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Couples at Midlife

by Dr. Barb DePree

Until recently, no one has given much thought to the sex life and relationship satisfaction of middle-aged couples in long-term relationships. You know, ordinary people. So no one knows what keeps long-term couples happy together and happy in bed together.

Recently, however, the Kinsey Institute conducted an international survey of 1,000 couples from the U.S., Germany, Spain, Brazil, and Japan. The median age for men was 55 and for women, 52. The average couple in the study had been together for 25 years. Sound familiar?

In this first study of its kind exploring the “sexual and relationship parameters of middle-aged and older couples in committed relationships,” the Kinsey Institute wanted to identify qualities that contributed to the sexual satisfaction and relational happiness of these couples.

Some of the researchers’ findings were unremarkable, but others surprised even the researchers.

In this survey, respondents and their spouses answered questions about their health, sexual history, how often they kissed and cuddled, how often they had sex, and how often they felt arousal or desire, along with a bunch of other intimate details about their lives and relationships. The researchers focused on physical intimacy, sexual functioning, and how long the couple had been together as qualities that would be particularly predictive of sexual and relationship satisfaction.

They hypothesized that there would be few differences between men and women, but that women would tend to have less satisfying sexual relationships and that physical intimacy would be more important to them.

They weren’t as accurate as one might think.

First, duration—the length of time couples were together—did indeed contribute significantly to relationship satisfaction for both men and women, but in different ways. For men the connection between relationship happiness and its duration was linear—the longer the relationship, the greater the satisfaction.

For women, on the other hand, relationship satisfaction decreased until year 15, and then it steadily increased from year 20 on. Researchers hypothesize that this effect was due to the stressors of the childbearing years, and that once those years are past, “this change, along with the freedom from reproductive worries, may facilitate greater levels of sexual satisfaction…”

A surprising outcome was that men who cuddled and kissed more were also happier in their relationships. Physical intimacy was a more important predictor of relational satisfaction for men than for women. No such straightforward effect was found for women. Duration of the relationship and sexual functioning was more closely linked to relationship satisfaction than was all that kissing and cuddling.

This effect came as a surprise. “The degree to which physical intimacy (that was not necessarily sexual) was rated as important to men’s but not women’s relationship happiness was striking,” write the researchers, “suggesting a need for reconsideration of the role of physical affection and its meanings for each gender in longer term relationships.”

However, women were happier with their sex lives when the relationship included lots of physical intimacy. So although physical intimacy was linked to sexual satisfaction for women, it wasn’t so closely linked to relationship satisfaction, which suggested to the researchers that the two qualities operate somewhat independently.

For example, people who were satisfied with their sexual relationships also tended to be satisfied with their relationship (and this tendency was particularly marked in women who had been married over 30 years), but conversely, happiness in the relationship didn’t necessarily translate to sexual satisfaction.

Sexual functioning was important to both genders, but it was actually more important to women. Women who reported high levels of sexual functioning were significantly more satisfied with both the sex and with their relationships.

Overall, the report concludes, “women reported significantly more sexual satisfaction than men and men more relationship happiness than women, contrary to our hypothesis.”

So, ladies, it ain’t over til it’s over for any of us. Sex remains more important than ever as we get older, and it significantly impacts the quality of our lives. Sexual satisfaction contributes to the stability of our relationships, and if we can remain physically intimate and sexually active, we’re more likely to be happy with our sexual relationships as well.

These results have important repercussions for the choices we make at this time of life when we can no longer take our sexual apparatus, or our health, for granted. All our physical parts just take more attention and maintenance, but keeping our bodies and our sexual organs in good working order is absolutely critical to our quality of life—and to the quality of our relationships. And that’s the takeaway from the Kinsey research.


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