Are you noticing that the signs of menopause are starting to show up? Can you feel the changes happening in your body? Is it one of the topics of conversation when you and your closest friends get together? Have you already started discussing it with your doctor? How are you feeling about these things? Are they making you nervous, anxious, or upset? You're very aware of how you feel today, aren't you? And you're not keeping it a secret, are you? If you're like most women, you're aware of what's going on with you, and the people around you are aware. So then, why does it seem that your husband is the only person in your world who not only seems oblivious to how you feel, but he seems absolutely determined to make things worse?
What's happening to him? He's become more sullen and withdrawn. Little things get on his nerves and he seems to enjoy taking it out on you. You want to be understanding and supportive (you know in your heart how much he needs it), yet, the harder you try to figure out what it is he needs, the more angry and combative he becomes. God forbid that you should ask him what's going on: not only will he not tell you, it'll only increase his angry reactions. The more you want him close to you, the more you try to bridge that chasm that you feel widening between you, the more forcefully he pushes you away. He's into his own things: TV, sports, work, projects, hobbies, anything (so it seems) that'll take him away from you and your home. He's so often angry with your, and yet he won't tell you what's wrong. You wrack your brains trying to figure out what you're doing wrong.
It doesn't matter how long or how hard you wrack your brains to find the answer to this dilemma. The answer is that the man in your life is going through the midlife transition, just like you are. The sad truth about this transformation process comes down to this: you're aware of what's going on; he isn't. You know that women your age undergo certain changes and experiences that you've come to expect or to learn about as you've shared experiences with your close friends. He, sad to say, hasn't a clue what's going on. In fact, chances are excellent that he thinks he's the only guy in the world going through what he's feeling. He's probably convinced that you don't understand what he's going though - that's a good bet, since he doesn't understand it himself - and therefore, somehow, it must be your fault (it isn't). Most likely, he thinks that his whole life has been a mistake: marrying you, choosing a career, his accomplishments, his failures . . . all of it. He probably thinks that, if he had made other choices, things would be very different (they wouldn't). Without a doubt, his life right now tastes like sawdust and ashes in his mouth. He feels as though he's sacrificed too much for too little. Now, he wants to shake it all off and make up for lost time (he can't).
One of the main things your husband doesn't get right now can be expressed in that great truism: ‘Wherever you go, there you are. ’ What he very likely wants to do most right now is either to run away ('act out') or hide ('act in'). Which one he ultimately chooses depends on his personality type: is he an extrovert ('act out') or an introvert ('act in')? Will he run away into activities away from home ('act out'), or will he escape into TV, booze, drugs, the internet, work, or some other all-consuming passion ('act in')? Whether you're left chasing after him to try to get him back home to you, or you're doing your best to shake him out of his lethargic shell, either way, you're the one who'll feel left out in the cold. In addition, once you start trying to influence his behavior, you'll quickly discover that you're being blamed for the situation. If these things have been going on for a while, you'll already know that the more you try to reconnect with him, the more forcefully you'll be pushed aside.
What is happening to your husband, and what (if anything) can you do about it? First things first. What's happening to your husband is the midlife transition, including the decrease in male hormones called andropause. He's experiencing physical changes that nobody's told him about, and that he probably doesn't believe even exist. His irritability levels are increasing while his libido is dropping. He's beginning to believe that everybody's out to get him (he believes that he hasn't changed, that the way he's feeling is all other people's fault). Since he believes that he's not responsible for what's ‘happening to’ him, he's falling into a pattern of reaction and aggression that's meant to protect him from all these opponents who suddenly seem to have turned on him (that's you, by the way). The closer you try to come to him, the more pressured and attacked he feels. He thinks you just want to lock him into this life in which he's starting to feel trapped. He's very apt to react like a cornered animal.
How can you help him and save your relationship at the same time? First, and most important, realize that, when he's attacking you, it's not really you he's attacking. He's lashing out at feelings he doesn't understand. This is an opportunity to practice the Japanese art of akido: absorbing his aggressive energy without resisting or fighting back. Allowing his aggression to dissipate will at least prevent his anger from escalating against you. Secondly (and this will be definitely counter-intuitive), back away from him. Allow him the space to do the crazy things that he might get involved in. If he needs to ‘act out’ or ‘act in', don't pursue him, but don't turn your back on him, either. He's playing the double-bind game, ‘I love you: go away. ’ Let him play. Don't try to ‘help’ him. Finally, there may be times when he misses you and wants to reconnect. Be there for him (you're his only true intimate connection - without you, he'll have no one to talk to at all) without judgment and learn to listen actively with your heart. Perhaps he'll realize that his recent decisions haven't been the best. If he admits confusion, be ready with some options for him. The more knowledgeable you are about andropause and the male midlife transition, the more options you'll have.
The good news is that the male midlife transition is only a phase; the bad news is that far too many men don't make it through that transition without a crisis that may damage their marriage and/or their career and/or their health. You have a number of advantages that your guy doesn't have: a) you're aware of what's going on in your body and your emotions - he isn't; b) you have a network of friends that you're accustomed to talking about these things with - he doesn't; and c) you know that if you're having a tough time with all of this, there are people and places you can connect with to get help - he believes that's not something he can do as a real man. That makes you his strongest lifeline, so long as you have the courage to stick with him while he's doing his best to blame you and to push you away. In this case, knowledge really is power, and forewarned is truly forearmed.
H. Les Brown, MA, CFCC
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