It’s an indisputable reality that our bodies change as we age, but when it comes to having a fulfilling intimate life in your marriage or relationship, you may be surprised to hear that your mindset is just as important as your physiology.
The concept of “age-appropriate behavior” was originally used to track developmental progression in children. However, it’s become commonplace to view all phases of life through the lens of appropriateness vs. inappropriateness, a lens that is biased when applied to older adults and sexuality. Sometimes this idea is so subtly internalized that we don’t even realize we’re holding it. And yet, it can stand in the way of meaningful intimacy.
When you think of young lovers, it’s easy to imagine intense amorous energy, but the idea of a couple in their 60s, 70s, and beyond having a life that includes passionate or frequent lovemaking can seem unusual when assessed with society’s skewed criteria.
“I may be retired,” a husband at a couples’ workshop said once, “but that only means I’m retired from work, not from life!”
That sums up the often unfair perception of intimacy later in life many people hold: that older individuals “should have had their fill” of sex and passion throughout previous stages of life and therefore should be content to send that part of themselves out to the proverbial pasture.
While it’s true that some individuals in their golden years experience a drop in libido and do not desire as much physical intimacy as they did in the past, many do still feel sexual. The risk comes when people allow a societal mindset to obscure their own personal awareness, shortchanging themselves in the process.
For many older couples, shaping their lives around an “age-appropriate” rubric (both in and out of the bedroom) is potentially suffocating. Such a mindset promotes a self-consciousness that threatens to extinguish creativity and vitality that would otherwise seek expression. In these instances, our beliefs about what should be divorces us from what is.
Turning away from desire comes at a cost
The fallout of believing you “shouldn’t” be sexual at your age—even when you feel sexual—can lead to the following scenarios:
- You may begin to live a life of secrecy—which will pull you away from your partner—with the hope of finding a community that acknowledges and supports your sexuality;
- In order to cope with this conflict, you may find yourself hiding your desires from others, including your mate, and then, ultimately, suppressing them within yourself;
- You may experience guilt or shame for feeling like a sexual being—you start to believe you are somehow flawed because these desires “still” exist within you;
- You may start to agree with the perspective that your yearnings are “age-inappropriate” and as a result, intense self-directed anger may follow.
All of the above come at a significant psychological and emotional cost: To suppress Eros is to become estranged from a vital part of yourself, a part that, if denied, can lead you to feel chronically frustrated or angry, listless, empty, or depressed.
Sometimes those damaging beliefs come from oneself, and sometimes they come from others (until we take over and internalize the beliefs). For instance, a widow in her 70s attending a workshop shared that her son chided her for spending so much time with her “boyfriend” and said she should spend more time with her grandkids, “like grandmothers are supposed to do.” She reported feeling stung, but rather than gently tell her son that she knew how to run her own life, she ended up bringing guilt and unhappiness into the new relationship that had been bringing her joy. “I hadn’t felt that happy in four years, since my husband was alive. But I ended up letting someone else’s mindset take that away.”
Take some time to think about your marriage or relationship with a particular focus on how your behavior might match or conflict with your own self-perceptions. (You may learn more about yourself if you take the time to write out your responses.)
- In what ways do you hold yourself back sexually with your spouse/partner? Do you wish you could free yourself from these self-imposed restraints? What is one small way you could do this…today?
- Is it possible that your restrictions are being fed because you believe you should behave in “age-appropriate” ways? (Reflect on this question with quiet attention; you may not be fully conscious of holding this belief.)
- If you abandoned the idea of age-appropriate behavior, how would your relationship and sex life be different?
Remember, mindsets aren’t automatic or random…they are created. So if you don’t like your current mindset, it is within your power to create another.
At any age, one of the most important things we can do for our own psychological wellbeing is to listen to our own inner voice and to honor what is right for us personally. It’s not always easy (especially when society’s “voice” is loud), but it is well worth the effort.
Dr. Rich Nicastro
(Richard Nicastro, Ph.D. is a psychologist in Georgetown, Texas where he sees individuals, couples and runs groups).