Erika, a 63-year-old practicing attorney who lives in McLean, says that she and her husband of 33 years are living as though they are roommates. “We have separate bedrooms,” she said. “We really don’t talk except for superficial conversations about politics. I’m lonely so much of the time.”
With the goal of restoring the romance and intimacy that they once shared, Erika and her husband have begun couples counseling. From scheduling date nights to overcoming resentments that hamper affection, local therapists say those over 65 can harness their maturity and life experience to revive or create healthy relationships.
“Although challenges exist, so does your interest in romance and intimacy,” said Brandon Keene-Orton, Assistant Professor of Counseling at Marymount University. “Don’t let existing stigmas harm your sexuality.”
Some older couples no longer have parental responsibilities like driving carpools and coaching little league games, which creates space for satisfying romantic relationships.
“With the worries from raising young children behind them, increased free time, new and old love relationships can be life enriching,” said Linda McKenna Gulyn, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology at Marymount University and the creator of a "Sexuality in Older Adulthood” in her Adulthood and Aging class. “In older adulthood – as it was in previous years – intimacy and closeness, which may include sexual intimacy, are vital for a long and healthy life.”
Some seniors lack an interest in romantic relationship because of the belief that such connections are not attainable, suggests Alexandria therapist Mark Anderson Ed.D. “As we age our bodies change and our sexual abilities change,” he said “Many people find it very difficult to talk openly with their partner about these changes. It makes them feel like they’re letting their partner down, like they’re broken or useless.”
Redefining romance and tailoring it to meet the specific needs of both people in a relationship can ease apprehension and restore a desire to pursue a satisfying relationship.
“The focus of sex tends to shift towards intimacy and deep connection as the focus of fulfillment at this stage of development, which is a welcome shift for many couples,” said sex therapist Joanne Bagshaw, Ph.D., who is also a Professor of Psychology at Marymount University.
Broken trust and ineffective communication have the power to destroy intimacy. “Every couple, no matter how compatible, have some issues or areas of conflict,” said Anderson. “If the couple isn’t able to work through these issues with a therapist or on their own, they can build up hurts and resentments that are hard to let go of. These hurt feelings create a distance between the partners that gradually erodes their sense of connection and intimacy.”
Working through a source of contention in a way that makes both people feel heard and understood can reinforce the bonds that hold together a romantic relationship. “Be candid about your needs. Do not listen to respond, listen to understand,” said Keene-Orton. “From there, healthy, honest, and forward conversations can make you and your partner reignite and maintain the flame.”
The ability to trust one’s a vital part of any romantic relationship, advises Anderson. “If a partner loses the sense that they trust their partner, that they are no longer emotionally and physically safe, it creates a barrier to intimacy,” he said. “The loss of trust may come from a major event like infidelity or may build slowly because of a series of small issues where someone feels that their partner doesn’t have their back.”
“When trust is restored, couples can begin to really talk about what’s happening, or not happening, in the bedroom,” he continued. “They can open up about their feelings, fears, shame, and confusion. Then, instead of being a source of conflict, it becomes an opportunity for the couple to work together to regain that sense of love.”
Rather than thinking of a sudden relationship overhaul, take small steps to create intimacy. “Spend time together to build a connection,” said Bethesda therapist Carol Barnaby. “Seniors who have been together for a long time often have to work to maintain their relationship, realizing that the person you are with is probably not the same person as when you began your relationship.”
While people change over time, the aspects of the initial attraction might remain the same. “We should also take a look at some of the romantic characteristics that you’ve enjoyed in the past and now miss,” said Anderson. “Try to recreate those.”