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Apr 20 2009

Sex and the Midlife Single

Published by at 6:31 pm under Advice

Elizabeth described herself in her ad as an accomplished, mature woman with excellent communication skills and happy sensuality. She has been exchanging email with Thomas. The correspondence moved to phone calls and they arranged to meet for the weekend. Thomas would stay at her place. She had an extra bedroom but maybe they wouldn’t be needing it. The chemistry was good but Thomas said that he was waiting for “a special woman” to appear in his life and while he liked her a lot, he wasn’t sure she was the one. After the weekend, which included some very good sex, Thomas wrote her a poetic thank you note and she responded with a short note in which she told him how much she appreciated the weekend and she wished him luck in his search. She didn’t write again.

Robert had been a long-time friend of Marsha’s. They both sang in a community choir, and it turned out they both had a taste for weird movies. She invited him over one Sunday evening to see her DVD of Lost Highway, the director’s cut. After the movie they started kissing and when Thomas put his hand on her breast she said, “Where are you going with this?” He stopped and said, “Well, I don’t think there is enough of a fit for a long term relationship but I thought we could at least have some fun.” She said, “Okay but it’s late and if we’re going to do that, let’s make it a whole evening,” And she invited him back for candle light supper on Thursday.

Raoul was an engineer on temporary assignment in her city when he appeared as an expert witness against Lindsey’s client. She found herself so distracted by the beauty of his lavender shirt against his dark, smooth face that she asked him for his card after the trial. He was stationed locally for the next three months, but then would have to fly back, and so she met him for dinner as soon as she could. They sat in the garden restaurant in the atrium of his hotel enjoying the sexual tension until it became clear, reading just a little between the lines of the conversation, that he had a wife back home. Lindsey said, “Wait a minute. What’s in this for me?” He said, “Lindsey, what’s in it is passion.” She said, “That’s my passion, buddy, not yours. I brush my teeth with this kind of passion. Don’t you go claiming owner ship of my passion.”

How did these women make their decisions?

In any community, there are two sets of rules governing sexual behavior, the proper rules and the real rules. The proper rules are the ones designed to protect families and to foster marriages. The real rules are what people will naturally do as long as it’s nobody’s business but their own.

In the proper rules, as the name implies, people have to answer to others, the community of elders, for their behavior. But if you are an elder, meaning you are over 40 and you’ve been married and you’ve established yourself as an adult – and in addition you are single and sexual – who are you going to answer to? Who is going to judge your sexual behavior? And by what standards?

The dating at midlife culture is powerfully loaded to support and encourage sexual freedom in women.

1. Birth control is easily available or not even necessary

2. A lot of midlife single women are post-divorce and trying to re-assess their sexual desirability after a failed marriage and the sexual turn-offs involved.

3. A lot of midlife post-divorce women just out of a dry marriage are thirsty for sexual experience, or curious.

4. A lot of midlife single women are less certain that they even want a long term relationship with a man because most midlife singles have been in long term relationships that didn’t work and they haven’t yet figured out what they need to know for the next try.

5. We live in a highly sexualized cultural surround.

6. Much midlife dating is done in private, not in a community setting, and this privacy and anonymity supports sexual freedom.

7. Midlife single women are competing. There are more available women than men and this encourages women to play by men’s rules, which are fundamentally more promiscuous and much more encouraging toward casual sex than women’s rules.

Whether or not to have sex is always the woman’s decision. This is what you might expect when dealing with matters closely related to pregnancy and childbirth where the concrete consequences are born by women. When it comes to sex women are more practical and concrete and men are more romantic and opportunistic.

Even though women are more practical about sex and even though, in surveys, men want sex sooner, with more different partners over time, and with less personal investment – it’s still a mistake to assume that men are more lustful than women. The truth is probably that women enjoy it every bit as much, if not a lot more.

This theory about women enjoying sex more than men is a couple thousand years old. An ancient Greek myth, the story of Tiresius, is the story of a man who saw two snakes copulating and killed them while in the act and, in punishment, he was turned into a woman. He lived as a women for several years and then, when he happened to see two snakes copulating again, he said to himself, “If the curse worked once, maybe it will work again,” and so again he killed the snakes and was turned back into a man. Later, when the gods were having a debate over who enjoyed sex more, men or women, they asked Tiresius because he would know. He said, “Without question, women enjoy it much more.” Juno, the highest female god punished him, blinded him for revealing the secret.

