Friday, August 29, 2014

Lust, libido and midlife crisis

Personal Story of Midlife Crisis

Rob Brandenburg had it all. At 40, he was CEO of his own successful metal technology business, had a beautiful wife, three children and a dream home in the Adelaide hills. He’d ticked all the boxes when it came to success. Then one day he found himself sitting in a five-star Asian hotel with his head in his hands asking himself, "Why do I feel so empty?"

That’s how Rob’s midlife crisis started. He realized he’d grown apart from his wife and felt like a stranger in his own home. A future of acquiring more companies and making more money seemed suddenly meaningless. "All this wasn't really me, it wasn't giving me any sense of satisfaction – just a sense of burden and emptiness," he says.

Some men in the throes of midlife panic become depressed. Some act out by squandering their retirement fund – buying a Ferrari, getting a hair transplant and a chest wax or reverting to the behavior of their youth by staying out late and flirting with women half their age.

But whether it manifests itself in ostentatious chest-puffing or more radical life changes, a man in midlife is often in turmoil.

Studies of mental health over people’s lifetime have found that mental distress peaks in middle age for men. Depression rates rise in the 35-55 age group, but it’s not just mental illness that’s the problem. This is also just the time men’s physical health deteriorates.

"Men experience a sudden shock of fear, which is around, Oh God, I’m halfway through my life and I haven’t done all the things I wanted to do," says counselor Anne Brelsford, author of the report The Marital Mid Life Crisis. "They think, Life has passed me by. Will I have time now? It’s now or never. There is a lot of fear."

Is that so different from what women go through at the same age? From her experience counseling couples, men fall harder, Brelsford says. Men’s validation is more tied up in work than women’s, so when their professional life suddenly feels meaningless, it can lead to a downward spiral.

Women also tend to have stronger social and support networks – in fact, midlife for many women is a time when they are freed up from their families and can take on new challenges. "For them, it’s an opportunity to seize the day," she says.

Men are often stripped of their Superman trunks when they realize that they are not immortal. The unavoidable signposts that life is getting to the pointy end can be highlighted by life events such as the death of a relative, a change in work, a job loss or a marriage breakdown. This is also the age when illnesses get more serious, especially if men have spent their youths drinking and smoking.

Added to that, it’s the time of life when marital happiness tends to be at its lowest ebb, particularly if there are children, says Dr Michael Baigent, clinical adviser to BeyondBlue. Studies have shown couples are happy when they first marry, but satisfaction dips while the children are under 12. As the children start to become more self-sufficient, marital happiness picks up and can even exceed the honeymoon stage in old age.

So are men prisoners of their hormones, in much the same way women can be rocked by menopause? The "male menopause", or andropause, may well be to blame for some unexplained or erratic behavior. Men experience a 1-2% yearly drop in testosterone levels after 40, which is thought to be responsible for declining muscle strength and sex drive, more body fat, greater lethargy and irritability, and depression. A realization that virility is on the wane may be a serious setback for many men.

This change in hormones isn’t nearly so marked as that in the female menopause, and doctors such as Professor Robert McLachlan, director of Andrology Australia, dispute the existence of the male menopause altogether. "Male menopause is a nonsense term," he says. "It’s been conjured up partly for marketing reasons, but in reality men can’t have a menopause because they never menstruate."

Still, health problems such as obesity and diabetes can cause testosterone levels to fall faster than normal, and addressing these issues will make men feel better. Testosterone injections may help some people who have abnormally low levels due to other, rare medical problems – but for most the midlife malaise has far deeper roots.

Rob Brandenburg puts it this way: "In my case it was a fundamental misalignment around my sense of true self. You may not be hearing it accurately, but at some level you’re saying, It’s time to look after me. What about me?"

True, crises can hit at any time – the mid-twenties, pre-retirement and retirement phases are peak times, too. And women also pass through times of major re-evaluation, especially when their roles change as children are born or leave home.

Says Anne Hollonds, CEO of Relationships Australia NSW, "We’re seeing adults with very high expectations of happiness and personal life satisfaction. We’re very easily disillusioned by not achieving certain goals or having pursued goals and finding they haven’t brought us the satisfaction we thought they would."

Indeed, research into happiness and quality of life shows it’s not how much money we have but the quality of our personal relationships that counts. "Yet regardless of that evidence, we still seem to be gambling on these personal relationships and pursuing goals associated with wealth – and that’s particularly true of men."

Midlife can be an opportunity to grow – but if men don’t listen to that inner message, they may start acting out the stereotypical midlife behavior of buying fast cars or leaving the marriage for a younger woman. Neither is likely to bring a man the fulfillment he craves, and can be devastating for the families left behind.

The medical model for dealing with the mental distress of a midlife crisis is to medicate for depression. However, more valuable for many men may be counseling to give them permission to acknowledge they are at a crossroads and to dream of what else could be out there.

Counseling is what Harry credits with saving his marriage. He and his wife Jennifer had already made a change, leaving his job in Asia as a senior manager with an international company and moving back to Sydney to set up an import business.

"It was the stress of [the job] and, probably more importantly, feeling the stress of my partner at home being unhappy with her lot – and frequently blaming me and my work for her unhappiness – that led to a re-assessment of what I was doing and feeling that I was being forced to make a change. That was the beginning, I think, of what became a significant rift in our relationship," he says.

Instead of giving him relief, the change meant Harry felt under even more pressure to finance the dream life his wife and children were living. The resentment and criticism spiraled on both sides, leaving Harry introspective and moody.

Gradually he became emotionally involved with a younger woman with whom he was planning a business partnership. On a business trip to Hong Kong they fell into each other’s arms, and he returned to Sydney to tell his wife he was moving out.

In the end, it was the thought of telling his kids, combined with his reading on divorce and the advice of good friends, that convinced him it was time to fix things with Jennifer.

A series of sessions with a therapist, one-on-one and then later with Jennifer, helped them work through four years of pent-up resentment. "Counseling helped me see what was important – it helped me priorities," he says. "At the same time, Jennifer never stopped saying she loved me and cared for me. I think that was important."

Just as marriages can survive the wild and woolly years of menopause, so too can they weather the male midlife crisis, says Anne Brelsford, as long as mutual respect and affection are still there. "It’s important for the couple to try to renegotiate the terms of their relationship," she says. "Lots of couples work out how they can manage this together so the man can get some of the fulfillment he’s looking for without leaving the family."

That might take the form of restructuring the mortgage and taking a year off, making a change, renegotiating working hours or finding some other creative and meaningful way of building a life together.

When Rob Brandenburg had his midlife crisis, it was too late for his marriage. But he is thankful it enabled him to rethink his priorities and discover his true direction. He went back to university to study counseling and psychology and ended up completing a doctorate on the male experience of midlife. He now spends his time counseling other men through their own midlife issues. "I’m so much happier now. This is my true self now, not the fa├žade I presented to the world in my twenties and thirties," he says.

"Thank goodness I found the answer was within. Midlife is about the inner journey – it’s a fantastic opportunity."

Author: Helen Signy

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