Maybe we’re doing it, maybe we’re not. Maybe we want to, maybe we don’t. We might be thinking about it … On this episode, intimacy coach Anna Marti offers insights for all of us, plus Cate and other listeners share their concerns.

Anna Marti book recommendation: “A Frenchwoman’s Guide to Sex after Sixty,” by Marie de Hennezel. Anna says: “It’s a great book for men and women to read [because it covers] the wide variety of sexual response in older women.” I know I’m adding it to my reading list!

Post episode note: Two emailers have asked why I didn’t “push back” on Cate’s stance against pornography. I’m a journalist, and Cate was sharing her personal experiences. So her feelings, her opinions. She felt like it was a betrayal. There’s nothing right or wrong about how she feels. The problem, as I see it, is that clearly Cate and her husband weren’t on the same page about pornography. But instead of having that conversation, or getting help with having that conversation, she insisted he stop and he insisted he had stopped. As intimacy coach Anna Marti says: “Often when a partner is compulsively doing anything (porn just being one of these) most often there is a desire to escape or avoid addressing challenges or anxieties in other parts of their life. I respect your caller’s feelings in that this is something she just doesn’t want to have in her life. I don’t endorse a pathologizing of porn use, rather an investigation of underlying desire.” More to explore in a future episode!

Intimacy coach Anna Marti works with singles and couples.

 

 

Transcript

CALLER 1 00:07

Are there other people out there who are experiencing a kind of ambivalence about sexuality, despite what all the articles about hot sex into your 80s are telling us?

CALLER 2 00:22

There was less and less bad sex until there was no sex at all.

00:29

CATE

I don’t know what it’s like really out there. But I’m wondering if there is a lot of expectation on the sexual part because I wouldn’t want to do that right away.

00:38

LAURA STASSI

Maybe we’re doing it. Maybe we’re not. Maybe we want to, maybe we don’t. We might be thinking about it. “Sex On My Mind.” That’s this episode of “Dating While Gray: The Grown-Up’s Guide to Love, Sex, and Relationships.” I’m Laura Stassi.

I talked with a Canadian listener recently, let’s call her Cate. She’s in her early 60s. When Cate was in college, she met a young man at church. They fell in love, got married, started a family. Cate wanted it to last forever. But gradually, it became apparent to her that it could not.

01:21

CATE

Well, the first time that I really seriously thought about ending the marriage was around seven years in. I had three children by then. And he one night in bed confessed that he had been looking at pornography. So for me, that was huge. I hated pornography. I still do. I don’t like what it does to men. I don’t like what it represents. And I felt like it was an invasion on my marriage. I felt like it was he was actually cheating on me. I think the marriage bed should be kept pure – and that means from pornography as well. And so I was ready to leave.

LAURA STASSI

02:12

You weren’t suspicious or anything. But he felt burdened, I guess, and wanted to tell you that he had been looking at pornography.

02:19

CATE

That’s right. That’s right. I was not suspicious. He told me and I had a shock reaction. I actually called my friend, who is a psychologist. I called her in the middle of the night just shaking, like after he told me I was shaking. And I, I was in shock. Because I just felt like it was the hugest attack, like this was the end of my marriage is what I felt — marriage as I pictured it, I should say. A lot of women will put up with pornography. A lot of women don’t mind. They don’t care. But for me, it was super offended.

LAURA STASSI

02:53

I’m just curious, do you think that your reaction would have been the same if he had confessed that he had feelings for a real-life person?

CATE

03:02

Absolutely, it would have been the same, I think, especially back then. I was very insecure because I had been hurt many times. So I was looking for a forever love and someone to feel super secure with, and that was again just ripped out from underneath me.

 LAURA STASSI

A betrayal.

CATE

It was a betrayal. It is a betrayal. What I did the very next day was, I started every day taking out thousands of dollars to go and take the kids and leave. The bank swallowed my card. And I couldn’t get any more money. By this time, he caught on and said, well, let’s go to counseling. So we did, and I also demanded that he get tested by a psychologist who specializes in sexual deviance to make sure he wasn’t sexually deviant and a danger to my kids. And he did, he jumped through all of the hoops and I stayed.

LAURA STASSI

04:01

I’m thinking some people might wonder, was it — I hate to say vanilla pornography?

CATE

It was then. I think it still is. Fast forward to now, he’s still addicted.

LAURA STASSI

If he hadn’t told you, would you have thought okay, why aren’t we as close physically as we used to be? Or did his behaviors with you seem different?

