The trouble with middle-aged men
is that they’re passing through a change-of-life similar to the menopause in women, but seldom realize it. It affects their stamina, their family lives and their careers. Here’s what they should know about themselves
FOR MANY A WIFE, nothing is more baffling than the overnight change of her husband from an even-tempered, good-natured, ambitious fellow into an irritable, impatient and hard-toplease family dictator. How can someone who’s always prided himself on his physical stamina suddenly emerge as a hypochondriac, nursing endless aches and pains and muttering about incipient ulcers and heart attacks? What’s behind the phenomenon of a hitherto faithful husband suddenly breaking loose in his fifties to chase pretty girls?
Is he sick? Is he crazy? What’s got into the man?
No one wishes he knew the answer more than the man himself, the unhappy and mystified victim of what doctors recognize as the climacteric, or male change of life.
Unlike the female menopause that ends a woman’s child-bearing ability so dramatically, the male change of life is a long-drawn-out and insidious process. Ten years ago it was thought to be the result of glandular imbalance in middle age, and hormones—especially one called testosterone — were widely prescribed for its correction.
Today much of the medical enthusiasm about testosterone has worn off, and although quack “cures” for loss of sexual vigor are still offered in a certain type of advertisement, most doctors now recognize the male climacteric as a more complex thing, with causes both psychological and biological. Because its approach is stealthy it catches most men off guard, plunging them into a welter of mixed emotions and conflicting desires.
One reason why they’re caught off guard so easily is that men, unlike women, are not adequately warned about this period of life. Women start hearing about the menopause long before it is due. Most men never hear about the male change of life. When it comes, a man is likely to think it is something special that is happening to him, a neurotic weakness of his own.
H© could not be more wrong. Each man reacts to it in his own way, but almost every man goes through a deeply disturbing experience that begins the first time he realizes that there is something he can't do any more, something he used to do that he can't do now. This may mean the first evidence of a decline in sexual vigor, or it may be something quite trivial. In either case he’s liable to suffer profound, irrational depressions, often set off by seemingly minor causes or even by no cause at all that he can find in the day’s experience. It's the condition our grandfathers used to call melancholia.
Fighting it, men often look for solace in alcohol or food addiction, or excitement in extramarital affairs with younger women.
One man in ten is so emotionally upset that he develops typical menopausal symptoms— hot flushes, “nerves.” dizziness, palpitation, cramps, headaches, fatigue, inability to concentrate and feelings of self-pity. Occasionally a man is so distressed that he retreats into a state of depression which, unless treated by psychotherapy, can end in suicide.
At what age does a man first perceive he’s not all he used to be? A highly trained athlete, such as a big-league hockey player, will meet this shattering discovery in his thirties. But for the average business or professional man leading a semi-sedentary city life, the age of grim realization is usually between forty-five and fifty-five—which is also the age for those obscure glandular changes that affect the whole nervous system.
It is then that a man wakes up some dreary day to realize that many of his youthful dreams will never come true. Most of his achievements are behind him. and younger, more energetic men are nudging him on their way up. His grown sons and daughters are busy leading their own lives, and his wife has her own biological problems. He feels restless, nervous, tired, and terrified of losing his sexual potency. He fears the future, and as
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They seldom discuss their fears, which, says one expert, “conjure up evils far worse than reality’
Dr. John Griffin, general director of the Canadian Mental Health Association, says, “Fear conjures up evils far worse than reality.”
To combat such needless fears, a man needs reassuring facts.
Unfortunately, medical knowledge about the male climacteric is scant, because of wide individual differences and the reluctance of patients to talk about them. Unlike their wives, who unabashedly reveal such personal experiences as
the pangs of childbirth or the hot flushes of the menopause, men seldom discuss such things. A general practitioner in Toronto told me, "There’s a great reluctance among men to accept the idea of a climacteric. The first sign of lessened
physical or sexual ability alarms them, but when they come to me it’s to complain about an ulcer or insomnia or simply ‘lack of pep.’ Only after we’ve talked awhile will they admit what’s really bothering them.”
One such patient was a salesman of forty-five who suddenly developed sharp pains and palpitations and an irritating rash on his face and hands. He lost interest in his job, which he had held for twenty years, and was afraid he would lose the job itself to a more aggressive salesman.
A fifty-two-year-old business executive who had recently been promoted to a more responsible position found that he couldn’t give orders to other men. He had become impotent and as a result was depressed and at odds with his wife.
A lawyer of forty-nine who had once been the life of every party grew shy and fearful. “I keep dreaming that I’m about to murder my wife and children,” he told the doctor. "I think I’m going crazy.”
One difficulty in dealing with the male change of life is that all its aspects are so closely bound up with each other that a doctor has trouble deciding what caused what.
Is sex responsible?
Is a man physically sick because he's depressed, or is he depressed because he’s sick? Is he worried because he’s impotent. or impotent because he’s worried?
