They married in their 20s, and for years the New York couple had a rich, full sex life. But beginning in his late 30s, the husband no longer eyed his wife with desire. When she hesitantly tried to talk about their sex life, he changed the subject. Sex became almost a nonevent, and their once-strong relationship soured.
As a California couple headed into their 40s, their sex life changed too — but for the better. True, they no longer frolicked in the bedroom like newlyweds. But both agreed that the sensual side of their marriage had never burned so brightly.
What explains the difference between the two couples? “Knowledge and understanding,” says clinical psychologist Sallie Schumacher of Winston-Salem, N.C., former president of the Society for Sex Therapy and Research. “As couples approach the middle years, their bodies, life-styles and sexual responses change.”
Both men and women undergo physical, psychological and hormonal changes that are normal, gradual and subtle — touching all systems of the body, including that most active sex organ, the brain. “Men and women who recognize what’s going on, in both themselves and their partners, can make adjustments,” Schumacher says, “and can even improve their sex lives.”
For women, some of the changes are caused by menopause, which occurs when female hormones decrease, bringing a halt to menstruation. On average, that happens in the early 50s. But the process often begins in the early to mid-40s and spans four or five years. During this perimenopausal period, a woman’s vaginal tissues may become thinner, drier and slower to lubricate. She may lose protective fatty tissue in the pubic area while gaining weight elsewhere. Once pleasurable, intercourse may now feel uncomfortable, even painful.
Not understanding these natural physical changes, she may complain that her husband is being too rough and withdraw from sex. Her husband may mistakenly believe she has lost interest in him.
Men go through hormonal changes too. Testosterone, which influences a man’s sex drive, reaches its peak between 20 and 30 and gradually decreases thereafter. A French study of 1408 healthy men ages 20 to 60 showed up to a 25-percent decline in testosterone over four decades.
Comparing 77 healthy married men ages 45 to 74, Raul C. Schiavi of the Human Sexuality Program at New York City’s Mount Sinai School of Medicine reported that sexual interest, desire and activity declined progressively with a decrease in testosterone readings, although sexual satisfaction did not. Primarily as a result of reduced blood flow, a middle-aged man’s erections are not as firm as when he was young.
However, none of these changes should interfere with a full sex life. For example, if a woman has vaginal discomfort, the solution can be as simple as a shift of position during intercourse or use of an inexpensive, over-the-counter water-soluble lubricant. A 40-year-old man’s softer erections don’t prevent him from reaching orgasm. Says New York City urologist E. Douglas Whitehead, co-director of the Association for Male Dysfunction, “If you rate erections on a scale of zero to ten, an erection of six or seven will be satisfactory for some men and their partners.”
Indeed, experts say the changes themselves can actually enhance the relationship and make for better sex — if the couple discovers ways to capitalize on them. Here’s how to have the best sex after 35:
Reset the pace.
“Sex in the young is fast and furious,” says Dr. Herant Katchadourian, professor of human biology at Stanford University. “It ignites easily and fizzles out like fireworks.” A man in his 20s achieves orgasm within two to five minutes after intercourse begins; his wife may take 20 minutes or more to reach her peak of excitement. “While she’s still warming up, it may be all over for him,” says marriage, family and child counselor Bernice Itkin of San Francisco.But as a man ages, the tempo changes from allegro to largo. Because of a normal slowing of blood flow and changes in muscle tone, men in their 40s or 50s require more time to reach a climax, and their orgasms are less forceful.
Now a husband’s timing more closely matches his wife’s. He may become more in tune with her interest in a slow, sensuous seduction. With this kind of synchronization, it’s no coincidence that women respond enthusiastically. According to a 1994 University of Chicago study, women in their 20s are least likely of all age groups to achieve orgasm during intercourse. Women in their early 40s are most likely — and by a wide margin. By concentrating on how he is increasing his wife’s pleasure, a man can increase his pleasure as well.
“A young man can get an erection at the drop of a hat — or bra,” says Judith Seifer, president of the American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors and Therapists. But after 35, he may be turned on less by what he sees than by his wife’s kissing and caressing. The University of Chicago study found that 51 percent of 25- to 29-year-old men became excited when they watched their wives undress. By the mid-40s, the percentage dropped to 40. Once couples learn to pay less attention to what they see and more to what they do, says New York City sex and marital therapist Shirley Zussman, their sex lives improve dramatically.
Balance the seesaw.
When they were first married, the man remembered, he always took the sexual lead, pulling his wife close and whispering his desire to make love. But now, 20 years later, she often makes the first move. Again, hormonal changes are bringing the couple into closer balance. Men and women both produce testosterone and estrogen, but the proportion of each changes over the years. The male’s shifting levels of estrogen and testosterone may make him more willing to follow than to lead, happy for his wife to set the pace. And as a woman’s estrogen declines and her testosterone becomes proportionately greater, she may become more assertive.
Dare to experiment.
As partners become older, more experienced and more trusting of each other, they may become less inhibited in their views of what constitutes satisfying sex. “When we were first married, I couldn’t have imagined myself saying ‘Touch me there,'” one woman says. “The scenario has changed now, but it’s not that we’re all that different. It’s that our relationship just got deeper.” Says Zussman, “It’s a time for new ideas, or a new look at old ideas.”She recalls one 40-ish couple seeking to put more zest into their relationship. “Do you ever shower together?” Zussman asked. The two looked at each other. “We used to,” the wife said sheepishly. “Try it again,” the therapist suggested. They did — and it worked.
“Intercourse isn’t everything,” Zussman says. “It’s like the old travel slogan: getting there is half the fun.”
Achieve more from less.
The University of Chicago survey showed that nearly half of 25- to 29-year-olds said they made love at least two or three times a week, including 11 percent reporting four times or more. By the early 40s, the number had fallen to 30 percent. The largest proportion, 45 percent, reported sex “a few times per month” (possibly due, in part, to fatigue and the demands of child-rearing). Yet more than any other group, men and women in their 40s considered themselves emotionally and physically satisfied by their lovemaking.As the frequency drops, couples should realize that each encounter can become more special, a moment to be anticipated and savored. In a secure relationship, there is less emphasis on how often, and more on how good. “I find that people in their 40s or so remember this moment or that moment, whereas to the younger ones, it may be all a blur,” says Zussman. “When it’s no longer an everyday thing, it means more.”
A gratifying sex life after 35 calls for a series of adjustments. Some people confront them poorly: the 45-year-old male who skitters off after a 21-year-old cocktail waitress, the middle-aged woman who flirts to prove that her allure hasn’t faded. But for couples who understand the normal and inevitable changes, and meet them together, sexual pleasure can be greater than ever. Their sex lives will be rich in their 40s, 50s — and beyond.