CATE

04:20

Yes. At first it was demanding more and more and more and couldn’t get enough. And I was going hold on, and he would get insulted. You know, you’re not giving me enough — and complain and everything. But then after a while, like years later, let’s say 15 years later, it was more a loss of interest. Or — trying not to get too graphic but I would notice it was a lot different. It was a not a closeness, it was more a shallow mechanical act.

LAURA STASSI

05:02

You didn’t feel like it was bringing you closer emotionally?

CATE

05:07

No, no. It was a duty. it was a task to get it done and get away from me. That kind of thing.

LAURA STASSI

05:14

But you stayed. I mean, it was only recently that you left.

CATE

05:19

Yes, that’s right. He jumped through all those hoops. He had to go to see a psychologist, we had to go to marriage counseling, he had to work on his problem. And, you know, the whole time I thought he was. And I thought he’d be getting better. And I didn’t even want to talk about it, because it brought a trauma response in me to even talk about it. So I would rarely bring it up because I’d get so unsettled. But then I would always find a magazine, or I’d get some indicator that it was still a problem throughout all those years. And that would send me far away again, like just emotionally.

LAURA STASSI

06:00

You referred to yourself as being separated for like seven years. And I’m wondering if there came a point in your marriage where you sort of officially separated but were living under the same roof? Or was it more like, okay, as soon as I can, I’m out of here, kind of a separation.

CATE

06:16

I said, as soon as I can. I’m out of here. And that was more than seven years ago. It was really hard. But finally one night, I went to him and said, I want to separate. And I thought, naively, that when you say that to someone, they leave. Whenever someone has said that to me, I just left. Like, he didn’t leave. I went to an attorney right away, signed her up, give her a retainer, and told her that I want it to be legally separated. And you can stay in the same home. So she registered the date that I told her. And that’s basically a legal date, when I petitioned for separation, that’s when it started.

He still wouldn’t leave. He started counseling on his own. He signed us up for marriage retreats, things like that. I did go to one marriage retreat, which was really good. I was surprised. They told me, to my surprise, either way, it’s your decision. If you want to stay, whether you want to go. You work on your stuff. He works on his stuff. And if you come together in the middle someday, that’s great. So it was freeing because this was a Christian marriage retreat. So for them to say that was very freeing because that’s another thing that held me back. I felt guilty.

LAURA STASSI

07:35

It sounds like you felt like you’d be letting God down, that religion was very important to you.

CATE

07:41

Absolutely. That was a big one. So I actually felt like I was turning my back on God, which was a bad time to not have God in my life. And I’m just lately, like, this is seven years later, I’m just lately a little bit beginning to see him in my life again, him working in spite of me. I’m starting to turn around and feel a little bit of the light on my face a little bit.

LAURA STASSI

08:08

Oh, I like that expression, feel the light on my face. That’s beautiful. So for the past seven years, you were separated, living under the same roof. And it sounds like, at least your husband was hoping that things would get better — or no?

CATE

08:29

Absolutely. And he’s still hoping that, he still refuses to believe that I’m going even though I’ve now bought a house and he gave me money to pay for it. And little by little, things are disappearing out of that old house. I’m renovating this house, it’s almost ready. I probably will move at the end of the month. But he’s still, every single time he says goodbye to me he says, I love you, have a good day. He always says I love you. He buys flowers for every occasion. He just pours it on because he so desperately doesn’t want me to leave.

It’s not in his vernacular that that marriages ever end. I think it’s a big awakening to him. And he has been, on the positive side, getting a lot of help though he’s still not over his problem. He goes to a men’s group now. So I’m grateful for all of those things, but at this point, I really feel like our relationship is killed. It’s, it’s gone. I love him as a person but not romantically. I don’t know if I could ever go there again.

LAURA STASSI

09:32

Yeah. I just feel like sometimes — I don’t know. I don’t want to get into a discussion about religion, but sometimes it feels to me that churches can really cause a lot of damage.

CATE

09:44

I think a lot of Christian men have sex issues because it was painted to be such a big deal. You know, you get married, you have to wait till you get married. And it’s so special. And it was almost like a wife is a purchase. You know, I purchased this so that I can have that all the time for free, and however much I want. Whereas if you can just have it, it’s no big deal. I tried very hard to meet his every demand for years. It was exhausting, and not fun.

LAURA STASSI

10:20

Have you even thought about what another relationship for you might look like?

CATE

10:25

Oh, yeah, of course. I like men. They’re fun. I would love to date. It’s not that I’m frigid. But it’s that I am afraid. You know, what do men want? Are they all involved in pornography? Are they all wired that way now? I don’t know.

