I’ve noticed in all long-lasting happy marriages that there is one key characteristic: both partners have always enjoyed sex and have no shame or hangups – so they prioritise it. However there is no normal in terms of libido.
If you’re tempted to draw any stereotypical conclusions about anything to do with sexual desire and what is ‘normal’, let me stop you. There is no normal. The truth, spoken in privacy and rarely outside a practitioner’s rooms, is that when it comes to sexual desire, there is usually some combination of unmet longing, resentful frustration, shame, and lack of interest.
It is remarkable how much we adults, particularly older (40+) and/or long-partnered adults, underestimate the importance of sex, given how sex-saturated our commercial culture is. I suspect that at some unconscious level, as grown-ups well into our working and family lives, we relegate sexuality to youth. We place sex in the same category as its pop culture references, deeming the act itself of little importance when it comes to the hard yakka of day-to-day life, rife with financial obligations, offspring, work-versus-leisure conflicts, and the passion-sapping domestic routine that comes with time.
Yet, let me tell you, sexual desire matters vitally. I’m going to explain a few reasons why.
Sex is about far more than the act of intercourse
From oral to coital and in between, there is no definition of sex we will all agree upon. So I will encourage readers to decide that bit for themselves.
The most important point is that sex can be many things to many people, and it’s nearly always a different experience each time. It can serve as a means to release tension and stress; as an experience of sheer fun and excitement; a way of connecting to someone for emotional intimacy; it can even be a transcendent experience which takes you to another level of consciousness. Crucially, it can take place alone, or with a partner.
Here is a wonderful exercise to do: really interrogate yourself and determine, what is sex for you, and then ask your partner what sex is for them? Regardless of how much you are or are not ‘on the same page’, discussing why you do it, and what you get out of it or not is a wonderful validation for you both, removing shame, and opening the door to a better experience.
Touch is vital for mental and emotional health
Sexual desire is part and parcel of our bodies’ longing for touch in a manner which is commensurate with an adult’s sexual maturity, but in fact it is part of a larger human need for touch which begins from birth.
The earliest attachment studies by John Bowlby in the 1940s, 50s and 60s focused on children bonding with mothers, and determined that, without regular, consistent loving touch, babies will suffer significant emotional consequences, such as lifelong depression. Studies carried out since have confirmed these early conclusions.
Human touch sparks off a chemical chain reaction that increases endorphins (happy hormones like oxytocin), which in turn regulate hormones, impacting favourably on mood.
Sometimes, parents will receive so much touching from young children that they are touch-saturated (especially mothers of young children and particularly when breastfeeding). This just means that there are times in adult life when our need for touch is met outside of a sexual connection; but this too shall pass. There was a bit of a media blitz a few years ago on the sexual goings-on in retirement homes, and since then, numerous articles and reports have ‘revealed’ that older people enjoy sex too – a lot. I have seen clients in their 80s looking for a better sex life. So it’s no surprise to me. The desire for sexual intimacy transcends age, even if with age it changes, is more infrequent, and involves a higher cuddle-to-bonking ratio!
Sex can make or break a relationship
From the moment a couple meets, their sexual connection matters vitally. Pheremones impact how you interpret and like your partner’s smell; loving their smell is not only is an indicator of sexual attraction, as well as genetic compatibility in case you create offspring together, but it’s also an indicator of long-term fidelity. 
More generally, over time, a strong sexual connection is key to lasting happiness. A study in the US showed that sexual problems accounted for 32% of marriages that ended in divorce. What I see most often in couples is dissatisfaction in terms of desire discrepancy; the person who wants sex least has a difficult time imagining why their partner wants it more. Likewise, the person who wants it more can suffer from feelings of being unloved, loneliness, and so on. A good counsellor or coach can help with communication and compromise in this area. Burying one’s head in the sand is easy to do, but sexual desire that leads to frustration can be overwhelming for men and women, and leads to all kinds of extra-marital frolicking. And this means women, too!
