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Sex in an Empty Nest

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Updated June 19, 2013

My husband and I have been married for 24 years. I had 2 children by a previous marriage so we have never had the house to ourselves. Our last child is about to move out of the house and, at 48 years of age, I am lacking in ideas to keep our sex life hot. We had amazing sex in our 30's but now that we're quickly approaching middle age (and menopause) our bodies aren't in the same shape they were 15 years ago so some of those wild positions we once enjoyed aren't as easily achieved.  For the past 2 weeks we've been trying to decide what to do on our 1st night alone. And all we've come up with is a candle lit dinner. Do you have some suggestions for empty nesters and how to stay feeling young and maintain a good sex life?

Thanks for your email, I appreciate the question. And reading your email made me think about how we don't talk enough about sex at every age and stage in our lives. Teenagers are a target audience for messages around safer sex and contraception (and fear). Older adults are a target audience for sex books, pills, and lube that promise to make them feel young again (and melancholy). But those of us who consider ourselves sexual are sexual our WHOLE lives. We can, and do, get stuck any old time. And we can all benefit from some collective creative thinking.

You're already on your way to be able to make the changes you want. It's your awareness of all the things that could be getting in the way that puts you on that path. When it comes to our personal sex lives we're so often preached a message that it's all about us. That if we could just suck it up (so to speak) and get with the program, we can have hot or great sex any time. But our private sex lives, while they may take place in private, don't happen in a vacuum. The world around us, our interpersonal relationships, our communities and families, and our bodies, all come to bed with us in some ways. You've already identified at least five major changes that you and your husband are going through right now:

  • Physical environment. Your house is emptying out, the rooms are not what they once were.
  • Aging. If we live, then we age, and this has impacts that are physical, psychological, emotional, and spiritual.
  • Family Structure. You came into this relationship with a blended family and now that structure is changing again.
  • Roles and Identities. You've gone from parents/step-parents to "empty nesters".
  • Bodies. Whether it's porn or the mainstream media, all we see is people being sexual in their 20s and 30s. Now that you're heading into your 50s, great sex means sex without a map.

The good news is that the maps we're usually given to navigate our sexual relationships (from family, religion, school, the media) are terrible. They are two dimensional, printed in black and white, and all roads lead to the same spot. It can feel scary and insurmountable but the truth is that having to find your own sexual way can be a gift. And while I appreciate a map and directions as much as anyone (maybe more), maintaining a lasting erotic connection usually means finding your own way.

Which doesn't mean you can't get some help. So below are a few ideas for how you might start this new exploration.

Skip the First Night, Skip the Pressure
One thing that never helps with sex is feeling a lot of pressure. So my first tip for you is to forget about that first night. Make plans to go see a movie. Or stay home. But don't feel like you need to make this first night one filled with spectacular sex. If it comes to pass that you both feel like having sex that's great. But maybe it will feel more appropriate to spend your first night alone talking about the changes that are happening in your lives. Maybe you'll both feel a bit sad about the new space that you find yourself in. Or maybe you'll be excited and want to make plans for the future. My point is that you should make room for whatever it is that you feel, and not build up a grand expectation that will likely lead to a lot of sexual performance anxiety for both of you. Because that almost never leads to good sex.

Rearrange the Nest
In your email you said the first thing you were going to do was to change the outside locks so you could both walk around naked if you wanted. I love this idea! You may want to dream up other ways of rearranging your house. This doesn't need to involve expensive or lengthy renovations. It can be as simple as moving the furniture around and changing the lighting, or as complicated as full scale renovations, complete with a new disco hot tub room (if "hot sex" for you means sex in the 70s). In a kind of feng shui sense, changing your physical space can change the way that energy flows through that space. And even if energy flow means nothing to you, moving stuff around can change the way it feels to move through rooms. This is one way to create new possibilities for sexual exploration by shaking up your routine.

