Men, Women, and Marriage
- The Biggest Midlife Crisis
A LETTER RECEIVED
I recently received this letter
from a visitor to the site. It's similar to many I receive,
but it does an especially good job of raising questions, providing
more examples than most. The letter has been edited to remove
any details identifying the individual who wrote to protect
her privacy, but in this in no way detracts from the letter's
"It seems the men in my overall family take flight from their
marriages, have affairs, think completely differently from
what they did a few years earlier. For example, (1) my dad,
good father, decent husband......turned 55 and had continuous
long-lasting affairs. (Mom knew about it. but tolerated it
and wouldn't divorce him and he wouldn't leave her); (2) my
cousin - a religious man, turned 51, walked in one day and
said he was leaving my aunt for another woman. No notice,
no signs, just BAM!; (3) my brother-in-law did the same thing,
though he and his wife had the 'perfect' marriage of 32 years.
He turned 57, divorcing my sister AND his family, even his
"My husband has just turned 47. If he turns on and tunes out
like we did in the 60's and 70's, I won't be as devastated
as my female relatives because I'm not dependent upon him
financially or emotionally like they are. I hear about male
menopause but according to the articles, it has to do with
impotence. These guys aren't impotent; in fact, they're the
opposite. Do men need to go to a proctologist in middle age
to find where their heads are? These are (were) smart, family-oriented,
caring men who blew out the candles and went into personality
disorder warp drive. What gives?"
I will do my best to provide one answer of many possible answers
to this question. This site is meant to be "inspirational",
but I can't ignore the e-mail that comes in on this topic.
I feel I have to say something and I hope it will be constructive.
First, I want you to know that I am unmarried and have never
been married. During the period when marriage was a real concern
of mine, my work in global humanitarian relief kept me constantly
on the road visiting and revisiting more than 30 nations on
five continents for periods rarely exceeding a year and often
a matter of weeks or months. I couldn't start a family and
keep up this work, so I had to make a choice and I did. However,
I have had many, many friends who have passed through this
kind of "midlife crisis" and, being a single male, many of
them, particularly my male friends, shared their reasons and
their pain with me. Over time, it has led me to certain conclusions.
You can judge whether they're relevant to you, if you're facing
IN THE BEGINNING...
Not so many years ago, men and women had "roles" to play.
These roles offered security, but they also placed restrictions
on each sex. Generally, women were to remain at home raising
children and running the household. Generally, men were expected
to be successful income-producers and "providers" to their
families. Divorce was difficult and frowned upon. A divorced
woman had difficulty finding a new partner as she was often
viewed as somehow being "deficient", or why was she divorced?
A divorced man's maturity was suspect and he could find his
professional career advancement threatened. There were many
other problems as well. If you lived through this period,
you know what I mean.
The world changed. Educational levels rose, as did expectations
and the need for additional family income. Married women,
including those with children, entered the workforce in ever-increasing
numbers. The women's movement was inevitable and it finally
arrived. No, it's not the "problem". It was necessary and
it's done a lot of good, but it challenged the traditional
role of the male as much as the female, if less obviously
Many women examined their assigned roles and said, "This is
no longer acceptable. We want choices." Some men opposed it
and many looked on in confusion, trying to figure out what
it meant for them. Over time, most have accepted the demands
made by women and have readjusted their attitudes or at least
moved in that direction. Problems still remain, but anyone
over 40 can remember a time when things were much worse.
However, women are part of human society, not a separate society.
The women's movement may have been inevitable, but it did
not arrive in a vacuum. Men had little choice but to re-examine
their own roles as well. For whatever reason, biological or
sociological, they did it differently than women. They didn't
form a "movement", they didn't discuss it openly, but they
gave it more serious attention than women might have guessed.
Because they were less public, women weren't as aware of what
was happening on the "other side of the gender gap".
Men have examined their assigned roles and said, "Women insist
they have a right to control their own bodies and to chart
their own futures. They're right, but that's the way it should
work for us too." As there were men taken by surprise by the
women's movement some years ago, there are many women today
taken by surprise by men's reactions that sound very much
like their own. Some have the same negative reaction some
men had in the 70's. When both partners insist on being the
ultimate authority for their own lives, they may have justice
on their side, but they may forget they're "partners". Married
or unmarried, once you and your partner aren't "partners",
you're facing trouble.
So what do you do about it?
