Spousal relationships, relationship quality and sexual activity in middle and older age

Research into ageing continues to increase in importance, as an ageing society poses both opportunities and challenges. The population aged 65 and over in Ireland is projected to nearly double by 2031 (CSO 2013). Relationships in older age are a recognised as an important source of wellbeing and social support, both of which translate to better overall health. However, they also have the potential to be the source of huge strain. Previous Irish research has shown that reporting poor spousal relationships in the over 50s is associated with higher levels of anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation (Santini et al 2015). A little explored facet of spousal relationships in this age group is sexual activity. While there is increased academic interest in sexuality and sexual activity in middle and older age (Lindau et al 2007; Lee et al 2016; Orr et al 2017),  little is known about how this aspect of life can interact with spousal dynamics.

We used data from 2,398 married or cohabiting participants in The Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing (TILDA) at Wave 2 to assess whether sexual activity and the importance attributed to sex within the couple is associated with relationship quality (Orr et al 2017). TILDA has just completed its fourth wave of data collection, making it an invaluable source of knowledge on the health, social and economic circumstances of Ireland’s middle and older aged population. We found that for both men and women, higher levels of sexual activity are associated with better relationship quality. For women, attributing more importance to sex was also related to higher relationship quality, but this was not also true of men. A high proportion of respondents showed differing views on the importance of sex compared to their spouse or partner (42.9% of men and 16.3% of women attributed more importance to sex than their spouse or partner). Holding differing views to one’s partner regarding the importance of sex was associated with poorer relationship quality for both men and women.

Other recent work from our team at TILDA has demonstrated that sex remains an important part of life for a majority of those aged 50 and over, including a substantial proportion of those aged 75 and over (56% of men and 21% of women) (Orr et al 2017). It was also shown that sexual activity is strongly linked to marital and relationship status, with those who have a partner being more likely to be sexually active. Our current work has shown that sexual activity is an important part of life as a couple for many adults aged 50 and over in Ireland. It has also shown that being mismatched in the importance attributed to sex with one’s partner is associated with poorer reported relationship quality. This could be reflecting heightened quarrelling or disagreement stemming from conflicting sexual needs within the couple. Better communication on issues regarding sexual activity could go some way in helping couples navigate changes in sexual desire and sexual functioning, which are common in middle and older age. Heightened awareness of sexuality in older age and challenging negative stereotypes of ageing could be useful both for communication within couples, and also in empowering individuals to seek help from a medical professional if encountering limitations to sexual functioning which have a negative effect on their wellbeing. Research into sexuality in middle and older age has shown that age does not determine sexuality, and that sexual activity remains an important part of life and relationships for many in this age group.

For an abstract and link to the full article, see https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28444243

For more information on the TILDA study, see https://tilda.tcd.ie/. Access to TILDA data is available on application through https://www.ucd.ie/issda/data/tilda/.


Ms. Joanna Orr,

The Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing (TILDA), Trinity College Dublin, Ireland.