I didn't plan to become a sex therapist. It came about by accident. When I was planning to do my postgraduate clinical training, I chose the course closest to my then-boyfriend and now husband, which was the first course in Australia to include Sex Therapy. This was 1972, and it only takes elementary arithmetic to work out that I have been married for more than 40 years.
I am often asked to speak at various courses and conferences. In the break after one such presentation I was approached by a woman who was in her late twenties. We began chatting and she made the comment that she found it hard to understand how I could maintain a sexual relationship with the same person for so long: didn't it become routine and boring?
She said it with such respect and genuine curiosity that I didn't feel at all affronted, but I struggled to know what to say. I think I mumbled something about realistic expectations before we went into the next session.
I have often reflected on this exchange, as this notion that monogamous relationships inevitably lead to boring sex seems to have become widespread. The divorce statistics certainly show that many couples haven't found their relationship sustainable. There is the view that humans aren't by nature monogamous, and one solution is to embrace polyamory. Marriages break down for many reasons, but I wonder if lack of understanding about sexuality over the years feeds into relationship discontent.
The modern sexual truths of Western Society state that great sex is based on good sexual performance, sex should happen regularly, and a sexual encounter should be intense, passionate and innovative; above all, great sex is essential for a healthy intimate relationship.
It is not surprising that young people today have trouble accepting that a monogamous couple can sustain a satisfying sex life over many decades: how do you keep the "spark" alive with someone so familiar, how do you keep sex varied and interesting when surely you have done it all so many times. And, to get to the basics, how does aging affect the ability to have sex?
Commonsense tells us that age takes a toll on many faculties -- eyesight, hearing, mobility -- which can all impact on the flexibility and eroticism needed for some sexual activities. Then there are the often confronting effects of aging on our looks -- we sag in places that were once firm, we get facial wrinkles that broadcast our age... How does this play into being attractive and finding our partner attractive?
We also know that males may find their erections aren't as firm as they used to be, women may find intercourse uncomfortable (even painful), arousal can take longer and orgasm may be more muted. For some, intercourse becomes impossible, and while medication may help some people, it isn't suitable for everyone. So is it any surprise that sex stops?
Yet research tells us that many couples maintain an active sex life well into their seventies and sometimes older. A study by Karl Pillemer, a Cornell University gerontologist, reported on interviews with couples that had been together for 40 years or more, and gives an important insight into sex in the later years. It isn't sex that makes a relationship grow and remain fulfilling over the years, but the quality of their emotional and caring relationship which maintains their sex life.
Participants mentioned communication (about things big and small), genuine compliments, frequent acts of kindness and helping each other out, as significant factors which fed their intimate life. One of the comments I loved from this study is the idea that sex expands from focus on specific sexual acts to other intimate acts such as holding hands, or sitting together reading. "There's a kind of quietness there that's quite deep. It's very fulfilling."
If I'd had time to talk in depth to my young colleague, I would start by asking her about her beliefs regarding what a satisfying sex life should be like. In my hypothetical discussion, I would gently challenge these beliefs. For example, I would suggest that routine sex is not necessarily boring sex, because for many couples routine and predictable sex is reassuring; that frequency of sex may decrease but this isn't always upsetting, particularly if a couple's intimacy needs are getting met in other ways; that the sex drive need not urgent and demanding, but may be a conscious decision to have sex because that would be a pleasant way to spend some time together; that knowing each other so well can make arousal and orgasm easier, particularly for the aging body; and that quiet, gentle sex can be deeply satisfying.
I would end my talk with this young woman by softly suggesting to her, and others like her who are worried about maintaining a satisfying sex life over the decades, to focus more on developing relationship skills that create the emotional climate of respect, generosity and tolerance rather than worrying too much about the modern rules for hot sex.
Look for a partner who shares the same life values, then together you will develop your own sex life that can provide a safe harbour from life's stresses and which satisfies you through the years, and then beyond into the time when sex does eventually fade but intimacy remains.