Hell is halfway to paradise

The male mid-life crisis is often made worse because men feel unable to talk about their pain. So how do you survive your `second adolescence'?
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The Independent Culture
If a man who has just crossed the critical mid-life age threshold - 40 to 50 - promptly buys himself a scarlet Porsche, trips down to Ozwald Boateng to get kitted out, or gets himself a cutie half his age, we may well conclude that he is experiencing a mid-life crisis.

We would probably be right, and the chances are he will be offered a great deal less compassion or understanding than a woman at this stage of life. This is partly because it is understood and accepted that women have particular crosses to bear with the menopause, children leaving home and the burden of increasing wrinkles and rumples in a society that likes its females young and fertile. And partly because men do tend to act out their inner turmoil, relaying the interior battery of Is-this-it? questions in more conspicuously desperate and damaging ways than women do.

But it is also because men consider admitting feelings of self-doubt and inadequacy to be failure. Yet these are familiar feelings at this life-stage when, as the eminent psychiatrist Eliot Jacques put it, we must: "stop growing up and begin to grow old". And that means facing the reality of our own mortality. This process can lead to profound feelings of confusion, of being lost in a life you thought you knew.

"But if this is bad, letting the world know you feel this way can seem worse," explains Cambridge psychotherapist Dr Janet Reibstein, author of LoveLife (Fourth Estate). "For this reason, men don't seek a shoulder to cry on or the advice of someone who might help them understand that there are very real issues to address at mid-life." So while women may be able to see this period, which Jung described as a second adolescence, as a process of change and growth, men tend to turn away. Men are more likely to try to find some way to block out the fear induced by a flagging libido, or a sense of no longer being valued at work, with cliched behaviour like finding a young mistress. Or they may drink a lot, or become depressed, very critical of those they love or withdrawn.

A man feeling as profoundly despairing as this, if he admits to feeling he is having a mid-life crisis, is likely to find himself the butt of jokes about male menopause. And, as I found when interviewing more than 50 men for this research, the fact that men deal with the critical times in their mid-years the way they do can make it very difficult for their partners - the very people who should be best placed to help them.

The actor Robert Stephens paid tribute to the understanding and caring of his partner Patricia Quinn. He described how, once he met her, he was able to change course from the destructive way he had been living. He found the watershed birthday immensely difficult: "An irresistible force seemed to sweep me up in a kind of madness when I hit 40. I got into a panic, there seemed no way to make sense of my life, I felt everything was over and I had to prove something... I wanted to assert myself as a man who was still attractive to women... I drank to drown the fear that perhaps my acting career was finished. I convinced myself that I was having a whale of a time and that being 40 was fine, but underneath I knew I couldn't go on fooling myself." He explained how Quinn made him feel lovable; she was "constant and nurturing" and that enabled him to mature through the wildest flailings of his crisis.

Pamela, 43, a record producer, wants to help her partner Simon, a painter, to find "the man he really is, a sense of acceptance and calm in his life". She watched him undergo "a quite stark metamorphosis when he hit 50. He has enjoyed being a rebel against conventional values, he has liked who and what he is, he has enjoyed being a physical man. Suddenly he seemed to be drained of all that conviction. He feels sidelined because he hasn't followed a conventional career path where he might have status to show the world, even though it was his choice. He stands in front of the mirror seeing - and loathing - the fact he is a bit heavier than he was, that his hair is grey. And he deals with this by growing his hair too long, wearing trousers that are too tight, T-shirts with the kind of motifs 20-year-olds choose. But worst of all I have become the enemy in bed. I suppose because I know how he is physically in every sense and none of that feels good enough to him right now."

Not surprisingly all this has put enormous strains on the relationship, but what's worse, Pamela says, is that Simon will not allow her to help him: "He becomes like an autistic child, - someone who desperately wants to be loved but who kicks me away when I try to give it. At first I was very angry but the more I understand what is happening to him, the easier it is to keep cool and try to be patient. And slowly he is daring to show me his terror."

Dr Reibstein sees this as constructive: "If men can feel that their partner feels empathy for them, they may be able to admit vulnerability, and in doing this to feel there is solace and comfort for them. It is also valuable if women can find ways to bring back some reminder of what it was that made the relationship good in the first place. It could be signing up for a new activity, an adventure together, so there is a sense of a future that is fun together."

Georgina Wall faced the classic scenario when, in her fifties, she realised her husband, of the same age, was having an affair. When he refused to give his mistress up, she moved out the house. She says: "I had failed to read the signs and so the information arose out of the blue. It was a time of anguish and turmoil." But both found the separation unbearable and they moved back in together. It was not an easy solution but she grew stronger through it and clearer about what she would and would not put up with in her husband's behaviour.

This is a familiar scenario to consultant psychiatrist Dr Michael Perring, director of the Optimal Health Clinic, who explains: "So often the affair is far more to do with the man's inner turmoil than real discontent with the wife - with a mistress he can forget the bad feelings and also feel admired and desired. But in my experience, when a woman can gain her own strength and get on with her life independently, but without shutting the door, a husband or partner will often go through his mid-life stuff and realise he doesn't want to lose all the history he has with a long- term partner." Reibstein agrees that this can happen but warns that women should not put up with anything and everything: "If it really is just an act of denial because he's hating getting older it may be that he'll return, but on the other side, no man should be given the feeling he's got carte blanche to behave exactly as he wishes. If that happens, she may well be better off building a life that makes her feel good about herself."

But it may be best of all, suggests consultant Dr Anthony Fry - who works with mid-life men at his London practice - if the taboo that surrounds admitting to critical mid-life feelings could be lifted for men so they can share the "random chaos" that may occur at this life stage. "Because it is, in fact, an important developmental time and one which couples can benefit from sharing."

`This Is Our Time' by Angela Neustatter is published by Legends Press, pounds 6.99

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