(Zeus took pity on him and, as a consolation prize gave him the power of prophecy and some people think there is a relationship becoming profoundly and accurately intuitive and also being able to understand events from both a male and female perspective, but that’s another discussion.)

Here is a joke that makes the same point: After creation was finished, the Lord of All had two gifts left and he went to the man and the women and asked them who wanted which. Adam said, “What do you got?” and the Lord said, “You could pee standing up” and Adam, being male, impulsive and zany, spoke first and said, “Wow. I can see a real use for that. Great. I’ll take it.” And the Lord then turned to the woman and said, “Okay. So I guess you get the other one. Multiple orgasms.”

And this takes me back to the challenge: how do midlife women make good decisions about taking care of themselves sexually 1) in a culture that encourages sexual freedom, 2) when she really does enjoy sex a lot and wants a sex life, and 3) when she isn’t all that sure a long term committed relationship is possible and/or desirable with the men who are currently available and interested?

Some women – midlife, mature, and psychologically healthy – simply refuse to be involved with another sexually without marriage. One woman I know was doing charity work helping serve a Christmas dinner and the man she was working with asked her if she was available for a relationship. She said to him, “Yes, but I want you to know I’m done with midlife dating and the next man I get involved with has to want to get married.” He said, “Well, I guess I feel about the same. Let’s get married.” And they were married within two months. Five years later they are still very happy.

Of course not every one is that clear or that ready. Getting ready takes work, and usually an external source of support. Much of midlife relationship coaching involves helping people develop that inner readiness.

Back to the central question: What do people do in the meanwhile?

What seems to happen is that there is a kind of dating relationship that midlife singles set up that includes a speech that goes like this: “I don’t see a long term commitment happening here but I like you. Let’s go out, have fun, have sex but understand that I (at least) am still looking around and I may end the relationship at some time in the future and for now all I can promise is that I won’t be having sex with others.” There are a lot of variations on this theme. For example, not having unprotected sex with others, is a common one.

I had asked for a name for this new kind of relationship that includes sex but does not carry any obligation toward long-term commitment. What do you call relationships like this?

Here are some suggestions I’ve heard:

One person I talked to said that these were FOR NOW relationships, because they had no future.

Another saidI have it………… call it “expiration dating” you know, like food, it has an expiration date. It goes sour after a while, or it rots, but it’s definitely got it’s own time frame.” Another person said that when expiration dating is just about over then your soon-to-be-ex- partner becomes you STALE MATE.

And then there was this response: How about TENTATIVE RELATIONSHIPS IN MIDLIFE DATING.  It spells ‘trimd’ which is kind of a good play on words because that’s what midlife dating feels like to me, a sort of ‘trimmed’ version of how I dated in my single younger days and I definitely use a more tentative approach in the early stages

One woman who always wanted her trimd relationships to get more intimate suggested we call them “Furshelpta relationships” using the Yiddish for something you have to drag along.

A man told me the story of a relationship where he had great sex with this woman and afterwards said, “So you love me?” And she laughed. “Who said anything about love. How about LIKE PLUS?”

Again, these are, for the most part, stories about women approaching casual sex from their practical side. It’s good to have a little sex now and then. It’s good to have it with someone you like, who is kind, sensitive, smart, reasonably attractive and reasonably sane. But, as one woman said, “That doesn’t mean I want another chore-creating individual in my life.”

You can hear the mixed and negative feelings in some of this terminology. These women (all the responses were from women) know what these relationships are and they co-create them, but some women are more comfortable with them than others. My own sense is that they are a practical answer to a psychological challenge.

If you’ve been following my writing, you know that I see dating at midlife as being a kind of transition from a young adult’s way of thinking about relationships to an older adult’s way. I see this happening in stages and I see people negotiating their sex lives differently at different stages. All coaching involves moving people to the next level.

At first, people are confused. They aren’t sure what to make of the fact that they are single at midlife and they don’t know how to be as honest with themselves as they need to be. Then their sexual decisions seem to be impulsive. They react against the “proper” rules but they don’t have a better idea. If they are uncomfortable enough with themselves they move to the second stage. Sometimes the job of a counselor coach is to help them be more honest about their discomforts. If a relationship seems Furshelpta, and you resent it, maybe that’s a sign that you need to stop working at it and let it go.