Many psychiatrists maintain that sex. because it is a strong emotional force, is largely responsible for the middle-aged man's behavior. One theory suggests that in her forties, a wife reaches her sexual peak, but much of her husband's energy is being drained off by his business career. In an attempt to prove that he is still virile, the husband then turns to another woman for stimulation.
A few years ago, the late Dr. Alfred Kinsey’s researchers found that when such a man got a new partner, there was indeed a sharp increase in his sex activity—which then deteriorated again within a year or two. In his controversial book. Sexual Behaviour in the Human Male, Dr. Kinsey observed that the decline in sexual activity of the older man is largely the result of a general decline, including such factors as psychologic fatigue, loss of interest due to repetition, and what he called “preoccupation with social or business functions in the professionally most active period of a man’s life."
Other authorities find it hard to believe that the forty-year-old wife is sexually demanding. One doctor told me, “Most of my female patients in this age bracket have a kind of ‘Sex? Who needs it?’ attitude. I think it more likely that a husband's enthusiasm and virility are weakened over a long period of time by his wife's evident lack of interest in sex.”
Even without sex to worry about, the middle-aged man has considerable justification for being afraid.
He is, according to any number of charts and statistics, the person in the community most likely to contract arthritis, cancer, diabetes and heart disease. Mental illness threatens him, and books warn he’s at the beginning of what biologists refer to as “the aging process.” Even without a textbook he can see for himself that his waistline has expanded, his hair is graying or falling out, newspapers are using smaller type than formerly, and for the first time in his life an onion sandwich at bedtime keeps him awake. Small things, but they add up.
A very real fear, to the man in his fifties, is lack of security: loss of his job and inability to find a new one, or early retirement on a small and inadequate pension. One of the saddest aspects of employment in North America is the reluctance of many employers to hire a man over forty. Compulsory retirement at sixty-five condemns thousands of healthy, energetic, experienced men to a rocking chair on the back porch, and a recent and disturbing development in Canada is the practice of some corporations to retire men in their fifties in favor of ambitious younger men.
Considering these very real stresses and strains, it’s extraordinary that an estimated ninety percent of all men get through their middle years without a breakdown.
Who is the one man in ten who requires help?
One American psychiatrist suggests, “The male climacteric occurs chiefly in men with important responsibilities, who require sustained energy, physical and mental, throughout the day to perform their responsibilities.”
In Montreal some years ago, two doctors, Miguel Prados and Bruce Ruddick, studied a selected group of thirty middleaged men with typically menopausal complaints. They included businessmen, scientists and intellectuals, professional men and political leaders. Later, in a paper entitled Depression and Anxiety States of the Middle Aged Man, the doctors remarked that their patients' histories frequently showed a compulsive trend for achievement and success . . . they were ‘ambitious, active, aggressive, hard workers and family providers.’
So it seems that middle age often hits hardest the very successful man who stands at the top of his career and sees it all being lost.
Another Montreal psychiatrist who finds a significant proportion of his male patients suffering from nothing more specific than middle-age blues, told me recently, “The ones who get into trouble are the ones who start looking backward instead of forward. After all, middle age ought to bring a man certain satisfactions. For years, he’s prepared himself for this time of life. He's worked hard to be a success in his business, a respected member of the community and a reasonably happy family man. His kids are grown up now and out of his hair, he doesn't have to struggle so hard, he has time for reading and longer vacations—all the
things he’s always wanted. But instead of thinking how the world is opening up, he prefers to think of how it’s narrowing in, with the future stretching downhill all the way.”
Hardest hit, in his opinion, are those who deliberately shut their eyes to reality.
He explains, “Some men flatly refuse to recognize that as they grow older their powers naturally decrease. Faced with the truth, they develop all sorts of pains and aches, lessened sexual ability, maybe even impotence. Other men go
through life believing that just because they have certain ambitions, they’ve got to achieve them. On a black day in their fifties, they wake up to realize it ain’t necessarily so, and they go all to pieces. I’ve known men who persist in thinking that marriage is one happy honeymoon and the spark will never die: when their own marriage doesn't turn out that way they’re devastated, and look around for some other woman to set things right. Usually they're so afraid of being found out and develop such guilt feelings that they’re worse off than before." ‘
In his opinion, three marriages out of four are unhappy, and a man would have fewer illusions and better mental health if he recognized that sober fact on his wedding day.
One of the strangest things about the male change of life, many psychiatrists assert, is that in middle age, old conflicts arise with new force. Old longings and anxieties, thought to be conquered, are apt to reappear again, and how a man weathers his middle years depends on his emotional stability. The man most likely to encounter difficulties is the chronic worrier, the compulsive, anxious, moody man—especially if he has suffered an early emotional maladjustment.
Doctors declare, “The climacteric has a tendency to repeat the neurotic and psychotic states of puberty, but the outlook is different. Youth feels threatened by the things it hasn’t yet got; middle age by what it’s got and is afraid to lose.”