LAURA STASSI

10:50

I think it’s understandable that Cate’s wondering about dating and expectations around sex. She was married for a long time. And in that relationship, they didn’t have a good track record for talking about it. That’s not uncommon.

I want to bring in someone who can help all of us get comfortable with sex talk. Her name is Anna Marti. She lives in Portland, Oregon, and for over 30 years she’s helped singles and couples in her work as an intimacy coach.

ANNA MARTI

You know, what I always say is, it either begins a conversation or ends a conversation. The really short, like PG-rated answer is, I want to support people in relaxing how they’re showing up around sex and relationships, in contrast to some kind of cultural standard, or what they read in books or with the hearing podcasts right?

LAURA STASSI

Before we get like, really into it, I want to first ask you for your definition of sex. Because what I’m finding is a lot of people have a very, perhaps narrow view of sex that maybe we need to expand as we get older.

ANNA MARTI

Sex is, you know, if I had 100 people in the room, I’d probably have 100 different answers. And often that’s determined by gender, and history. But the way I like to define it is, it’s more about desire and satisfaction, rather than any kind of objective-oriented behaviors.

LAURA STASSI

So I’m hearing from listeners on all kinds of issues related to sex. And it seems like two general themes are emerging. One is an ambivalence about having a sex life — or having the same kind of sex life that we had when we were younger. And the other one is a concern about potential partner expectations because we’ve been off the market for a while.

ANNA MARTI

You know, I think the most consistent factor in the statement that I can give you, a lot of people have ambivalence about sex is because the sex they’re having isn’t worth wanting. Or historically, I mean, I just worked with someone yesterday who came out of a 20-year marriage. And for 20 years, nothing about it was pleasurable. There was criticism, there was expectation. And if that’s your history, why would you be interested in more of that? If you’ve never had sex that was pleasurable, nourishing, enjoyable, why seek help about it?

LAURA STASSI

Just give up.

ANNA MARTI

Give up. I mean, like, where’s the where’s the data that it’s gonna be better than what it was? And do I want to go through that again?

LAURA STASSI

Okay. And what would you say to someone like that?

ANNA MARTI

Well, a number of things. This, I mean, this person is getting ready to date again, I would help her with communication skills. At she would practice, he or she would practice in my office because it feels very, very scary to talk about things that we want. We were all absent on that day of school where they handed out the textbook for the successful erotic life.

The first is kind of developing — it’s more than courage. I call it this internal capacity to be able to speak, listen, and experience what’s awkward, uncomfortable, sometimes super frightening, while cultivating a felt sense of open-hearted connection. And it’s not a cognitive like, learn how to say the right things. I mean, I could even invite you into this exercise. When you think about talking to a potential partner about becoming more intimate. What do you notice in your body? Does your throat kind of get a little tie? Is your heartbeat more quickly? You know, is your respiration more challenged? Basically, we go into a sympathetic nervous system response: fight, flight, fear, collapse. And it’s like, we’ve left the area of our brain that can make sense. So I want to support people in cultivating a connection to their nervous system in their physical bodies, so they can have those awkward conversations and have a good time and really enjoy it.

LAURA STASSI

I’m just thinking, there are some people — men and women — who just don’t want to have sex and so they don’t want to bring up a conversation. Or, some people might think I do want to have sex, I have no problems having sex. So why talk about it? Why not just do it?

ANNA MARTI

Lots of reasons, especially with a possibly new partner. And I think, I mean, I’ve been married three times. I’ve been really, I’m a really good wife.

LAURA STASSI

Practice makes perfect, right?

ANNA MARTI

Yeah, right. I think I got that from my mother. Yeah, what do you do as a woman? You get married. So I did that until I realized it, maybe you don’t have to do that anymore. Then as far as talking about it, I’ll start with your first example. This person that’s not interested in sex at all, to be able to say that out of the gate, you’re going to first of all, decide if this is someone that’s a match as far as wanting to go out with. So if I don’t communicate to you, you know, I’m really enjoying your company, these are the things that I do enjoy, and this is what I’m looking for. But what you can count on, is, I’m not interested in any kind of sexual engagement anymore. And maybe that needs to be defined as well.

CALLER 1

16:11

Hi, Laura. I’m 67 and 10 years divorced from a 22-year marriage. I did some online dating at first, but now I do little to none because I feel like I’m either asexual or gray sexual. And I don’t think that anyone would want to be in a relationship with me because of that.

LAURA STASSI

16:36

Gray sexual, that’s a new one for me. I had to look it up. It’s a label for people who rarely experience sexual attraction, or the attraction they feel is really low key. Okay, you know I want to come up with a different term for it. I’ve reclaimed the word gray as a vibrant thing. Anyway, we’ll hear from two more listeners on the topic of sex, plus more from intimacy coach on Anna Marti. That’s all after the break.