In the second stage they learn the answer to the question, “To whom do I answer for my sexual behavior?” The best verbal formula for this answer comes from the 12 Step programs, the best lore there is on the midlife transition. You have to answer to yourself, to your sense of God, and to at least one other human being. You have to have a principled stand. In this stage the job of a counselor/coach is to be one of those other people a person is willing to answer to for their integrity. A lot of people in this stage simply stop having sex for a while until they can figure out how to do it, even in a transitional relationship, without violating their integrity.

In the third stage, once people have grounded themselves in conscientiousness, once they have become clear what it is they don’t want to do, people start trying figure out what they do want. This is a new set of challenges. A lot of times you have to stop doing what you don’t want before you can see clearly what it is you do want. The job of a counselor coach here is to remind people of their values while helping them experiment with new ones. This is the time to clarify true goals, to find the true inner north.

The problem with this process when it comes to sexual behavior is that sex is bonding. I’ve talked with many who create these special, supportive, mutually beneficial and yet, transitional relationships. And they are very hard to manage. Sexual jealousy is biological. People are surprised at how powerful it can be. Breaking up is hard to do, especially in the early stages of a transition when you aren’t yet able to be deeply honest with yourself.

Still, I wanted a somewhat neutral way of talking about these transitional relationships because people do them and find them helpful. Recently I’ve been calling them Relationships-In-A-Box. I liked the image and I heard it from another woman. She said, “It’s like that little box of precious things I keep in the bottom drawer and every once in awhile I pull it out and look at it, and then I put it away and go back to my life.”

So what’s the advice? As I’ve said, it depends on the stage you are in. In the end, you have to know what it is you want and what you are willing to sacrifice to get it. Here is a picture of the fourth stage, the one of certainty. Late in the movie, Moonstruck, the Olympia Dukakis character is a midlife wife whose husband is having an affair and she knows it. She is out to dinner by herself and ends up having dinner with a midlife man whose date has left him. They enjoy each other’s company and he walks her home. He stops to kiss her and, even though she likes him, she refuses. He asks why? She says – and this is the point – “Because I know who I am.”

In the three stories at the beginning of this essay, each woman made a different choice about whether or not to have sex. Was one choice better than the other? No. Each woman knew who she was and what she wanted. Her conditions were clear. The woman who refused sex because, as she said, “It’s my passion, not yours,” had decided that she only wanted a relationship that could end in marriage and she was prepared to do without. Period. The woman who asked the man back so they could make a whole evening of it also knew herself. She knew that she would allow her self an evening of sex, but only if it was given proper time and respect do it right. The woman who spent the weekend with the man and didn’t see him again also knew herself. She knew she wasn’t going to be trifled with by a man who wasn’t sure at all what he wanted, but at the same time she allowed herself to have a wonderful time.

Three women, three different situations, and in each a woman was being very honest with themselves and with her partner. Each was using a different, but intentional strategy.

Could we say as much for the men? Raoul, the engineer probably would have denied to his wife that he had been with anyone. In that case, he is probably also kidding himself. He has some growing up to do. Robert, who said, honestly, that he didn’t see a long-term future, was being honest with himself and with Marsha. For this couple, their short term encounter had integrity. Thomas, who was waiting for that special woman, was being vague with Elizabeth. Vagueness is always a sign of stage one. Elizabeth was much clearer and took advantage of the situation for herself.

I don’t think that the women who insisted on long term commitment or nothing were in fact more mature than the women who, while looking for a long term relationship allowed themselves some pleasure. What seems to happen as people mature is that they become very honest with themselves and also considerate of others.

How do women and men make sexual decisions when they have so much sexual encouragement, temptation and freedom? I focus more on how women decide because in a situation where people are free, for men, the default is to have sex given the chance and the decision is to do it first and think later, whereas for women, the default is to think about it first, and the decide whether go ahead.

How do women and men make sexual decisions when they have so much sexual encouragement, temptation and freedom? I focus more on how women decide because in a situation where people are free, for men, the default is to have sex given the chance and the decision is to do it first and think later, whereas for women, the default is to think about it first, and the decide whether go ahead.

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One Response to “Sex and the Midlife Single”

  1. Acca Accounting Courseson 07 Dec 2011 at 3:38 am

    Just Wonderful…

    That’s so lovely….