The closing decades of the twentieth century have seen the glorification and worship of Youth Culture. The ubiquitous Yuppies have overtaken the world by storm. They are knowledgeable, incredibly dynamic, prodigiously intelligent, powerful and ambitious. This, together with the sexual revolution, the obsession with male and female beauty, various shades of Feminism, and the instant dissemination of information, has brought about a “cultural quake” that has given the broad stratum of middle-aged people a feeling of insecurity. Midlife crisis as a malady in men has been recognized since the 20th century.
Carl Jung, in his book Modern Man in Search of His Soul, compares the phases of life to the sun’s progress across the skies, from East to West. He places mid-life between the ages of 35 to 50 and calls it the High Noon of one’s existence. It can be an exciting time of life with vast opportunities if people are not terrified of the aging process. It is to be welcomed as a period of discovery, and not a time of stagnation or disintegration. It calls for changes in lifestyles, character, and convictions. Immature responses give way to sound decisions. The transition period lasts for as long as it takes for life to be reoriented and values sorted out. It may be anything between three to five years.
Being aware of the changes that are likely to occur in men and women, one needs to be psychologically prepared, and recognize the symptoms when they occur, so that a turbulent crisis may be avoided.
“People who prepare for a fire are more likely to survive than those who don’t,” said one wise man. And British psychoanalyst Elliot Jacques, assures us that creative people like Goethe, Beethoven, Voltaire, and Ibsen all went through mid-life upheavals.
But for those who are unprepared, mid-life may catch them unawares. One fine day, on his brisk morning walk, a man may find that he has been overtaken by other young men and that he just can’t catch up; or his mirror may reveal the tell-tale graying at the temples or a receding hairline; or when the children on the street insist on calling him “Uncle,” realization suddenly dawns that the Big “C” has arrived. A man who has prided himself on his “macho” image reacts like a person confronted with impending death. He goes through the different stages of denial, anger, depression, and finds ways and means of delaying the aging process. Sudden heart attacks brought on by extreme anxiety are known to increase in the early forties.
A fall in hormonal level and decline in sexual vigor creates a kind of desperation that makes him behave out of character. He may become over-fastidious over his grooming, wear flamboyant clothes, invest in a flashy car, or even indulge in adolescent pursuits like disco hopping. This is a time when he may fall headlong into an extra-marital affair with a girl young enough to be his daughter because her admiration and need of him boosts his sagging self-esteem. This is the classical “Sugar-Daddy” syndrome, where, through the eyes of nubile girls, he feels young again. He becomes immune to the sniggers of those around him. He perceives his married life as boring and dull. Almost 25% of divorces occur at this critical period. Spouses are hurt and families disintegrate due to this blatant violation of sexual faithfulness. By the time the ardor of the affair dies down, he realizes that his marriage has broken down irretrievably, and he has no place to run for solace. And so, he may flit from one affair to another, or turn to drink or drugs to soothe his sagging spirits.
Bergler calls it “Emotional Second Adolescence.” Sometimes a middle-aged man may become sexually aware of his own teenage daughter. Then, self-hatred, remorse, shame, and guilt bother him.
Those who remain in a marriage may find satisfaction low. They may become moody and irritable, and spoil the peaceful atmosphere at home, picking on their poor wives for no fault of theirs.
This is also a stage when the man feels caught between two generations, each burdening him with responsibility. Growing children on one hand, who want to assert their own independence and have difficulty relating to parents, and on the other, dependent elderly relatives who crave constant attention.
At work, professional life may have plateaued, with no prospects of further promotions; or he may be burdened with so much responsibility that leaves no time for family and personal life; or competition from younger knowledgeable and creative colleagues may be so fierce that he is kept under constant tension.
And finally, he is confronted with his own mortality. Arthritis, bifocals, diabetes, hypertension and other diseases make life uncomfortable.
Several stress factors thus converge on a man in mid-life, so much so it has been estimated that almost 75-80% of men between 35-50 years suffer from mid-life problems in this century.
Transitions can be positive when properly planned. According to Freud, Man has two basic needs: Work and Love. And Dr. Joyce Brothers says that Work takes priority over Love.
