Sexuality is a key component of health and functioning that changes with age. Although most sexual activity takes place with a partner, the majority of research on sexuality has focused on individuals. In this paper, we focused on the sexual dyad. We proposed and tested a conceptual model of the predictors of partnered sexual activity in older adulthood. This model began with the personality of each of the partners, which affects individuals’ views of sex and characteristics of the partnership, which in turn affected sexual expression in the couple. We measured a key feature of personality, Positivity, which reflected the individual’s tendency to present his or herself positively in social situations. This trait, we posited, increased frequency of sex through increased desire for sex, and the subjective importance of sex to each member of the couple. In this model, Positivity also impacted characteristics of the relationship that promoted dyadic sexual behavior. These processes differed for men and women in the model. We tested this model with data from the National Social Life, Health and Aging Project, which conducted personal interviews with both partners in 940 American dyads (average male age 72; average female age 69). We found that couples in which the husbands’ (but not wives’) were high in Positivity show higher levels of sexual activity, and that this association was partially mediated by dimensions of relationship quality, but more so by individual factors such as thinking about sex and believing sex is important.
This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Price includes VAT for USA
Subscribe to journal
Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.
This is the net price. Taxes to be calculated in checkout.
Ambler, D. R., Bieber, E. J., & Diamond, M. P. (2012). Sexual function in elderly women: A review of current literature. Reviews in Obstetrics & Gynecology, 5(1), 16–27.
Avis, N. E., Brockwell, S., Randolph, J. F., Shen, S., Cain, V. S., Ory, M., … Greendale, G. A. (2009). Longitudinal changes in sexual functioning as women transition through menopause: Results from the Study of Women’s Health Across the Nation (SWAN). Menopause, 16(3), 442–452.
Baron, R. M., & Kenny, D. A. (1986). The moderator–mediator variable distinction in social psychological research: Conceptual, strategic, and statistical considerations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 51(6), 1173–1182.
Basson, R. (2005). Women’s sexual dysfunction: Revised and expanded definitions. Canadian Medical Association Journal, 172(10), 1327–1333.
Basson, R., Leiblum, S., Brotto, L., Derogatis, L., Fourcroy, J., Fugl-Meyer, K., … Schultz, W. W. (2004). Revised definitions of women’s sexual dysfunction. Journal of Sexual Medicine, 1(1), 40–48.
Birnbaum, G. E. (2007). Attachment orientations, sexual functioning, and relationship satisfaction in a community sample of women. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 24(1), 21–35.
Brown, S. L., & Kawamura, S. (2010). Relationship quality among cohabitors and marrieds in older adulthood. Social Science Research, 39(5), 777–786.
Bullivant, S. B., Sellergren, S. A., Stern, K., Spencer, N. A., Jacob, S., Mennella, J. A., & McClintock, M. K. (2004). Women’s sexual experience during the menstrual cycle: Identification of the sexual phase by noninvasive measurement of luteinizing hormone. Journal of Sex Research, 41(1), 82–93.
Chang, L., Connelly, B., & Geeza, A. (2012). Separating method factors and higher-order traits of the Big Five: A meta-analytic multitrait-multimethod approach. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 102(2), 408–426.
Corona, G., Lee, D. M., Forti, G., O’Connor, D. B., Maggi, M., O’Neilli, T. W., … EMAS Study Group. (2010). Age-related changes in general and sexual health in middle-aged and older men: Results from the European Male Ageing Study (EMAS). Journal of Sexual Medicine, 7, 1362–1380.
Corona, G., Rastrelli, G., Maseroli, E., Forti, G., & Maggi, M. (2012). Sexual function of the ageing male. Best Practice and Research Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, 27, 581–601.
Davis, D., Shaver, P. R., & Vernon, M. L. (2004). Attachment style and subjective motivations for sex. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 30(8), 1076–1090.
DeLamater, J. (2012). Sexual expression in later life: A review and synthesis. Journal of Sex Research, 49, 125–141.
DeLamater, J., Hyde, J. S., & Fong, M.-C. (2008). Sexual satisfaction in the seventh decade of life. Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy, 34, 439–454.
DiStephano, C., & Motl, R. W. (2009). Pesonality correlates of method effects due to negatively worded items on the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale. Personality and Individual Differences, 46(3), 309–313.
Enders, C. K., & Bandalos, D. L. (2001). The relative performance of Full Information Maximum Likelihood estimation for missing data in structural equation models. Structural Equation Modeling, 8(3), 430–457.
Erdle, S., & Rushton, J. P. (2011). Does self-esteem or social desirability account for a general factor of personality (GFP) in the Big Five? Personality and Individual Differences, 50, 1152–1154.
Eysenck, H. J. (1977). Personality and sexual adjustment. British Journal of Psychiatry, 118, 593–608.
