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Apr 25 2009

Between the STR and the LTR, the MTR, a stable, friends and benefits relationship.

Published by at 4:54 am under Advice

The personals specify STR or LTR, (short term relationship or long term) as if those were the only choices. I’m not so sure. I think that there is a growing hybrid, the MTR, the mid-term relationship.

As one very smart and very attractive 50 year old woman explained to me, the problem is how to be “looking for long term relationships and dealing with the libido in the meanwhile.”

I think it is The Central Issue in dating at midlife. It is the thing that everyone struggles with.

I think the problem of how to have a sex life when single at midlife is equally vexing to both men and women. Midlife adults are sexually active and want to be. But how?

The best answer is a good long term committed relationship. It’s the best sex, the easiest sex, the most emotionally satisfying sex and the richest, most textured sex. Far and away, most of the people who report having the best and most frequent and most satisfying sex at midlife are people who are married or settled into in long term relationships. Then sex simply becomes part of pleasant domestic tranquility.

Midlife singles, by definition, are people who experience long sexual dry spells. These are people who, for one reason or another have backed away from long-term committed relationships. By 35 or 40 they’d tried for the Big One and they’ve either left or been left or have avoided it altogether.

Young people are single because they were born that way; midlife singles are single for a reason. Often they aren’t too sure what the reason is. Something happened. They carry some baggage, usually in the form of suspicions about themselves or about their potential partners, and they have explanations which do not bring peace.

Trying to be a midlife single while you sort things out or regroup or continue to avoid a long term relationships and also have a sex life is fundamentally troublesome.

This is because sex brings people together and invites them to stay together.

Take the question of female orgasm. Women don’t need to orgasm to get pregnant. Why then should human females have evolved this behavior? The best theory is that the purpose of female orgasm is to make sex more bonding.

Men tend to have dual strategies. Men like bonding but they also like variety. One survey showed that in long term relationships men found their partners even better looking after sex than before but in short term relationships, they said they found their partner less attractive and wanted to get away.

(This is related to another bit of research that showed that, in a bar, men really did rate the women as more and more attractive at closing time. This is not a matter of character, but biology. Character is what allows you to make choices despite biological impulses. But back to the story. )

What do midlife singles who do not want to be joined with anyone in particular, right now, think one should do about their sex lives? Here is the answer: in addition to finding ways to have sex with each other, they also have to work hard to find ways to make sure the sex isn’t bonding.

Midlife singles have risen to the challenge. Here are some answers I have collected in my interviews. If you have additional ideas or observations, please write me.

One is the Circumstantial Cutoff. This is the “strangers on a train” strategy. Or maybe it’s the Club Med plan. You agree to meet someone from far away in a far away place and then trust the circumstances to pry you apart.

“We agreed that the relationship was impossible because of the distance. Maybe it was maybe it wasn’t. The important thing is that we agreed it was. And then we threw ourselves at each other with complete abandon. We agreed that in our limited time we would do everything to make it totally wonderful. And we did. And then we had to stop. We cried. But there was no choice. We had to stop. It wasn’t personal. The plan worked perfectly. “

Mind you, none of these plans are conscious and deliberate. They are just arrangements people seem to work out and only see in retrospect.

A less romantic form of the Club Med plan is Life on the Road. People who travel for business sometimes have a code that “what happens on the road stays on the road.”

You’ll notice that this stuff is completely amoral. Some would say it’s immoral. Where my morals get involved is when there is lying and deceit. Any sex that has to be lied about is probably a very bad idea for lots of reasons.

Another form sexual outlet is former lovers. The relationship is over and never to be regained. If we are both in between, Well…. what’s the harm of a little sex between friends?

Again, it’s not the best answer. It’s not satisfying; it’s not secure; it can feel like being the second choice; any port in the storm and it’s often riddled with a fear of starting it up again.

All these answers have a downside. I’m not recommending them. I am just saying that being single at midlife leads to these kinds of behaviors and creates a world in which many of the normal rules of community living seem to be suspended.