This is the time for a man to review and revise the goals he has set himself. If he has been a workaholic, he must slow down and spend quality time with his wife and children. He may sometimes find, to his dismay, that it is already too late to forge a meaningful relationship with his children. They may not be on the same wavelength anymore. They may even eye his sudden interest in them with suspicion.
If there is an urge to change jobs, this must be well-planned and discussed with his family, as he will need their moral support. Many people in middle age feel an inner compulsion to throw away the security of a stable job for something they have wanted to do all along, but didn’t dare. Many writers and artists feel this need. Doctors have given up lucrative jobs to wield the pen instead. Gaugin, at 35, walked out of a secure bank job to pursue painting. He went on to become a great Impressionist painter.
Another excellent way to insure middle age against a turbulent crisis is to build up a strong marital partnership. Contemporary culture has devalued the institution of marriage and sexual fidelity. Yet most of the ills of society can be traced to unhappy and unstable home situations.
“Good marriages do not occur at the wedding ceremony. They develop over the years, through long hours of doubt and despair, adjustments and compromise,” says one psychologist. This reaches its maximum at mid-life, when the stress of one or both partners affects each other. The strength of a marriage lies in the ability to understand the negativity of a partner, and deal with it patiently. A wife will not only understand her husband’s problem but listen to him, encourage him to speak about his hopes and aspirations, and evaluate and redefine his values if necessary. The man who feels secure in marriage will have no hesitation in communicating his needs and his fears to his spouse. Similarly, a husband will be a tower of strength to his wife who may be going through her own mid-life crisis.
Various fears take hold of a man in mid-life. Fear of impotence and failure of
erection create anxiety, moodiness, and sometimes a silent withdrawal from sex. Aging may decrease the frequency of his sexual needs. He begins to fear that his wife may develop an interest in other men. The media projects modern women as being insatiable, and this, in turn, inhibits him. Extramarital affairs to salvage his self-image are signs of marriage malfunction. A good wife will not remain complacent. She will understand the turmoil within her husband, and be quick to reassure him with her support and cooperation.
It is not sex that drives a man away but lack of intimacy. Should an affair develop during this critical period, it does not mean that a marriage should end. Partners who love each other deeply are willing to forgive, especially when the offending partner is remorseful and ashamed of what has happened. Discovery of the affair will rob it of its glamour and excitement, and act as a future deterrent. It is more important to find out the cause for infidelity and remedy it.
Sexual life does not come to a stand-still in mid-life. On the contrary, it improves because there is a new freedom from inhibitions. Couples are able to discuss, without embarrassment, intimate aspects of the relationship. Only the pace and pattern may change. In youth, a man reaches a climax within minutes, and many a wife is left frustrated and sexually unfulfilled. But in middle age, when arousal is slow, and the erectile response weakens, the woman will have sufficient opportunity to climax with her husband because more time is spent on foreplay and tenderness. A verbal expression of feelings for each other, a hug or touch may bring about physical contentment, more than the act itself. A “sexual revolution” is even possible at this age. Couples who value their sexual activity discover new aspects of each other and have a choice of sex practices with which to experiment. A sense of humor and freedom to explore can keep a couple sexually active well into old age. Comedian Woody Allen, the aging Casanova, says that out of 56 positions of sex, only eight can be achieved without laughing.
Middle age also sees a slight alteration in individual roles. A man mellows as he grows older. Having reached the peak of his career, he now craves closeness with wife and family. He expects his wife to behave like a girlfriend, loving and attentive. However, a wife who has spent her best years in the nurture of her family, sacrificing her own needs, now becomes confident and assertive, and wants her own space for growth. She may even look for career options outside her home. While she becomes more assertive, her husband becomes less domineering. While her latent masculine traits surface, the feminine aspects like sensitivity and tenderness come to the fore in her husband. Thus, a new role balance is achieved in every aspect of their lives. Values and convictions change. New friends and new pleasure pursuits interest them.
Mid-life can be a very special time. It opens our eyes to areas of our lives that have not been satisfactorily lived, and it gives us an opportunity to reorient our personalities. With an understanding partner at our side, who is not only our best friend but is deeply committed to the marriage, mid-life need never be feared.