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Growth Counseling for Mid-Years Couples by Howard J. Clinebell, Jr.


Howard J. Clinebell, Jr. Is Professor of Pastoral Counseling at the School of Theology at Claremont, California (1977). He is a member of the American Association of Marriage and Family Counselors, and the American Association of Pastoral Counselors. He is a licensed marriage, child and family counselor in the State of California. His personal website is http://members.aol.com/clinebellh/index.htm, and his email address is clinebellH@aol.com. Published in 1977 by Fortress Press, Philadelphia, this book was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Chapter 6. Enhancing Mid-Years Sex


Like good wine, sexuality as it matures can be better and richer, if people know how to use it.( "Sexuality of Older People Can Be Better," Toronto Globe and Mail 21 October 1971.)
-- Beryl and Avinoam Chernick

Neither men or women lose either sexual needs or sexual function with age.... Given an attractive and receptive partner, decent general health and an absence of the belief that one ought to run out of steam, active sex lasts as long as life.... There is little if any physical decline in any attribute except frequency up to 75 and beyond(Alex Comfort, ed., The Joy of Sex (New York: Crown, 1972), p 220)
-- Alex Comfort

An important part of enriching mid-years marriages is helping couples to increase and diversify their shared pleasures. Enhancing the enjoyment of mid-years sex is a significant ingredient in developing a couple's pleasure potential. (The fact that you're probably reading this chapter first is an indication of how important it is to you.) Lusty, full-bodied sex can be like sharing a refreshing drink on a dusty journey.

The findings of the sexologists, the scientists who study human sexuality, confirm what many mature couples already knew -- that good sex can continue indefinitely as a tender, love-nurturing form of sharing. The studies show conclusively that "if you use it you won't lose it!" (William H. Masters and Virginia E. Johnson, The Human Sexual Response [Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1966]. The following statements by the authors, sex researchers, summarize their findings on this issue "There is no time limit drawn by the advancing years to female sexuality;' [p. 247] "If elevated levels of sexual activity are maintained . . . and if neither acute nor chronic physical incapacity intervenes, aging males usually are able to continue some form of active sexual expression into the 70 and 80 age group" [p. 263].)

A recent survey of the sexual practices of a cross-section of Americans found that couples 45 to 54 had a median figure for frequency of "making love" of 52 times a year; those 55 and up only dropped to 49 times a year. (Morton Hunt, "Sexual Behavior in the 1970s," Playboy, October, 1973 p. 88 The scientific survey was conducted by The Research Guild, Inc.) When Alfred Kinsey did his studies some 25 years earlier, the median for couples over 54 was only 26 times a year. The fact that all couples over 44, in the recent study, had a median frequency of intercourse of almost once a week, shows that there's a lot of life left in that age group!

The recent survey found no evidence that increased sexual liberation has produced sexual boredom as some have suggested (or hoped) it would. Rather, a new recreational attitude regarding sex has developed in our society. Sex is now widely regarded as a valuable form of play. This attitude now coexists alongside the traditional romantic view of sex. The survey showed that couples are not only doing it more but also enjoying it more. For example, the number of married women who have orgasms "never or only sometimes" declined from 28 percent in Kinsey's survey to only 15 percent. Those who have orgasms "all or almost all the time" rose from 45 percent in Kinsey's study to 53 percent in the recent study.( Ibid.)

Liberating Mid-Years Sex

Here are some do-it-yourselves ways by which couples can increase the sparkle in their marriage. They are methods for making ordinary and good sex better. These guidelines, developed by Charlotte and myself, have proved helpful in marriage enrichment and also in counseling couples with problems of diminished sexual pleasure. I suggest that you discuss and try them as a couple.

1. Liberate your attitudes about sex. Sexual responsiveness starts in your head, rather than your genitals, so that's the place to start enhancing sex. Begin by letting go of the negative myths and replace then with the facts about mid-years sex. Two prevalent myths are the "fading fast" myth which holds that anyone over forty-five is on the skids sexually; and the "over the hill" myth which believes that sex normally ends between sixty and sixty-five. If you believe these patently untrue myths, your anxiety can inhibit full sexual fulfillment. As suggested above, the fact is that the majority of mid-years and older couples continue enjoying sex. Some even "perfect the art of lovemaking to new levels of satisfaction."( This statement and the description of the myths are by Robert M. Butler as reported by Al Rossiter, Jr., "Aging and Sexuality Not Incompatible," St. Paul Pioneer Press, 7 April 1974, p. W3.)

