Intimacy and sexuality

Can Sexuality Change Over Time?

Pushing boundaries and social norms in partner preferences

Is it possible that our emotional and sexual needs change with age, perhaps resulting in a change in our own partner preferences? It seems perfectly possible that this could be true, but how do we respond to this change?

Research shows that both men and women’s partner preferences can be interchangeable. Men who have been in a relationship with a woman can find themselves sexually and emotionally attracted to a man, and women who are in a relationship with a man can become sexually and emotionally attracted to a woman. According to this research, our sexuality is changeable and doesn’t have to remain the same throughout our lives.

The same research also shows that women are more likely to experience this change than men.

My enquiring mind then asks the questions: why are women more likely to experience this change? Is this something to do with our society’s level of acceptance? Is a man’s relationship with a man less acceptable than a woman’s relationship with a woman? Looking back over history it does seem that women’s emotional connections have been portrayed as less threatening, and there seems to have been a certain indifference to these feminine relationships. Whilst male homosexuality was illegal in Victorian Britain, lesbian relationships did not feature in the law.

As I sit and ponder on my years of experience of working with couples, it strikes me that perhaps I missed something. Perhaps there is an aspect of emotional maturity that isn’t recognised or readily accepted in our western society and doesn’t seem to be explored in any great detail in the therapeutic literature that I have read.

I am thinking specifically about the women in couples whose children are independent and have left home, whose bodies bear the memories of the creation of life, the nurturing and the providing for their family with little time for themselves. I gather together subtleties of comments and explorations I have heard in therapy and reflect on them. Many have expressed an unexplored emotional and sexual need that they themselves have been unaware of. Lacking the time to invest in getting to know how their own bodies work and what they enjoy and don’t enjoy, this has gone unnoticed.

Now, with an emotional maturity gained through life’s experiences, they face the perplexity of knowing others, but not knowing themselves. For these women, allowing themselves to be immersed into the space of tenderness and self-acceptance that is necessary for anyone to truly learn to know themselves, is an unknown and at times scary prospect. They look for something else, something different but do not know what it is. For them it is a choice between remaining unaware and ‘putting up with’ what they have with their husband, or exploring their newly discovered thoughts and emotions and standing the chance of leaving, the risk of losing a friend, their shared history, a house mate, upsetting the family and perhaps having to cope with a changing financial status.

On the other hand, I have seen women in same sex relationships who found each other after their children grew up and left home. I have worked with younger couples where a partner’s mum has joined with another woman and the ensuing struggle of their adult child. Then there have been single mature women who have struggled with the realisation of an attraction they feel for another woman, a feeling that they have never experienced before.

When explored, we realise that this attraction asks for a gentleness, a softness and an understanding that perhaps cannot be achieved in a heterosexual relationship, where a gender gap is about the difference in how men and women express emotions, sexual needs, intimacy and tenderness.

Being aware of and accepting our changing emotional, physical and sexual needs, can be scary in our society where even in this day and age, a relationship break-up is often felt as failure and where we struggle with how to fit homosexuality in to our communities.

While most of us would like to think that we accept anyone’s partner choices, in reality we struggle when our friend, mother, sister or anyone else, ‘comes out’. Just the fact that we need such an expression to me says it all. And then we ask, “when did you discover you were homosexual?” And yet we never ask the question, “when did you discover you were heterosexual?”

To me there seem to be something freeing in being able to love who you love without having to put a label on the act. And exploring our sexuality shouldn’t be tainted with oppressive opinions; after all our sexuality is ours, a big part of our expression and happiness. If gone unexplored do we stand a chance of living a life that fits into societies norms rather than fulfilling our potential to truly love and be loved? Changing partner preferences can be both scary and liberating, though without the conversation, the searching and realisation, some may never experience the feeling of tenderness, of surrender through trust in another and of sinking deeply into the safety of intimate love.

Perhaps some of my client’s past would have benefitted from exploring this in more details, at the time I was too tied up in the heterosexual ideal to realise this needed to be explored. To all my past clients who didn’t get the chance to talk about their longings, I want to apologise. I want to say sorry for my blindness, for my lacking in acceptance and inclusion.

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Psychosexual and relationship therapist. Author of The Essential Companion to Talking Therapy, Watkins Publishing. Tea, cats and travel.

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