How sex and love change with age
Love and sex are two of the most universal experiences on the planet – but how we experience them varies hugely, not least according to our age. Most of us have felt that heady, lustful rush of a first crush. A smaller number of us get to experience the kind of lifelong love and companionship that endures half a century or more. But how do our experiences of love and sex change as we grow older, and what do romance and intimacy look like at the various different stages of life?
As young people, there's no getting away from the fact that hormones and social pressures play a massive role in our experiences, and expectations, of love and sex. For all their awkwardness, early sexual encounters tend to be passionate, hot and horny – ruled by lust, hormones, and a desire to experiment.
Increasingly, younger people's first encounters with sex are detached from the emotional pressures of love and relationships. Sex in your teens and early twenties is often as much about self-discovery as it is about bonding. At this stage in your life, sex can simply be about enjoying your sexual freedom, testing out different partners and techniques, and exploring your desires, turn-ons and turn-offs.
In love, too, our early experiences can be especially intense and emotionally charged. First love tends to be characterised by feelings of infatuation, and the thrill of getting to know someone intimately for the first time. Neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine go into overdrive when we're falling in love, producing those emotional whirlwinds and butterflies inside our brains and bodies.
As we fall in love, the chemical oxytocin – commonly known as the bonding hormone – kicks in, and sex becomes a more intimate act, helping to build a strong bond between you and your partner. Which isn't to say that sex necessarily becomes any loss hot and steamy, just more intimate and loving. As you get to know each other more and more, inside and out, your physical intimacy will also increase as you learn what makes each other tick (or moan!)
Later in life, things tend to settle down – although, this of course also varies depending on the duration of your relationship. For many people, moving into their 30s and 40s means settling into the more comfortable stages of a long-term relationship: buying a house, getting married, planning for the future.
Love may establish itself into a more everyday stage – with a focus on friendship, companionship, and domestic life becoming the most important element of your relationship, and sex taking a more secondary role. Particularly after having children, many couples find the dynamics of their relationship shift – their priorities, their schedules, and of course their libidos.
Navigating parenthood, as well as the mid-life career pressures that typically coincide, means many couples need to redefine intimacy in their relationships, adapting their romantic and sexual lives to fit the needs of family life. After many years together, relationships may also begin to feel predictable and routine – following the same daily and weekly patterns when it comes to romance and seduction. It may be a time when you need to make that extra bit of effort to spice things up in the bedroom – or it may simply be the time to prioritise other aspects of your relationship for a while.
As children grow up, become more self-sufficient, and move away, many couples enter the empty nest phase of their relationship. The kids moving out can act as a second honeymoon, providing a newfound opportunity to enjoy yourselves and each other as a couple again – whether that's taking advantage of holidays as pair, or rediscovering the sex lives you enjoyed earlier on in your relationship.
For other couples, reaching mid-life can unearth cracks in your relationship that you'd been glossing over. If children or your careers have taken too much priority over your relationship, you might be left with feelings of boredom and dissatisfaction at this stage in your love life.
This can be a particularly challenging time to 'start from scratch' when it comes to love and sex – whether that's rebuilding your existing relationship, or separating and re-entering the dating world as an older adult. Depending on where you're at, love and sex during this stage can be given a whole new lease of life, continue to be comfortable and companionable, or it can be wrought with the excitement, lust, anxiety and challenges of meeting someone new.
The good news is it's widely believed that sex in your 50s and 60s is the best you'll ever have – notwithstanding the physical barriers presented by the menopause! If you're starting over, you get the thrill of lusting after and getting to know someone new, exploring and experimenting with each other's needs and desires.
Meanwhile, in a long-term relationship that's entering the empty nest phase, it's a time to enjoy your freedom with the person you've known intimately for many decades – you both know what each other wants, and you're pretty well practised by now. And, despite the common myth that sex lives dwindle into old age, studies show that many couples remain sexually active into their 70s, 80s, and beyond.