Male "metapause"

Written for ministers in mid-life and for the wives who wish to understand them.

Jeffrey L. Cohen is instructor in behavioral sciences at Santa Monica College in California.
Like most pastors, Don had a busy schedule. Bible studies, pastoral counseling, church committee meetings, speaking appointments, administrative duties—the typical fare for a pastor of a large and growing congregation. On top of that, his wife, Karen, was experiencing flare-ups of a long-standing physical condition and had been accompany him as he carried out his vigorous visitation pro gram.

Don liked people. He had an out going personality. Although approaching middle age, he was hand some and rugged-looking. He and Karen had two fine boys who had now started homes of their own. As Don grew older he felt that by dressing more nattily and acting accordingly he would be able to keep in touch with the younger set. He even purchased a sports car, in which he proudly made his rounds. Of course, some of the older, more conservative church members raised their eyebrows over that!

Then Jane plummeted into his life. It all started out so innocently. A recently divorced nurse, Jane moved to Don's city and began attending his church. In his routine visitation, Don visited Jane at home—alone— and found her to be a warm, sensitive person in her mid-twenties who radiated an abundant love for life.

It could have ended there, but Don had been sensing a lack of companionship, owing to his wife's illness, and felt drawn by Jane's compassionate response to his situation. And she, feeling a similar loss of intimacy, saw in Don someone with stability and concern.

What followed shouldn't have. But it did. Don and Jane saw a lot of each other after that. They became less discreet. Don even found him self lying to Karen when he returned home late at night. Karen became suspicious, but pride kept her from expressing her concern.

Eventually others found out, and Don's career was ruined. He lost his ministerial credentials. Having divorced Karen, he married Jane and is now an insurance salesman in a large western city.

Sad? Yes. But it's happening to others—many others. Why? One answer is that some men suffer a behavioral crisis between the ages of 35 and 55. They find their traditional responsibilities changing and some times even question their "manliness."

A changing awareness

While stereotypes about middle-aged men abound—increased hedonism revolving around sportier clothes, sportier cars, and attraction to women half their age—one of the real issues deals with reassessment of one's values, beliefs, and commitments and the way these relate to previous functions. There is some times a changing awareness of one's job, physical fitness, and marital and other family relationships.

That personality continues to change over the course of adulthood has been verified by many re searchers. Roger L. Gould, of UCLA, discovered that with adults in various stages of life there is a continuing expansion of the personality well into the 50's. In the fifth decade this often takes the form of "a quiet urgency," an awareness that time is not infinite. This period often finds locked-in responsibilities that may have at one time been challenging but which now contribute to confusion and a feeling of helplessness.

Developmental Psychologist Erik H. Erikson sees those involved in this stage of life ending up with either a sense of generativity or a sense of stagnation. A generative person is outgoing, "others-centered." He develops interests that provide opportunity to mature and offer fulfillment and contribution. Stagnation, or a sense of boredom, is self-centered. It results from an apprehension about one's waning physical or psychological powers that may give rise to a feeling of inadequate achievement of expected goals.

Areas of conflict

Areas of conflict frequently faced by the middle-aged man include:

Work—It has been said that a man identifies at least 60 percent with his work. In mid-life he frequently either finds he has reached many of his goals or realizes he never will, and so he questions his work and his relationship to it.

Physical—All too often, as he approaches middle age, a man's physical nature changes, owing to altered metabolism, increasing weight, and loss of former abilities. He just is not the same man he used to be, and this raises questions about his physical ability.

Sex—With increasing age there may come decreased sex drive, change in habits, and, often, fear of impotency. As sexuality changes, so does the self-image associated with sexual relations.

Marriage and family—Marital relationships often become strained in mid-life, and may be further complicated by a change in perceived relationships. The male is left to further question his capability as a husband and father.

Many American men in their 40's experience depression. Some realize they will never head the company or attain the leadership role they expected. Others realize they won't write that book or make that million. Trapped by the pension, the company-paid insurance, and feelings of obsolescence, they find life meaningless and without alternatives. Be cause of the difficulty middle-aged men encounter in changing careers, F. Scott Fitzgerald once said, "There are no second acts in American lives."

