Assisted Loving: Dealing with mismatched desire

By Ginger Manley | Posted: Monday August 13, 2012

Dear Ginger,

I'm in my fifties and have been married for 25 years to a guy who has always had a huge sexual appetite. The other night when one of those commercials for an erectile dysfunction drug was running during the six o'clock news, he turned to me and said, "I hope that never happens to me." I didn't want to hurt his feelings, but honestly, I was thinking, "I hope it starts to happen occasionally soon." I mentioned this to my girlfriend, and she burst out laughing, saying she felt the same way. Are we just two really odd women?


Dear Marie,

I don’t think you’re odd at all. Recently while I was addressing a group of women on the topic of sexuality and aging, one of them, about your age said the same thing, and the audience roared with empathetic understanding. When I was in practice, one of the most common issues I dealt with was mismatched sexual desire—what we therapists call desire discrepancy—where one person, usually the man, has a greater sexual appetite than the other does.

Most male animals of all species are programmed by nature to be regularly seeking sex in order to keep the order alive—what we sex therapists call the “get up, get in, get off, and get out” imperative that has been around for thousands of years. Female animals are programmed to be somewhat choosy about which male they allow to mate with them. If you’ve ever watched mating games on the nature channels you’ve seen plenty of males competing and females rebuffing before they allow mating to take place.

There are, of course, many differences between human mating and that of lower species. One big difference is that at some point in their lives, most humans use the thinking part of their brain, and not just the instinctive part, to make such choices, so that not every urge to mate is necessarily followed by an action. Another big difference is that humans engage in mating behaviors for both reproduction and for recreation, something almost no other species does. A third difference is that human females continue to engage in mating behaviors for many years after their fertility ends, which does not happen in other animals.

Enough of biology — back to your question. You tell me you’re in your mid-fifties, so I’m guessing that most of your child-rearing, if you had children, is behind you, and you are probably in the midst of menopause. Just like in your teens when hormones—estrogen and testosterone—changed the way your body worked and felt, hormones—this time dwindling ones—are at work. If hot flashes and night sweats are keeping you awake, you are probably tired. Your body is changing in other not so subtle ways—thickening in the middle; skin and tissue dryness; maybe a touch of depressive symptoms or at least a re-grouping of your emotions when your internal calendar is not so much geared to a 28-day cycle. On the other hand, you may be feeling a huge freedom from not having periods and a rejuvenation of your time and energy, or you may be somewhere in between these ends.

Your guy is likely to still be plugging along without any major hormonally driven changes since most men don’t notice these until late sixties or after, but—and this is crucial—most guys will have at least one experience of erectile dysfunction (ED) somewhere in their fifties. From a male point of view, this is a true crisis, right up there with losing a limb or facing a life-threatening emergency. This is why ED commercials are geared to couples in their fifties, who actually rarely need any medication, instead of to those in their late sixties.

I once had a fiftyish guy tell me that the first time he could not get an erection when he wanted to, he thought his life was over. On the other side, I have had more than one mid-life woman tell me to most certainly not offer any erection help to her fellow, since from her point of view their less frequent sex life is finally becoming tolerable. It is almost impossible for a woman to truly get how essential to a man having an erection can be. At the same time, many guys can’t get how harassed their ladies sometimes feel from years and years of sexual pressuring, since to them, it is not pressuring at all, but instead is a natural and pleasurable event.

Therefore, if I understand you correctly, Marie, I think this is your dilemma — both of you are having anticipatory anxiety, but the event you are anticipating — and the feelings about it — cuts differently for each of you.

What to do? Try to talk this out, preferably not in the heat of the moment. If he makes another comment, ask him to tell you more, then listen to what he says. After you have listened, ask him if he will hear your side. You are obviously sensitive to him (“I didn’t want to hurt his feelings.”) so go easily. This is not the time to air old grievances about the forty-five times you really wanted to go to sleep but you indulged him. Do be honest and straightforward, telling him (if it’s true) how much you’ve enjoyed some of your sexual experience with him and what you’d like to have happen as you age. Maybe you two need a little shaking up of the routine or something to relieve any boredom that has crept in. With another 15 or so years, he will naturally slow down, Marie. Who knows, by then maybe you will both welcome living when there is medicine for ED.


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