Eysenck, H. J., & Wakefield, J. A. (1981). Psychological factors as predictors of marital satisfaction. Advances in Behaviour Research and Therapy, 3, 151–192.
Fisher, W. A., Donahue, K. L., Long, J. S., Heiman, J. R., & Rosen, R. C. (2015). Individual and partner correlates of sexual satisfaction and relationship happiness in midlife couples: Dyadic analysis of the International Survey of Relationships. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 44(6), 1609–1620.
Galinsky, A. M. (2012). Sexual touching and difficulties with sexual arousal and orgasm among U.S. older adults. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 41(4), 875–890.
Galinsky, A. M., McClintock, M. K., & Waite, L. J. (2014). Sexuality and physical contact in National Social Life, Health, and Aging Project Wave 2. Journals of Gerontology, 69(Suppl. 2), S83–98.
Galinsky, A. M., & Waite, L. J. (2014). Sexual activity and psychological health as mediators of the relationship between physical health and marital quality. Journals of Gerontology Series B, 69(3), 482–492.
Galinsky, A., Waite, L. J., & McClintock, M. K. (2014). Sexual interest and motivation, sexual behavior and physical contact in NSHAP Wave 2. Journals of Gerontology Series B, 69(Suppl. 2), S83–98.
Gott, M., & Hinchliff, S. (2003). How important is sex in later life? The views of older people. Social Science and Medicine, 56, 1617–1628.
Graziano, W. G., & Tobin, R. M. (2002). Agreeableness: Dimension of personality or social desirability artifact? Journal of Personality, 70(5), 695–728.
Gute, G., & Eshbaugh, E. M. (2008). Personality as a predictor of hooking up among college students. Journal of Community Health Nursing, 25(1), 26–43.
Heiman, J. R., Long, J. S., Smith, S. N., Fisher, W. A., Sand, M. S., & Rosen, R. C. (2011). Sexual satisfaction and relationship happiness in midlife and older couples in five countries. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 40, 741–753.
Impett, E. A., & Peplau, L. A. (2003). Sexual compliance: Gender, motivational, and relationship perspectives. Journal of Sex Research, 40(1), 87–100.
Iveniuk, J., Laumann, E. O., McClintock, M. K., Tiedt, A., & Waite, L. J. (2014a). Personality measures in the National Social Life, Health and Aging Project. Journals of Gerontology Series B, 69(8), S117–S124.
Iveniuk, J., Waite, L. J., Laumann, E. O., McClintock, M. K., & Tiedt, A. D. (2014b). Marital conflict in older couples: Positivity, personality and health. Journal of Marriage and Family, 76(1), 130–144.
John, O. P., Naumann, L. P., & Soto, C. J. (2008). Paradigm shift to the integrative Big Five trait taxonomy: History, measurement and conceptual issues. In O. P. John, R. W. Robins, & L. A. Pervin (Eds.), Handbook of personality: Theory and research (pp. 114–158). New York: The Guilford Press.
Karraker, A., & DeLamater, J. (2013). Past-year sexual inactivity among older married persons and their partners. Journal of Marriage and Family, 75(1), 142–163.
Karraker, A., DeLamater, J., & Schwartz, C. R. (2011). Sexual frequency decline from midlife to later life. Journals of Gerontology Series B, 66B(4), S02–S12.
Kim, J., & Waite, L. J. (2014). Relationship quality and shared activity in marital and cohabiting dyads in the National Social Life, Health, and Aging Project, Wave 2. Journals of Gerontology, 69(Suppl. 2), S64–74.
Lachman, M. E., & Weaver, S. L. (1997). The Midlife Development Inventory (MIDI) personality scales: Scale construction and scoring. Technical Report.
Laumann, E. O., Das, A., & Waite, L. J. (2008). Sexual dysfunction among older adults: Prevalence and risk factors from a nationally representative US probability sample of men and women 57–85 years of age prevalence. Journal of Sexual Medicine, 5(10), 2300–2311.
Lindau, S. T., & Gavrilova, N. (2010). Sex, health, and years of sexual active life gained due to good health: Evidence from two US population based cross sectional surveys of ageing. British Medical Journal, 340, C810.
Lindau, S. T., Laumann, E. O., Levinson, W., & Waite, L. J. (2003). Synthesis of scientific disciplines in pursuit of health: The interactive biopsychosocial model. Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, 46(3 Suppl.), S74–86.
Lindau, S., Levinson, W., O’Muircheartaigh, C., Schumm, P., & Waite, L. (2007a). A national, population-based study of sexuality at older ages in the United States. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Population Association of America.
Lindau, S. T., Schumm, L. P., Laumann, E. O., Levinsion, W., O’Muircheartaigh, C. A., & Waite, L. J. (2007b). A study of sexuality and health among older adults in the United States. New England Journal of Medicine, 357(8), 762–774.
Lodge, A. C., & Umberson, D. (2012). All shook up: Sexuality of mid- to later life married couples. Journal of Marriage and Family, 74(3), 428–443.
