Module 2 - Relationships and Intimacy

Marcel Plechaty, Frieder Lang


Introduction and description

As developmental theories acknowledge, one of the central tasks of early adulthood is to build and maintain close personal relationships that entail intimacy. Newer approaches in developmental psychology and life span science emphasise the life-long processes related to close personal relationships from birth to death. In this vein, there is much evidence that social motives, preferences, and needs change across adulthood in response to age-specific and environmental opportunities. One consequence is that intimacy, closeness and emotional exchanges in personal relationships alter in later phases of adulthood.

In most European countries, a diversity of new forms of partnership and romantic relationships has evolved over the past decades. In the first half of the 20th century, traditional marriage constituted a prevailing model of romantic partnerships. In particular for younger woman there was hardly an alternative to marriage or singlehood. Today, in contra

Module code: INTA104
Module Category: Modules in English
CC - Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives
CC - Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives

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The development of older people is individually different. Indeed, this group shows more differentiation/individualisation when compared with earlier phases of life and is thus a less homogeneous group. Nonetheless, social relationships in later life are often subject to two stereotypes that are still deeply entrenched in public discourses. First, the notion of a crumbling of social and familial generational solidarity, second, "loneliness in later life" as a subject for negative images related to old age.

Sexuality in the third age calls for a broader understanding of the meaning of sex. For instance, sexual activities beyond sexual intercourse can be more important here, such as masturbation or caressing each other. Sexuality in later life is determined by biological (physical state), psychological (cognitive efficiency, personality, behaviour), social (social relations, partnership, family), and ecological/contextual (housing conditions, infrastructure, finances) factors (Gatterer 1994). Nonetheless, sexuality amongst older people, especially older women, is often a taboo subject. In part, because in western society, where there is a tendency toward a view of “eternal” youth and thus there is often a “double standard of ageing”. This frequently means that women – more so than men – are sooner regarded as unattractive, old and asexual. Yet, for older people sexuality is a pleasurable, rewarding and enriching experience. This can mean that the views of an individual, group or society can often be formed around contradictions, frequently as a result of ignorance.

Homosexuality means a sexual orientation where the erotic and romantic desire is mainly directed to persons of the same sex. The respective identities are lesbian or gay. Gay is the synonym for male, lesbian for female homosexuality. The sexual orientation of a human is part of their personality and identity. In spite of growing acceptance of homosexuality, many older lesbian women and gay men still lead a social double life.

In the course of a relationship intimacy and distance must be balanced again and again, especially if relations change, for instance, due to a new event in life. One common such life event is retirement. At retirement the existing roles at home and in a partnership must be adapted or organised anew. Other changes in life due to increasing age, such as ill-health or the loss of the partner, children moving out or changes of domicile usually also entail alterations in relationships.



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This project has been funded with support from the European Commission. This publication reflects the views only of the author, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein