Middle-aged, unattached man wants sex but not intimacy

Dear Dr Milrod:

My issue is one of being turned on more by the hunt/chase of the opposite sex rather than the actual act of sex. I have a hard time getting into serious long-term relationships, not because I don’t want to be in them, but for a reason I can’t quite understand. When people initially meet and begin to date, there is that mutual attraction between them with the flirting, the teasing, and the posibility of the unknown. A few dates go by and things become more and more physical – you finally have sex. Say the two of you decide that this is the beginning of a relationship that neither of you expected, but you feel like it could be something you both could enjoy, so you go for it. For me this is where the problem begins. Things start to go sour, and the whole thing eventually implodes and you both go your separate ways. It’s a rut I can’t get out of; there is nothing else for me. Should I start over with someone else? It sure feels like it.

Geoff, 42

Dear Geoff,

I would suspect that many, many people in the Western world share your feelings and your concerns. In today’s day and age, what is really required from all of us in the relationship arena? We definitely don’t need each other to have children – you can fix that with adoption, inseminations, single biological parenthood, etc. We also don’t need to stay together for financial reasons. The subsistence farms are long gone, women have their own financial resources, and theoretically, you could stay inside of your own four walls 24 hours/day and still be a functioning member of society, should you so desire.

In agrarian civilizations, people still depend on extended families to survive. We don’t even depend on the nuclear family to stay alive. And that’s my point. Our impetus for “banding together” is gone. Now being partnered is called “a choice.” So the push isn’t quite there. I believe that whole skewing toward singlehood, at least in the larger metropolitan areas, has profoundly changed our relationship dynamics. Yes, we still have our sex drives to contend with and satisfy, but the ‘cost’ to do so in terms of financial and emotional sacrifices has greatly lessened. Imagine the post-war 1950s: frequently, heterosexuals got married right out of high school or during the first years of college. Women often dropped out to support their husbands through graduation. Divorce really didn’t come around until after the launch of the Pill in the 1960s. Hence, the ‘value’ of a relationship was high and real. But what does it mean in terms of cost-benefit ratio to you?

Perhaps what you need to assess within yourself is your motivation to have a lasting relationship at all. Is it necessary for you emotionally? Financially? What are your views of women? And finally and most importantly: Are you willing to make the sacrifices and compromises required to make a relationship work?

From a purely biological standpoint, our bodies are constructed in a most ingenious way. We are designed to procreate, and neurotransmitters and hormones are built into our systems to ensure precisely that. So when you first meet someone, your dopamine receptors act in certain ways – interestingly, if you really ‘fall’ for someone, you experience a dopamine deficiency when you’re not together – the levels of phenylethylalanine (PEA) rise in your brain, inducing all sorts of pleasurable, lust-filled feelings…and that goes on for about a year to 18 months. And suddenly it’s gone! One of the reasons for the presence of these brain chemicals is to induce us to engage in sexual procreative activities as much as possible so that an impregnation will take place, and a little consequence will pop out in due time. But when the brain chemicals are gone – and they will be, even in the most determined, love-crazed human being – then reality sets in. And reality is frequently boring and uninteresting. Your partner smells sometimes. Your partner has nothing to say, or even says irritating things. S/he used to sound so cute, remember? Now the person snores, has PMS, bad breath, bad taste, you name it. That is the “sour” part. And that’s when most ‘in-love’ junkies check out. Why should they stay on if there’s no real need? Now, those who can tolerate the pain and disappointment of realizing that their partner is human and still stick with him/her, their reward is the experience of reciprocated, deepened human emotion. It’s not “sex,” but it may be “love.”

Love is comprised of many conscious acts – many sacrifices, many compromises, many decisions that are not fun, or remotely have to do with what we popularly think of as “love.” And in that sense, it is work. But if you plug away at it with dedication and belief, you may glimpse “lifelong intimacy” and enjoy a lasting bond with another human being.

Many of these existential questions start showing up on the radar screen when we reach middle age and begin to take stock of our lives. There are also studies that consistently show that married men live longer, are healthier and generally more pleased with their lives than unmarried ones. For some older men, the reality of being unattached can bring on unexpected issues. Once those levels of testosterone die down, once the thrill is gone, the chase is over, some experience emptiness inside. Perhaps it is the missing intimacy that shines through. This does not necessarily represent a major tragedy – it becomes more like a lingering melancholy and wistfulness over long lost conquests or The One That Got Away. This is when many men either throw themselves frantically into a last stab at being swinging bachelors, or, they bite the bullet and try to live with some realistic choices. So you need to ask yourself some questions and then give yourself some honest answers.

Christine Milrod, PhD

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