Is it possible to maintain a loving, happy partnership when physical intimacy is taken out of the equation? Anna Moore explains why many women simply go off sex.
Though both still work full-time in education, at 62 they’re winding down, planning a retirement with travel and time for each other.
They are friends and loving companions – but no longer sexual partners. For them, sex first dwindled and then petered out completely over the past decade.
‘It was once a month, then once every few months, then a couple of times a year,’ says Sarah. ‘It’s been three years since it last happened – or maybe four.
For me, it’s not a problem: it’s a relief. Since going through the menopause, I really don’t miss it. I actually don’t want to have sex. I’d rather have a cup of tea or read a book – in fact, I’d rather do anything than that! For Tony, it is probably more of a regret.
At first, we used to argue about it. But these days, neither of us even mentions it. Maybe he resents it, maybe he’s resigned to the situation. I don’t know because we avoid the issue.
We talk about many things, but not that. I do feel a bit guilty, but most of my friends are in a similar situation. Their libido hit the floor when the menopause came, and not only are they reluctant about sex, they actively don’t want it.’
This is not something we’re encouraged to accept in a world where we’re constantly told that if our sex lives aren’t sparkling, we’re somehow missing out – and where celebrities such as Sex and the City’s Kim Cattrall are telling us that ‘50 is the new 40’ and that the menopause ‘was an awakening’.
Meanwhile, 58-year-old Madonna still dresses in fishnets, thigh-high boots and bondage-style gear for public appearances.
But, behind closed doors, a lot of women find that despite all the age-defying articles and products currently available on the market, biology has other plans for their body post-menopause.
Numerous studies show that, put simply, people have less sex as they get older – and women have considerably less than men. Research into the sexual habits of older people by think tank the International Longevity Centre found that while 60 per cent of men over 65 reported sexual activity in the past year, the figure for women was only 37 per cent.
For men aged over 85, it was one in four; for women, one in ten. These results were backed up by a recent survey, commissioned by the Daily Mail in association with LloydsPharmacy, in which women gave various reasons for avoiding sex – from being too tired or too anxious, to lack of intimacy with their partner, or because sex was painful.
The poll found that one woman in ten has sex only once a year at most, while half make love once a month or less. Twenty-seven per cent (mostly those who were single, divorced or widowed) said they never had sex. In another study, researchers revealed that women would far rather read a Jamie Oliver cookbook than Fifty Shades of Grey.
Hormone specialist Dr Marion Gluck is not surprised by these findings. At her London ‘hormone-balancing clinic’, more of her menopause patients are seeking help for their flagging sex lives than for hot flushes. According to Dr Gluck, a diminishing sex drive in women is down to ageing, pure and simple.
‘We age because our hormones decline,’ she says. ‘Our ovaries have a lifespan – 50 years or so. After that, they’re redundant. When they fail, testosterone levels drop, progesterone levels drop, oestrogen levels drop.
We become less responsive, our skin becomes thinner and drier, sex can start to be painful.’ GP Dr Louise Newson reports that 80 per cent of the patients at her menopause clinic have not had sex for at least two years by the time they see her: ‘Some tell me that sex is extremely painful after the menopause – one memorably likened it to a “hot poker”.
I often hear patients say, “It wouldn’t surprise me if he had an affair”, but to them, even that would be preferable to having tsex again.’ For women who want to take HRT or the bioidentical hormones offered by specialists such as Dr Gluck, these problems can be considerably eased; sometimes erased completely.
At present, though, only ten to 12 per cent of women in the UK choose this path, partly because of the link between HRT and breast cancer (and more recently a potential link to hearing loss), which is still hotly debated by experts. So what about the women who don’t?
Clare, 65, is one of them. Although her menopause kicked in at 54, reducing her sex life to (in her words) an ‘occasional ordeal’, a family history of breast cancer made her rule out HRT.
