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Don’t Let a Checkered Past Checkmate Your Dating

A survivor of 4 marriages asks if he should try explaining his past to new partners

Pepper Schwartz Column: Multiple Divorces and Sex After Age 80

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16 percent of American adults have had more than two marriages.

En español | Q: I’m not proud of the fact that I’ve been divorced four times. Is there anything I can do to lessen the impact of that history on a new relationship?

A: Yes, there is: You can stop beating yourself up about it. For starters, you’re in plentiful company: 16 percent of American adults have had more than two marriages.

Prospective partners might not be aware of that statistic, however, so here’s a three-step action plan to mitigate the effect of your rich marital résumé.

  • Emphasize that these relationships happened then, not now. Unless divorce No. 4 took place in the last year or two, you can rightly argue that you’ve changed: either in how you act or whom you pick — or both. You are a better version of yourself now than you were when the breakups occurred.
  • Explain the circumstances of each split; this will help any potential new partner understand them. My thrice-married friend, for example, got married at 20 and quickly became pregnant, only to watch her young husband walk out because he didn’t want to be a father. Ten years later she remarried, this time to a truly great guy — who, eight years later, discovered he was gay. Finally, in her mid-40s, she married a third time. Her husband, 10 years older, tragically died from early dementia not long after. I’m not saying your story is quite that dramatic. I’m simply noting that many marriages end for reasons that have nothing to do with a frivolous or destructive approach to commitment.
  • Own up to whatever part you played in the demise of a relationship, and explain why you believe that could never happen again. If, for example, you had a drinking problem, talk about how you became sober. If you made a string of bad choices, explain why you are no longer susceptible to such impulsive behavior.

The fact is, we do learn and grow over the course of our lives, and we have the right to be judged not for who we were but for who we are. Be honest and reflective about your past, and provide concrete details about how you have changed for the better. A worthy partner will respect the fact that you have gained valuable insights, are willing to share your past history and still believe in the possibility of love and commitment.

Q: Nobody ever discusses the need for sexual satisfaction for single people in their 80s. We all know there are ways, but it is never discussed or admitted, and I’m damn sick of it. Some of us still get horny, you know.

A: You are completely right, of course — and I hope you’ll accept my apology for having paid inadequate attention to the sexual needs of older singles.

Sexual desire does not go away just because someone passes a certain chronological milestone, yet at least one major study shows a drop in sexual frequency and satisfaction after 70, especially for men. The reasons for this are many. They may be medical, physical, psychological or even demographic — that is, a shortage of available partners of similar age. So if dating or mating opportunities are slim and a person is loath to masturbate, horniness happens.

Speaking of which, masturbation — which provides sexual release for people of all ages — is a good way to solve the problem you describe. Regrettably, it carries something of a stigma or taboo for a few men and a significant number of women. Honestly, I don’t know how anyone can resist it, but research tells us they do.

Yet that is hardly the sole option for older singles, notably those who live in a nursing home or an assisted living community. Several medical and behavioral science articles have been written on senior booty calls — that is, nonexclusive and casual “dating” arrangements among the older residents of a group-living situation. Could that be why Sun City, Ariz., is sometimes jokingly referred to as Sin City?

Although I thoroughly deplore it, I have to acknowledge the societal prejudice surrounding sex after 80. I’m not sure why, but the image of the randy grandmother seems to trouble some people even more than the mental image of their parents having sex.

Yes, it can be daunting to consider the amount of work we still must do to persuade people that sex is natural and desirable at any age. The basic human need for sexual satisfaction extends to millions more than those with youthful bodies.

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