Malouff, J. M., Thorsteinsson, E. B., Schutte, N. S., Bhullar, N., & Rooke, S. E. (2010). The five-factor model of personality and relationship satisfaction of intimate partners: A meta-analysis. Journal of Research in Personality, 44(1), 124–127.
Musek, J. (2007). A general factor of personality: Evidence for the Big One in the five-factor model. Journal of Research in Personality, 41(6), 1213–1233.
O’Muircheartaigh, C., English, N., Pedlow, S., & Kwok, P. K. (2014). Sample design, sample augmentation, and estimation for Wave 2 of the NSHAP. Journals of Gerontology, 69(Suppl. 2), S15–S26.
Palacios-Ceña, D., Carrasco-Garrido, P., Hernandez-Barrera, V., Alonso-Blanco, C., Jimenez-Garcia, R., & Fernandez-de-las-Peñas, C. (2012). Sexual behaviors among older adults in Spain: Results from a population-based national sexual health survey. Journal of Sexual Medicine, 9(1), 121–129.
Payne, C., Hedberg, E. C., Kozloski, M., Dale, W., & McClintock, M. K. (2014). Using and interpreting mental health measures in the National Social Life, Health, and Aging Project. Journals of Gerontology, 69(Suppl. 2), S99–116.
Peplau, L. A. (2003). Human sexuality: How do men and women differ? Current Directions in Psychological Science, 12(2), 37–40.
Schmitt, D. P., & Shackelford, T. K. (2008). Big Five traits related to short-term mating: From personality to promiscuity across 46 nations. Evolutionary Psychology, 6, 246–282.
Soto, C. J., John, O. P., Gosling, S. D., & Potter, J. (2011). Age differences in personality traits from 10 to 65: Big Five domains and facets in a large cross-sectional sample. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 100(2), 330–348.
Syme, M. L. (2014). The evolving concept of older adult sexual behavior and its benefits. Generations, 38(1), 35–41.
Turiano, N. A., Pitzer, L., Armour, C., Karlamangala, A., Ryff, C. D., & Mroczek, D. K. (2012). Personality trait level and change as predictors of health outcomes: Findings from a national study of Americans (MIDUS). Journals of Gerontology Series B, 67B(1), 4–12.
Ullman, J. B., & Bentler, P. M. (2003). Structural equation modeling. In I. B. Weiner, J. A. Schinka, & W. F. Velicer (Eds.), Handbook of psychology (Vol. 2, pp. 607–634). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
Van der Linden, D., Scholte, R. H. J., Cillessen, A. H. N., te Neijenhuis, J., & Segers, E. (2010). Classroom ratings of likeability and popularity are related to the Big Five and the general factor of personality. Journal of Research in Personality, 44, 669–672.
Vasilopoulos, T., Kotwal, A., Huisingh-Scheetz, M. J., & Waite, L. J. (2014). Comorbidity and chronic conditions in the National Social Life, Health and Aging Project (NSHAP) Wave 2. Journals of Gerontology, 69(Suppl. 2), S154–S165.
Waite, L. J., Cagney, K., Dale, W., Huang, E., Laumann, E. O., McClintock, M., & Cornwell, B. (2014). National Social Life, Health, and Aging Project (NSHAP): Wave 2 and Partner Data Collection. Ann Arbor, MI: Interuniversity Consortium for Political and Social Research [distributor]. doi:10.3886/ICPSR34921.v1.
Waite, L. J., Laumann, E. O., Das, A., & Schumm, L. P. (2009). Sexuality: measures of partnerships, practices, attitudes, and problems in the National Social Life, Health, and Aging Study. Journals of Gerontology, 64(Suppl. 1), i56–66.
Warner, D. F., & Kelley-Moore, J. (2012). The social context of disablement among older adults: Does marital quality matter for loneliness? Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 53(1), 50–66.
Williams, S. R., Pham-Kanter, G., & Leitsch, S. A. (2009). Measures of chronic conditions and diseases associated with aging in the National Social Life, Health, and Aging Project. Journals of Gerontology, 64B(Suppl. 1), i67–i75.
Zietsch, B. P., Verweij, K. J. H., Bailey, J. M., Wright, M. J., & Martin, N. G. (2010). Genetic and environmental influences on risky sexual behavior and its relationship with personality. Behavior Genetics, 40(1), 12–21.
This research was supported by funding from the National Institutes of Health, including the National Institute on Aging (R37AG030481; R01AG033903; T32AG000243; P30AG012857).
About this article
Cite this article
Waite, L.J., Iveniuk, J., Laumann, E.O. et al. Sexuality in Older Couples: Individual and Dyadic Characteristics. Arch Sex Behav 46, 605–618 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-015-0651-9
- Older adults
- Sexual activity
- Dyadic data
- National Social Life, Health and Aging Project