If you no longer have kids in the house the first thing that comes to mind is that you can now have sex in any room of the house without fear of intrusion or interruption. We tend to get into a routine of where and when we have sex. Those routines work for a reason. But if you want to switch things up you may want to think about which rooms and which furniture could be good for sex. Having sex in a room that you don't usually use for sex can not only make the sex you have feel new, but it can give you a new view on the room itself.

Taking It Off Is Great, But So Is Covering Up
Some couples who have been together for a long time stop trying to look good for each other. You'll hear this as a joke sometimes. People will say they are married, so it doesn't matter what they look like. It's a nice thing to be able to stop paying attention to social rules and norms (which are always intensely gendered and terribly narrow minded). But wanting to look attractive to your partner, wanting to look and feel erotic, arousing and aroused, is not the same thing as buying into social norms. Sexual objectification is not always a bad thing. One way to bring more sexual or erotic energy into your relationship is to get back into the habit of thinking of your partner and sometimes dressing for effect. It has to reflect who you are, but we are all sexy, and figuring out what that looks and feels like for us can lead to more sexual feelings and maybe even to more sex.

Apropos of being able to move through the house naked all the time, I'm reminded of something that sex therapist and author Esther Perel talks about which is that eroticism can often be found in what we don't know about our partner. Familiarity, she argues, can breed sexual malaise. Knowing, or believing, that someone is always available for sex and that no effort is necessary, isn't always the hottest of ideas. You might each want to think about what, if anything, you both take for granted when it comes to your sex life. And then start challenging those assumptions. You could do this as an exercise where each of you have to come up with a list of three or four things you take for granted about the other. And then you can share your lists.

Don't Mistake Familiarity and Comfort with Knowing It All
Be careful not to make the mistake of thinking that you actually know everything there is to know about each other. I promise you don't. We all hold sexual secrets and desires that we haven't shared, and of course there is the future, which you may think you know, but you don't.

If you think you know everything there is to know about each other, it can be hard to find 'newness' in the relationship. One thing you might do to disrupt this idea is to take some time and think of something that you desire that you've never shared. Have your husband do the same. Don't do this with the idea that you'll share it. You might choose to, but even if you don't, reminding yourself that there are still things to discover and uncover is important.

Two other ideas along these lines: Do a sexual history either together or on your own, and think about what you'd be willing to share. Sit down together and just take 20 minutes to each write out a list of five things you'd like to do sexually sometime in the next ten years. They don't have to be things you want to try tonight, and you always have the right to change your mind, but the exercise can be fun and instructive. Once you've made your list, share it.

Learning More About Your Bodies
As you have already noticed, your bodies are changing. That doesn't ever stop. The way we think about aging and bodies is a bit messed up. We tend to think of aging as only being about what we lose. As you put it, there are positions you can't get into comfortably any more. This is true, but just as there are things your older body can't do now that it could do twenty years ago, there are things it CAN do and feel now, that it couldn't back then. Not surprisingly, there isn't a lot written about how getting older is great. Which means you have to discover what those things are for yourself. If you go looking only for deficits and pain, you'll find only that. If you start paying closer attention to the possibilities and positive things your body feels and experiences, then you may find much more is there. Just as you might have to rediscover your relationship, it might be time to take a tour of your body.

Sex Toy Swap
This last tip is in some ways the most superficial, but it can still be a lot of fun. For some people, introducing sex toys into their sexual repertoire can be a great way to spark sexual conversations and try new sexual activities. This may be old hat for you, but if you haven't given it a try before and you both feel comfortable with the idea, one way to do this is to give yourselves a budget (it doesn't need to be a lot) and then you each go online or into a sex shop and buy something that you'd like your partner to use on you. It doesn't have to be designed as a sex toy for couples, since this is about you feeling pleasure and your partner being the one providing it. Don't think of sex toys as things that will magically make your sex life better, instead think of them as toys, meant to be animated as much by your sexual imagination and intention as they are by batteries or electricity.

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