Middle-age and older couples typically report higher levels of marital satisfaction than younger couples. But even as a relationship grows more fulfilling, many find something is missing. Where sex was once spontaneous and pleasurable, it has become sporadic and laborious.
Most sexual problems are less about physical well-being than emotional well-being, says Laurie Watson, a North Carolina-based sex therapist and author of "Wanting Sex Again: How to Rediscover Your Desire and Heal a Sexless Marriage" (Berkley, $16). Watson also writes the "Married and Still Doing It" column for Psychology Today magazine.
For women, getting older in a youth-
obsessed culture can dampen desire. "We don't see older women particularly as sex objects," Watson says. "Men get away with a little longer run." When women stop feeling sexy, they often stop seeing themselves as sexual beings, Watson says.
Body self-esteem issues can make a woman shirk from sex, even though her partner still finds her desirable. This, in turn, can lead to a reduced sex drive from the man. "What men tell me is the sexiest woman is a confident woman," Watson says. "A woman who is anxious about how she looks isn't that sexy, even if she's hot."
Watson says many couples are able to ramp up their sex lives once the kids move out. "The empty nest is freedom," she says. But for partners who have had trouble communicating, being alone together in a once-bustling household sometimes creates sexual issues. "Many couples have been so busy giving priorities to other things, suddenly they're faced with having a conversation about sex," she says. "They don't have the language, they don't have a history of doing that, they're not comfortable with it."
For those re-entering the dating scene after a divorce or a spouse's death, a negative body image, especially for women, may cause anxiety if the new relationship becomes more serious. "The No. 1 worry is, 'I'm going to take off all my clothes and somebody's going to see my stretch marks and he's the not the father of my children,' " Watson says.
Watson's advice for restarting a flickering sex life: Talk with your partner about what you want and what feels pleasurable. This can be difficult for women brought up before the 1960s sexual revolution, when talking about sexual needs was something only "bad girls" did.
"The woman needs to be explicit about what she likes," Watson says. "I think many men would be grateful for that."