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A friend of mine said recently, “My body won’t respond like it used to and it really makes me angry.” That sums up as well as I can imagine the agony of the physical changes that contribute to the complication of midlife. Of the three “forces” that put pressure on people to become self-absorbed and discontent during their midlife years – career re-evaluations, physical changes, and developmental mandates – I believe that transformations in our body are the most difficult.
WOMENhave an “advantage” since they deal with physical changes throughout their lives. The monthly menstrual cycle makes change a “normal” part of their experience. Pregnancy brings great changes to a woman’s body (as well as to the marriage and family). Then peri-menopause announces the onslaught of the coming midlife years – which is also the most influential time of life. Finally, menopause is a dramatic time of change where symptoms can range from hot flashes to osteoporosis and cause discomfort, challenges, and a sense of interruption to a woman’s life. I’ve watched Pam wrestle with many of the symptoms for the past couple of years and I can tell it is unnerving. Out of the blue, she blurts out, “It is so hot in here. Are you hot? Is it just me or is it burning up?” It has obviously been very frustrating to her but it hasn’t surprised her. She knew it was coming and she researched it for months before it began. Her midlife friends had talked with her about “the change” that was coming for all of them. Her mom had talked about the way menopause had affected her life. Pam even wrote about it in books and spoke about it in conferences. Although it has not been pleasant, it was not unexpected for her. MEN have unique emotional struggles at midlife based on their lack of experience with physical change. Puberty is a big time of change, but from ages 18 to 40 things are relatively static since testosterone levels remain fairly steady. The obvious influence of this strength hormone includes bigger muscles, facial hair, a deeper voice, and generally a more aggressive approach to life. Testosterone makes men feel incredibly strong to the point of invincible as we become aware of a forcefulness of life that resides within us. Our legs feel strong, our arms feel strong, even our hair and fingernails feel strong. It seems we can take physical risks without fear because we will either avoid injury with remarkable agility or recover so quickly that any damage will be minor. In every competitive pursuit, physical challenge, problem to be solved, or business deal to be leveraged, men rely on strength.
For good and bad, men have a “strong” orientation in their sexual desires and are proud of the fact that they have a quick and strong response to sexual stimulation. It doesn't take much to raise interest and motivate them to perform with great energy and desire. Their eyesight becomes laser focused to the point they can spot a beautiful woman in the blink of an eye, and can even find beauty in their wives on their most unattractive days. The desire is like a fire sometimes, like a powerful engine at other times, and like a ferocious animal at others. It is seldom tame and gentle on its own. Left unchecked, it has the potential to consume a man’s decisions, get out of control and create damage. In fact, men must learn to be romantic and relational in order to direct their passionate power in a productive way, but they welcome the challenge. It is one of the greatest gifts and harshest companions in a man’s life.
Then it happens. We wake up one day without the same intensity – mysteriously it diminishes. Although we may have heard that our testosterone levels would change, we weren't really listening and certainly didn’t believe it would actually happen, and so we were ill prepared. I remember when it started in my network of friends, especially in “Fred’s” case. Fred had a heart attack the only way a forty-year-old can. He was driving home from work when a sharp pain started in his chest and radiated down his left arm. He thought to himself, I think I am having a heart attack. This is probably the last time I will be able to eat a meatball sandwich and the sub shop has a special – two for the price of one! Fred stopped to buy two sandwiches, he polished one off on the way home to pick up his wife, and the other on the way to the hospital. Sure enough, he had a heart attack and those were the last two meatball sandwiches he enjoyed!
Without warning the illusion of invincibility was shattered! We all wondered could that have been me? It wasn’t long before I started to notice changes in my own body. I was gaining weight even though I was eating and exercising the same as I had been, my reflexes slowed down, my stomach was getting rounder, my hair was subtly getting thinner, and my joints began to ache. For me, one of the most disconcerting changes was the loss of endurance. Up until 45 years of age, I went to bed at night because I knew it was important, but if needed, I could stay up all night to focus on tasks that had to be completed. Now, I found my body started demanding that I stop working every night – I was out of steam! Intellectually, I knew this was normal – but it didn't feel right! I became angry with myself and wanted things to return to “normal” so I started running more, but when the results failed to surface I started thinking, I wonder if something is wrong with me? I have always been able to keep my weight under control. I need to go see my doctor. When the doc told me this was normal for a man my age, I was crushed! I never thought anyone would refer to me as “a man my age.”
I then had to admit that my sex drive was going through its own transformation. The midlife sex drive is not what it used to be (evidenced by the deluge of erectile dysfunction commercials). I was still passionate about my wife but the sense of urgency was gone. Suddenly it was okay if we waited, frequency was no longer top priority. The pressing drive to have sex was replaced with a more contented desire to have satisfying encounters with Pam. I found sexual calmness to be a refreshing midlife gift. The odd thing was that the quick, strong sexual response from my twenties was gone – now I needed time to prepare. Women are supposed to need time and attention to get ready, not men. In my more mature moments it was easy to accept, but most of the time it felt strange.
A man who views the opportunity to learn new skills and enter a new season of love with his wife will discover a new depth in his marriage. He’ll find relational treasures and physical comfort with the one he’s traveled the entire intimate journey with. However, a man that cannot accept this time of change will panic over the diminishing sexual longing. He is afraid of feeling weak, feminine, or unable to perform; and may go looking for a new adventure to reignite his passion. He convinces himself it must be the familiarity of his long-term relationship rather than an actual change in his own body’s physical chemistry. If he acts on it, he finds a short renewal of passion – but it isn't long before it catches up with him. He cannot keep the same pace he did when he was young. The new round of sexual exploits includes failed attempts at intimacy which reminds him of his age. Eventually, he realizes it would be easier physically if he returned home. Sadly, it’s not always possible because of the damage he’s created during his fruitless pursuit of youth.
To keep from feeling frustrated about physical changes, you can work to:
be content with doing less.
practice marital relationship skills that include interaction, patience, and being with your spouse without the need to engage sexually.
place more value on influencing other people’s lives and less value on what you can accomplish with your own strength.
It takes focus, but gets more comfortable every year. I spent the 25 most productive years of my life relying on the strength God put in me. I now have to allow the skills of wisdom and insight to mature, rely on them, and share them freely with others over the next 25 years.
My daily prayer is, “Lord, help me make the transition from physical strength to wise influence with grace, dignity, and integrity.”
Pam often prays, “Father, please help me to be patient and loving as I ride the emotional menopause roller-coaster. Lead me in being a good example for those watching me grow up physically, and spiritually. Continue to remind me to choose joy in all situations.”