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Relationship intimacy, sexual distress, and help-seeking for sexual problems among older European couples: a hybrid dyadic approach


There is evidence that emotional intimacy can buffer the distress associated with sexual difficulties. Considering that older adults are at an increased risk of chronic illness, many of which (including their medical treatment) can impact their sexual well-being, the link between intimacy and sexual distress may be particularly relevant for older couples. To start bridging the gap in our understanding of the links between older couples’ emotional intimacy, distress about sexual function, and seeking professional help for sexuality-related issues, the current study used a 4-country sample with 218 Norwegian, 207 Danish, 135 Belgian, and 117 Portuguese couples aged 60–75 years. Two hypotheses were explored with a hybrid dyadic analysis: (1) a couple’s emotional intimacy is negatively related to partner’s distress about sexual function, but (2) positively associated with their help-seeking for sexual health issues. Less than 10% of participants in the current study reported seeking professional help, with the majority reporting their primary care physician as the contacted person. Couples’ emotional intimacy was consistently (and negatively) associated with female partners’ sexual distress across countries, but was unrelated to help-seeking for sexual problems. The findings illustrate the role of shared emotional intimacy in older women’s distress about sexual function, but also indicate that older couples characterized by high intimacy should not be assumed to seek professional help for sexually related issues more readily than other couples.

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Fig. 1


  1. The term effect is not used to indicate a causal link, but to distinguish between partner’s contributions.

  2. The questionnaire was developed in English and translated into the four languages by members of an international research team.

  3. Ten categories (social worker, nurse, primary care physician, secondary care physician, physiotherapist, psychologist, psychotherapist, sex therapist…) were listed, including “other”.

  4. Considering the likely association between sexual distress and age, as well as the observation that sexual distress is directly related to seeking help (see [8]), the behavior is probably substantially less common among older compared with younger individuals.


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The Research Council of Norway fully funded the study (grant 250637 awarded to the last author).

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Correspondence to Aleksandar Štulhofer.

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Štulhofer, A., Hinchliff, S. & Træen, B. Relationship intimacy, sexual distress, and help-seeking for sexual problems among older European couples: a hybrid dyadic approach. Int J Impot Res 32, 525–534 (2020).

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