BREAK

LAURA STASSI

17:15

Before we hear more from intimacy coach Anna Marti, I want to share excerpts from two emails I received. With permission from the writers, we’re using voice actors to read them.

CALLER 3 17:27

I’m almost 71 And I’ve been married twice. My second husband died about four years ago. We were very much in love. But there were issues, including the fact that he was Christian and I became a non-believer after menopause. Without going into a lot of history, thanks to therapy, I’m now becoming the person I was never allowed to be. I’m diving into my creative side more than ever. I have no desire for a long-term relationship. I would love a relationship without any commitment at all. It could be a man or a woman, but I’m starting to prefer women — as long as they share my love of music.

CALLER 2 18:10

I’ve been divorced for 15 years. My last relationship was with a woman 10 years younger. Like me, she’s into ultra-marathons. Me being in my late 50s, there are not many women my age who are into those, or even marathons for that matter. So it was nice to have someone to train with and be a plus one for special occasions.

She’s super cute, and I had an overwhelming physical attraction to her. We lived together for six years, but it probably shouldn’t have lasted more than two. There were a few red flags — and sex was a major one. To be honest, sex was subpar at the beginning, and it didn’t improve over time. There was less and less bad sex until there was no sex at all. I tried talking about it a couple of times, but she didn’t express her feelings about why she had no interest. So I really am clueless about her lack of sex drive.

LAURA STASSI

I asked the second emailer if he had maybe linked his partner’s younger age with greater expectations about sex. And he said no. Studies have shown that aging is not a barrier to sexual intimacy, though accommodations might be required.

ANNA MARTI

For many reasons, medical reasons, some people are unable to have the conventional you know, sex or objective orient toward orgasm. But they want cuddling, they want snuggling, they want kissing. And I want my clients and your audience to be able to communicate about that in a way that’s connecting because that’s what we’re doing when we’re dating someone. We’re practicing connecting.

LAURA STASSI

Right. And it feels to me too, that what you were saying earlier — that maybe before we communicate what we want or what we expect or what we don’t expect, we need to get really clear about why. Like you’re saying, if we’ve had a history of really bad sex, then we assume we never want sex again. But maybe we need to rethink that conclusion.

ANNA MARTI

At least be able to ask the right questions. Going back to, the people that we’re going out with are probably as uneducated as we are. And for them, having a conversation might feel just as awkward. But what I want to look for and coach my clients on is their willingness. So let’s say we were going out, Laura, and I started, you know, I might say, oh, I noticed, I noticed my heart’s beating really fast. But I really enjoyed spending time with you. And I feel like we’re moving toward more intimacy, and I’d really like to talk about what that might look like for you. Are you interested?

LAURA STASSI

That’s bold. No, I mean, I think it’s funny, because as we’ve gotten older, especially those of us who have had previous committed relationships, it almost feels like you do need to be bold, you need to just be open, and just really put it on the table about what you’re interested in, or how you’re feeling.

ANNA MARTI

Right. But with that, also, kind of move out of your head. So it’s like, rather than coming from my history, I want to find kind of this authentic — it’s almost like moving your awareness from your brain to your heart. Like this is another human being. I may not want to go out with this person again, or maybe in this conversation, we might learn more about each other. And that’s it. But if I say, are you interested? And you say, oh, no, that is too uncomfortable for me, it’s not going to be easy to talk about those things, once we become more intimate. So somebody can be uncomfortable. But willingness is what will take you a long way.

LAURA STASSI

Uncoupling your brain from your body, or uncoupling that history that we all have running through our heads with how we actually are feeling in the moment — to be able to propel us forward in some direction or another. I mean, I’m not, if people don’t want to have sex, neither one of us is saying, oh, you’ve got to want it. But it’s interesting to me to really kind of think of it in more, I don’t know, is that a logical term, or is it a more practical term?

ANNA MARTI

I would describe it in in more of a heart-centered way. One colleague that had some podcasts I enjoyed quite a while ago, he talked about coming into every date as if it was the only date. So rather than coming like with this list of like, you meet this, you don’t need this, I’m already not interested. It’s like, you’re another human being, what can I learn about myself in your presence? And what can I learn about you? So the whole engagement, whether we go on one date and that’s it, or we go on 15 dates and get married, whatever, I want to practice showing up in a way that’s, that’s real, and not contrived. That’s a journey, which makes me want to rewind a little to really taking some time to do some self-study.