There are also circumstances where friends have sex and stay friends. But that really requires a lot of honesty. The people who do it successfully seem to do it on a one-at-time basis. The basic rule people come to is that doing it once never ever implies that you will do it the next time you are together. One way this is suspicious is that these encounters often feature liberal use of substances. A little wine to soften one’s judgment. But, as I say over and over, all these answers seem to the people involved and never mind the moral judgments for the moment basically stop-gap and unsatisfactory.

One final use of circumstances to place limits on a relationship is that people pick partners they would never be in a long term relationship with. Women have more flexibility in this than men. Sometimes they can go for someone of higher status knowing that sometimes men will lower their standards for short term sex. A lot of women will, if given the chance, use their sexuality as a way to get close to someone interesting to them, especially if the man is pleasing and charming anyway.

Another way women do it is use their higher status to win them the short term attentions of an attractive and easy to manipulate younger man of lower status.

When circumstances don’t end a short term relationship, then the people have to end them.

Here is one woman’s report: I was with a man who was retired with good income and he wanted to travel and he would be in a relationship with a woman for a few months or a few years and then he would say, it’s not quite what I wanted and he would end it and, if you wanted to be in relationship with him, those were the rules. So I accepted his rules. Men’s rules.

Easy Endings is one of the reasons men pay for prostitution. The money is not for sex but so the person will go away afterwards.

Similarly, easy ending is one of the advantages of Self-love. I have a friend who ran a workshop on self love and he called it “sex with the best.” He said an advantage of it is that once it is over, it is over. One woman told me that she’d purchased a new vibrator and she realized that the old one was actually older than any of her children.

If men commonly end relationships because they are curious about the next opportunity, midlife women often end them because the men are too much work for too little return. Midlife women generally achieve a great deal of independence. They have good jobs and own houses. The really don’t need a man for his resources, only for his company. And a lot of midlife men haven’t yet figured out how to be good company for a woman.

Often, because of the economic policies of the last 20 years, good jobs for men have disappeared. More and more women are doing much better than the men. The sex isn’t worth the effort. As one woman said, A humpa humpa zit! And that’s it. No thanks.

Most women, however, still want sex. More and more the ideal is a man who can be very independent yet still pleasant to get together with from time to time.

I’m retired. I like to go to the tropics during the winter. I like to travel. It’s very hard to find a man with that kind of freedom who also wants to follow my agenda. When I was younger I’d follow his agenda. It’s different. I’m my own person. So we make a different kind of relationship with each other.

Apparently, the older you get, the more idiosyncratic and particular and practical the arrangements. I do think this requires strong communication skills to accomplish smoothly. But mainly it requires great confidence, which older people tend to have.

I think this is the most important finding in my interviews and I’ll say it again: The older people get, and especially this for women, the more idiosyncratic and particular and practical they are about how they take care of themselves. And this includes how and whether they have a sex life.

I recently consulted on a real Hollywood film script and I was asked to contribute ideas for the key speech in which the heroine, a midlife single, realizes something important about her dating behavior. I suggested that she declare that all the people she met while dating at midlife didn’t seem to believe in marriage and she does believe in marriage. I believe in marriage! I do. Those were her words. With that realization she changes how she conducts herself and becomes more confident.

In a very good book, called Why Men Marry Some Women And Not Others, John T. Molloy produces research that says that one of the key reasons women get married is that they believe in marriage. It’s that simple.

It looks like the older people get, the more they prefer these new kinds of relationships. Not short-term, not long term. Mid term? Midlife singles are not sure they believe in marriage. That’s the point. It takes some soul searching and personal work to have confidence in marriage. We live in a society that supports choice.

Given all this, what does someone do who is looking for a long term relationship? The first priority is to keep your mind clear. Do your soul searching. Know who you are. The world is really very responsive to our creativity and if you know who you are and what you want, you can usually get it.

It isn’t always easy to know what will work long term unless sex is put on hold. So an irony is that people who are looking for longer term relationships often take much, much longer studying each other before they sexualize the relationship.


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