Sex & Sexuality

Sexual Bereavement: A Challenge That Few Talk About

Freed from the constraints of birth control, children’s needs, and heavy workloads, older people are uniquely free to enjoy stress-reduced sexuality if they are open to it.

The most ubiquitous fear is the anxiety older women feel about their aging bodies. “It’s one thing to have sex with a spouse with whom you’ve grown old,” one woman said, “but the idea of a new relationship, exposing myself that way, feels scary.” One thing to keep in mind is that men have the same fears. Many men on dating sites exaggerate their height, or describe their physiques as “muscular and toned” even when their pictures tell a different story.

It also helps to remember that men who are open to meeting women over 50 are usually aware that they don’t look the way they did in their 30s. There are a certain number of men who want to date younger women, and the best advice is to steer clear of them for obvious reasons.

If, despite loneliness or longings, guilt, anxiety, or shame are keeping you from dating, it might help to share your feelings with an intimate friend, medical professional or even a support group. Inertia in this area, if allowed to go on for too long, can be harder and harder to overcome. (This is true even for married couples that are no longer sexually active. The longer they go without sex, the harder it can be to resume and “break the ice.”)

The good news is that many people continue to have active sexual lives until they die. Freed from the constraints of birth control, children’s needs, and heavy workloads, older people are uniquely free to enjoy stress-reduced sexuality if they are open to it.

And usually, those who have been in happy relationships in the past tend to have an easier time being happy in the future. If you have had a good marriage, it is actually a predictor of future marital happiness rather than the other way around. If you have allowed enough time for genuine mourning (this is crucial), chances are you may be particularly well-suited to giving romance another try.

There are several reasons for this. Some people are just better at intimacy than others. I am not talking about sexual function here, though that is part of it. People differ in terms of how comfortable, responsive and accepting they are of intimacy in all its forms. This is a trait that is formed early in life and is quite stable, relatively speaking, over time.

Another factor in favor of widows grieving happy marriages is the very fact of their previous happiness. Unlike those who suffer divorce or bad marriages, their positive experience with marriage itself tends to make them more open to future relationships.

This is what happened with Sarah. She met a man, also widowed, online and entered into a comfortable, stable romance with him that included many trips, nights out and nights in but not marriage. Neither one, having established an independent life with many other ties and commitments, felt the need to take that step. But sexuality is something people find they can have throughout life if they work at it. It’s a big thing to give up in middle age and live without ever after. The good news is, it doesn’t have to be that way.

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