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Getting a divorce midlife – is it the sex?

Recently we published an article on “grey divorces” and how getting a divorce might be caused, in part, by a different attitude toward the second half of life.

If one half of a partnership is ready to take up advanced couch surfing while the other is more interested in actual surfing, accommodating both might take more flexibility than the marriage has left.

That explanation, while interesting, felt incomplete. Relationships fail for lots of reasons, probably as many reasons – and combinations of reasons – as there are failed relationships.

But there was one biggie that came up again and again in research and conversations: sex.

Different expectations, differing levels of desire, reduced ability, increased physical pain – all are frustratingly common in middle age, and all can make intimacy difficult.

Jessa ZimmermanSo I talked with Jessa Zimmerman, sex therapist and author of the new book Sex without Stress, on how couples can navigate the rocky terrain of sexual dysfunction in a relationship.

How much of getting a divorce midlife is about sex?

According to Jessa, about 20 percent of people are in “sexless” marriages, meaning they have sex fewer than 10 times per year. Of the remaining couples, about 25 percent have sex less than once a week.

“There isn’t a ‘right’ amount of sex to have,” Jessa says, “but it’s common for couples to struggle with sexual problems and concerns over sexual frequency. Anecdotally, in my practice, sex is a common area of conflict and concern. And it’s frequently cited as the main reason they are seeking therapy and a big part of why they may divorce.”

But it’s also a chicken-and-egg problem, Jessa tells me. “Has sex fallen off because of other relationship dynamics and resentment? Or have the spouses grown distant and unhappy because sex has fallen off? It’s impossible to separate sex from the rest of the relationship. No matter where it started, though, once a couple has grown distant and both physical and sexual intimacy have diminished, they are more likely to end the relationship.”

What can you do if sex is the problem?

So, let’s say the relationship is otherwise fine, but intercourse is off the table (so to speak) because of physical limitations or pain? What can couples do to keep the closeness and sexiness if they aren’t able to have sex?

This is a big part of her couples therapy, Jessa says, and it begins by widening our definition of “sex.” It doesn’t have to be limited to penetration to “count.”

“My definition of sex is that it’s the physical expression of our innate drives for love, intimacy, and pleasure. That means any pleasurable physical intimacy between partners counts as sex. I encourage people to find ways to touch and be touched that each find pleasing. If one person wants sexual stimulation and the other wants their hair brushed or their feet rubbed, they can participate in pleasure with each other. It is so important to open up your idea of what sex is and what it’s for; it takes the pressure off the couple and allows them to find intimacy and pleasure in new, flexible ways.”

How do you know if the relationship is the problem?

In keeping with our chicken/egg metaphor, sex can also be the canary in the coal mine. When a partner begins distancing him or herself physically, it can be a sign of withdrawal from the relationship, not just the bedroom.

What are the signs to look out for, I ask Jessa; how can you catch the decline early enough to fix things, if fixing is possible?

A withdrawal from sex is definitely something to talk about, Jessa says, but it’s not the only sign something’s wrong. Others can include:

1. Lack of benefit of the doubt

“This shows up as assuming the worst about your spouse, attributing ill intent,” says Jessa. “It’s focusing on the negative things about your partner and neglecting to see the positive. Couples get in trouble when they forget why they fell in love in the first place, harping on the things they don’t like about each other.”

2. Lack of openness, communication

“It’s a problem when people won’t be honest with each other. Couples in trouble have often stopped communicating about what’s bothering them. They are allowing resentment to build or distance to grow without being proactive to address it. Or, they communicate the problem but refuse to have the conversations they need to really resolve the issue. They may blame each other, criticize, or inflame, but they aren’t owning their part of the dynamic, and they aren’t in a process to get to the bottom of their issues.”

3. Willingness to hurt each other

Says Jessa, “It’s unfortunate how mean people can be to each other. They will often treat their spouses in ways they would never treat friends or co-workers. From bickering and pettiness to outright cruelty, people say and do things they know will hurt their partner.”

So what do you do if this is you? Talk. Find a Jessa and commit to the process of working through your issues. It may be awkward and uncomfortable, especially when it comes to sexual function, but the right therapist can help you keep the focus on the relationship and not on assigning blame.

How can you “inoculate” a healthy relationship?

So, let’s say you’re happy, you’re satisfied, you’re compatible sexually and in your approach to midlife. How do you stay together when so many relationships around you are falling apart?

If your relationship is happy and has been for a number of years, chances are you’re already doing what you need to do. But even good relationships take work, so Jessa gives us three tips to be sure your happy partnership stays that way.

1. Keep investing in the relationship; don’t get complacent

“Marriage is like a garden; it needs tending,” Jessa says. “Continue to spend quality time together. Make sex and intimacy a priority. Don’t let yourself get so comfortable you don’t water and weed the garden, letting it fall into disrepair.”

2. Maintain open communication; don’t be afraid of rocking the boat

This can be a tough one, Jessa acknowledges: “When things are going well, it can be hard to bring negativity into the relationship. People avoid talking about difficult things because they don’t want to spoil the good feelings they’ve been having with their partner. But it’s crucial that a couple maintain open and honest communication, especially about the hard things. If you stop talking and start hiding things that are bothering you, resentment and distance will grow.”

3. Celebrate

My personal favorite: a healthy, supportive partnership is worth celebrating! Says Jessa, “Recognize that you have something special. Enjoy every moment. Don’t take it for granted because life brings changes, one way or another. Be grateful for what you have and express that to each other.”

Sex and intimacy are so hard to separate, we often use the latter as a softer “code” word for the former. But the link is real. Physical touch is critical to a healthy relationship, whether that’s foot rubs or foreplay. Ultimately, how a couple defines intimacy and satisfaction is entirely up to them – as long as both parties agree.

So, openly communicate about what gives you pleasure, what you love about your partner, and how important the relationship is to you – it doesn’t get much sexier than that.



Shannon Perry

Shannon is a celebrated author and global educator. Whether she’s interviewing a physician or producing a podcast, her appetite for research, facts, and truth culminates in credible health education and programming that women can rely on. An avid runner, cyclist, and climber, Shannon knows a thing or two about thriving in midlife and lives in Seattle with her cat, dog and boyfriend.


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