Dero A. Saunders feels this "executive discontent" is a result of feelings of entrapment, frustration, and boredom. These, in turn, come from failure to attain one's goals (apart from God) or the realization that one may never reach them and is not in a position to change careers. Often, concern is turned inward, affecting personal life and emotional well-being. The middle-aged man's success often becomes the source of his restlessness, and his work is no longer satisfying.

Blocked goals

Other factors reinforce a growing sense of entrapment. He realizes he is not going to get one of the top positions in his company; he also knows that switching to another company is difficult. Without the freedom to change jobs as he might have ten or fifteen years earlier, many a middle-aged man is trapped. Adding to this frustration, he sees his own superior, occupying the position he covets, doing a lackluster job yet delaying retirement.

Having goals blocked by personal limitations or those of the social system can result in psychosomatic illness and diminished ability to work effectively with others. Ironically, achieving one's goals may have the same effects. Attaining youthful goals related to personal and professional life—mortgage paid, children reared, comfortable income—can cause loss of purpose, and monotony sets in. Either attaining goals or denying them may disturb one's emotional state, markedly affecting his capacity for decisiveness and healthy interpersonal relationships.

Perceived threats and insecurities brought about by younger colleagues whose more recent technical training gives them an edge often are an additional concern, even to the clergy man. Unable to express this to his superiors or new subordinates, the middle-aged man becomes frustrated and indulges in self-pity, which shatters his personal life.

Physical identity

With middle age comes a heightened awareness of changing physical strengths. Often one recognizes a decrease in his body's efficiency, or friends of the same age become sick or die. Body changes seem to be the most salient characteristic of aging men in mid-life. This stage has been referred to as the age of expansion on two fronts—the forehead and midriff! This new sense of physical vulnerability is disturbing.

Apprehension seems justified. The proportion of men who become ill rises gradually until the age of 45 or 50, then accelerates sharply, as does absence from work because of illness. Deaths owing to heart dis ease, cancer, and stroke occur in epidemic proportions. The skin changes. Unused muscles atrophy, and subcutaneous fat begins to dis appear, leaving the less-elastic skin wrinkled. In addition, unequally distributed pigment may cause the skin to become blotchy.

Muscular strength is usually greatest between the ages of 25 and 30, after which there is a gradual decline in the speed and power of muscular contraction and the capacity for sustained effort. After the age of about 50 the number of active muscle fibers declines steadily.

As age increases, the basal-metabolism rate also declines. Involved in this decline are: a decrease in the total number of cells, a slowing of thyroid secretions, and less activity in such organs as the liver and the muscles. Weight frequently changes, as does reaction to temperature variations. A 65-year-old man needs to walk nine miles to burn off the calories he would have burned sitting in a chair 45 years earlier.

Sexual factors

Sexual interest and activity may remain strong into middle-age and beyond or may decrease. A recent study of sexual interest and activity of men and women between 46 and 71 reports that 49 percent of the men had noted some decline in their sexual interest and activity by age 50.

Advancing age brought an overall pattern of decline in sexual interest and activity, although sex continued to play an important part in the lives of the subjects.

As the mid-life male finds his interest in sex waning and fears of inadequacy increasing, the incidence of secondary impotence increases markedly. Understanding the place and purpose of sex in God's plan can help the middle-aged man overcome the fears he has in this area.

Marriage, family, and social relationships

The identification and satisfaction a man feels in his marriage and family and social relationships may also change in mid-life. Often at this time many married couples become dis enchanted. Personalities often change throughout the life cycle, and the resulting strains on marriages usually become most pronounced in mid-life. Contributing may be the decline or absence of certain intimacies such as confiding, kissing, and reciprocal settlement of disagreements. Even those individuals whose adjustment and personality characteristics seem to be unaffected often report loneliness at this time. Particularly crucial seems to be the loss of shared activities and interests, and disagreement over how affection should be demonstrated. Legal separation and divorce rates reach a peak with males in the 40- to 44-year-old bracket.

