Writer and broadcaster

I’m anxious about having sex with new women. The Guardian.

Dear Annalisa

I’m a divorced man of 56. I’ve been on my own for two years and am only now dipping my toe back in the dating game. While I feel I can cope with how things have moved on and have no trouble with online dating, the main thing that worries me is the sex.

I was with my wife for 26 years but the marriage began to wind down after our only son left home for university and she threw herself more and more into her career. We rubbed along but after two more years she was offered a high-powered job in another country. I wasn’t ready to abandon my elderly parents or my own (slightly less glamorous) job. It was the final straw.

As she was so readily able to walk away from me, my self-confidence has taken a beating. We had a reasonably good sex life on and off over the years but my fear is that I won’t be able to perform well enough with someone new. With my wife, I knew what she liked and she wasn’t shy about letting me know what she wanted. But with a new woman? I’m not so sure it won’t be an embarrassing disaster. I suppose you could call it performance anxiety. It almost makes me want to stay single.

Well, you can stay single. There’s no imperative to have a relationship. You are still young (although even if you were older, you don’t have to be in a relationship) and have plenty of time on your side before you jump into another relationship. Two years is a relatively short time after nearly three decades of marriage.

I’m sorry to hear your marriage ended. I was interested in you saying how your wife was “readily” able to walk away, as if it was a decision she made in a moment, but it sounds as if things had been building up for some time from what you say – about how the marriage had “wound down” and you “rubbed along”. So it sounds as if the job was a way out for her, but out of something that had been unsatisfactory – it sounds – for both of you for some time.

I consulted Chris Mills, a psychotherapist and family mediator who specialises in relationships. “The first thing that jumped out at me,” he says, “is that you see sex as a performance and it’s a performance for your partner.”

But he also says that you need to communicate what your fears are to any prospective girlfriend, otherwise, if things don’t go according to plan, that may lead to misunderstandings and “she may think there’s something wrong with her”.

Do you want to date or just have sex? You can do whatever you want as long as you are open and honest

Mills also thinks your letter is all about what made your wife happy sexually, and what might make a future partner happy. “What makes you happy? What do you want? You’re going to have to work out what it is you want and like, and I wonder if you are struggling with creating intimacy? Maybe thinking of it as a performance acts as a barrier to actually getting close to someone.”

Intimacy and sex, as I’ve said before, can be entirely different things.

Do you want to date or just have sex? The great thing is, you can do whatever you want as long as you are open and honest with yourself and anyone you meet.

With regard to performance anxiety, we weren’t sure if you meant being shy about sex with a new woman or were worried about erectile dysfunction, which is not at all uncommon in middle-aged men. If the latter has occurred or does occur, your GP should be able to help. But I wasn’t sure if you were just nervous of having sex with a new person after so long with your wife. This is perfectly understandable but the chances are that any woman you meet will also feel nervous.

“At the moment,” says Mills, “you are fixated on this imaginary woman and what she may want and whether you will be able to provide it, whether you will be able to put on ‘a good show’.”

So what do you do? Well, I can’t guarantee that any new liaison won’t be an embarrassing disaster, but the chances are it won’t be. The idea of it is now so largely writ in your head that it’s almost unattainable. But, like a lot of imagined things, when you get there, it’s likely to be entirely real, human and manageable – it may even be magical and amazing. But sometimes life’s most perfect days and moments happen with least planning.

Mills says: “This may be difficult advice for you to take but I would say do the online dating thing, meet women but don’t expect to have sexual feelings for them immediately. Let the build up of the relationship determine what sexual contact – if any – there will be. You sound like you might be so nervous that you won’t be able to determine if you fancy a woman or not. Trying to relax, giving it some time and if you get to the point of wanting sexual contact, talk to her – the chances are she will also be nervous.”

If your new partner wants a performance, she will go to a show. Try to see dating and relationship building more as a journey you will take together, rather than you having to provide all the entertainment yourself.

This article first appeared in The Guardian Family section on 23 July 2016.