News, Culture & Society

Lust for Life: Can sex and intimacy thrive among older long-term couples? Yes! Yes! Yes!

The Berber lady swathed in a blue veil grabbed my hand as we walked into the Jemaa el-Fna, Marrakech’s central square. Gesturing to my husband she said, ‘You make great sex tonight!’ 

Before I knew what she was doing she had drawn elaborate swirls in henna on my right hand: ‘What is his name?’ she asked. ‘Derek,’ I said. She drew his characters in Arabic and nodded, grinning. My husband laughed.

Later we watched the sun go down over a mosque, starlings swirling in the crimson sky. I took his hand. We smiled at each other. This year (I’m 52 and he’s 56), we celebrated our 20th wedding anniversary, and it is 25 years since we met backpacking around India. 

I remember the moment I knew he liked me. We’d bought some oranges for a walk to a temple. I touched his arm as I handed him the bag to put in his backpack and he flinched. It was electric. ‘Aha,’ I thought. ‘He fancies me!’ We had a golden time.

I had to return to my job in London while he carried on. At home I kept telling everyone I’d fallen in love. I was met with shrugs. Nobody thought it would last. But I knew he was the one. He made me feel cherished, safe, looked after. He still does. It just shows that when it comes to love, as the saying goes: the heart wants what the heart wants.

Two and a half decades on it feels like such a blessing for the spark still to be burning strong after so long. This year our youngest daughter will finish school; the eldest is at university. 

Having so much more time together feels like a second honeymoon. We hold hands on walks, we laugh a lot – the conversation we began all those years ago in India is still going strong. He is my best friend.

Through our long years together he has always believed in me, supported me. Our relationship is alive in all departments. In many ways things have got better with age.

I write this not to boast, but because long-term relationships get a bad press in terms of romance. 

Sure, there are instances where things don’t work out. I run a platform for women in midlife called noon.org.uk; I call them ‘queenagers’, and I hear many stories of how they don’t have sex with their husbands, or are separating, or how sex is painful as they go through menopause.

I also hear about many couples who live parallel but not interconnected lives, who go through the motions of marriage but no longer share a bedroom. After several decades, sexual intimacy is no longer part of the equation. I understand, but I am writing this because it doesn’t have to be like that. It isn’t the whole picture.

Recently, at Noon, I conducted a survey asking what sex was like for women in their 50s and beyond. Here are some of the things they wrote about sex in their marriages…

‘Sex is warmth, orange, deep and safe.’

‘I feel a deep connection with my husband, we have been together so long.’

‘It is way more passionate and less inhibited than when we were younger.’

‘Sex now is loving, calm, natural.’

‘Dreamy tingling’.

‘Fading but with brilliant spots of colour’.

‘Passionate, mind-blowingly erotic, dirty and surprising’.

‘Fantastic, unbelievably good’.

‘I feel more confident and desirable’.

‘Sex for me now is exciting, overwhelming – warm, happy.’

One of my favourites was from a woman who said, ‘I find sex now is more gentle, goes on for longer and is sometimes surprisingly intense with rainbow-leg orgasms.’

Rainbow-leg orgasms? Nope, me neither! But what this does show, I think, is that sexual chemistry, passion and intimacy can be alive and well after decades. The survey findings so chimed with my own experience, I was intrigued to know more.

Weirdly, I find that when I talk with my really old and dear friends – the kind who’ll chat about everything; who have been married or with a partner for a long time – we tend to be discreet about our sex lives.

Friends might share if there is a drought. I recall a pal, before she announced she was getting divorced, confessing that she and her husband hadn’t had sex for three years. But among friends who are still happily together it is as if a veil descends at the bedroom door, like in an old-fashioned romance.

To discover more about the lusty marital bed, I gathered a focus group of queenager married women. As none of them knew each other they could be much more honest. There was no judgment, no pressure, just truths about the reality of their sex lives. It was one of the most beautiful, heartfelt conversations I have ever been part of, and the content was surprising, to say the least.

One of the themes that emerged was how sex took on a more spiritual dimension for some women as they aged, for instance…

‘I feel such an intense sense of connection with my partner. We have been together for so long that when we make love it is like all my senses merge, seeing becomes sound, touch a sense of light.’

‘During my orgasms, which are intense and last for a long time, I leave my body completely as if I am floating around with my husband in a completely different dimension. I never felt this way when I was younger.’

‘Now we are older and we know each other so well, all inhibitions have gone. There is no self-consciousness or worrying about wobbly bits, or if they like you or if you are doing it right; just a total sense of union, of playfulness, of everything being acceptable; a sense of intimacy, of being fully known. It is unlike anything I have ever known before.’

This spiritual sense – of some soulful congress in sexuality post or during menopause – is not widely discussed in our culture. I was fascinated to discover the work of Jewels Wingfield, who talks about older women becoming ‘autumn queens’, needing a more reverent kind of lovemaking to embrace their shift into their true feminine power and wisdom at this point in their lives. 

Our society so worships at the altar of the young, embodying sexiness and fecundity, that it is wonderfully refreshing to consider that we can discover a deeper, higher kind of sexuality as we age – that it really can get better with the years. Particularly within the confines of a long and loving partnership.

It doesn’t all have to be soulful. A woman in her 50s described saucy evenings with her husband involving all sorts of kink-play. Another said her sex life had been massively improved by the introduction of a vibrator.

Everything I do at Noon is to try to change the current story about the later stages to one that is more positive, more reflective of lives around me. A recent survey of ours suggested that half of women aged 45-60 feel invisible in our culture, their stories not told or shared. 

Yet I see so many queenagers, pivoting at 50 into new jobs, starting businesses, going back to study, to refind the dreams they had when they were younger. The overwhelming sense? ‘This is my time. I am in my prime. I want to make the most of what time is left.’ Statistics show that many of us will live to our 90s, or 100. It is why I called my community Noon: at 50 we are only halfway through.

So if you and your partner are in a dry patch, why not try a bit of romance? Go for a walk. Hold hands. Share an adventure. Laugh like you used to. After all, you fancied each other once. Try to find that spark. Who knows? You might get that elusive rainbow-leg orgasm. Or at least a warm purple glow. Happy romancing.

Eleanor Mills is the founder of noon.org.uk – a new platform for women in midlife

READ MORE:  

How to have better sex in 2023: ‘Smart tech’, fantasies and re-exploring erogenous zones are key to peak pleasure and relationships this year – and it’s time to re-think that quickie 

‘You shouldn’t do intimacy scenes without a coordinator’: Emma Corrin weighs in on debate about intimacy coaches as they discuss filming racy scenes for Lady Chatterley’s Lover 

I’ll have what they’re having! Couple reveal how they keep their marriage ‘spicy’ with an ‘intimacy menu’ – which includes foot massages, role play, and shower sex 

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