My wife and I are about to celebrate the 42nd anniversary of our first date. We have a solid marriage, but like everyone, we’ve struggled with the changes aging brings, including those affecting our love life.
Intimacy after 40 doesn’t get the attention it deserves. The bad news is that the second half of life brings sexual changes, and changes are never easy. But here’s the good news: With simple adjustments, physical intimacy after 40, 50, 60 and beyond can feel as satisfying as ever—or even better—and deepen the love you share.
Age-related sexual changes begin between 40 and 50. These are women’s “peri-menopausal” years when estrogen starts falling and periods become less regular. Many women also start to experience vaginal dryness, which can make intercourse uncomfortable. Fortunately, a personal lubricant is usually a quick, effective fix.
Meanwhile, between 40 and 50, most men start to experience erection changes. Erotic daydreams are no longer are enough to raise one. Men need direct genital fondling (with vigorousness increasing with age). When erections appear, they’re not as firm as they were back in men's twenties, and minor distractions may wilt them. This is not erectile dysfunction (ED). It's middle-age erection dissatisfaction. (ED means an inability to raise erections during sustained masturbation.) Still, to older men with erection dissatisfaction, those iffy, balky erections can be unnerving.
Upsetting as sexual changes after 40 may be, they make evolutionary sense. The biological purpose of life is to reproduce life. As women leave their reproductive years, there’s no longer an evolutionary imperative to continue reproductive sex, i.e. intercourse, so there’s no biological reason to make it comfortable through continued production of natural vaginal lubrication. Meanwhile, men can father children into old age, but until fairly recently in our species' evolution, few men lived beyond 40 and even fewer fathered children late in life. As a result, there was no evolutionary reason to preserve reproductive function past that age. Biologically, older men who no longer father children, don’t need intercourse—or the firm erections that make it possible. But these days, as age-related sexual changes occur, most older couples keep trying to have intercourse. Lubricants and erection drugs usually help, for a while.
After 50, sexual changes continue. Intercourse may become increasingly uncomfortable for women, even with lubricants, and even with drugs, many men suffer increasingly balky erections, and some develop ED. These changes make intercourse more problematic—and for many older couples, impossible.
Unfortunately, many people believe that sex and intercourse are synonymous, that if they can’t enjoy the old in-out, sex must be over for them. That’s a shame. Retiring from being lovers makes relationships less intimate and ignores the deep human need to experience gentle, sensual touch. Other couples decide to adjust their lovemaking to accommodate age-related changes. Doing so means evolving lovemaking away from intercourse and substituting more kissing, cuddling, whole-body massage, toys, and oral sex.
Recent studies show that older couples who remain happily sexual evolve their lovemaking away from intercourse. Two studies of thousands of men over 50 show that, despite extensive advertising and media hype, only about 10 percent have even tried erection drugs, let alone become regular users. Many older men figure: If I’m not having intercourse, I don’t need erections, so why take the drugs?
Finally, men don’t need erections to have orgasms. That’s right. Even with an older, balky, or even flaccid penis, a comfortable setting, vivid erotic fantasies, and a woman’s loving—and vigorous—caresses are enough to trigger climaxes that feel as enjoyable as ever.
My wife and I not about to let aging interfere with our marital intimacy. Change is challenging, especially sexual changes. But when older couples help each other through the transition away from intercourse, they often discover a deeper, richer eroticism—and love each other even more.