‘This is my second marriage,’ she says. ‘We’d only been together seven years when I went into the menopause. Until then, I’d always had a healthy libido and enjoyed sex, but now it’s something I have to force myself to do and even then, I can only tolerate it for so long.
There’s probably resentment on both sides. To my husband, I’m no longer the woman he married. For me, I can’t help wondering why it isn’t considered OK at the age of 65 to call it a day on all that? We have an excellent relationship in every other way – surely that’s enough?’
‘Of course it’s enough,’ says London-based psychotherapist Wendy Bristow. ‘As women, we’re subjected to constant messages our whole life – “You’ve got to be slim”, “You’ve got to have big boobs”, “You’ve got to be wrinkle-free”.
But at the same time, we’re often fighting the natural processes in our bodies, so why do we have to fight the ageing process as well? If you can’t decide for yourself at this age how you want to live your life – what works for you and what doesn’t – then when on earth can you?’
Psychotherapist Susanna Abse agrees. ‘There’s almost a shame in the idea that [for women] sexual interesta diminishes as we age,’ she says. ‘There’s so much media pressure around ageing generally these days. If your partner decides she doesn’t want sex any more when she’s 35, this probably needs to be worked on.
But at 60? It’s a matter of hormones and the enormous changes the body is going through at that stage. And perhaps by that time in life, the focus should be more on showing love, affection and intimacy in other ways?’
This is key. ‘If you’ve gone off sex, be kind to yourself, but also think carefully how you negotiate this with your partner,’ advises Bristow.
‘Sex does act like a kind of glue in a relationship – and when it disappears, a whole lot of other things can go with it. Are you stopping in such a way that makes him feel rejected or in a way that lets him know he’s loved? There’s a world of difference.
‘Couples often find it very hard to talk about these things – even after 40 years of marriage,’ she continues. ‘One of you gets defensive or irritable when the subject is raised, so you shut down. You become scared to discuss it. Instead, you retreat to your side of the bed, or drift into the spare room with not much discussion. This is very common.’
Research shows that simple touch – holding hands, a stroke on the arm when you’re passing, an affectionate cuddle – triggers feelings of security and comfort; it makes us feel less frazzled, less stressed, more appreciated. In situations like this, though, touch can fade away altogether, with the woman fearing that a cuddle might be misinterpreted as a prelude to sex (or the man fearing he’ll be accused of pestering).
‘As a woman, you really need to talk about what is happening to your body and to listen to your partner, allow him to have his feelings,’ says Bristow. ‘The more open you are, the easier it’ll be to find ways to retain the closeness, the touch, the romance and the intimacy without necessarily the sex. If you don’t, you could find yourself in separate zones of resentment and hurt feelings.’
Nowhere are these ‘separate zones’ more evident than the world of internet chat sites. (Interestingly, data scientists have found that ‘sexless marriage’ is the most searched marital complaint on Google – three and a half times more common than ‘unhappy marriage’ and eight times more common than ‘loveless marriage’.)
DeadBedrooms is one popular forum with around 50,000 readers, where users regularly vent their feelings. On another site, the Sexless Marriage Forum, a typical post from a husband describes his wife as ‘beautiful’ and ‘caring’ and notes that, pre-menopause, they enjoyed ‘passionate sex about two or three times a week’.
He continues, ‘About a year and a half ago, her libido started to slow down. After a few more months, I noticed a drastic change. All of a sudden her sex drive was gone completely… I am 45 and she is 50. There is a family history of cancer, so hormone replacement treatment is not something she will consider.
‘I am starting to wonder if my sex days are over. This thought has made me more distant from her emotionally. I feel as if, of late, we are just roommates… We don’t have children together and I would be lying if I said the thought of a divorce had never crossed my mind. I feel lost and hopeless. I can’t help but love her, but feel like I am somehow being punished.’
The replies all follow a similar vein. ‘It took about five years for me after the sex became mechanical, non-responsive and non-participatory on her part,’ says one, ‘but I really can’t continue to love a woman when she tells me she’s no longer interested in a sexual relationship with me. I’m starting therapy in a couple of weeks, but I consider that to be the first step on the path to divorce.’