It is possible for most couples with healthy marriages to improve their sex life. It is probably "normal," for those who grew up in our culture during the time when those in the mid-years did, to have some hang-ups about sex. Within a relationship of mutual caring, old inhibiting attitudes gradually can be unlearned and sex-affirmative attitudes and pleasuring skills can be learned in their place, using some of the methods suggested in this chapter.

Many couples find it freeing to read together a book which suggests ways of increasing the adventure and playfulness of sex -- for example, those by Alex Comfort, James McGary, and the Hunts in the Bibliography. The chapter on "Increasing Sexual Intimacy" in The Intimate Marriage and the chapter on '`Liberated Sex" in Meet Me in the Middle suggest attitudes and approaches which can enliven mid-years sex.

We human beings are the most highly sexed species in the entire animal kingdom. Contrary to old dual-standard stereotypes, women have at least as rich pleasure potentials as men. The sex researchers have confirmed that many women are able to have a series of orgasms, given adequate stimulation, with only a few seconds between. Furthermore, the center of a woman's sexual arousal, the clitoris, has no known function except as a source of pleasure. These facts have profound implications for an affirmative theology of sex, pointing as they do to the way we are made psychologically and physiologically.

2. Keep your total relationship growing and sex will tend to improve. Sex is a powerful form of communication. Whatever enriches other dimensions of communication in a relationship usually enhances sex. A major cause of disappointment and bitterness, and therefore of sexual unresponsiveness among mid-years women, is the lack of companionship and sharing in their marriages. The foundation for the best sex you can achieve is active commitment to live as fully as you can and to help your partner do the same. Become better companions, by sharing numerous facets of your lives, and better sex will tend to follow. Sex researcher Virginia Johnson declares: "Nothing good is going to happen in bed between a husband and a wife unless good things have been happening between them before they got into bed, There is no way for a good sexual technique to remedy a poor emotional relationship."( William H. Masters and Virginia Johnson, The Pleasure Bond A New Look at Sexuality and Commitment (Boston: Little, Brcwn & Co., 1974),

Don't expect sex to be beautiful if either of you feels exploited, cheated, or unfulfilled in the marriage. As Abraham Maslow once observed, those who feel whole and self-actualized seem to enjoy all the vitalities of life more robustly. This is why the most beneficial developments sexual , for both men and women, will be the achievement of full quality of women and the full liberation of both women and men. (Ibid., chap. 4. See also C. Clinebell "Liberated Sex," in Meet Me in the Middle, chap 5) Two liberated, fulfilled people in bed naturally have liberated, fulfilling sex. However, during the transition period, when couples are struggling to achieve a more equalitarian relationship, many have increased problems sexually.

It's important to lower the wall and get connected emotionally by communicating openly before you try to make love. A wall of unresolved hurts, frustrations, and resentments between a couple will diminish and eventually dam up the flow of loving, sensual feelings. In our relationship, we find that having a regular time to deal with any negative feelings which have accumulated is essential. Otherwise, in spite of a mutual longing for sexual intimacy, lingering hurts and anger drive us apart or rob sex of its richness.

To keep your relationship and your self-esteem healthy, feed each other's heart hungers for affirmation regularly. For example, try completing the sentence, "I appreciate in you . . ." as many times as you can to each other, thus sharing a feast of mutual affirmation. Be sure to include the things you find sexually attractive and arousing in your "appreciates," but don't limit your affirmation to these. You may discover, as many couples do, that this exercise (from the Intentional Marriage Method) turns you on sexually.( ‡ H. Clinebell, Growth Counseling for Marriage Enrichment chap. 2.)

