The Swinging Over-Sixties: most older couples are happy with their sex lives

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By Katie Grant

It is a common assumption that once a couple ties the knot, sex goes out the window. Indeed, the actress Zsa Zsa Gabor, who said “I do” nine times, once quipped: “I know nothing about sex, because I was always married”.

Yet new research indicates that most couples in long-term relationships remain happy well into their sixties.

While it is not uncommon for couples to disagree about how often they should have sex, this does not necessarily alter their commitment to the relationship, scientists at the British Sociological Association’s annual conference in Manchester will hear on Wednesday.

Levels of sexual desire

Researchers surveyed more than 5,000 heterosexual, lesbian, gay and bisexual people aged 16 to 65 to discuss their relationships.

Around 60 per cent of respondents believed that sex was an important part of their relationship while 15 per cent disagreed. The remainder neither agreed nor disagreed.

One third (33 per cent) of women reported that their partners wanted sex more frequently than they did, while a larger proportion, 40 per cent, said this was not the case.

Only 10 per cent of men said that their partners wanted sex more frequently than they did, compared with nearly two thirds (60 per cent) who said they did not.

‘Part and parcel’ of relationship cycle

The research, conducted by Professor Jacqui Gabb, of the Open University, and Professor Janet Fink, of the University of Huddersfield, and presented in Manchester on Wednesday, reveals that differences in sexual desire are not considered “particularly significant”.

“Couples are saying that differences in sexual frequency and desire are just part and parcel of the relationship cycle and are accepted as not particularly significant,” Professor Gabb said.

Still going strong

The study also found that many older participants continued to derive pleasure from their sex lives even when sexual activity was less frequent than it had once been.

One older woman who participated in the research described sex as “one of the prerequisites of a relationship” for her.

However, she added: “There are other areas of a relationship which I think need a lot more work and are far more important, like trust, money, love [and] teamwork.”

Long-term love

Professor Gabb said of the findings: “Fluctuations in desire are inexorably tied into other life factors, but it is the sharing of a life together, the investment in that joint venture and the acceptance of change as an integral part of this shared life which enables couples to weather the ebbs and flows that characterise sexual intimacy and the passage of time in long-term relationships.”

She added: “The longevity of partnerships seems to be connected with couples’ capacity to negotiate changing circumstances. For older couples, the first blush of a new relationship may have worn off but the relationship has not tarnished.”

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