Male Menopause: More than a Myth
by Kathy Sena
As a 40-something woman, I don’t have to look too far ahead to see what’s around the corner: Hot-flash City. Even though I’ve had nary a flash so far, it’s tough to escape the subject. While bookstore browsing recently, I was struck by how many menopause books there are out there.
A few really caught my attention, because they weren’t talking about me they were aimed at my husband. We’re talking titles like Maximizing Manhood: Beating the Male Menopause; Reversing the Male Menopause; and my personal favorite, given that I’ve yet to see a book on how men can help their wives through menopause: Woman’s Guide to Male Menopause: Real Solutions for Helping Him Maintain Vitality and Virility.
What’s going on here? After all, a good old-fashioned mid-life crisis is one thing. But men don’t have ovaries. So is it fair to take the word “menopause” and apply it to men? Experts say yes. They note that hormonal changes really can affect a man as he approaches the big 4-0, a bit earlier than the age of menopause for most women. But the toughest challenge for men isn’t so much the physical changes, they say. It’s the psychological ones.
Facing Mid-Life Decline
Even for those who stay fit, this aspect of middle age simply isn’t a picnic. And to add insult to injury, hormone levels are starting to decline in both sexes, which doesn’t make for harmony around the homestead.
For men, menopause has no definitive beginning and end; no rite of passage to “get through.” It simply starts slowly in the late 30s or early 40s, with a gradual decline in testosterone, the primary male sex hormone, and it continues for the rest of a man’s life. So there’s no such thing as a “post-menopausal man.”
Researchers believe men’s hormonal decline may be linked to age-related changes in muscle tissue, bone density, body fat and heart function. Also, reduced testosterone levels can make a man feel not quite himself and can affect his libido.
As unsettling as the physical changes of middle age may be, it’s the mental and emotional transition that can really throw a monkey wrench into things.
“Particularly in the first half of their lives, men are rewarded for putting blinders on and pursuing their narrow career path,” observes Gail Sheehy, author of Understanding Men’s Passages. “Life seems straightforward.” But after a certain number of birthdays have passed, life doesn’t seem so straightforward.
Much of this angst relates to whether a man has accomplished the “tasks of adulthood,” says clinical psychologist Barbara Fine, PhD. “As young adults, men have certain emotional tasks that include making a good living, having an intimate relationship and raising a family,” she explains. “A man’s self-esteem is imbedded in those tasks. And how well he accomplishes these things has a direct impact on how a man will look at his life as he approaches 40 and beyond.”
How You Can Help
Here are some of the most common challenges men face at midlife along with our experts’ suggestions for how to help your man over the humps:
Avoiding “the eight-hundred-pound gorilla.” That’s Sheehy’s term for what can develop between a husband and wife when sexual habits or performance change over time and the couple, not knowing what is normal and not knowing how to discuss the problem, simply pull away from intimacy. Don’t wait for a crisis before you start talking. Make those weekly dinner dates. Schedule intimate evenings at home and trade babysitting with a friend.
Accepting life’s compromises and ignoring the Joneses. OK, so he’s not the head of the company. That doesn’t mean a guy can’t have a great life. A man has to ask himself if the compromises he’s made have helped him create the kind of life he wants. Remind your mate that forgoing the corner office in favor of spending evenings with his family can offer more long-term satisfaction than any corporate perks.
Be sure to let your spouse know that you’re willing to make these choices and the compromises that may go with them together. The constant striving for material things can mask a real emptiness inside, says Fine. Serenity and internal peace are not achieved by these things. Many men feel compelled to stay in a job they dislike because of family expectations. Now’s the time to assess your family’s true financial needs. What’s more important: a new car or having time to help with homework, play Scrabble with the kids and go to movies together?
Staying connected in the community. As women enter middle age, they tend to strengthen their friendships and become more involved with their community. Men, on the other hand, can become increasingly isolated and glued to the couch. It’s important to develop long-term relationships with other couples who are going through the same life stages.
A man needs to give back, too. Using his skills to help other people (whether it’s pounding nails for Habitat for Humanity or teaching a child to read) can help a man feel needed. “Self-absorption is the im-poverishment of the soul,” Fine says. “The ability to give back is the ultimate sign of a mature individual.”
If a man feels good about his partnership with his wife, his relationship with his children and his life’s work, he can approach middle age “with some kind of grace,” says Fine. But dissatisfaction in these areas can signal bumpy times ahead. Red flags include low energy, changes in appetite or sleep habits and a lack of motivation. “You want to watch for that feeling that ‘everything’s turned to vanilla,’” she explains.
What if you sense that your man is facing an impending crisis, but he just won’t talk? Don’t push. “If he takes a step back, you take a step back,” advises Fine. “Sometimes a guy needs time alone to regroup, and a woman has to be secure enough to let that happen. But if things don’t turn around, it may be time to say, ‘We’ve got trouble and we need to see somebody,’” she says. “And if he won’t go, you go.”
In the end, men and women may experience different physical challenges in their middle years, but their inner tasks are very much the same, says Sheehy. They are to accept the inevitable changes of middle age and to use them as stepping stones for growth. Male menopause may be a time of relinquishing certain kinds of power. But if a man can use this time of life for inner growth, he can find himself on the road to a new and ultimately, more satisfying kind of power.
Kathy Sena is a freelance writer specializing in health and family issues.