Another user laments the day his wife had a hysterectomy. ‘The desire is absent most of the time,’ he writes. ‘We’ve tried every medical route; hormones too dangerous, topical creams not effective and too much trouble. She just gave up because there is no magic pill. If there was a pill to reduce my sex drive I would seriously consider taking it… I’m 6ft 1in, trim, have all my hair, not even grey at 58. Still get looks from women, but the woman I adore is just not interested in any of that any more. My dad is 82 and on Viagra – he has a girlfriend and lots of fun!’
Over on popular parenting site Mumsnet, women express the other side of the experience. On one thread, a user asks if anyone else has experienced this with the menopause, as it’s ‘rarely mentioned’ and seems ‘a taboo subject’.
Replies come thick and fast. ‘If I found Brad Pitt in my bed I’d probably just offer him a nice cup of tea,’ writes one. ‘I lost my libido about three years ago,’ adds another. ‘I’m 52 and have been on HRT for two years. I had heard that HRT was great for sex drive so I was hopeful. But that didn’t happen and my lack of interest in sex has caused a problem in my marriage. My husband just doesn’t understand why I don’t feel desire any more…’
At this point, we should probably mention the divorce statistics which – although declining overall – continue to rise in the female over-55 age group. The phenomenon of the ‘silver splitters’ now accounts for a significant proportion of divorces in this country.
Women may wish to be released from relationship shackles, while men may be seeking a re-energised physical relationship with a younger partner.
When you come right down to it, there are probably three paths you can take, says Emma Waring, a psychosexual nurse therapist based at London Bridge Hospital. Either compromise on both sides, separate or be prepared to turn a blind eye to sex outside the marriage.
‘There are things you can do for your husband, even if you have no desire yourself – as a “gift”’, she says. ‘Or you may say, “As long as you’re discreet about it, I’m happy for you to meet those needs elsewhere.”’ (Businesswoman and TV presenter Saira Khan made headlines last year when she said that she’d lost her sex drive, and had granted a ‘pass’ to her husband [to seek sexual partners outside the marriage].
The resulting outrage led to her swiftly retracting that statement.) ‘If neither of these is possible, you need to talk about where that leaves you as a couple. You do need to talk about it adult to adult and be open as to how you both feel and to really listen. What I see is couples drifting apart and getting into patterns of cajoling and refusing and shaming. It is better to address the issue head-on.’
‘Being in a relationship is a cost-benefit exercise,’ says Susanna Abse. ‘It’s a constant weighing-up of what you get and what you don’t. If you become preoccupied with what you aren’t getting, you may fail to see and appreciate all the things you do have because of your loving relationship with your partner.
‘I sometimes think that the most successful relationships are those with the greatest capacity to cope with disappointment,’ she continues. ‘We build marriages on dreams and, inevitably, many won’t come true.
Can you look at what you do have instead of what you don’t?’ Interestingly, research suggests that compromise and acceptance is the path most couples take. One Californian study of around 800 women aged between 40 and 99 (average age 67) found that half had been sexually active in the past month.
However, one third of the sexually active women reported low, very low or no sexual desire. Researchers concluded that older women had sex for ‘multiple reasons’, including nurturing and sustaining a relationship.
When it comes to relationships that are entirely celibate, a peer-reviewed study found that 74 per cent of the partners who were not happy to give up sex remained with their partner because of ‘love’. One of the most common coping strategies was investing energy elsewhere – spending more time on hobbies, with friends or at work.
‘It’s not ideal,’ admits Sarah. ‘We avoided the issue at first, but as more time passes, the less important it seems. We still laugh together, we’re interested in one another, we listen to each other’s opinions, we support one another emotionally and we love and value our family and our home. And I would say we love each other. No marriage is perfect. After 41 years, you accept it.’