Every month in Sex at Our Age, award-winning senior sexpert Joan Price answers your questions about everything from loss of desire to solo sex and partner issues. Nothing is out of bounds! To send your questions directly to Joan, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
My wife and I are in our 60s, very active and in good health. We haven’t had sex in over a year and a half because of my wife’s lack of interest. I would like to ask her if we’ll ever have a sex life again, but she has a hard time talking about it.
We’ve been married almost 40 years and neither of us had any sex partners before we met. I’ve always wanted sex more than she has, though the first years were pretty satisfying for both of us. She started losing interest when our children were young—she’d be OK with sex once or twice a month, and only when she was in the mood.
When she was in the mood, my wife really enjoyed sex and had great orgasms, but that mood hit less and less frequently. I finally became frustrated with being turned down and just waited for her to initiate sex. She didn’t. So our sex lives dwindled until around 15 years ago she realized a more regular sex life might be a good thing. For a short time she’d schedule sex once a week whether or not she felt like it—but then menopause hit and sex dwindled again, diminishing to once or twice a year until we stopped having sex altogether.
I’ve read about vaginal atrophy and would guess she has it. We used lubricant but it still wasn’t very effective the last time. She’s been mostly dry since a few years before menopause.
As far as foreplay goes, either I don’t know how to do it or she doesn’t like to be touched unless she is in the mood. The most affection I can show without her being irritated is spooning for a short period when we’re in bed — I’d better not move my hands to caress her! — and hugs when one of us leaves the house. I’ve tried suggesting a date, but it’s hard to find something she wants to do or doesn’t cost too much.
There are always two sides to a story, and I don’t want to paint her as an uncaring wife. I know at times she’s felt my touching was just for sex, and at times she was right. She told me a few years ago that she felt sorry for me because of her lack of sexual desire. But at this point I don’t think her interest in sex will ever revive, so what would your advice be? Should I ask her what our sex future will be? How should I phrase it? Or should I just accept her celibacy and masturbate when I need release? —Frustrated
Joan Price Responds
I read the frustration and despair in your story and I thank you for being willing to share it here. I can understand why you’re anxious about talking to your wife about this, but communication is the only way you’ll get out of this impasse. The subtle ways – dates, touching, hoping – haven’t worked and although years have passed, neither of you really understands yet how the other feels. Since I don’t know your wife and I don’t know anything about your conversational style or hers, I can’t give you the magic words for getting the conversation started. Here are some possible openings – finesse one or more of these to fit your comfort and style:
- I really miss the intimacy we used to have when we were sexual. Can we please talk about how we each feel about sex in our relationship?
- We seem to have fallen into a marriage without sex. I love you, but I am not happy this way. Would you be willing to see a therapist with me to learn how to talk about this?
- I realize that I really don’t know your reasons for not wanting to be sexual with me – whether it hurts you, or there’s something I’m doing or not doing. I’d like to hear how you feel.
I strongly suggest that you see a sex therapist (find one in your location) or a sex-savvy counselor for guidance. Therapy will help you identify the issues underlying the lack of sex, teach you how to communicate more effectively, give you strategies for regaining your intimacy if she’s willing, and tools for coping if she’s not, and offer you the boost you need to work on your relationship.
You’re guessing that your wife might have vaginal atrophy, but you don’t know. Have you asked whether she experienced vaginal pain during sex? If it’s just dryness—which is common as women age—as well as using lubricant you’ll also want to be sure that your wife is aroused, even before any genital touching.
If your wife thinks she may have vaginal atrophy, I hope she’ll see a knowledgeable doctor or pelvic floor therapist to get a diagnosis and treatment plan that can alleviate her discomfort. There are many reasons for vaginal pain, if indeed that’s what she’s experiencing, and getting the right medical help is essential.
You talk about your wife not being “in the mood.” That’s an elusive state when we’re not driven by our hormones. It’s important to understand the difference between spontaneous desire and responsive desire. As I explained before on seniorplanet.org, spontaneous desire just happens, while responsive desire only happens after a woman’s body starts getting aroused. Most women, especially in our age group, only experience responsive desire. That means you could wait forever for your wife to just want sex. But maybe if she’s willing to try your weekly sex date again, she might find that once you’ve aroused her, the mood sails in. (You might want to share with her an excellent resource about responsive desire, Emily Nagoski’s book “Come as You Are: The Surprising New Science that Will Transform Your Sex Life.”)
That said, you should also think about how you’re trying to arouse your wife. You say you don’t know if you’re doing foreplay right. If you go too directly and/or too soon to her vulva before she’s aroused, she’ll likely just want to withdraw. I don’t know if that’s what’s happening for her, and of course the only way to know is to ask her. Working with a therapist will help you learn to ask her how she prefers to be touched and help empower her to guide you.
You’ve both gone so long without sex together and without understanding each other that it isn’t an easy fix. But don’t give up! If she’s willing, find a therapist who will help you and your wife talk about this and really listen to each other—and if she won’t go, go on your own. Even without your wife, seeing a therapist will help you learn how to communicate with her, and give you new ways of looking at your marriage and strategies for coping. Meanwhile, I encourage you to keep masturbating. It’s good for your general health, your sexual health and your sense of well-being. There’s nothing wrong with giving yourself sexual pleasure. I wish you the best.
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Joan Price is the author of several books including “The Ultimate Guide to Sex After 50” and the award-winning self-help book “Naked at Our Age.” Visit Joan’s blog, “Naked at Our Age” and her Facebook page. For senior sex news, tips, event and webinar announcements, and special offers, join Joan’s mailing list.