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A reader writes:
My wife and I, in our 70s, haven’t engaged in any intimacy in 10 years. Even if I try to give her a quick kiss on the lips, she turns slightly so that I kiss her cheek instead.
Our sex life came to a sudden, abrupt, undiscussed halt. I didn’t pursue sex after my wife shut down for fear of rejection, or diminished desire, or both. We were going through financial difficulty when my mother, unable to live alone anymore, came to live with us. Mom died a couple of years ago after 10 years with us. This brought us a little closer, but more out of sympathy than desire for intimacy.
“Our sex life came to a sudden, abrupt, undiscussed halt.“
Communication about our lack of sexual intimacy has been non-existent, a difficult topic for both of us. I finally brought up the subject, pointing out that it had been years. Did she think we could rekindle some sense of desire?
We went to couples counseling for a short time, but intimacy was a topic only once when the counselor brought it up. My wife said she would be more comfortable discussing it if I left the room. To this day, I don’t know what they talked about. It was a therapy environment, and I understood that conversations between patient and counselor were private and privileged. So I never asked. Maybe that was a mistake. We never came to any resolutions about anything during our therapy, and we stopped going.
Then a devastating diagnosis
We plod along, enjoying each other’s company as well as independent activities. Our lives consist of a lot of sameness, little affection, and no physical contact. She was recently diagnosed with a treatable cancer. She has an excellent prognosis, but it’s cancer — a frightening word — with additional pressure on us both.
I may have to put my meager attempts at renewed intimacy on hold for a while, though I don’t want to. Shouldn’t we be closer than ever at this time? Do you have any words of wisdom?
Husband Missing Intimacy
Thank goodness your wife’s cancer is treatable. The shock and fear of a cancer diagnosis sometimes brings couples closer, or it can have the opposite effect. Counseling can make a great difference, and I encourage you to consider that now.
Too late to speak up?
It sounds like you and your wife never openly discussed your emotions, needs, desires, wishes. Sadly, my “words of wisdom” are more about what you could have done earlier than what you might do now. Clearly you both needed comfort during that hard time of financial challenges, coupled with caring for your mother — yet when sex stopped, you said nothing. I’m not blaming you, please understand — you did the best you could with what you knew then. But what might you have said? Maybe one or more of these statements:
- “I know we never learned to talk about sex and intimacy, but could we learn now?
- “I miss your closeness. I love you and need you. Can we try to bring back our intimacy?”
- “We never expected to be caregivers for my mother. I really appreciate all you do for her and for me. Can we make some time for just us, alone?”
- “I should have asked you what you and our counselor talked about after you asked me to leave the room. I was afraid to know, and I didn’t know the rules about what I could and couldn’t ask. Can you share some of that with me now?”
- “I don’t understand how we let our intimacy go. It would mean everything to me to recapture it. Please tell me your feelings. We’ve gone too long without talking about something this important.”
- “Could we please see a new counselor who would prioritize helping us talk to each other?”
“You are right — addressing cancer with you as her intimate supporter is important.”
Can you bring up these questions now? Of course. But you’ve gone so long without intimacy and without discussing it that you’ll need a therapist’s help. I asked sex and couple therapist Barry McCarthy, PhD, author of Rekindling Desire, what he would tell you now:
“Sadly, you are caught in a cycle of avoidance of intimacy, touching, and sexuality that has become more severe and chronic over time. Unfortunately, the couple counseling reinforced the avoidance in part by not exploring what ‘poisoned’ your spouse’s feelings regarding touching and intimacy.
Address Medical and Sexual Issues
“You are right — addressing cancer with you as her intimate supporter is important. I suggest consulting a couple therapist with a specialty in dealing with medical issues as well as sexuality issues. You can get referrals at https://www.aasect.org and https://sstarnet.org. Many couple clinicians use an assessment process starting with a couple session, followed by an individual meeting with each spouse to explore psychological, relational, and sexual factors, and then a couple feedback session to set goals in dealing with your marriage, her cancer, and intimacy and touching.”
By now, after a decade of no intimacy—not just lack of sex, but not even kissing, or cuddling, or confiding in each other—it will take effort, commitment, and professional help. Please take Dr. McCarthy’s advice and seek a good, sex-positive therapist. Don’t try to do this alone. My best to you.
Send Joan your questions by emailing [email protected]. All information is confidential. Joan can only answer questions that are chosen for publication from readers age 60+
Joan Price is the author of several self-help books about senior sex including her newest, “Sex after Grief: Navigating Your Sexuality after Losing Your Beloved,” and the award-winning “Naked at Our Age: Talking Out Loud about Senior Sex.” Visit Joan’s website and blog and her Facebook page. For senior sex news and tips, subscribe to Joan’s free newsletter.
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