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What Is Sexual Inertia?

When you're hot but can't be bothered

Sexual Inertia

Susan Shapiro

Exploring the ups and downs of romance and sexual desire.

En español | Somebody's got to admit it, so I'll go first: There are times when it's simply too much botheration to have sex. Which is saying a lot — or perhaps only a little, given that my fiancé and I are usually lying right beside each other, and the "botheration" would consist of nothing more than turning over!

But the complexities of life after 50 can be exhausting, making it easy to defer sex for a later date when you will have — presumably! — more energy and therefore more interest. The trouble with putting something off for the "moment," of course, is that moments tend to become months.

So how can you overcome sexual inertia? For Susie, a 53-year-old freelance executive assistant, "sex gets postponed for too long" whenever her husband of 32 years, Prent, has to travel a lot for his job. (He's a senior systems architect for a major computer manufacturer.) To draw him out on his return, Susie says, she draws the two of them a hot bath — and breaks out the candles and the Marvin Gaye tapes.

Yet the signals needn't be that overt: "Sometimes I just get out our photo albums, and we go over old memories," Susie says, "like the time we jumped in the same sleeping bag on a camping trip. That puts us in the right mood."

Marcus Gilliland, 42, and his partner, Bret Gerber, 50, report they have "a great sex life" in San Diego, where Marcus recently enrolled in community college to pursue a psychology degree. "But when there are stressful events going on," says Marcus — like final exams — "sex is just the last thing on my mind. It's not that I don't care for Bret, it's just that sex has never been a stress release for me. Instead, we'll use our routines — we take morning walks, for example — to get reconnected. Or we might go to a talk, then discuss it and reconnect in that way, or just cuddle in bed and have that sort of intimacy without pressure. When the door is open to saying no, it can open the door to saying yes."

Not one of the older couples I talked to was surprised by the notion of sexual inertia: "A body at rest tends to stay at rest" indeed! But trouble starts, they said, when one member of the couple mistakes a simple bad habit — lack of sex — for something larger or deeper, such as a lack of desire on the part of their partner or a decline in their own attractiveness to their mate. "I've always been a bit insecure about how attracted my husband is to me," a 70-year-old retired schoolteacher told me. "So when I don't get reassured, I get hurt. Then I get angry, so I don't initiate sex, and things just continue to spiral."

But as with Isaac Newton's famous first law of motion, an "outside force" must "act upon a body at rest" if sexual inertia is to be overcome. And that requires at least one partner to undertake corrective action. In the retired schoolteacher's case, for example, she says, "Sooner or later I tell him I'm hurt. Then he remembers we haven't had sex in a while, and so we do, and then I feel more loving."

In the best-case scenario, your opposite number in a relationship will recognize sexual inertia for what it is — namely, just another casualty of our busy lives. In their 10 years of living together, for example, partners (and fellow lodge caretakers) Joni Collins, 37, and Chad Lyons, 50, have seen their sex lives subverted by any number of stressors: "Busy schedules, kids, jobs, being tired when you get home," says Collins with a laugh. "Lack of sex does not mean lack of interest — you know you still love each other — but it becomes the last thing on your mind. We need to remember that sex is often the other partner's 'love language.' "

Yes, this pronouncement may strike 20-somethings as outlandish, but sometimes sex can simply wait.

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