Sexuality In Midlife and Beyond

I recently received an e-mail from a colleague of mine, sex therapist Suki Hanfling. She was announcing the publication of a new report, “Sexuality in Midlife and Beyond,” that she edited with Alan Altman, MD, Assistant Professor at Harvard Medical School.

Thanks to the proliferation of ads for Viagra, Cialis and Levitra, it is hard to find an American tv viewer, including kids watching football or Red Sox games, who haven’t heard the term “erectile dysfunction,” often referred to as its acronym, “ED.”

On the one hand, these ads do put forth the message that people in midlife and beyond are still sexual beings. On the other hand, another inference is that people over 40 or 50 cannot have “normal” sexual lives without the magical impact of a little pill.

While it is true that for many people, Viagra and its siblings is indeed an answer to a prayer, for others, the ED drugs add another emotionally charged shadow to the process of intimate relating, dealing with aging bodies, and relational difficulties between partners that influence connection or lack thereof in the bedroom.

In their announcement, Hanfling and Altman lead with the message, “Viagra can create relationship problems as well as solve them.” While the pills can produce chemically-induced erections in some men, they “offer no help in untangling the emotional and relationship pressures that frequently accompany erectile dysfunction.”

A man needs to feel sexual desire for his partner for the pills to work. “If emotional issues are impinging on libido, the pills won’t help. A man struggling with ED may be so embarrassed that he is no longer willing to attempt sexual activity, and his partner may mistakenly believe he is no longer attracted to her.”

For many couples, talking about sexuality is very difficult to start with.
Few people have the language or the comfort to talk about what they need, what feels good and what needs tuning. If a partner tries to speak about their needs, including what might need to change, even a little bit, in the moment, their attempt to communicate may be received as criticism and shut down the sexual energy very quickly.

When ED is part of the terrain, talking might be even more difficult. Shame is such a player in many people’s sense of sexuality. When there are physical or emotional difficulties in being sexual, shame may cast a large shadow.

Building a sense of emotional safety and good will between two partners is essential to being able to have the often difficult yet necessary intimate conversations that lead to fullest sexual–and soul–connection. If a couple can establish a safe rapport with one another, both in and outside of the bedroom, there is more space to attempt to address something as vulnerable as ED.

And just for the record, while I have not seen statistics of libido, sexual function and emotional connection as people age, if people are physically healthy, emotionally available, and sexually connected, it is possible to have a vital sexual life well beyond middle age.

If we can heal and learn to open our hearts more fully to a beloved partner, our bodies may be capable of more feeling and desire. We can also find ways to pleasure ourselves and one another together that reinforce and express a sense of sexual-spirituality, so we can be nourished by more than just what Stan Dale of the Human Awareness Institute calls, “wiggle, wiggle, pop.”

Feeling safe and free to have desire and needs, and having a loving partner who can hear us and respect us goes a long way in deepening intimacy between two partners. This kind of connecting transcends time, space and age, and provides a very special soul-nourishing quality.

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