The dilemma My wife and I have had a good marriage, share interests and have wonderful children. I am 18 years older than her and recently retired from a successful career.
We both had a high sexual drive, but for some years have been sleeping apart because I snore. Our sex life never really recovered and – to make matters worse – my desire has gone off a cliff. We have tried, but I usually can’t get a sustainable erection – even if I take Viagra.
She wants an active sex life, which makes me feel I am letting her down as, for many years, we had sex daily. I think I am diminished in her eyes now that I don’t work. I knew she was proud of my achievements running a substantial business. We are financially comfortable, but she often seems dissatisfied. I sometimes think she would like things to be like they were, as our children go on to make their own lives and we have less contact with other family and friends because of Covid. I am not sure what to do. I would like for us to look forward to a long, happy retirement, but this sexual mismatch seems like a substantial obstacle.
Mariella replies An obstacle? Or simply a divergence before your paths join again. It can’t have been easy to open up on a subject that many men experience but few feel bold enough to admit. In middle age the diminishing spark of desire is just one of many indignities that descend on men and women, making you wonder if longevity is the gift it’s made out to be or an unwelcome extension fraught with difficulty and frustration.
We live longer, our bodies atrophy, our lives change course and the people we’ve managed to rub along with for decades become all the more precious. I’m not saying any of that to increase your load. Learning to carry weight on our shoulders is a life skill like any other, and it stands us in good stead when our bodies age, our hopes and dreams are inevitably tempered and the world starts to feel as if it’s filled with less potential. It’s the point where we need to dig deep to find reserves of strength, courage and wisdom because those are the qualities that won’t just sustain us through brief turbulence but will help us to fly into maturity with equanimity, confidence and a renewed sense of purpose.
I’m worried because I feel you’ve lost sight of your spark and the lust for life that’s going to fuel your future. Instead of celebrating a successful union that’s held together through who knows what stresses, you’re doubting your relationship’s ability to survive a dip in desire that is eminently fixable. Most onerously you’ve started equating your value to your wife as inseparable from your role as successful hunter-gatherer, forgetting that the former is what has brought you to this point.
That you can now kick off your work shoes and enjoy downtime with your lifelong partner is a great success story. If you imagine that others see you diminished it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Viagra is definitely not the only answer; you may be surprised to discover how much control your brain has over that part of your body. In maturity you’re discovering that which should be drilled into us all from the start: sex and desire are inextricably connected to what’s happening in our heads and we have the ability to control one by using the other – a skill-set that usually works best when employed from the top down!
I know that there are treatments available should you wish, but why not start by separating your self-worth from your successful career? It’s a badge of honour that you’ve succeeded in life so far but that’s not who you are, it’s just what you’ve made. As a credential to carry you through to whatever life next throws at you, business success has currency but it’s not the sum of your parts. And because you’ve retired doesn’t mean you need to embrace the life of a sloth. Now is your chance to step into the world and find interests and activities that you’ve not had time for in the past.
I can’t think of a better time to get more intimately acquainted with what makes you tick. Seek out a therapist to talk you through the predictable struggle you’re experiencing in switching from one life path to another. The return of your libido will probably follow and if not, Relate runs courses for older people seeking help with sexual issues – .
Try to think more broadly when it comes to what might be coming between you and your wife. An end to separate bedrooms would be a good practical place to start, or at least visitation rights. Snoring is not a minority activity after all. I entirely empathise with your wife’s pursuit of a good night’s sleep, but there are less drastic solutions than separate rooms and, as human beings, far greater tortures many have to endure. I’ve found a pair of silicone earplugs a good remedy. Wanting your marriage to survive and setting your heart on ensuring it does are two different scenarios. I suggest you opt for the latter.