Overcoming Intimacy Challenges After 50
Two experts address facing vulnerability and boosting confidence
(Editor’s Note: In April, we asked Next Avenue readers to submit their questions about dating and relationships after 50. We received many thoughtful inquiries that touched on a wide range of topics. This story is another in our six-part series called “Dating After 50” and we will be featuring more pieces on subjects relating to dating and relationships throughout the summer.)
Confidence: “The quality or state of being certain.” That’s the Merriam-Webster definition, but for many people who are starting to date again after 50, confidence can falter and it can be difficult to be certain about anything.
For those who have lost a spouse or partner to death, divorce or a break-up, a feeling of being vulnerable may begin to settle in, leading to concerns about finding intimacy, as well as about when and how to fully open up to another person.
In the Dating After 50 series on Next Avenue, we’ve covered several topics including online dating and dating etiquette, which have provided tips and suggestions for the “how” on ways to start dating again.
"What we desired at 30 is different from what we desire at 50."
But there’s another kind of how — how to make yourself emotionally, and physically, available to someone new. Taking a risk to share yourself and everything you have to offer at this stage of your life. Accepting and acknowledging what potential partners are offering you. Being confident about what will happen next. And knowing that even though it might not be easy, you are certain that you are genuinely ready to find fulfillment and happiness with another person.
Are You Ready to Move On?
Experts like Lisa Copeland, an author, speaker and dating coach in her fifties, say the first step to tackling that feeling of vulnerability and to start building confidence is to properly grieve the end of a marriage or relationship, whether through a break-up, divorce or death, before you even think about moving on.
For those who have divorced, Copeland says the best way to tell if you are truly ready to date is to gauge if “you’re feeling fairly neutral about your former partner.” She notes, “If you don’t feel that way yet, you are going to bring that [experience] right into the new relationship.”
The situation is different for widows or widowers. “If they had a good marriage, they are wanting to repeat the same relationship with a different person,” Copeland says. The lost spouse is also often brought into a new relationship, but that person frequently becomes “like a saint,” she says, which can be counterproductive to establishing an authentic connection with another person.
Before opening yourself up to dating, start by building a new social circle. The first step, says Copeland, is "to get out of the house.”
“Make friends. Take classes. Get involved with activities. When you are involved in doing things you love, you will light up,” she explains.
Taking that first step to put yourself out there can be uncomfortable. Copeland is a big fan of Meetups, which she says are “an amazing way to connect with others.” In her view, going into a Meetup gathering with a mindset of simply making new friends is best.
“If you meet someone, that’s just a bonus,” she says.
Different Ideas About Sex
Fast forward a bit: You’ve met someone, the two of you have found common ground and the relationship is progressing well. But what comes next could produce the biggest crisis of confidence you’ve had, well, in years: the thought of a sexual relationship.
“People often approach sex with very different ideas,” says writer and speaker Walker Thornton, who is in her 60s and the author of Inviting Desire: A Guide for Women Who Want to Enhance Their Sex Life. “The basic question most everyone starts with is: ‘Am I going to get naked with this person? And then what do I do?’”
The first roadblock is often body image, which Thornton says is typically more of an issue for women than men, although men are definitely not immune to concerns.
“Women are more concerned about sags and folds,” she says. “But men are worried about getting an erection or about satisfying a woman.”
When it comes to sex, Thornton encourages women “to share the valuable information” they have about what they like and don’t like with a partner.
“What we desired at thirty is different from what we desire at fifty,” she says, adding that she understands that for many women, the conversation about likes and dislikes is uncomfortable.
“But if you can’t even ask [a partner] about sex, how are you going to do it?” Thornton wonders.
The Myth of STDs and STIs
One particular conversation that is vitally important is around the topic of STDs and STIs, explains Thornton, and it really is non-negotiable.
“Here’s the simplest way to couch that conversation: I care about your health, so I will be tested. If you care about my health, I ask you to do the same,” she says. “Offer to send him or her a copy of your test results and ask them to send theirs in return.”
The conversation shouldn’t stop there. Thornton goes on to say that if a partner is unwilling to use a condom, for example, “they aren’t showing you that they respect your health and well-being.” If that is the case, Thornton says, “be prepared to say ‘No’ to sex, and say that this refusal makes you question their commitment to being in a relationship.”
It’s a myth that older adults don’t get STDs or STIs such as syphilis and gonorrhea; condoms can protect from genital herpes, which while not life-threatening, can be very uncomfortable and more so for women than men, says Thornton.
Make a List of What You Need
Other health issues may also come into play in sexual relationships between older adults. “Sometimes, you have to broaden your definition of sex,” says Thornton. “Focusing on pleasure, in ways inclusive of orgasm or not.”
Chronic illness can be an issue, as can cancer treatment, which often results in hormonal changes; other challenges may include fatigue or muscle/movement problems. “That can lead to a discussion about a time of day that’s better for sex, or accommodations that are needed for a bed,” explains Thornton. “Again, the best way to address all of these issues is through conversation.”
Thornton, who most frequently speaks to groups of women, often suggests making a list of just what you are looking for when it comes to a sexual relationship in midlife and beyond.
“If you have sex with someone, do you anticipate that this will be an exclusive relationship? Or if your partner decides he or she doesn’t want a sexual relationship, is that okay? Maybe it is,” says Thornton. “For you, is sex merely a goal or a natural progression of becoming intimate with another person?”
'You Have More Freedom'
Copeland, who has been divorced twice and is now in a relationship, says there is often healing to be done before people are ready to fully open themselves up to a new person. Still, she adds, it’s vital “to know your value and know that you are worthy of someone.”
“One thing that’s often overlooked when it comes to dating after fifty is that you have more choices. You have more freedom than you did when you were younger,” she says. “You can have companions or lovers, or be in a committed relationship.”
However, Thornton — also divorced and in a relationship — understands how some might not perceive this place in life as a place of freedom.
“If we think our time is limited, we can feel more vulnerable,” she says. “But it’s really all about going into dating with an open attitude. Be willing to take the risk.”