by suggesting that maybe “it is time that “modern Americans, who know a great deal about sex, once again start talking about love.”
Sex and getting older
Nearly fifty years later, I still don’t think we all know a “great deal about sex,” but we are learning. Thanks to a burgeoning body of science, we are also beginning to learn a great deal more about love and emotional attachment.
Now all we have to do is make it all work for ourselves. I think of this reuniting love with sexual pleasure as the New Sexual Evolution. Sex and getting older.
Instruction: Evolution as a Lifestyle. Sex and Getting Older.
Objective: To make stress regulation and embodied love a daily practice
Sex and getting older. Those of us who are moving on to the next developmental stage in life as members of an erotic couple can deepen our love and fulfillment through embodied affection and erotic attunement.
The following exercises are mostly reminders of what you have practiced so far that can be incorporated into a loving, sexy style of daily living.
Self-Regulate: Everyday Embodied Basics
Make the embodied basics part of your everyday life. Take charge of your emotional energy. Be sure to take a few mindful minutes several times a day to breathe deeply and relax, to close your eyes and tune in to your body. Take a felt-sense inventory. Stretch and de-stress.
There is no doubt that the more fi t we are physically and the better our mobility, the greater our desire for sex. Just as you don’t want to relegate sex solely to the bedroom at night, you don’t want to relegate your fi tness solely to a gym at a particular hour of the day. Figure out how you can stretch, exercise, and practice fitness in every room in your home.
- Find a heavy piece of furniture with a leg that will support you in a squat, a doorway that is good for stretching your arms and chest as you pass through, a stair or a doorstep for stretching out your hamstrings, and several spaces that are good for dancing.
- Conduct your own personal aerobics class with your favorite lively music. Clear a path from one room to another that you can jog back and forth through, even if it’s only a few feet long.
Upgrade your capacity to love, to feel compassion, and to be kind.
- If your parents let you down, forgive them for their inadequacies. They’re just ordinary people, not the superhero parents you would have preferred. Given their history, they couldn’t have done it any differently. But you can. Give up ideal love and accept real love—flawed but still special.
- Don’t allow your partner to be disrespectful. Educate him or her nicely on how you like to be treated.
- Don’t take your love for granted. Periodically picture the people you love in your mind’s eye and remind yourself about what you love about them and how they enrich your life.
- Feel warmth and gratitude in your heart. See if you can feel love in your throat and belly. Where else do you feel it? If at fi rst you don’t feel love in your body, run up and down a flight of steps and then picture him or her again. Once you find the feelings of love in your body, check in with those feelings from time to time.
- Take the time to admire and appreciate your partner. Do little things your partner enjoys and feel his or her pleasure in your heart, and in the rest of your body.
- Always ask for what you want. Always ask nicely. Be willing to take no for an answer. (As long as it’s not all of the time.
Sex and getting older
Mutual Regulation: The Embodied Couple
Take advantage of the enormous power intimates have to calm each other’s stress and help each other feel good, hopeful, confident, grateful, and joyous.
- Renew your loving feelings daily, even for just a few seconds. Stay attuned. Look into each other’s eyes when you talk. Smile at each other every so often. Give him or her a hug and a kiss. Lie in each other’s arms and breathe together. Touch and stroke each other with listening, empathic hands Help your partner de-stress by holding him or her when he or she is tense. Breathe together. Ask to be held when you’re tense.
- Be playful. Make each other laugh.
- Be romantic. Find ways to make your partner feel special — let your lover know those moments when he or she is being the sweetest, cutest, funniest, wisest, most generous, best lover or best friend.
- Enjoy the silence together.
Eroticize Your Daily Life
Be sexy for yourself. Connect with your inner lover and be sweet to the person you see in the mirror.
- Make time for self-pleasuring, even if it’s for just a few minutes. Don’t aim for an orgasm each time—just a good feeling and maybe a pleasant fantasy.
- Surprise your partner with an unexpected kiss and a warm caress. Let your kisses linger. Make out for a little while and stop while you still want more.
- Come on to each other playfully, without having to do anything immediate about it. Every so often, play dress-up to entice each other.
- Talk sexy. Whatever turns you and your lover on is okay.
- Make time for sex play when you are alert and energetic. Try extending your erotic energy for several days instead of just going for a quickie orgasm before falling asleep at night.
- Every so often, go for a quickie orgasm before falling asleep at night.
- Do what turns you on and gives you both pleasure.
Those of us who enjoy such love are the richest people on earth.
Enjoy your good fortune!
“The Heart of Desire”
Keys to the Pleasures of Love
Stella Resnick, PHDA Four-Inch-Long Penis Is More Than Adequate