Committing yourself to positive fidelity can enrich your total relationship and with it, your sex life. Negative fidelity is motivated primarily by guilt and fear. Positive fidelity, in contrast, is based on prizing the relationship and choosing not to jeopardize or damage this precious human bond. Positive fidelity is an essential expression of commitment to each other's full growth. It helps create the trust, continuity, and caring that is he best context for the most satisfying sex of which a couple is capable. In their book, The Pleasure Bond, William Masters and Virginia Johnson declare: "Total commitment, in which all sense of obligation is linked to mutual feelings of loving concern, sustains a couple sexually over the years.... When carrying the inescapable burdens that come with a family and maturity, they can turn to each other for the physical comforting and emotional sustenance they need to withstand economic and social pressures that often threaten to drain life of all joy."( Mastcrs and Johnson, p. 268)

3. Discover and enjoy the special romance and new meanings that are possible in mid-years sex. Contrary to Hollywood stereotypes, youth have no corner on romance or passion. There's a type of romance that's available at each stage of marriage. Many mid-years couples find that sex has a mellow richness as it is seasoned by years of sharing and by the finesse which grows with long experience. Couples who have an ongoing romance are those who continue, in more relaxed and low-key ways, the tender thoughtfulness and caring of courtship. As the heaviest demands of child rearing diminish, and as freedom from worry about unwanted pregnancies comes with menopause, couples can enjoy a flowering of sensuality.

Psychiatrist Robert Butler points out that older couples frequently perfect the neglected "second language of sex" -- the language of touching, caressing, tenderness, and leisurely erotic play.( Butler, as reported in Rossiter, p. W3.) Developing this second language enriches sex at any stage of marriage. The mid-years and beyond offer many opportunities for cultivating and enjoying this sensual art.

It's important to discover that less frequent sex doesn't necessarily mean less enjoyable sex. It may, in fact, be just the opposite. Making love with an experienced, liberated partner who can affirm both her or his sexuality and yours, is qualitatively a deeply satisfying experience, an experience that can have a unique and changing meaning for each couple throughout their years together.( See above note, p. 19)

4. Create new ways to let your inner "Child" sides play. Good sex, in Transactional Analysis terms, requires turning off the inner Parent and turning on one's playful Child.* This involves forgetting, for a while, the schedules, responsibilities, and duties which often weigh heavily in the mid-years. Turning on one's inner Child is difficult if teenage children (who are very skillful in activating our Parent side) are still in the house. It takes planning and ingenuity, but it's possible to schedule regular mini-vacations, brief periods to let your Child sides frolic together. A night at an attractive motel, an afternoon at the beach, dinner out with an opportunity to linger over candlelight -- these are examples of mini-vacations that can liberate the fun-loving inner Child and thus enable satisfying sex. One busy couple we know sets aside two hours each week for a mutual "pleasuring session." The husband and wife take turns deciding and planning these sessions.

By using your imagination, it's possible to introduce variety and adventure into your sexual experience and to reeroticize the setting. Experiment with new settings, or add sensual touches to your usual setting -- for example some "music to make love by," candlelight, or perhaps an extra mirror in your bedroom. One advantage of the empty nest is that it's possible to spread out a foam rubber mat in front of the den or living room fireplace, put some sensual music on the stereo, or have the TV or radio on, if you like a little simulated exhibitionism while making love.

5. Discover what you enjoy most and coach each other on how to give maximum mutual enjoyment. Each of us has our unique pleasure preferences. Explore and experiment to discover yours. Find out what scents, caresses, words, pictures, positions, approaches, and settings best give you those luxurious feelings of arousal.

Then, since few of us are married to mind readers, do some explicit mutual coaching. Devote time to learning exactly how to make the other feel wonderful. Have a "tell and show" session, periodically, in which you describe and then guide each other's hands, mouths, and bodies so that sex play will be fully pleasurable for both of you. Work out sounds, hand signals, or words which communicate the all-important message, "That feels tremendous! Do it some more!" It's important for the woman to let the man know exactly when she's ready and eager for him to enter and, later, when she's ready for him to climax.

Knowledge of the four stages of lovemaking identified by Masters and Johnson can be used to enhance enjoyment: ( 1 ) Excitement stage. This involves the opportunity for leisurely love play which slowly builds arousal. (2) Orgasmic plateau stage. This is the level of arousal from which one can climax with slight additional stimulation. It may be helpful for the man to caress the woman's genital area, manually or orally, to help her reach this level of excitement. Many men over fifty-five need direct stimulation of the penis to get it up. After entry, by lying together quietly after each burst of action, the climax can be delayed and the passionate closeness of the plateau stage greatly prolonged. (3) Orgasm stage. This is more apt to be good for both if you discover a position that leaves the woman's clitoris free from the man's full weight. (4) Resolution stage. This can be a period of the shared warmth and closeness of the afterglow. If the woman hasn't had an orgasm, she may enjoy having the man bring her to climax manually or with a vibrator.