The changing roles of male and female in society may challenge the middle-aged male's perception of manhood and womanhood.

Women make up nearly one third of the national labor force. More and more women are entering what used to be male-dominated professions. The division of sexes is blurred by selecting names for the newborn that are not gender specific—Leslie, Robin, Dana.

From middle-age to renaissance

All is not bleak, however. As personalities continue to evolve in middle age and beyond, the challenge to personal growth represents a potential renaissance for the middle-aged man, a time for self-renewal and continued personality development.

Robert C. Peck identifies four necessary growth areas as part of the process essential for personality development. Taken as a whole, they help the middle-aged man redefine his relationships in the areas of work, physical fitness, and marriage and family, and they help him move from middle age to renewal.

1. Valuing wisdom versus physical powers. By shifting from reliance on the physical to more mental pursuits the middle-aged man is enabled to remain effective and continue to make meaningful contributions. The wisdom he possesses in midlife, owing to a wide range of life experiences, allows him now to make effective choices and decisions; he can retain a sense of worth by transmit ting this wisdom to younger generations in the home and at work.

2. Socializing versus sexualizing in human relationships. Increasing appreciation of, and companionship with, his wife helps the middle-aged man develop relationships in all areas of life, which are deeper and more meaningful than at an earlier age; further, it decreases the emphasis on sex in his marital relation ship and reduces some of his fears. As a result, his sexual relationship can develop out of a process of intimacy and a greater understanding of his feelings and those of the person he is closest to.

3. Emotional flexibility versus emotional impoverishment. Emotional impoverishment results from inability to reinvest one's emotions in other people, pursuits, or life set tings. Because of his great potential for reinvestment—a wide circle of personal and professional contacts, and wisdom gained through his life —the middle-aged man has opportunity to develop more varied relationships than earlier in life.

4. Mental flexibility versus mental rigidity. The tendency to become in flexible in opinions and actions is usually first seen in middle age. Be cause they have previously worked out a set of answers for themselves, many forgo further mental effort to seek new or varying answers. The tendency in mid-life is to be dominated by past experiences. The challenge lies in mastering experiences, achieving some degree of detachment from them, and using them as guides to solutions of new problems.

Though middle age represents a time of changing relationships for men, it also represents a time for growth and renewal—a renaissance. Most middle-aged men find them selves in fairly good health, with their psychological capacities relatively unimpaired. Their accumulated knowledge and experience are a great advantage at work and in domestic or public affairs, and the financial status of most middle-aged men is as secure as it is ever likely to be. The potential for growth and development is as great now as in any previous life stage. Coupled with this, the minister's growing experience with and confidence in God can make middle age one of the most satisfying and productive periods of life.

If Dan had had this vision of middle age, he might still be a pastor rather than an insurance salesman.


D. B. Bromley, The Psychology of Human Aging, 2d ed. (Harmondsworth: Penguin Book, Ltd., 1974).

Roger J. Gould, "The Phases of Adult Life; A Study in Developmental Psychology," American Journal of Psychiatry, 129 (1972), 33-43.

Douglas C. Kimmel, Adulthood and Aging (New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1974).

Bernice L. Neugarten, "The Awareness of Middle Age," Middle Age and Aging, Bernice L. Neugarten, ed. (Chi
cago: University of Chicago Press, 1968), pp. 93-98.

Robert C. Peck, "Psychological Developments in the Second Half of Life," Middle Age and Aging, Bernice L. Neugarten, ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968), 88-92.

Peter C. Pineo, "Disenchantment in the Later Years of Marriage," Marriage and Family Living, 32 (1970), pp. 20-28.

Boyd C. Rollins and Harold Feldman, "Marital Satisfaction Over the Family Life Cycle," Journal of Marriage and the Family, 32 (1970), pp. 20-28.

Dero A. Saunders, "Executive Discontent," Man, Work and Society, Sigmund Nosow and William H. Form, eds.
(New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1962), pp. 461-467.

"Second Acts in American Lives," Time Magazine, 91 (1968), p. 39.

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Jeffrey L. Cohen is instructor in behavioral sciences at Santa Monica College in California.

January 1978

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