Relationships at midlife are complicated. Expectations and needs of aging parents, boomerang children, extended family and friends—they can completely exhaust us. Especially if we have grown accustomed to putting others’ needs before our own, we can end up being busy, lonely and depleted. Exhaustion and loneliness can make us vulnerable to the allure of relationships that hold a little more excitement. The tough reality is that we can be tempted into relationships that are not safe.
When we were younger, safe sex used to mean sex that was “protected”: from unwanted pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases. But now we know that those issues are just the first level of “safety” in sexual relationships. It’s one of the reasons that we at MiddlesexMD, in our recipe for sexual health, include emotional intimacy. The fundamental requirement for emotional intimacy is to be safe, emotionally and physically. If your relationships pose a threat to your sense of security, sex will not be intimate.
Lots of research has gone into what makes for intimacy. One of the most famous early researchers was Abraham Maslow (1908-1970) who studied psychologically healthy people. He developed a model that is called the “Hierarchy of Needs” to describe psychological development. Key to understanding how the model works is the idea that if the “first order” needs are not met, it is difficult if not impossible to work on attaining higher levels. Often portrayed as a pyramid, the hierarchy starts at the bottom with these first three levels:
- Biological and Physiological – air, food, drink, shelter, warmth, sex, sleep
- Safety – protection from elements, security, order, law, stability, freedom from fear
- Love and belongingness – friendship, intimacy, affection and love, from work group, family, friends, romantic relationships
Notice that in Maslow’s model, sex is listed as a first-level need. Intimacy, on the other hand, is at the third level, part of love and belonging. And between those two is safety! So Maslow’s model tells us that to have real intimacy, we need safe sexual relationships. In recent years, the tidiness of Maslow’s model (really? one need first and then another?) has been challenged, but the central truth—that a sense of security is a prerequisite for the vulnerability that’s part of real intimacy—still holds.
Our suggestions–or anyone else’s–for developing intimacy aren’t helpful if the relationship is not safe. And no generic answers are appropriate. There is help available, and some resources are listed here.
It’s difficult and complicated territory. Women often feel culpable—that they’ve “asked for trouble,” or we assume that men are just more aggressive. If you feel threatened and can’t talk about it with your partner, that’s a warning sign. In a 1975 interview in People (right after the publication of her landmark book Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape) Susan Brownmiller was asked, “Are most women not wary enough?” Her response was “Not nearly enough. They should learn to say no at the door…. A lot of women make mistakes out of loneliness.”
You don’t have to be lonely. And you don’t have to be unsafe. You deserve better.
Dr. Barb DePree, M.D., has been a gynecologist and women’s health provider for almost 30 years and a menopause care specialist for the past ten.