Maybe ask your friends, it’s like, what do I really want? So the more you can get clear with your own longing, the more you can have meaningful moments with people that you’re dating, even if you know, it’s not gonna go any farther. But it’s meaningful for both of you. Sex with yourself or getting comfortable with your own body might prepare you to be able to create more of what you want with a partner.

I remember being on a plane just a few months ago, and I was sitting next to — as soon as somebody finds out what I do for a living, begins a conversation, or ends the conversation. But oftentimes it begins, because so few people have felt really safe about talking about the intimate aspects of their lives. This man was talking about how his partner wasn’t having sex with him at all. And so we talked about how to have that conversation to find out what was really going on there. And, and to be in those, those awkward conversations and stay with it.

I think one of the impediments, even in long-term relationship, is somebody wants to talk about something and the other partner says, I don’t want to talk about that right now. And you go away. Well, basically what you’re demonstrating is, it’s not that important to you. But another thing to say when someone says that is, tell me more about not wanting to talk about it. So I’m not focused on the objective about getting you to do what I want you to do. I want to get to know you. And I think that’s again, where a lot of these conversations go south because when a partner that maybe is the high desire wants more sex, that’s what they’re talking about. They want to find out what you want, how to do that. And they don’t have the skill to be able to create the connection where their partner might feel safe talking about what’s underneath that, right?

LAURA STASSI

It’s interesting because I think when you get down to it, mismatched expectations, especially around sex, might be the biggest stress point in romantic relationships.

ANNA MARTI

Yeah, a disparate desire, we call that disparate desire. For sustainable intimacy in the long term, you’ve got to be friends. Which kind of sounds like a no-brainer, but I can’t tell you how many people I’ve worked with, they’re complaining about not having sex with someone that they don’t like. And, you know, kind of one of the first things I said when we started speaking is oftentimes, the sex that they’ve been having isn’t worth wanting. So it’s easier to withdraw.

It could be with someone that you love very much. But you know, after 25, 30 years, it’s really frightening to say, you know, sex has never been pleasurable for me, so it’s easier to withdraw. I also see that with sexual function issues. There’s a lot of shame around sexual function issues. So it’s easier to withdraw than to, to have those conversations. We all are nourished by touch, but oftentimes a partner that’s more frightened or more reticent, if I hug you or touch you, you’re going to think I want to be sexual, and I don’t want to be sexual. So I withdraw. And so everybody’s living in a desert then.

LAURA STASSI

26:35

Physiologically, is the body capable of becoming sexual again? Is it use it or lose it? If we haven’t used it, have we lost it?

ANNA MARTI

Yes, and no. I mean, no is, there’s so much variation. Lube is always good. I want men and women that are listening to this to know, lube is always good. Not having lubrication doesn’t mean anything about you, or your partner. You want to be comfortable. And also take into consideration the kinds of physical limitations that we have as we get older — knees and hips, and shoulders. So there are many ways to navigate that with cushions or the kinds of behaviors that you want to engage in. But I want to open the window about what are the kinds of behaviors and connections that you can have that actually create desire and satisfaction.

And I say satisfaction in contrast to orgasm. Many women have never had an orgasm with a partner, or have never had an orgasm in their life. Add to the stress of some partner expecting to do that, that inhibits pleasure. Nothing inhibits pleasure more effectively than anxiety. So I coach people in unpacking their unconscious objectives and focus more on pleasure.

It’s possible to access incredibly satisfying and transcendent states as one begins to reimagine and re- experience how they use their bodies. You know, can I breathe more deeply? Can I focus on sensation, rather than this list of my anxiety in my mind and what I’m doing and what you’re doing and what we’re supposed to do? Learn how to practice being in your body. And that sounds like a no brainer, but so often we’re not. This is what worked with every woman since I’d been in ninth grade. This is what my former partner enjoyed. So we are in our heads. I’d like to encourage people to really express themselves through their bodies, to experience their partner. And that would be it.

LAURA STASSI

Anna Marti also reminds us there are no right or wrong answers to questions about personal desires and preferences for sexual intimacy. The important thing is that we take time to figure out what we want, then we need to get comfortable communicating on the topic, not only with potential partners, but also with our health care providers. Studies have shown that sexual health and intimacy are under- discussed topics. And by the way, it’s not just patients who are reluctant to discuss them.

Back to Cate in Canada. She reports that while she’s been quote, slow to rip off the Band Aid and start dating, she’s feeling good. She’s going out with friends and having fun. Sounds to me like Cate’s building a satisfying life for herself, a necessary step before opening herself up to anyone else.

END CREDITS

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I’m Laura Stassi. Thanks so much for listening.

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