Rekindling the spark - how older couples can rediscover the intimacy of the early days
A lifetime together can make some couples complacent, uncommunicative, or changed so much that they no longer recognise the person they first fell for. Here, in week three of our Be Your Best You series, Claire O'Mahony asks the experts how older couples can revitalise love and rediscover intimacy
The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus maintained that change is the only constant in life, and this is clearly evidenced in romantic partnerships: they are not static entities. If you've been part of a couple for a long time, neither of you may recognise the people you once were, and likewise your situation will have changed, all of which is played out in your relationship.
It's also a truism that good relationships require work and that they take an effort to maintain. Long-standing couples can potentially face a variety of challenges: they may have grown apart or they might have communication issues. Even couples who are very much in love sometimes acknowledge that an element of complacency can be found in their relationship and that a certain frisson is lacking. For those in the 55+ demographic, other factors can emerge, affecting how partners relate to each other. For women, menopause can bring side effects such as loss of libido and weight gain resulting in negative body image. Men's sexual function, meanwhile, can be affected by declining testosterone levels and sometimes ill health. Major life changes at this time can impact on relationships, whether that's dealing with empty nest syndrome or adjusting to the dynamics of retirement. "There is a lot of change occurring and we aren't accustomed to change," says consultant psychologist Dr Damien Lowry, whose practice is in Rathgar, south Dublin. "We are highly adaptive individuals and capable of adaptation and adjustment but it doesn't come easily and it really puts a strain on our capacity to cope. If there are any cracks in relationships, it's likely that it will be exposed by these marked changes in our lives."
However, there are strategies that can be employed that can help older couples revitalise their union and strengthen their relationship, and some of them are even fun:
Better communication is key
Many studies have indicated that poor communication is one of the main causes of discord in relationships. According to Dublin-based dating and relationship coach and psychology lecturer Annie Lavin, clients often have a particular need that they want to express but in trying to do so, end up criticising the other person instead. "Generally when it comes to the effectiveness of any conversation, it's determined by the tone that we set," says Lavin, who works to empower people to achieve relationship success by transforming their relationship with themselves. "There's a huge difference between saying something like, 'I'm sick of doing everything', and explaining to your partner that you're feeling whatever that might be." She suggests coming to the conversation with a calm demeanour and starting with how you feel but not attributing blame. "Instead of saying, 'You don't care about me', it's better to say, 'I'm really upset and I'm really hurting about this'. We have to describe the problem neutrally without criticising the person, so you have to be specific." Dr Damien Lowry agrees that the use of 'I-messages' is an effective way of communicating your needs. "An I-message is saying, 'I am struggling' or it's even linking to behaviour - 'I feel upset or ignored when you arrive home and ask where your dinner is'. Ultimately, it's a way of avoiding falling into the trap of criticism."
Getting Sex back on track
Growing older does not necessarily mean a decline in sexual activity and intimacy. The Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing 2017 found that the majority of adults aged over 50 in Ireland are sexually active, with 59pc reporting they had sex in the past 12 months. The study noted that those who are sexually active have a higher quality of life and tend to have more positive perceptions of ageing. Margaret Dunne is a specialist psychotherapist in psychosexual, fertility and relationship therapy, based in Glenageary, Co Dublin. She has found that couples often come to her because they hadn't been making time for each other, as life might have been so busy with children, which led to an absence of sex. These couples almost need to know how to start again. "When people come to me and say they want to get their sex life and their relationship back on track, it can be very exciting but it can be daunting as well," she says. The first thing she will ask clients to do is to get tested medically - erectile dysfunction, for example, can be a sign of a heart complaint, high blood pressure or diabetes - before progressing any further.
"The challenge is to change what they have been doing all the time, which may not be working anymore and as our body and mind develops, our sexuality develops too and sometimes people forget and think, 'If I do A and B, I'll get to C' whereas in actual fact, sometimes things change and what worked once mightn't anymore," she says. The intimacy aspect is also crucial. Dunne explains that there are four stages of intimacy: operational, where two people live in the same house and divide out tasks; emotional intimacy, where they feel close; physical intimacy and sexual intimacy. It's difficult for couples to move onto sexual intimacy if there is a disconnect between any of the other three areas. The psychotherapist gives couples a series of exercises called sensate focus where they will touch without having sexual intercourse. "It works very effectively because it almost brings them back to maybe years previously when they were going out together and it was a little bit of touching and being quite intimate but not maybe going the whole way, as it used to be known. It brings back that sense of excitement, and they explore each other's bodies," she says. "If you've someone who's not really in the mood or worried that they're not able to perform, this takes that pressure off, and there's a huge amount of trust involved." She also gives couples individual exercises where they explore their own bodies and realise what's sensitive for them, something that can change over time.
