”Women need a reason to have sex; men just need a place.” — Billy Crystal
After three and a half years of casual online dating, I finally came across a fella on Match.com who sparked my interest, largely because he was interested in things beyond “candlelit dinners and sunset walks on the beach.” I read his amusing and engaging profile (and the photo wasn’t bad), and my intuition said, “This could be the one.”
I sent him a simple greeting and asked what movies and types of music he liked (those and political leanings are my litmus test). A flurry of emails led to a lively — and encouraging — phone conversation, which led to plans to meet for lunch a few days after Thanksgiving. We ordered bowls of clam chowder in a restaurant overlooking a boat harbor in Southern California, and that first date lasted three hours.
About halfway through the meal, my insecurities kicked in big-time.
Am I Ready to Get Back in the Saddle?
This guy is attractive, funny and upbeat, and I could really like him, I thought to myself. But a deeper interior voice screamed, “Oh my God, he can’t possibly like me, and if he does, how do I tell him it’s been eons since I’ve been intimate with anyone?” Obviously these were not words I was planning to say out loud, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit this was something that was very much on my mind.
Let’s-call-him-Sam wanted to meet again. And again. After spending quite a bit of time together and some cuddling and kissing on a cold winter’s night, I blurted out my confession.
“Sam, I really like you, but I am scared to death about making love with you. I'm not sure what changes menopause has brought, and, even more importantly,” I continued in what felt like one long run-on sentence, “I am frightened that physical intimacy might ruin our great friendship.”
What I didn’t admit was that I wasn’t sure I was “all in” just yet.
And, if I’m being totally honest, despite having really enjoyed making love over the centuries (20th and 21st), I wondered whether I was even that interested anymore. My hormone levels had clearly dropped off, and I hadn’t been feeling as sexually … charged … as I was in my younger days.
When I spent some time thinking about it, I realized that my reticence revolved around two things: physiological changes (dryness and thinning vaginal skin) and, more surprisingly, a whole new set of non-physical “prerequisites” for a lover.
A New Set of Dating Requirements
Because I'm no longer a raging hormonal machine (in either the pre- or menopausal way), my rational mind has a much larger say in my choice of a partner than in my past. Now that I’ve reached the age where I can start withdrawing from my Roth IRA (59½), and ever since the cost of my health insurance jumped 26 percent, I've found that what turns me on is a man who is not only honest, intelligent, fun, thoughtful and sexually attractive but also one who has health insurance, a good retirement plan and a steady income.
I was surprised to discover how large a role my security needs played in terms of how much I was willing to “play ball.”
While Sam had all the wonderful character traits I craved — plus he loves to fix things and cook and even clean up — he was unemployed, his health insurance was about to run out, and his 17-year-old BMW made noises like a herd of stampeding elephants. So, despite how attracted I was to him, I just couldn't bring myself to take that ultimate step.
On our first date, he had painted a romantic picture of his abilities as a boat captain and sailing instructor, work he’d been doing for the past 20 years, but he neglected to mention that his most recent employer had gone bankrupt. It took a few weeks until he revealed that he was renting a room at a "sailing buddy's" house, which is why he never invited me over.
After three months of dating but still not having met any of his friends or relatives, I started to see red flags. Yet at Christmas he decorated my house and fixed the crumbling wooden frame around my shower windowsill, among other thoughtful tasks he had plenty of time for.
By the end of the year, he had practically moved in, sleeping over — platonically — five nights instead of the agreed-upon three. (In fact, he spent half of December at my place, running up my utility bills while keeping his gas tank full.) When he starting doing his laundry without asking if I minded, I decided it was time to speak up about my true feelings.
While he continued to be every bit the gentleman, I made it very clear that I wanted more romance and that I needed to get to know him better by seeing more of what his life was like, whatever it might be.
Third Base and Beyond
I wasn’t sure if I was ready, or even willing to take things to the next level, but to clarify some of my issues and questions, I contacted a doctor who specializes in boomer women’s issues, Dr. Rose Kumar, author of Becoming Real: Harnessing the Power of Menopause for Health and Success and founder of the Ommani Center for Integrative Medicine in Wisconsin.
Kumar quickly set my mind at ease, explaining that I was going through a normal (if disconcerting) situation. At midlife, she said, “many women have to change their old identities and discover what their new one is. This often happens because of a crisis, the most common ones being health, financial or relationship, which brings insecurity and fear.”
I told her I was managing my life just fine: I owned my home, had a busy career, friends and family, an active social life and respect among my peers. But I was missing a sidekick, someone who was an equal and fun, healthy and financially secure. Was that asking too much?
“Not in the least!” she assured me. “I think that it’s wise for a woman to want to have somebody who is solvent. By midlife we are smarter about our finances, and we don’t want someone who is opportunistic about what we have created for ourselves. The goal should be to establish interdependency, as opposed to co-dependency, involving an equal amount of give and take at all levels. This is a very good core value to hold prominently as we enter into second marriages.”
I said I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be married, but I would like to share equal footing with a mate.
"The new midlife woman’s priority is of self-sovereignty,” Kumar said. “You can do a commitment ceremony and not enmesh one another financially. We have a lot of power, and we are not as afraid as when we were younger.”
Understanding that what I’d been experiencing was a natural evolutionary state gave me a greater sense of control and reminded me that I have a lot of options. But there was one subject I still needed to address: my fears about the state of things “down there.” Would it be like riding a bike — or was I in for a rude awakening?
“A lot of women have not been prepared for what’s happening to their body in menopause,” she said. “These changes are so multilayered and multifaceted.” She went on to explain that after menopause, many women experience vaginal dryness and atrophy, a thinning of the walls (due to lack of estrogen), which can make intercourse painful. But she was quick to add that there are treatments to mitigate those symptoms and that they are much safer than previous estrogen replacements, like Premarin.
Kumar said that for her many patients in this same boat, she prescribes bio-identical hormones or Estriol cream, but she advises against the much stronger estrogen creams, like Estrace and Estrodial, which can increase risk of breast and uterine cancers, as noted in the landmark Women’s Health Initiative study. A bonus of supplemental estrogen is that it can also boost libido. She stresses that women need to discuss their unique risk profiles with their medical practitioner.
Casting Sam in a New Light
Armed with new information and ideas, and comforted by the reminder that a romantic involvement doesn’t have to lead to marriage or a “financial entanglement,” I felt free to ponder some decisions about my burgeoning relationship.
But first, I have something to try: Sam and I are going to take an “affordable” vacation — we'll be taking care of a friend's home midway between us. We will be able to “play house” on neutral ground and explore another town where I can see him in action outside of my home and discomfort zone. Also, he has been applying for regular employment and was offered a job with benefits just last week.
All this makes me hopeful and optimistic that soon Sam will be picking up the tab for dinner. And that I can pick up where I left off in the early 21st century.
Leslie A. Westbrook is a freelance writer and author based in Southern California.