Can Midlife Marriage Survive Without Sex?

One of my favorite Hallmark cards of all time. Scroll down for the sentiment inside.

Christa D’Souza, columnist for the London newspaper The Guardian, wrote on Friday that most middle-aged married couples would feel relieved if they didn’t feel societal pressure to keep having great sex. What do you think?

D’Souza’s provocative piece (sorry) was written after a new survey of Brits, “The Sex Census 2012,” revealed that people aged 60 to 65 were more sexually confident than those in their 30s. “Really?,” D’Souza writes, no doubt echoing the sentiments of many midlife people who read the report. “ Who are these middle-aged chandelier-swingers? Where do they winkle them out from?” To read the whole column, click here.

While the Sex Census covered the UK, surveys in the U.S. suggest that midlifers are randier than ever. In January the Huffington Post published highlights of a survey by dating site OurTime.com, in which 97 percent of midlifers said regular sex was important to their relationships. According to the survey, 53 percent of post 50ers think their sex life is just as important now as when they were younger, 26 percent think it is more important, and only 3 percent think their sex life is not important at all. That same HuffPo article featured sex and relationship expert Dr. Pepper Schwartz, who said that that women after 70 are more satisfied with their sex lives than men. (Really? Could it be because women after 70s are happier because they are having less sex?)

Here’s the inside of my favorite Hallmark card.

In her column in The Guardian, D’Souza was skeptical about the Sex Census results. She suspects that most people in midlife might just embellish the truth a wee bit when asked about their sex lives.  And the fact that the Sex Census was conducted in part by Ann Summers, a UK-based chain of erotic boutiques, might also skew the results.

“Admit to having shoplifted. Admit to having a bit of a drink problem, or being bankrupt. But living in a sexless marriage? Never,” she writes.

D’Souza breezily admits to an increased prudishness in her own marriage and shares similar perspectives from some of her acquaintances, all happy with having sex infrequently or not at all. Moreover, she features experts who say that it’s unfair to people with diminishing hormones to perpetuate the myth that sex should always be frequent and volcanic. One of those experts, psychologist Petra Boyton, points out that it’s a myth “that if you aren’t bonking like rabbits some terrible thing will befall your relationship.”

“If you are having a lot of sex, and you are enjoying it, obviously I’m not going to talk you out of it,” Boynton told The Guardian, “but in this environment where we vet or measure our relationships by the amount of sex we are having, I think that is disingenuous for people who have lots of other ways to express intimacy. There are a number of things which connect people, but we are constantly spun this line that the glue to a relationship is sex, and without it one’s relationship will fall apart, and I think there are a lot of commercial reasons why that message is put out. That’s not just insulting, it’s pernicious.”

Any brave souls want to join this discussion?

More Midlife Couples Pull the Plug on Marriage

This past week the New York Times reported that more couples in their 50s and 60s are deciding to divorce and spend their sunset years alone.  Here’s a link to the Times’ summary of the study from Bowling Green State University.  It revealed that a third of adults ages 46 through 64 were divorced, separated or had never been married in 2010, compared with 13 percent in 1970. (To read the full story the Times makes you set up an account, which is free.)

This phenomenon makes me feel sad. I can’t presume to judge but couldn’t help but wonder why anyone would jettison a longtime partner at midlife.  The couple is likely to have survived many of marriage’s big stressors:  money problems, building careers, raising kids, aging parents.   Doesn’t the experience of weathering life’s challenges together make a relationship stronger rather than weaker?  Perhaps not always.

Physical and emotional abuse, infidelity, dangerous addictions such as alcohol or gambling…these are real deal-breakers in a marriage, and few of us would question a partner who wants to break free of this, even if they put up with it for decades.

But the gray area – which the Times article alludes to – is the situation in which the couple simply grows apart as time goes on, or one of them simply prefers to be alone and free.  The decision can be heart-wrenching: one woman in the Times story spoke of how she wept throughout her divorce, but feels relieved now, even though she is living on the edge of poverty.

How many of us know a midlife couple who makes everyone wonder how on earth they’ve stayed together?  I know of one woman who looks forward to when her husband travels and breezily says her marriage would not survive if he were home all the time.  Another acquaintance stayed put in the family home when her husband took a job 1,000 miles away.  Ignoring his pleas to join him, she stayed where she was because of her career and her friends…until her husband took a mistress there and they divorced.  She was devastated and bitter when it happened.

How many of us know couples who stay together, yet openly disparage their mates in front of others, or (more often) complain incessantly about them behind their backs?  Who show their friends more respect and consideration than their spouses? Would these people be truer to themselves if they just called it quits?

I don’t pretend to have the answers to this, but my take is that people should not expect marriage alone to make them feel fulfilled.  Children, faith, careers, interests, friends…they also contribute to our sense of purpose and contentment.  Yet whether you are married for five years or 50, marriage has to be more than just two people sharing a roof.  Love and respect for each other, and shared interests and philosophies, go a long way towards strengthening the bond and keeping a marriage vibrant through old age.  And while personal fulfillment is an elusive Holy Grail, doesn’t hurt a marriage to put “we” ahead of “me.”