The Goods

Uncross those wires: Why communication is the key to a satisfying sex life as we age

Dr. Robin Milhausen dispels relationship myths and provides us with tools for a stronger connection

Dr. Robin Milhausen dispels relationship myths and provides us with tools for a stronger connection

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

There's no denying that as we get older our relationships change, and, naturally, so our sex lives. Researchers are still learning more about what really happens to the human body during sex, and it turns out that having more sex as we age could actually help us stay smarter in our senior years. But while sex is an important part of intimate relationships, the emotional connection is equally important — and the two are related. The more emotionally connected people are, the more physically satisfied they are, and vice versa. Intimacy is way more than what happens in the bedroom. And sexuality researcher Dr. Robin Milhausen believes that we appreciate that more and more as we get older. So, to help us better understand sex and intimacy as our bodies age, she stopped by The Goods to dispel some common myths and provide us with tools to increase intimacy and maintain a successful sexual relationship at any age.

For many men, aging is particularly difficult as they associate some of the changes as threats to their masculinity. Some believe men go through something called "andropause," similar to menopause in women but these aging-related hormone changes actually happen much more gradually among men. A man's testosterone decreases gradually every year from when they're 25 years old onwards, reaching a pace of about 1% a year by age 30. Signs of low testosterone in men include lowered interest or desire in sex, sexual functioning problems, lowered energy, sleep changes, mood changes including depression, as well as physical changes including hair loss, weight gain, and decreased muscle mass. Dr. Milhausen explained that it's important to remember that men, as well as women, need affirmation and support as they grow older and deal with changes in physicality

For women, menopausal changes are much more abrupt, and start around the age of 51. Sexual side effects include vaginal dryness, thinning of the vaginal wall and other nonsexual changes such as weight gain and increased osteoporosis, but these are fairly easily addressed with added lubrication and medications.

Of course, keeping a positive attitude toward sex as we get older is crucial. In almost all cases our physical health declines with age. We can adjust to our circumstances, or get beaten down by them depending on our outlook, so it's important to remind ourselves that there are many benefits to aging. Don't disregard the fact that aging means you know yourself better and you're more confident and self-aware, and this carries over into your sex life. Learning to let go of body image standards can lead to a much more fulfilling time in the bedroom, regardless of age.

And while our bodies do change, there are a lot of preconceived notions floating around out there about what that means in terms of our sex lives and our close connections with our partners. So thankfully, Dr. Milhausen dispelled some common myths surrounding intimacy as we age.

Men have the urge to cuddle more than women as they get older

In a wide-reaching, 5-country study of men aged 40 to 70, touch was the strongest predictor of happiness in men. Men who reported kissing, cuddling and frequent sexual caressing from their partner were three times more likely to report relationship happiness. The effect was much stronger for men than for women. Women are much more physically affectionate in day to day life, with kids, friends and family members.

Sex doesn't get worse as we get older

Dr. Milhausen's research from a national sample of midlife adults suggests that sex becomes no less pleasurable the older we get. The physical changes that come from aging mean that our bodies can't always do things the same old way we always have done, so it's a good time to approach sexuality and intimacy creatively. If erections take longer to develop, it can mean more foreplay, or sex that's less focused on penetration, which has many benefits for pleasure. Many of us will have the best sex of our lives in our 50's, 60's and beyond.

Erectile dysfunction drugs don't solve everything

And sometimes they can cause as many issues as they solve, despite having changed the sexual lives of older couples dramatically over the past several decades. Dr. Milhausen claims some research on women's experiences of their husbands' ED drug use suggests that they aren't thrilled with their partner having chronic erections and may feel pressure to have sex when they aren't interested.

Sexual functioning isn't the number one predictor of relationship satisfaction

Though sexual functioning is important, relationship satisfaction is based on far more than the strength of our erections or orgasms. Communication is critical; you need to talk about your likes and dislikes. Discussing these changes can be really helpful and allow our partners to understand that what worked for us before may not work so well now, and why. We can't expect that our partners will randomly discover things that work for us. But Dr. Milhausen's own research indicates that the most sexually satisfied are those who are talking frequently about their sexual likes and dislikes. Once we realize that communication is key to better intimacy, it's easier to move forward — all you need to do is start the conversation. Tell each other what you like. Focus on what's really working for you to start, then bring in things you are curious about or would like to try sexually.

Taking time to communicate and learn what works for both of you is key. Dr. Milhausen says to use these four questions to build intimacy with your partner.

What are you most grateful for?

In our day-to-day lives, it's easy to get caught up in the things that don't go our way, like the person who cut us off in traffic, or the coffee we spilled on our shirt at work. It's also easy to get caught up in the things our partner does to irritate us, focusing on who last took out the garbage or who finished the milk without replacing it. That's why taking a moment to consider the things that we appreciate in life, and in our relationship, is a great reset for our mood. Being able to hear the things that our partners appreciate about us and be reminded of their caring and affection is priceless for a relationship.

What are your hopes and dreams for the future?

Picturing yourselves together in the future, and having happy or exciting times to look forward to, can provide emotional sustenance in a relationship when times are tough. And those plans for the two of you are the building blocks for the relationship. Also, you may learn something new about your partner, like a hobby you didn't know they were interested in, a place you didn't know they wanted to visit or a change in career they fantasize about. Ask about hopes and dreams five, ten, and 20 years down the road. Just like in the bedroom, you can't make it come true if you don't know what your partners hopes and dreams are.

What's your favourite thing about our sex life?

All of us harbour some sexual insecurities, and it can be good to hear about what's going well or what we are doing right, to put those concerns to rest. Also, it can be really hard and hurtful to say, "I really hate when you do X in bed." Instead, focus on what's working, what you like, and your partner will be motivated to do more of that, and hopefully the things you don't like will naturally occur less often.

What's one thing you are sexually curious about?

If we don't ask, we won't know! But the key to this question is to be non-judgmental. It's poor form to ask this, and then freak out on your partner for telling you their fantasies if you don't share the same ones. So, it's important to have some ground rules for this conversation. Keep in mind that just saying the fantasy out loud doesn't mean that either of you want it to happen in real life, or that you are asking your partner to fulfil it. It's a starting point for a conversation, and potentially expanding your sexual repertoire in a way that feels comfortable for both of you.

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