War of the Roses

If over the years your bedroom has become a battlefield, you must learn to negotiate desire through the ages.

What follows are real-life mid-fight words about a couple’s sexual impasse, lifted, with consent and in strictest anonymity, from a letter that a friend in despair sent to her husband.

Let’s call her Samantha. Both she and her husband are mid-50-something, very successful professionals. They have been together for six years; after the delectably flagrant passion of the honeymoon period, they hit a long, dry spell. She wants much more sex, and he wants much less. Things are, predictably, festering.

“I can’t express how important a healthy, vivid, thriving and exciting spontaneous passionate sex life is to me. I am not willing to live without it,” was Samantha’s opening salvo. Youch. Knee hits figurative groin, probably counter-productive. Samantha was blowing her cork after she realized he was doing anything – dishes, groceries, rebuilding the engine on his pet sports car with a whole Internet tinkering crew – to avoid having sex.

“There is a level of connection you achieve when you are that vulnerable with another human,” she continued, “and when you are pushing limits together. Sexual expression is fluid, and it is limitless. More creativity creates more desire. The more you do it, the more you want it, and the more potential you see there is to the shared experience. There is no replacement for it.”

Her husband responded, also predictably, given that he just had his nads bashed in, that he just didn’t have any interest in sex, let alone boundary-busting sex. His explanation, she relates, steam still coming out of her ears, was to write that he had just never really been interested in sex. Also, he was a bit worried his porn habit from his years as a bachelor had disassociated his desires from real-life outlets.

Samantha didn’t take it well. “There is no way to read that note without feeling that you don’t desire me. Hell, yes, I’m taking that personally! For women, that is the most important thing in the world. Our entire ego exists in that place where we are desired.”

Well, Samantha, everyone’s ego does. This kind of spittle-fest will be familiar to most everyone who has been in a relationship and found that desire waxes and wanes and sometimes doesn’t match up with that of one’s partner. But there is much hope out there to redefine what “normal” levels of desire are at every age. And that couples can work to put their libidos back in sync for the long run.

There are both physical and psychological components to desire and how it manifests at different stages of our lives. There are also some gender differences. As a quick primer, testosterone drives lust in both men and women, and it fades in both sexes as we age. (Men lose one per cent a year after age 30.) Love is a big part of desire, with its brain flood of serotonin and norepinephrine; these chemicals lose their punch with familiarity. So too do the attachment hormones oxytocin and vasopressin.

There is no sugarcoating the fact that aging has an effect on desire for everyone. But these effects are not guaranteed or consistent, nor are they fatal.

First of all, men reach their much-vaunted sexual peak in their teens and can remain both keen and sexually active till their 90s and beyond. Evolutionarily speaking, their sperm are still viable, so the impulse to sow them doesn’t fade. Though as with Samantha’s husband, that impulse is subject to distraction. Low T has become the latest prescription panacea, though new studies show some caution is needed. Some men have clinically diagnosable low testosterone, but large numbers of scrips, fuelled by heavy-rotation TV campaigns and the hope of a magic fountain of youth, are being written. There are risks you should discuss with your doctor, and it is important to note that taking external testosterone inhibits your body’s own production.

Women hit their sexual peak as their fertility wanes, in their late 30s and 40s because, in an evolutionary sense, they are programmed to try to get pregnant right up till the last moment of egg viability, and you have to try harder at that point. The onset of menopause may involve unpleasant symptoms, from dry membranes to libido dampening. Traditional hormone replacement therapy and, in some cases, testosterone supplementation can ease symptoms, but there are also risks so your doctor should be consulted here.

And beyond the normal pressures that roll in and out of the course of a life (grief, failure, injury and illness), we often don’t make time in our busy lives to nurture passion in long-term relationships.

And then there is the ugly question of how aging screws up our sense of our own bodies. There is no one who does not suffer the slings and arrows of time. Name your hangup: crow’s feet, cellulite, spare tire, ear hair. But these are precisely what you must leave at the bedroom door, arming yourself with the knowledge that you are quite simply (and quantifiably) way better at sex after 45. Enter Colorado-based Dr. David Schnarch, who wrote the all-time marital therapy test Passionate Marriage: Keeping Love and Intimacy Alive in Committed Relationships in 1997. He is the dude who can give Samantha hope. Schnarch talks about the kind of desire “that comes from maturation rather than infatuation. It is one reason why I say cellulite and sexual potential are highly correlated.”

He continues: “If sex drive is the instinct that preserves the species, then eroticism is the experience of sexual pleasure for its own sake. It makes sex personal, electric and well, sexy. It’s about ‘where your head’s at’ more than what your genitals do or the shape your body is in.”

The people who have good sex over the long term learn to wrap their heads around new parameters.

Dr. Marty Klein is the go-to guy regarding sexuality and aging for everyone from The New Yorker and Playboy to Nightline. His self-helper is a bestseller for a reason. Here is a nugget from Sexual Intelligence: What We Really Want From Sex, and How to Get It.

“If you use your young adult vision of sex with your mature body, you’re going to have trouble. And your emotions will rebel. If sex means, for example, instant wetness, rock-hard erection, pounding intercourse and simultaneous orgasm, you will feel anxious about failing … On the other hand, if you put together a different vision of sex that is attuned to your current situation – a body with a few dings, a partner who isn’t young, limitations of time and place, emotional scars – you’ll be more willing to initiate, since your chance of a satisfying encounter is much greater.”

The important thing to repeat in any discussion about sex is that the most important sex organ is the brain. Remembering this is the key to not just surviving the aging process but enjoying it. Samantha and her husband have started to see a marriage counsellor and are next going to see a sex therapist.

“Look, self-help prattle creeps me the f*** out,” says Samantha. “But I shared my embarrassing fight with my husband with you because I can look back on it now and see how crappy and trapped I felt. And a little mumbo-jumbo has already made me feel better. So I’m in for a little more. Especially if it will get me laid.”