What constitutes a healthy sex life at this stage in life? "Whatever the couple are happy with," says Dunne. "It's when one or the other isn't happy with it and doesn't enjoy it, that's when it becomes problematic. I often encourage them at the same time to push themselves out of their comfort zone. They may have never discussed their sex life before and it's a chance to almost reinvent themselves and to be able to enjoy sex. A lot of them mightn't have been having sex before marriage, maybe there wasn't a huge amount of experimenting. For some, they're at the stage where it's become very mundane, repetitive and functional. I know there's a hesitation in talking about it, but it helps tremendously if they can instead of looking outside of themselves for how to earmark whether their sexual relationship is healthy or not."
Accentuate the positives
We will often hone in on the 'don'ts' of relationships - don't get defensive, don't give the silent treatment, don't go to bed angry. But it's vital to focus on introducing positivity into relationships too. Relationship coach Annie Lavin points to the work of author Gary Chapman who categorises the expression of love into five love languages: words of affirmation, acts of service, receiving gifts, quality time and physical touch. "Some of us can rate highly in maybe one or two of those love languages, so if we understand how our partner likes to be appreciated, then we can meet them there, and that goes both ways obviously," says Lavin. "Expressing appreciation is something we sometimes forget in partnerships and to be thankful for the littler things that your partner does for you. Affection can wane over time and that may need to be reintroduced and to realise that they still admire their partner and what is it about their partner that they now admire, which may have changed from the beginning." The same goes for establishing caring behaviours such as showing encouragement. According to Lavin, the three universal needs of any relationship are belonging and companionship; affection, either verbal or physical, and support or validation. "The most caring thing you can do in a relationship is to discover your own patterns and really know your own relationship history, to know the things that can really set you off or trigger you. Having this knowledge will help shortcut any relationship issues that can show up so you can then begin to realise, 'Is this my issue and is this something I'm bringing to this relationship?' Once you're then aware of any variations you might have under those three needs, you'll be less likely to blame your partner when you feel they're not giving you that extra thing you need."
Re-establish your identity as a couple and not just parents
Once the children have left home, parents may struggle in their new configuration as a unit of two. Lavin says that the key here is to remind yourself what made your partner tick before children came along, and to become an expert in your partner again. Finding an activity that you both enjoy whether that's golf, cinema nights or any other, is a good step towards strengthening your connection. It's something that you can both revel in. "Make sure that you have the time to spend together that's enjoyable as opposed to just the chores and the routines," says Lavin. "The idea of dating could be long gone for couples who have been together for a long period of time, so set aside some time every week, even if it's just to sit down together, have a dinner together. Make it a time where they bring a newness to the relationship by reflecting on their past, how they got together, and maybe just getting to know how the other person thinks. It's about getting curious again about the other person as opposed to thinking they know everything about them already."
Dr Damien Lowery, damienlowry.com;
Annie Lavin, relationshipcoach.ie;
Margaret Dunne, sextherapydublin.com
Friends have benefits
Numerous studies have demonstrated the link between social relationships and positive ageing. In short, during the middle years and beyond, you need your friends more than ever and this means maintaining current friendships and possibly establishing new ones. It's often suggested that making friends is harder as we get older but taking up a hobby, volunteering, joining a book club, learning a new skill or even reconnecting with someone from your past are all ways to grow your social circle. "One of the most protective, if not the most protective factors in life, is social bonds and our connectedness with other people," says clinical psychologist Dr Damien Lowry. "If the relationships in our lives are changing - and appropriately so - and we're having to spend more or less time with people we love, or that are part of our immediate family, we can compensate somewhat with other groupings, whether it's friends or family members that we are in less contact with or by marrying our interest in a hobby with a social grouping." It's been suggested that men don't tend to have as many friendships as women in adulthood but research has indicated that men desire intimacy just as much as women. Finding a Men's Shed in your local community (see overleaf), or re-engaging with a sport that may have fallen by the wayside are two ways of developing more social connections.
It's also important to clear out any toxic friendships in your life, which can be draining and unrewarding. "I think people need to relearn what boundaries are," says relationship counsellor Annie Lavin. "Sometimes when you're in the mindset of a people pleaser, it's very hard for you to say no and for you to express your opinion about something. A lot of toxic relationships come out of one person being stronger in their opinion and manipulating situations. Essentially healthy relationships, romantic or not, come out of having really healthy boundaries."
It's also a time in life where parents can learn to become friends with their adult children, which can be a rich seam of emotional contentment and which may require parents taking a step back. "Even though it's very challenging to stop parenting - I'm not sure if we ever do fully - I think it's necessary. We don't own them, they are individuals and life is more fulfilling and rewarding when we can embrace the relationship that evolves over time and if we can allow and find a way to evolve with it, rather than remaining too fixed in our view of who we are to them," says Dr Lowry. "While we spent many years telling them how to do things, what to do, what's good and what's not, there comes a time when they're autonomous, independent and individuated, and that is a healthy thing. If we can adjust to that individuation on their part, the relationship can be the healthier for it."
NEXT WEEK: How to finance your future