Sex as the Relationship’s First Line of Defense

Mar 31, 2014 • Health, Research

study finds sex helps couples cope with illness

Growing old together, though a wholesome longing, rarely takes into account aspects of aging. Health complications, for example, can put a serious strain on long-term relationships. What is often not discussed — particularly when it deals with older people — is how this impacts sex. We’re uncomfortable about the idea of sex among older people, to the point where we — when not ignoring it ouright — can only make it the butt of all the jokes (see Karen McCluskey in Desperate Housewives for an example). But a study in The Journal of Gerontology: Series B by Adena M. Galinsky and Linda J. Waite has recently shed some light into the importance of sex among older adults — especially in terms of ensuring marital stability for couples faced with physical illness.

“Poor physical health affects the psychological well-being of that person and his or her spouse at the same time that it affects the sexual behavior of the couple,” the researchers write in their paper. They looked over data from 732 long-term couples — 1,464 adults between 57 and 85 years of age in total — and found that sex makes a difference in how well partners cope. The study suggests that sex is the bridge that helps couples pull through during the tough times; conversely, when there is little to no sex, there is also little to no marital satisfaction.

To protect the long-term relationship from the turns life takes, it is imperative to pay attention to how things are in the bedroom. The researchers were careful not to limit their study to vaginal intercourse, but to expand that definition to involve anything that results in sexual pleasure for a couple. The short of it is: a healthy sex life — whatever your preferred way of engaging in it — is a powerful first line of defense against stress and life difficulties.

“I hope our study inspires research investigating what factors enable some couples struggling with poor health to find the energy and creativity to stay sexually engaged,” Galinsky told the Washington Post earlier this month.

Header image by Daniel Lee.