There's some evidence that the man who has never worked out a satisfactory relationship with his father is likely to be emotionally vulnerable during the important climaxes of his life. American doctors at a Nashville hospital studied a group of more than a hundred miners with diverse psychosomatic symptoms and discovered most of them had a bad relationship with their growing sons. Suspecting that they were responding subconsciously to rejection by their own admittedly over-strict fathers, they concluded, “A man’s relationship with his father can affect his own relationship to his own children.”
In Montreal, a psychiatrist told me, “There's no doubt that the emancipation of children is felt byS parents as a frustration and a loss, with consequent damage to self-esteem. If a father is well adjusted and has learned to master previous frustrations and losses, his ego will be strong enough to withstand the blow and he will take pride in his son's accomplishments.” Some men, on the other hand, feel so threatened by the virility and growing independence of their sons that they become either aggressive and dominating, or depressed and full of sclfpity.
Some men try to drown their middleage woes in alcohol, an expensive and debilitating habit. Others look for compensation in over-eating, but the more they eat the fatter they get and the worse they look, resulting in greater depression. More often, the middle-aged man (provided he has money and opportunity) turns to The Other Woman for all he thinks he's missed in life and must capture before it's too late. Perhaps his wife is "impossible lately”; tearful, demanding, flying off thé handle every five minutes, suspicious and irritable, for as Dr. Edmund Bergler points out in his popularized textbook, The Revolt of the Middle Aged Man, one of the tragedies of family life, experienced by millions of couples, is the peculiar synchronization of woman's change of life and man’s middle-age revolt, coinciding at the worst possible time.
A husband, trying to assuage his feelings of guilt by reasoning that his wife is mentally unattractive and a total loss as a companion, has his proof at his fingertips.
“The next step in this tragi-eomedy of errors,” says Dr. Bergler, "is the girl friend.” She may appear first as just a fantasy figure—a beautiful and sympathetic woman who gives him all the understanding and excitement his wife doesn’t. Later on she may become a reality. Sometimes she is a very young girl, leading neighbors to snicker, “Old fool!” and psychiatrists to observe sagely that “the preand climacteric adult experiences a return to the suppressed infantile, incestuous, Oedipean fantasy, which expresses itself in a strong attraction for youngsters.”
Commenting on the phenomenon of the November-May attraction, a Freudian psychiatrist says, "The man of fifty-two who has an affair with a girl of eighteen or who marries a woman that much younger than himself is bound to have strong subconscious feelings of guilt. Such a relationship cannot last.”
Whatever her age, and quite apart from the morality of the situation, the
extramarital affair, or worse still a series of extramarital affairs, is seldom the answer to the middle-aged man’s complicated problem. If he’s very fortunate, an understanding wife will accept his infidelity as temporary and without too much meaning; but very often his shortlived revolt is enough to wreck his marriage and antagonize his children.
I asked half a dozen doctors if they had any special message for the man in his middle years, and they all said, “Tell him to accept his age, to stop competing with fellows thirty years his junior and not to make himself ridiculous by chasing young girls.”
A physician fighting his own middle age, armed with a sense of humor, told me, “It helps when you know you’re not alone in this thing.” Then he read me his favorite poem, by Dr. James Ball Naylor:
King David and King Solomon Led merry, merry lives,
Willi many, many lady friends And many, many wives;
Rut when old age crept over them— With many, many qualms,
King Solomon wrote the Proverbs And King David wrote the Psalms.
On a more serious level, it’s evident that people are different and that every man must meet the oncoming years in his own way. Still, some general principles may help:
1. Eat, drink and exercise moderately. An estimated thirty thousand Canadians die each year from circulatory and heart ailments, many of them middleaged men who commit what doctors call "week end suicide” by mowing the lawn Saturday morning, playing eighteen holes of golf Saturday afternoon and following it up Sunday with a strenuous five sets of tennis singles. Doctors suggest that the man in his late forties and fifties should limit his tennis to doubles and his golf—especially if he’s in a hurry —to nine holes. Swimming, skin diving, and walking are fine exercise.
2. Find a hobby that gives you real satisfaction. It doesn’t have to be basket weaving or knitting. It can be music, woodworking, writing, or painting. Gardening is a rewarding hobby for many men. Travel, providing you can afford it, is probably most exciting, but as a Montreal psychiatrist, Dr. Lloyd Hisey, puts it, “Anything that creates new interests and opens your mind is a shot in the arm.”
3. Offer your help and experience where they’re needed. Look about for service clubs, cultural and recreational organizations that can use energetic leadership. Outside activities will keep you from getting too narrowed in. with only your family for company. Keep up your male contacts. Meet new people. Keep learning. Don’t sneer at everything that’s new or different. Don’t discuss your physical symptoms—nobody else is interested in your indigestion.
4. Above all, keep your perspective and your sense of humor—admittedly easier said than done. Each period of life brings its own satisfactions, and middle age is the time to start shifting over from the physical to the mental side of life.
With medical science prolonging life well into the eighties, you'll probably be around for another thirty or forty years. So admit you’re getting on a bit, and take it from there. *