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Can Sexual Preference Change With Age?

Research shows attraction can be fluid when love is involved

Two happy women, Sexual Reorientation

Researchers are discovering that a person's sexual orientation is not carved in stone — Istock

En español | Sometimes a person's life undergoes such a radical transformation that the change was inconceivable before it occurred. One such gobsmacking event happens when you unexpectedly fall in love with someone who never would have pinged your "relationship radar" before. If a homosexual (or heterosexual) thought has never crossed your mind, for example, it can be doubly astonishing when — wham! — you suddenly find yourself attracted to someone of an entirely new gender.

That may sound unlikely, but as researchers are discovering, a person's sexual orientation is not carved in stone. In her influential book Sexual Fluidity, psychology professor Lisa M. Diamond chronicled her research on 80 nonheterosexual women over a period of 10 years. During that time, Diamond discovered, a significant number of the women had reported changing their sexual orientation. The most frequent cause for the U-turn? The "switchers" had fallen in love with a member of the opposite sex.

These women were not unhappy being lesbians, but love, it seems, really can conquer all — including a person's lifelong sexual orientation up to the moment when she falls hard for someone of a previously ignored gender.

The research on men shows somewhat less flexibility. But Diamond and other researchers have compiled numerous case studies of gay men who spent years feeling (and acting) fully and comfortably homosexual, only then to fall unexpectedly in love with a heterosexual woman.

Recently, I interviewed two people who went through this sexual upheaval late in life themselves. Both said they had never even considered falling in love with someone of the same — or opposite — gender until they reached their 50s or 60s. Only at that relatively late stage in life did they undergo startling 180-degree turns in their sexual orientation. (While the facts of each case are accurate, I've used pseudonyms at the subjects' request.)

Violet — a tall, striking woman of 60 with snow-white hair — had never married, but she had enjoyed major love affairs with men. Intensely dedicated to her career, she became a TV executive at age 40. After her last relationship with a man ended in her 40s, Violet says she "gave up on love."

Then she met Susan.

A marketing expert, Susan was in a pleasant but not passionate heterosexual marriage at the time. She valued her extended family — husband, two children and their spouses, and four grandchildren — more than anything else. Susan had never been unfaithful. She had never been attracted to another woman. But from the moment she and Violet began working together on a project, sparks flew, shocking both women. A physical relationship of 12 years ensued.

When Violet finally admitted to herself that the two women would never enjoy a fully realized partnership, she ended the relationship. (Susan's husband knew about his wife's involvement and tolerated it, but neither he nor Susan was willing to jeopardize their close-knit family relations.) Violet loved Susan with all her heart, but she did not define herself as gay in the wake of the affair — nor has she become involved in another same-sex relationship since. Her "sexual turnaround" applied to Susan and Susan alone.

Ned had been gay his entire adult life. Though he had a few sexual relationships with women in high school, he never thought of himself as heterosexual or even bisexual: Ned liked women, but he loved men.

When he was 29, Ned fell deeply in love with Gerry, a man 10 years older. They remained a couple for 23 years, which included getting married in 2008, the year California first permitted same-sex unions. Like most spouses, Ned and Gerry had their ups and downs, but they always considered their marriage rock-solid.

Then, turmoil: Gerry was falsely accused of improprieties at work. Eventually, he was exonerated, but Gerry's legal defense took a toll — both personally and financially — on the couple. To help restock their coffers, Ned entered graduate school, where he started spending a lot of time with fellow students. Before long, he had fallen deeply in love with one of them, a woman named Elsa.

Gerry was naturally stunned when Ned asked him for a divorce. The split unfolded amicably enough, but Gerry saw Ned's actions as inconceivable and unexplainable. Within a year Ned and Elsa were married and had a baby daughter; their marriage remains strong today.

These stories are unusual, but they are not unique. They point up how imperfectly behavioral scientists understand what attracts us to a certain person at one time in our lives, but to a completely different kind of person at another. Violet and Ned add two more bits of anecdotal evidence to our dawning understanding that many of us possess more sexual flexibility than we ever knew.

Dr. Pepper Schwartz answers your sex, relationships and dating questions in her blog.


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