The nest is empty - time to rekindle the passion
Many couples find that their relationship has faded away after years focusing on the home and family. Ailin Quinlan talks to the experts who help couples reconnect.
The years have rollercoaster-ed past; suddenly the kids are gone and there's a stranger sitting across the table. Here's a thought: Do you experience discomfort at the mere thought of eating dinner with your partner of 20 or 30 years without the kids, the TV, or your smart-phone to hand?
You've suddenly realised that, preoccupied by the job of rearing healthy, happy well-educated kids, and keeping a roof over their heads, you've neglected your relationship and drifted apart.
Maybe you thought your relationship would just putter along itself while you were occupied with more pressing matters.
Maybe you didn't think about it at all.
In fact, you haven't put any real energy into your marriage or partnership for years.
You don't laugh or joke together, there's no longer any flirtatious aspect to your relationship – maybe you haven't even gone out on a proper 'date' together for over a decade – and, worse, you find you have little to say to each other beyond the functional comments of day-to-day living.
You feel, in fact, that you hardly know each other anymore.
Every relationship needs attention, says Eithne Bacuzzi, relationships counsellor and psychosexual therapist with Relationships Ireland.
Many mature couples can find that their relationship has almost faded away after decades of focusing on the home and family instead of each other.
Says Bacuzzi: "They've forgotten how to relate to each other.
"They'll find it uncomfortable to sit down at dinner and talk without the TV on or their phones on the table, or someone popping in.
"That can be strange and difficult and they're out of their comfort zone."
Trying to do something like this can result in disturbing insights into how far things have gone, she says.
"They can be shocked at the sheer level of discomfort they experience at having to be alone and intimate across the table."
It's important to keep the flame alive in a relationship.
One question psychotherapist Anne Colgan poses to couples in this position is what they do 'for fun' – and she says, they're often taken aback by the inquiry.
"They're often surprised because they've quite literally forgotten how to have fun.
"That's because life is so serious and we get really serious. But it's all about balance and you cannot have balance in your life unless you play.
"Couples get very wrapped up in family life and the demands it places on them, and the relationship often does not get the priority," she explains.
But fun is crucial to re-kindling a flagging relationship, she believes, pointing out in the initial stages of courtship, fun features large.
"The couple that plays together stays together," she quips, adding that she often recommends that a couple quite literally schedule 'together time' into their week.
She suggests re-discovering things you used to do together to see if they still work.
It's not easy, she warns – the fire is lighting and the TV provides instant entertainment. Going out for a walk on a windy beach together takes a lot more effort, but it is a better way to stimulate your relationship.
Couples are usually very agreeable to the idea, she suggests – but they need to actually pencil in time for it, because otherwise it may not happen.
"There's often an unacknowledged resistance to having fun out of force of habit. It's due to the habit of letting yourself be driven by duty," observes Colgan.
"But if you want a good relationship and a good sex life it's very important to have fun together.
"It can alleviate stress and bring them closer together, and if they keep it up it really enhances their relationship."
Ten top tips: How to reignite that spark
This long-term lack of fun and intimacy in a mature relationship can show – as an experienced therapist, Bacuzzi can often spot the warning signs.
"Often a couple will present as 'flat' – without energy or enthusiasm," she says.
They may have realised that somehow they have been "operationally okay" for the past 10 or 15 years and although they may have felt lonely during that time, they did not articulate it – or avoided discussing it.
"Sometimes couples busy themselves in order to avoid confronting what is going on between them or what is not working," she says.
But in many cases, something happens that forces at least one partner, often the woman, to acknowledge that the couple may have stopped talking years ago, and to suggest seeking help: "Men often don't feel things are as bad as the women think – they may feel there's not a lot wrong."
However, when she asks, says Bacuzzi, a man will often indicate that the relationship has become "distant and functional."
Making the effort to reconnect by doing something both partners enjoy, and then talking about it, is an exercise she often recommends.
"It's quite a slow process, like steps of stairs," she says.
A man or woman may also be taken aback by the realisation of how little he or she actually knows about what their partner thinks or feels, she says: "It can be shocking to realise how the other person is feeling – they have become alienated and strangers. It's sad and it happens slowly without people noticing."
Effort is crucial: "If you don't make your relationship a priority, it will not happen. It's as simple and as complex as that."
However, once a couple makes a real effort to prioritise the relationship, they will start to see results, she believes.
"I'd immediately see some improvement but generally, I feel, it can take about eight weeks or more to get a relationship back on track and to get these people connected to each other and trusting each other."
Emotional intimacy in a marriage or partnership is extremely important, says therapist and author of 12 books on marriage and sexuality, Dr Barry McCarthy.
Strong emotional intimacy in a marriage allows the couple to feel safely attached, he explains, while the role of the sexual intimacy is to energise the relationship.
Sexual problems can have a very serious effect, but there is hope, says McCarthy, who has just published the second edition of his book 'Rekindling Desire' which aims to help couples restore sexuality in their lives.
The US-based therapist, who has treated nearly 3,000 couples for sexual problems, says that for the majority of couples' marital and sexual satisfactions increases after the last child leaves home.
"For most couples, the Empty Nest Syndrome is a myth – the most important positive information is that people can be sexual into their 60s, 70s and 80s," he says.
The bad news, however, is that "one-third of people in their 60s and two-thirds in their 70s stop being sexual."
This is almost always the man's decision, he says, usually conveyed non-verbally because he has lost his confidence.
"When couples give up on sex it's almost always the man's decision because he has lost comfort and confidence with erection and orgasm. This will often begin in their 40s or 50s," he explains.
McCarthy believes that the prescription for healthy sex is "a combination of intimacy, pleasuring and finding erotic scenarios and techniques which suit the couple".
There's more – you also need to look forward to sex, he says: "What promotes desire is positive anticipation – you look forward to it, you want to anticipate being sexual.
For sex to work in the 40s, 50s and beyond, what is required is the sense of choice and freedom and a less predictable sexual scenario.
"What most undermines couples' sex in ageing is a routine mechanical sex – that predictability negates sexual desire."
For men, the problem can be that they are no longer enjoying what McCarthy calls "highly predictable erections": "When they get anxious that the erection might not happen, they may lose the erection or it may not happen. They get either anticipatory or performance anxiety."
The key here, he believes, is seeing sex as a "team sport," and the recognition and acceptance of the concept of "Good Enough Sex".
The 'Good Enough Sex' concept allows couples to enjoy sex into their 40s, 50s and beyond because in this way intercourse is not a pass/fail test: "It's about the couple showing sexual pleasure and staying on the same team – that they do not panic.
"I tell people that they need to be Wise Men, not Traditional Men."
Traditional Man can stop having sex in his 50s because he is embarrassed, and avoids it, he says.
Wise Man adapts to the idea of 'team sports.'
Wise Man accepts that if sexual activity does not flow to intercourse, he can be comfortable about turning to his partner and "having a sensual cuddling experience or erotic non-intercourse sex, for example manual or oral pleasuring."
There is nothing more anti-erotic, says McCarthy, than apologising or panicking.
Value sensual touch, playful touch and erotic touch, which does not necessarily lead to sex, he advises.
"Sensual playful and erotic touch is sexual touch. Intercourse is simply another sexual kind of touch rather than a big pass/fail test."
And one last thing: "The old way of doing things was that emotion and intercourse was the domain of the man and intimacy and affection was the domain of the woman.
"What I think works better is when both men and women value intimacy and pleasuring and eroticism."
* 'Rekindling Desire' by Dr Barry McCarthy, Second Edition, Routledge, €17