6. Enjoy leisurely nondemanding pleasuring. If either of you is having trouble being as sexually responsive as you would like to be, this is probably the most important suggestion for you. Nondemand pleasuring is one key to increasing sexual zest in a marriage where sex has become dull or flat.

Here is one approach to a nondemand pleasuring session. When you feel connected emotionally, set aside at least 11/2 hours to give each other a full body massage. Use warm body lotion with an aroma you both like. Start with the back of your partner's neck, gradually working down to caress the feet. Then do your partner's front, saving the genitals until last. Relax and enjoy receiving and giving each other pleasure for its own sake, not as a preliminary to achieving any other goal (such as an orgasm). Let go of the "we try harder" pressure on yourselves. Just flow with the natural pleasures of your bodies. Let this flow carry you wherever it will. Whatever happens will be satisfying, in all likelihood, partly because you don't have to "make it." Regular sessions of low-key nondemand pleasuring are effective ways of reawakening the springs of mid-years'passion.

Remember, "good sex" for you is whatever you both enjoy! Affirm this fact and resist the temptation to feel that what you like is substandard or abnormal. If you both like it, it's right for you. Feel free to ignore what books say (including this one) if it does not work for you, or fit your preferences and sensitivities. You are the only real expert on your own sex life. Relax and enjoy whatever is satisfying for both of you. As someone has said, "there are no winners in the bedroom olympics." (Gribbins, "An American Fantasy," p. 7.)

7. Avoid the triple traps of hurry, fatigue, and too much alcohol. These three things, along with the pressure to "succeed" in the bedroom, most often interfere with satisfying mid-years sex. Hurry and fatigue are closely linked. In the early years of marriage, most of us have the youthful stamina to enjoy regular late-night sex after everything else is done. But in the mid-years and beyond, avoiding such rush and fatigue become increasingly important to good sex. Occasional spontaneous "quickies" can be fun. But when they're the result of fatigue and rush, they're the equivalent of gulping a delicious meal so fast you hardly taste the food. A relaxed Saturday morning, Sunday afternoon, or an early evening devoted to leisurely pleasuring, is much more likely to be deeply satisfying than brief, late-night intercourse.

A little alcohol helps some couples turn off their Parent sides and turn on their inner Child. But heavy drinking tends to interfere with erections and orgasms, particularly in the mid-years. The decision to drink less or not to drink at all before sex can often lead to increased enjoyment.

Many mid-years men experience occasional episodes of temporary impotence. Reducing alcohol consumption and fatigue, and shifting to nondemanding pleasuring for a while (to reduce the anxiety about failure and the pressure to succeed) usually restores fully the ability to function. Recognizing that this "problem" happens to many of us, and that it's usually nothing more than a passing episode, reduces the panic of feeling that one is "losing one's manhood."

8. If do-it-yourself methods such as those described above do not enhance your sex life sufficiently, get the help of a trained sex therapist who is also trained in marriage counseling. This is an appropriate step for those with any chronic sexual problem. Because sexual and emotional problems always intertwine, it's important to have a therapist who is trained to help in both areas. It's a sign of strength to recognize your need for expert help and to get it.

The Illustrated Manual of Sex Therapy by Helen Singer Kaplan describes sex therapy and also includes drawings of the erotic pleasuring positions used in such therapy. This book can be useful for any couples who wish to learn nondemand pleasuring to enhance sex for themselves. It is also a useful resource for ministers and others who do marriage counseling and enrichment.

As a kind of game, jot down quickly in your growth log all the things you can think of that turn your partner on. Now, check each other's lists to see how accurate your knowledge of each other is. Add things that you didn't think of to each of your lists. Now, together, plan a pleasuring session or minivacation for yourselves, using your knowledge of each other's pleasure preferences. Have fun!

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