“Hope Springs” -- the midlife comedy starring Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones --has done a great service: it has thoughtfully dealt with the realities of a sexless marriage and what it takes to cross the “chasm that appears between a couple that hasn't had sex in a long time,” said Pepper Schwartz, AARP’s sex and relationship expert.
We all know that sex doesn’t have an expiration date -- 26 percent of 75-to-85 year olds have been in an intimate relationship, according to a 2007 study in the New England Journal of Medicine. In fact studies have shown that sex gets better with age.
But even though the misconception that sex over 50 disappears has been lifted, some long-married couples can still hang on to a few harmful beliefs that can have them sleeping on opposite sides of the bed -- or in separate rooms entirely.
For these couples, “sex can become unimportant or they think that sex is optional,” Schwartz said. “But it’s the language of connection for men and often for women.”
There’s a scientific reason behind that, Schwartz said. “[When you have sex] you produce oxytocin, a bonding hormone. It’s the hormone that makes you feel close to someone. The body is designed to pull you closer to the one you’re with. Every marriage needs that feeling.” (It’s the same thing that happens when people kiss.)
Partners can consciously or unconsciously send signals to their loved one that can ultimately take sex off the table, which can lead to low self-esteem, anger… or worse.
“If you refuse a number of times, your partner will feel rejected and stop trying and deal with celibacy or go out elsewhere,” Schwartz said. Cheating is unfortunately not uncommon -- one-fifth of married couples have had extramarital affairs.
What the harried couple of “Hope Springs” gets right is bringing in a third party, Schwartz said.
“I think it's very, very hard to reconnect if you've let this situation exist for more than months into years,” she said. “It's very wise to get a third party involved -- I'm a big believer this is the best way to melt this glacial block that forms around each person.
“These sessions can get very tough,” and can include a lot of personal insults, Schwartz continued. “You want somebody to sort of say, ‘Where does this come from, doesn't it come from pain? It's very hard if it's just the two of you to have the maturity to say, 'That hurtful comment is coming from a place of pain, let's explore that.'”
Not sure how to find a therapist? You can talk to your family physician and ask if they know anyone who runs a couple’s practice, or you can go online -- the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists (AASECT) has a member directory where you can search for a therapist by your state and town.
Schwartz is also a fan of good old-fashioned word of mouth. You don’t have to go into details, or even say who the counselor is for. “You'd be surprised how many people will say ‘Oh, I know so and so. Those kinds of one-on-one references in your community are the best way.”
Whatever you do, Schwartz said, don’t keep your marital problems to yourself: You are not alone. “If there is a marriage out there that floats through life with no problems, I haven't met it,” she said. “Just getting it on the table with someone you trust can help you start the process of trying to find a way back to each other.”