Women want sex– sometimes more than men
For me, one of the most frustrating aspects of how as a society we relate to sexual desire is the outdated belief that men want it more. Research just does not bear this out. In recent decades, women are more liberated on matters of sexuality, and are also more informed about their bodies and how they work; so it’s just untrue to make generalisations based on gender.
Last year I spent a morning in a professional group of sex therapists and I asked them, who was the higher desire partner, men or women in their client couples? They were split 50/50. In my work, I have just as many women having affairs, paying for sexual services, or out of their minds with frustration as I do men.
When desire is not on par
The reasons for a lower desire partner of any gender in a relationship are many: ageing which changes hormones and desire; lack of time; stress; disliking how one looks naked; complexities in relationships that make your partner seem less desirable.
However, having had the privilege of working with many couples who have amazing sex after 20+ years of marriage, I have long noted one key characteristic: both partners genuinely have always enjoyed sex, without underlying shame or hangups. So they prioritise it, and any difficulties are worked around because, to them, sex is like ice-cream – you may not want it every day, but you know that when you do have it, it’s great. So you make it happen one way or another.
For some people, in a new relationship, sex is at a deeply unconscious level about bonding, and this need (partly about genetic hard-wiring, and partly social, in my opinion) can manifest as incredible lust – the ‘honeymoon period’. I always delve a little deeper into attitudes and beliefs about sexuality when I hear someone say, “My partner was so hot for it at the beginning. What’s happened?”
A person who really doesn’t generally value sex, genuinely enjoy their body’s capacity for pleasure, who doesn’t see sexual desire as this wonderful experience on tap—this person might be sexually game in the beginning of a relationship purely out of a need for bonding. Then, when those hormones calm down, and a relationship is established, that person’s more genuine attitudes and beliefs around sexuality emerge, for better, or for worse.
But don’t worry, people evolve and change, especially with maturity!
The best sex comes after 40…..and usually after the childbearing years
This is the conclusion of David Schnarch in Passionate Marriage, who says that great sex and true intimacy are about bringing emotional depth into the bedroom:
We’ve confused genital prime with sexual prime…for males, adolescence marks their quickest erections and shortest refractory period…but adolescent boys preoccupied with establishing their masculinity aren’t very emotionally available in bed. A sixty-year-old, on the other hand, has more personhood behind his eyeballs. (76-77)
A huge component of sexual desire overlooked in our busy lives is its connection to emotional intimacy. In youth, blossoming hormones mean the desire for sex is as much about sensation, newness, and a highly hormonal drive for release, but sexual behaviour obviously has a huge bonding component, genetically hardwired, and socially emphasised: sex is what couples do in relationships.
Much as a young red wine is not as complex as its aged companions, with age and wisdom, the emotional bonding component of sexual desire confers subtleties and complexities which enhance the experience considerably. Sure, there might be less urgency and lubrication – and more jiggly bits – but again and again, I hear from couples in their 50s and 60s who report that, when it’s good, it is significant. It means more than a bonk. It’s an affirmation of closeness that can verge on a deep soul sharing.
That’s not something you get at age 20, and is well worth cultivating.
Conclusion: Great sex at any age and at any stage begins with communication and acceptance
When it comes to sexual desire, there really is no normal in terms of libido, desire for frequency, and so on. Rather, there is an opportunity for communication, honesty, and a commitment to discuss and work out how to meet each other’s needs. If you’re wanting to get to a rich, emotionally layered experience of sexual bonding, the kind that ages well, it starts with acceptance of your other, communication, and a commitment to embrace sexual desire and intimacy as an important facet of adult life.
Emma Michelle Dixon, PhD, is a sexuality and relationship coach, bodyworker, and workshop facilitator based in Sydney. She regularly presents workshops and talks on matters of sexuality as well as facilitates retreats on sexual healing.
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