When long-term partners don't agree on how often to have—or not to have—sex, does that spell doom beyond the bedroom?
Just how important is sex in a long-term relationship? Right up there with food and water, sex is a basic human need and one that certainly doesn't disappear with age. Rolling over and ignoring problems is never an option.
Nor is unilaterally changing the sexual contract at the heart of a relationship. That is a flashing red light, signalling mayhem and despair on the road ahead. A Zoomer reader writes (and we paraphrase here, to keep things anonymous, because lopsided desire is a painful and deeply private issue):
"What do you do when you're married or in a long-term relationship, and one of you doesn't want to have sex any more? Therapists suggest 'more sex,' but what if your partner literally, seriously, never wants to have sex? Open marriage? Divorce? And are most couples lying about having loving sex regularly?"
Even in our new era of confessional social media, with a Google of answers to our toughest questions at our fingertips and a community found so readily online for even the most niche of subcultures, more overt forms of popular culture have done a poor job of portraying couples coping with this common problem. Polyamory, in particular, is still shrouded in mystique. In the late '60s, we had the film Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice experimenting with wife-swapping (though that term now seems almost offensive); in the '90s, we had couples from the '70s exploring key parties in The Ice Storm with dysfunctional results. There is even the wistfully "perfect" scenario of married-friends-with-benefits that wasn't so perfect in the end, as seen in Same Time, Next Year.
More recently, we had the remarkably nonjudgmental Big Love exploring fundamentalist Mormon polygamy in Utah on cable. But in wider pop culture, people who cheat, even with permission, don't get a fair shake. For a truly great example, you have to look back on the storied partnership of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.
The original power couple had an incredibly convoluted set of rules around their secret extramarital adventures. Of course, none of the shenanigans—with secretaries and bodyguards, neighbours and mutual friends, and in Eleanor's case both men and women—was publicly revealed during their lifetimes. But biographers, particularly the excellent Hazel Rowley of 2010's Franklin and Eleanor: An Extraordinary Marriage, persisted in digging up the real deal. See, the Roosevelt marriage after six pregnancies had run its course on intimacy, but the partnership was intact. Eleanor found out about one of Franklin's long-time dalliances but forgave him during the war and when he subsequently was paralyzed by polio (which, nota bene, didn't dim his ardour). They went on with a "don't ask-don't tell" policy for another couple of decades and nearly four terms of his presidency. This type of arrangement is what many people suspect is at the core of Bill and Hillary Clinton's enduring union.
But let's get back to unpeeling the layers of this reader's query. The good news is that you needn't suffer in silence when your needs aren't being met. There are answers, albeit not easy ones. But first, this is tricky terrain to negotiate, and you need some outside help to unravel all the knots in the bedsheets.
Get thee to a therapist, says Joan Price, Sebastopol, Calif.-based advocate for ageless sexuality. "And if your partner won't go with you to therapy, go on your own!" Price is the author, most recently, of 2015's The Ultimate Guide to Sex After 50. Now 74 herself, the writer and speaker says she wrote a chapter about what happens in this scenario, titled "When Intimacy Ends."
"I get distraught emails all the time from the wife or the husband, saying their partner doesn't want to have sex, doesn't want to get help and thinks this is all fine. They are ready to sail on to the next phase of life sexless," she says. "These emails are full of anguish. 'I'm not ready to pack up my sexuality and throw it away,' they will say. And 'I want my partner, but if my partner is not willing, what do I do? Cheat? Get a prostitute? Wait for them to say it's okay to find someone else?'"
What the partner who doesn't want sex anymore doesn't realize, says Price, is that the partner who does want it may leave and has every right to do so, if this doesn't get addressed.
The reasons for a sex disconnect "are many and varied," says Dr. David McKenzie, a couples and sex therapist serving the Greater Vancouver area. Let's address the biggest fear first, and there is no way to sugar-coat it. "In a situation where a couple's sex life suddenly ends, it should not be ignored," says McKenzie. "It could point to a variety of reasons, such as depression, exhaustion or possibly even the involvement of another outside the marriage."
Of course, there are physical challenges that can multiply with age, but we aren't talking here about erectile dysfunction or the pain and discomfort that can come with menopause, all of which can be treated. Nor are we talking about chronic illnesses, such as diabetes or heart disease or mental illness and the treatments thereof that can also affect libido: these issues can all be addressed with alternative ways of showing intimacy to maintain strong bonds, says McKenzie. He uses the highly evocative term "outercourse," so evocative in fact that it immediately makes clear how couples can work around issues specific to penetration-based intercourse.
So we don't get mired in logistics, we are talking here about a flat-out refusal by one partner to have sex, what might cause that and how it can be addressed. Because understanding the cause of the problem, says McKenzie, will help guide you toward your available options and ultimately your decision together about how you both handle the crisis.
"Not all couples want to have sex," he says. And if you both agree, then there is no problem. But if you don't, "Loss of interest in sex can be a sign of other problems in the relationship, some of which may be caused by physical or mental health issues or, in rarer cases, by such things for example as one partner's excessive gambling or one partner's having an issue with drug or alcohol addiction." These issues need different kinds of treatment.
You need a solid base. "A relationship has to be good enough to work on sexual issues," says Dr. Alina Wydra, a psychologist in private practice in Vancouver who specializes in sex and relationship therapy. There is also the familiarity factor working against you. "At the beginning of a relationship, sex is new and exciting," she says. "Sex in a long-term relationship needs to be redefined. As it becomes less about the excitement of exploring the new, it needs to focus instead on exploring depth and on being an expression of love. It needn't get stale but it takes effort to maintain its quality."
There could be an even bigger mic drop in the offing. "A new or emerging sexual orientation that was either latent or ignored by one partner is quite rare, but it can create sexual problems," says McKenzie. Times have changed, and in the current Wild West pop culture climate, outdated restrictions on sexual orientation and gender orientation no longer apply. And older role models such as Caitlyn Jenner are carrying the flag to lead us into a new era of self-realization.
It can also be those new and soaring expectations that are failing us these days. And it is no wonder, with a new world at our fingertips.
Next: Sex is a concept that has challenged humanity since we lived in caves...
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