Sexual problems in midlife can create heart-breaking rifts in relationships. Symptoms of the menopausal journey, family and work stresses, and the shame of talking about sex, often combine to shut down intimacy even in formerly close couples. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
“I miss sex so much. Not just the sex itself, but the closeness, you know?”. The woman in front of me dabs at her eyes with a tissue. “It’s not like we were swinging from chandeliers every weekend. But we used to have a good time, we used to laugh, and it felt like us against the world. Now it’s like we are colleagues, running the business of our shared life.”
If you’re a woman in midlife with a long-term partner, do you recognise these words…? If our libido goes AWOL at this life stage it doesn’t necessarily occur to us to fight for it – we’ve always been told we’ll be ‘dried-up and past-it’ post-40. This is a loss in so many ways, the physical and mental benefits of sex being big ones. But the impact on relationships can also be devastating.
Sex can be a key way we or our partner show love, affection and attention. It can be the time we get to relax and play as adults, and may be the one thing we share only with each other, that makes us a special team. It might be the main way we make physical contact. When midlife pressures hit, many women stopped hugging or kissing their partner in the fear it will lead to an expectation of sex. They feel desperately lonely.
If this describes you, you are not alone. Professor Susan Davis at Monash University in Australia led a team researching libido in 10,500 women. It found the percentage reporting ‘low libido’ jumped from 37.6 per cent in the 33-39 year old age bracket, to 59.3 per cent in the 40-44 year old group – by far the largest jump over the lifespan. It then climbed to 74.2 per cent in the 55-59 year old group.
Of course, low libido is not necessarily a problem, if a women is not upset by it and it doesn’t cause problems in her life. So Dr Davis also asked about distress around it. The proportion of women reporting low libido AND associated distress was 24.5 per cent for 35-39-year-olds, and jumped to 33.4 per cent for 40-44-year olds. It then stayed above 30 per cent, until starting to fall post-65.
So for 25 years of their lifespans, around a third of women have low libido and distress about the situation.
This is a dire shame, when there is much that can be done to address the problem, and so much to gain. Aside from keeping us close with a partner, good sex boosts our physical and mental health and reduces stress. Genital arousal helps fend off vaginal atrophy. And sexual pleasure helps us be friends with our bodies, which is what we need at this age.
How can we turn this around?
We may have lived our lives believing we have little to no control over our libido, but that’s incorrect. Here are my suggestions.
- Firstly, realise that you have the power to start to change the situation, independent of medical help. Our libido and our experience of sex come about from a wide bio-psycho-social picture – not only our hormones. Our overall health and self-care, beliefs about sex, knowledge of how arousal works, knowledge of our own body and what we need, and how we communicate, are just as important.
- Having said that, a trip to the GP or medical specialist is a wise step. Do not be shy to report problems with sex. There are a range of options which can help.
- Consider your lifestyle overall. If you constantly feel stressed and exhausted, and never have time for yourself, your libido will be flattened. Practice self-care and prioritise having some private moments.
- Next, take yourself on an educational journey into sex science. To make a change we need to understand what we are working with. Dive into QVC’s videos with experts, check out podcasts, books, TED talks and documentaries. You could even take an online course. What you learn about anatomy and how desire works, can revolutionise your approach.
- Upgrade your expectations of sex in midlife. Who told you it stops, and would you trust them as an expert in other areas of your life? We can often quickly see that we are following old programming from sources we wouldn’t allow to run our lives in other areas!
- Get curious and explore toys and lube. They can entirely change your sexual experience and with online shopping they no longer mean a visit to a sex shop. A joy of moving beyond our reproductive years is that sex becomes purely for pleasure. Take this as an opportunity to learn afresh about your body and what it wants.
- If you are feeling uninspired, consider, do you ever see positive representations of sex in the media you consume? If not, it’s no wonder you don’t want it! Explore audio erotica, books, and films. Lean your mainstream viewing towards sexy topics too.
Then can come the trickiest bit – talking to your partner. Choose a private time when you are relaxed and getting on well. Make the conversation about your shared sex life, what you used to appreciate about it, and how you’d like to get it back. Acknowledge if it’s embarrassing or uncomfortable to talk about. Share some of your favourite resources. It can be easier to watch a TED talk or listen to a podcast together – or get them to do so in their own time – and then discuss it, than to directly talk about your sex life. You could even show them this article.
Let them know there is no rush to suddenly change. They may worry pressure is on them to satisfy a newly-sexually-curious partner! If they are a man they may be experiencing age-related erectile changes (taking longer to get hard, not being as reliably erect, not being as hard) which they are embarrassed about. Reassure them this is a new journey of exploration you are on together.
That journey can lead to wonderful places! Long-term couples who report being sexually happy in older age, often point to midlife as a time when sex changed… and became better. Ironically the physical challenges for both parties can lead to slower sex with less of a focus on penetrative intercourse, which for women in particular can lead to more satisfaction. There is also renewed communication, creativity and honesty.
We are brought up to believe sex ‘just happens’, but in midlife in particular it’s time for us to take charge and put some conscious thought and effort in. The benefits could include our best-ever sex going forward, with all the relationship closeness that brings.
The content of the QVC website is for information only. It is not intended as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your doctor or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on the QVC website.