You've seen the ads for Cialis and Viagra showing that all it takes to bring the sex back into the relationships of the fifty-plus is a little pill. However, these medications aren't for everyone, nor do they necessarily work. Some couples, as they age, may at some point have to come to grips with the fact that the sex in their relationship will never be what it was in the past. For these couples, they will need to find some other ways to infuse the intimacy into their relationship that sexuality once provided.
Insight into how couples reach the point of becoming "sexless," or being involuntarily celibate, comes from a 2008 paper written by sociologists Denise Donnelly and Elizabeth Burgess (see below). According to Donnelly and Burgess, sexless couples remain together for as long as they believe the benefits of sticking it out are greater than the costs of splitting. Traditionally, for women 50 and older, those benefits include having a partner who loves you and wants to be with you. Society views aging women more negatively than aging men, so women who have a mate who cares about them are reluctant to leave that behind. Though this may be less true in the future, current women in their 50s and beyond may also be less able to make it on their own due to financial limitations so stay in the marriage for practical reasons.
Both men and women, however, may stay together in a sexless marriage because they've already invested so many years together. This investment in each other, along with social norms that you remain faithful to your marital partner, keep these couples from straying.
Once in the situation, how do couples cope with the sexless marriage, and is their happiness forever doomed? Donnelly and Burgess believe that couples can find joy in the sexless marriage by taking one or more of these four routes to managing stress:
1. Engage in social comparison: Find couples you see as similar to yourselves who are also sexless, which will help you see the experience as "normal."
2. Find a sense of "we-ness:" Change your definition of intimacy from sexuality to companionship. As long as you feel your partner is your best friend, you'll find the rewards of staying together will remain high.
3. Redefine the situation in positive terms: If you can see this as a test of your inner strength or spirituality, you'll be able to find opportunities for self-growth despite the challenges.
4. Find other outlets: Throwing yourself, together or alone, into hobbies, travel, work, or adult education classes can allow you to find emotional relief.
Not every sexless couple manages to stay together, but if you believe that the benefits outweigh the costs, you can make the situation work to your advantage. Just as in a relationship involving physical intimacy, a sexless relationship is held together by the glue of love, shared values, and mutual goals, values, and experiences. As long as you have these ingredients, you'll be able to manage this, and the many other stresses, that characterize long-term intimate relationships.
Donnelly, D. A., & Burgess, E. O. (2008). The decision to remain in an involuntarily celibate relationship. Journal Of Marriage And Family, 70(2), 519-535. doi:10.1111/j.1741-3737.2008.00498.x
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