First, let us consider some of the unusual behaviors. It is more than a cliche that some men in mid-life crisis give up their conservative Oldsmobile for an expensive Ferrari, or move out of their home, leaving their wife and family for a woman half their age. You see these men all over the place, looking out of place as they relate romantically to women the ages of their daughters or nieces. The occurrence repeats itself too often to be ignored. Why is it happening?
Does it result from a man’s need for outside recognition of his accomplishments, power, and attractiveness? Is it a salve to soothe a sense of failure or dissatisfaction with his life? Is he trying to escape from facing his own mortality? Does the recognition and fear of aging and thoughts of diminished skills and physical prowess lead some men into a phase of frantic and erratic behavior?
Probably all the above! On the one hand, a highly successful man may feel that he has peaked and worries about his future growth and development. Where can he go now? He knows that since he has reached the peak, he has to fight to stay there. He has reached a serious period of transition in his life and is unsure of his future direction. These situations differ for each man and seem to be more of a problem for some than for others. Yet our social scientists tell us that for each man a time of personal evaluation arrives. For many, it is a manageable thought-provoking time. For others, it is incredibly frightening. The man of awareness and reason will value the reappraisal that is appropriate to this period of life. Others, unable to deal with this time of personal questioning and uncertainty, turn emotional turmoil into a series of dramatic life changes that temporarily mask their discomfort.
This time of life may be experienced differently by men and women because of how they perceive themselves and their needs at midlife. It may be that men have a crisis of performance, whereas women suffer a crisis of appearance. Some men seek reassurance by continually surrounding themselves with material objects to serve as reminders of success. Sometimes a man seeks a new relationship with a younger woman. A young adoring mistress may boost his ego. But, what of loyalty at home?
Is a man’s home life not living up to his needs as he perceives them? Can he move easily from his sophisticated dynamic work environment to his more static home life comfortably? Can he continue to enjoy, even relish, the comfortable relationship with his lifelong mate or is he seeking titillating renewal with a younger, or a different, woman? Can he age comfortably with his home life intact? Many men can; some men just cannot; other men seem to want to have both: their Mrs. and their mistresses.
The fear of aging and death seems to be much worse for men than for women, perhaps with some justification. Statistics prove that men die at a younger age than women. They experience more heart attacks, and they may actually be the weaker sex! We know that around the age of fifty, women are experiencing many great changes in family and friend relationships. They also are often changing or leaving jobs, and if the children no longer live at home and the “empty nest” is a reality, they may have more time for hobbies, sports, or just for themselves. For some women this change is welcome; for others it is fraught with the stress of readjustment.
A man has an even bigger problem to face. He has to watch as his male peers, friends, old school mates, business partners, competitors, and family members are struck down around him with diagnoses of diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and other medical problems. These events bombard him again and again with the fact that life—his life—is finite. The vulnerable male, so bombarded with news of illness and death, reads the obituaries and attends the funerals in ever-increasing numbers and his thoughts fill with the question, “Is that all there is?”
Although women experience illness and death among their family members, friends, and coworkers, too, somehow they seem to handle these matters with greater equanimity. In men, these experiences seem to result in conflict as they think about and fear the changes occurring within their own life. They confront their own circumstances, their own life patterns, and their own mortality. Part of this “change of life” for them is also influenced by the changes happening to their partners. Maybe these changes are worse for some men because of how they were nurtured. Whereas women can freely express emotion, men were often told not to cry. So, they don’t cry at the loss of father, mother, or even their youth. When men’s emotions become bottled tightly inside themselves, the bottled-up mess may eventually explode.
Sometimes the fallout can be highly productive. It can drive them toward a new career, to a new and exciting activity, or to new levels of intimacy with a much-loved partner. Or it can lead to disaster—to a broken marriage, a failed business, a sense of worthlessness, feelings of inadequacy, and even suicide. Sometimes it manifests itself as a need for more “toys,” more trips, more women, more of anything that says to them, “You are still virile, you are still exciting, you still turn me on, you are still young!”
Young is the important word: It is the important feeling. It means growth, potential, and promise. It offers the hope of immortality!