Friday, July 10, 2009

Menopause, Middle Aged Men, and Hiking the Appalachian Trail

Today is my 10th wedding anniversary (interestingly, it is also TheWife's 10th anniversary, so we decided to celebrate together). What more awkward time could there possibly be to consider Maha Barbara's post "Hormonal Rages" that considers the Sanford affair and the many like it?

I realize that anecdotes are not data. However, I have never personally met a woman of menopausal age — and I’m past that point myself — who who blew off her life because of hot flashes. But I’ve known, and have known of, a number of men aged 45-60 whose lives crashed and burned because of an affair. In some cases they didn’t just throw away their marriages; they also lost jobs and wrecked careers. Relationships with children, friends and other family members were irreparably strained or even severed.

Yes, I’m sure there are examples of older women who behaved just as foolishly, but it seems to be much less common. We women tend to go through our self-destruct phase when we’re much younger.

I remember one of my former college professors who left a wife, two children, and a tenured college faculty position to run off with a student, who then dumped him a few months later. Another academic of my acquaintance burned a plum position at a prestigious university and years of hard-won professional contacts when he left his wife for a student. A man I used to call a good friend lost every one of his friends after he abruptly left his wife (also a good friend) for a younger woman. Yes, the younger women were involved in the affairs, too, but they had nothing to lose.

Think about all the well-known politicians who either wrecked their careers or compromised their offices because they got caught messing around. What’s often remarkable to me is how reckless their behavior can be when so much is at stake in their lives, their ambitions, their work. In some cases they aren’t just taking chances with their own lives; they are taking chances with their countries. Yet they can’t seem to help themselves.
One explanation for this comes from Christine Northrop's The Wisdom of Menopause in which she contends that there is a reason why it is a time when many, many marriages go through this sort rockiness.

She argues that menopausal women are misunderstood, that it is not a period of irrationality, but actually a time of empowerment for women. The kids are no longer in need of constant care, there's a sense that life is now theirs to live. Screw the constant primping to impress men, there's a comfort with the new body and the old self. Longstanding desires that had been put on the back burner and new ideas about what to do with yourself become live options. During menopause women catch a second wind. But physically, the body change comes with a decrease in physicality that coincides with a sense that it is time for them to take care of themselves and not to take care of their spouse like his mommy any longer.

At the same time, men are going through their own changes. We are a culture that defines masculinity in terms of (a) virility and youth, and (b) bread-winner status. Men get older and suddenly the six pack abs turn into twelve pack flabs. The hair is going and certain parts don't quite do what they used to do anymore. At the same time, they think about retirement and the loss of the professional identity that they had formed over decades. No longer seeing themselves as the young, rising go-getter at work, they envision a life of leisure getting served in the way they've grown accustomed. And then they don't. Their sense of self as a man is undermined from multiple directions. How to get it back? Sexual interest from a young woman who is willing to dote on him does the trick. It makes him feel like he is still himself, like he is valuable in cultural terms again. As a result, one often sees menopause and marital strife and/or divorce coinciding.

Of course, there is a difference between an explanation and an excuse. The point here is not to say, "poor old guys, what victims," and let them off the hook for their indiscretions. Infidelity is wrong, period. But Barbara is right that there is a gender thing happening here, something conditioned by both biology and culture, something that might have an explanation.

I probably should mention that I proposed to Thewife in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia while we were hiking the Appalachian Trail -- literally, that is, we were hiking the Appalachian Trail, not "hiking the Appalachian Trail" in the Governor Sanford sense of the term...