I know that some women will insist that their search for
"professional freedom" is far more worthy than a man's search
for "social freedom". I know that some will insist that
I should have said "sexual freedom", but sex is just one
aspect of a much greater social challenge. It's not just
a question of "Who do I want to go to bed with?" More than
many women might want to think, it's also a question of
"Who do I want to share my life with?"
I know that many women will insist that the family unit
is being destroyed, the same thing that many men said years
ago about women. I know how intensely emotional both sexes
are on the subject of their roles. I suspect this essay
will make many people of both sexes very unhappy. We all
want a simple solution that favors us. That is not the way
of the world.
IN THE MEANTIME...?
What's the "solution" to this problem in our society? Time.
The redefinition of male and female roles is going to go
on until a societal consensus is reached. It won't be done
by law, it will happen of its own accord. The majority of
today's middle-aged were people who married when one set
of roles still predominated and have divorced or are facing
divorce now that another set predominates.
Our middle-aged generation has the fortune and misfortune
of being a transitional generation. When the rules of the
game change enough, the game changes as well and everyone
finds it difficult to adjust. Will it just go on, getting
worse and worse? No, I don't think so. There's a younger
generation that has witnessed this shift and integrated
it into their lives, sometimes very painfully as the children
of divorcees. Some will repeat the experience of their parents,
but many will approach each other and marriage very differently.
The generation following them will take the transition even
For those marriages that are in the process of collapse
right now, there is little I can suggest. Your situation
is unique to the two of you and has gone too far for me
to do anything. I am not qualified to be a marriage counselor
and have no intention of becoming one. I can only reach
out at this site and assure you that you are still the most
wonderful thing in all creation: a human being. Whatever
your age, whatever your circumstances, you have a life and
you have the time to do something constructive with it.
My other essays attempt to deal with this as best they can.
However, to those of you whose marriages are still stable,
hopefully happy as well, I have a few suggestions for each
gender. They aren't original to me, they come from the painful
words and experiences of my now-divorced friends. They are
generalizations, so accept them as such. They won't fit
every individual marriage, but give them a chance. Think
them through carefully before rejecting them as irrelevant
to your situation.
To women, I would say, it's not just sex
. Men are
constantly criticized as being driven purely by sexual lust.
But if there's another thing that men value highly, it's
friendship. Male bonding is a reality and take it from one
man, it's a real need we feel, although we may not talk
about it very much. We want to "bond" with our marriage
partners as well. When that friendship disappears over time,
we look elsewhere and real sex is easier and quicker to
find than real friendship, so it often substitutes when
we're under stress. Thus many divorces "caused" by a man's
sexual infidelity have roots in a loss of friendship. If
you examine your marriage, think of it from that perspective.
Finally, if you raise this subject with your husband, don't
demand an answer on the spot. Donít even say, "Come back
to me when you have an answer." We don't communicate the
same way you do, give us time. You might be surprised what
we'll come up with if we're not under pressure.
To men, I would say, open up
. Almost every letter
I get from a woman on this subject includes the word "suddenly"
as in, "suddenly, he told me he was leaving". We don't communicate
with women enough. We know that, but it's part of the way
we're brought up to be men, to bear unhappiness in silence
without "whining". Communication is not whining. Going out,
looking for a sexual adventure, may provide some short-term
release from the pressure of an unhappy marriage, but it's
just another form of whining. If you read my advice to women
above, take your wife by surprise. Raise the subject of
your friendship with her yourself and it's importance to
you now, while it's still healthy or at least has a chance.
It can't hurt. It might help.
Finally, I'd like to assume your wife was your friend when
you married. If she wasn't, if she was primarily to be a
"live-in" sex partner, you have only yourself to blame.
Common sense alone should tell you that. If it's not working
any longer and you want out of the marriage, be honest with
yourself and be gentle on her. If you have children living
at home with you, your responsibility is even greater. You
made the mistake, not them. Before you walk out on them,
sit down and talk seriously with yourself. Two wrongs will
not make a right.
I know one thing for sure. If I say nothing more, I will
receive e-mail from men whose wives are the ones having
the midlife crisis, men who are trying to save their marriages
or who failed and are recovering from a divorce. You're
right, it's not just a matter of men leaving women. Such
is gender equality in the 21st century. I can only hope
that some of the remarks above, taken in the context of
your situation, will be of help as well.
To download a free copy of the full essay,