Sex & Relationships

The Big Senior Relationship Debate


Now that we all live longer on average, more and more of us can expect to enjoy an active and rewarding period of 20 or 30 years after retirement, a time when our children have become independent adults and money may have become less of a concern. Alongside these shifts, it’s a time to consider what sort of relationships we want in our lives to support and stimulate us — how best to balance independence and the need for company, how best to achieve intimacy and sexual fulfillment. The divorce rate for over-6o’s is higher than ever before as people recognize that relationships which may have “worked” for many years no longer match their needs.

What to do, where to look? Big questions…

Walker and John Explore Senior Relationships

Every couple of weeks or so the two of us, John and Walker, get together to talk about what’s going on in our complex relationship lives. John is 66 and has several important relationships, including a live-with partner, a married (not to him) lover and several other intimate women friends. Walker is 61 and exploring a variety of old and new intimacies.
We are both what you might call “relationship experts”: John has written a couple of books on love and relationships and has run many workshops on the subject; Walker is a sex educator and speaker with a blog where she discusses sexuality, relationships and sexual health.

Our discussions are intimate, but we live 3,695 miles apart, John in the English Cotswolds, and Walker in Virginia. Thanks to our iPads, we talk — sometimes for hours — on FaceTime, which makes free face-to-face chat easy.

We talk about who we’re spending time with, what sex means for older women and older men (and how that differs), what intimacy and commitment mean now, why so many people our age feel they have to be secretive about their explorations, whether it’s more rewarding to be single and independent or part of a couple. You name it, we talk about it!

We thought we would share some of the big questions we’re asking ourselves, but we’d really like to hear from you, too.

Has your idea of what it means to be in a committed relationship changed as you’ve aged?

John: Enormously, and mostly because my understanding of ‘commitment’ has changed. When I got married at 21, ‘commitment’ was bound up with rules and conventions. In my late 30s I became aware that only I could decide what I meant by commitment, and that real commitment involves honesty — with my most important relationships, but primarily with myself—and trust of people as they actually are and not as they ‘ought’ to be. Now in my 60s, I finally know that a committed relationship is about being committed to exploration and growth. No longer is it about some conventional idea of what commitment ought to look like.

Walker My understanding of what it takes to be ‘committed’ has changed as well. I’m no longer convinced that the traditional married/monogamous route is the only or best one for me. I think I can have more than one committed relationship, as long as all of us are in agreement about what we want.

What kind of companionship do we seek in our lives at this point?

John: I’m looking for interesting, lively companions who can listen as well as talk, share and reciprocate, know how to take responsibility for themselves, and are as excited about getting to know me as I am about getting to know them. And it helps if they understand the usefulness of being able to do things together while also giving each other enough space.

Walker: I agree with you, John, and I am still trying to figure out what would work for me. Research indicates that married seniors have a better quality of life, but supportive, stable companionship can take many forms — living together fulltime or part-time, building deep relationships and friendships which may or may not involve intimacy. In the past I was more focused on being part of a couple in the traditional sense. Now I want to be with men who excite me intellectually, who share similar likes — men who are open to deep friendship with the opposite sex.

Can we have relationships that aren’t about sex?

John Of course we can, though it’s always useful to have the sex discussion so that we’re both agreed what we mean by ‘sex’. I think there’s way too much emphasis on sex in relationship advice for older people — it really isn’t all about sex toys and erectile aids! What about the kinds of intimacy so many of us crave that aren’t about hard-ons and world-shattering orgasms, great though these can sometimes be? I’d like to see much more aware experimentation with intimate sensual touch, massage, cuddling, hand-holding, kissing, without it always needing to be about sex.

Walker Yes, though at this point in my life I’m not ready to give up sex. But, I think I could have a loving, close relationship with a man that wasn’t all about the sex. I agree with your take on intimacy and regularly talk to audiences about expanding their definition of sex to incorporate a wider range of intimacy.

Everyone is different, and we all have our own Big Relationship Issues. What do you think about relationships at our age, and what type of relationship would you feel comfortable with — or not? Questions? Thoughts?

Please join the discussion in the comments section below.

This article is a collaboration between Walker Thornton and John Button.


5 responses to “The Big Senior Relationship Debate

  1. I would like to mention that the concept of marriage be thoroughly revised.
    1— when 2 individuals are in LOVE it is a mental/emotional connection
    2— the moment either one of these 2 proposes to inject the concept of MARRIAGE, the emotional connection is degraded to a contractual connection.
    3— at this point a prenuptial contract should be drawn as follows:
    a— to clarify property ownership
    b— since the decision to “get married” is in essence a marriage contract , the introduction of contractual term limit and renewal of term could be legitimately part of a pre nuptial.
    c— in the event a child or children become part of this equation, a financial secure portfolio for each child could be guaranteed by both parents at a mutual annual contribution rate of 15% from each parent’s annual income.

  2. This seems like two different conversation threads to me. So I will comment seperately.

    Relationship and commitment takes an effort both physically and mentally. I think that our conditioning in society, right down to advertizements we are subject to on all fronts, family, culture and our constant urge for change and how ‘different’ has become a goal. Post WWII, we became a disposable society and that bled out throughout society and everything changed dramatically. This mantra of ‘new is better’ is killing us. There is something to be said for the ‘tried and true’. At the least, long term relationships understand your nostalgia and jokes.

    Sex. Sex is a strong driving force for a reason. For seniors, I believe it is even more important and necessary for our mental health. I think the stigma and shame of natural desires should be wiped away. I also believe that seniors without partners should be encouraged to have ‘sex’ partners, especially when in facilities where they are put and stored … just waiting. Let’s make their lives interesting and full again. I’m a big believer in sharing as long as it doesn’t hurt someone. I believe it would decrease the cases of ‘abuse’ out there because needs are being met in the normal and natural way.

    I know my views are a tad radical but this is what I believe. I’m very happily married for 45 years and counting. I’m satisfied in every way with and by my partner. We have an amazing sex life … a couple of times, or more, a week is our norm. But the most important component to our long marriage is laughter … we are always laughing or trying to make the other cry with laughter and wit. Another tip is intelligence and sharing. I have a joke about that but I would have to know you both much better to share it.

    1. WonderWench–love your ideas. I don’t think they’re radical at all. I couldn’t agree more about sex as we grow older–it’s so important and something I emphasize every time I get the stage!
      Congratulations on a long and successful marriage. It sounds like you and your partner have found the right mix for you.

      1. It’s funny you say that because my acting mentor would always bring up sex during our rehearsals, usually later into deep rehearsals by asking the question ‘When was the last time you had sex?’ Ms. Ivonoffski always referred to us as the character as soon as we were cast. I’ve seen this work to let actors release themselves into real people just by asking that one question. I heard one actor say to another (she was playing Eleanor) ‘this morning with the guard, who knows when the next time will be before I die’ … and, in my humble opinion, she was right. Cheers, and Happy New Year everyone.

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