The American Male Mid-life Complication by Steve Amoia and Andrew T. Durham
We have heard the term "mid-life crisis," but what about a newer phenomenon, which we will anoint the "mid-life complication." Usually, we associate such crises with middle aged men. There seems to be a cultural shift in what is now acceptable and normal as a man approaches the age range between 35 and 50. The complication of one's life by conscious choice or due to a decision by the woman in your life. We mention the latter due to the statistic that American women initiate divorce proceedings at a far higher rate than men. But let’s look at some of the other factors that may contribute to this phenomenon.
Changing Value of Time Due to Self-Absorption
Even though Americans are living longer than their parents and grandparents, they seem to have a different value of time. As in "there are not enough hours in the day, I might die tomorrow, and it is all about me." We see this with hectic schedules, incessant cell phone usage, email, voicemail, and making oneself available 24 hours a day. Vacations are interrupted by calls or emails from the office. The old joke of "Gone Fishing" no longer exists. Because even the best of fishermen in the new millennium has a Blackberry, GPS tracking device, along with a wireless laptop. Perish the thought that one of us might actually not be available for more than a day. It reminds us of an insurance commercial from years ago: "If I don't return your call, I'm probably dead." With voicemail and "away" messages programmed on various devices, people would not know that we passed into the next life for days, weeks, or perhaps even a month. But given this culture's lack of patience, no doubt your family, friends, and foes would assume you were blowing them off. "How dare he or she not respond to my email or voicemail after 3 days?" And leave you messages post mortem to remind you.
Gone are the days when we anticipate the letter arriving in the mail. No more will we see modern movies with an elderly person sifting through yellowed letters stashed in a shoe box, wiping nostalgic years from their eyes. They will no doubt be sitting at a laptop scrolling down their saved emails, wiping nostalgic tears from the keyboard, when in fact those tears are just the result of optical irritation from staring at the computer screen. Nothing to keep and to hold, just the frantic immediacy of having to be validated and acknowledged right now, this minute.
A Crisis or a New Life Cycle?
We used to grow up, become educated, train for a job, marry, have children, be good citizens and neighbors, live life to the best our abilities, and then retire. But the paradigm has changed significantly. Now, the norm seems to be the following for many American men: marry or not marry, provide/gather material things that society expects, change partners after x amount of years, start new relationships, pay multiple mortgages, alimony, child support, start another family, deal with in-laws, ex-laws, ex-wives, ex-companions, blended families, step-children, biological children, along with visitation situations that involve the latter. Not to mention gatherings that will involve the mutual parties for years to come. All of this it seems is designed on the paradox of cluttering life to run away from complacency to find comfort that will eventually become complacency based on the warped values of this day and age. So we start it again.
Have any of us thought to ask why American men have chosen or accepted this mode of living? When high-profile men resign from their jobs, the usual and somewhat coded response is, "I want to spend more time with my family." Perhaps "families" would be more accurate. Truly ironic in an age where the family has gone the way of the dinosaur. But with all of those intertwined relationships and responsibilities, how was he able to work 12 to 14 hours a day running Corporate America or in a publicly elected office? Instead of pruning the proverbial life tree as we get older, we seemingly add more fruit. We don’t even stop to see what fruit it is we have grown, or even whether it’s poisonous or safe to eat. And some of it is not ripe.
American men and women demand more than their parents ever dreamed were possible. Their sense of entitlement far exceeds what our ancestors realistically expected from each other. A quote by Mrs. Cuomo, the mother of the former New York Governor, Mario, commenting before the marriage of her grandson, Andrew, to one of the Kennedy's, warrants inspection. Apparently, the bride to be, Kerry, said that being happy was a major criterion. "Happy? We didn't expect to be happy. We didn't have time to think about that as immigrants and living through the Great Depression." People spend an enormous amount of time thinking about happiness, more so today than in the past. Yet, as we have seen, how can one know happiness if they don’t even know the qualifications? What this quest for happiness really becomes is the modern man who just doesn’t want to grow up. With the pathological emphasis on youth and beauty in this dying culture of ours, we have substituted the “pursuit of happiness” with the “frantic, hell – bent sprint to lie about your age.” Men do not even accept maturity as an option because it has the age thing attached to it. And the brainwashing from Madison Avenue and media is relentless in this regard. We sacrifice sophistication for hair dye. We pile on complication after complication, pretending that it makes us more interesting and vital, when what it really does is nurture our inner moron.
Two Examples: Wanted and Unwanted Complication
That said, let's look back at the current issue: Complication. We would like to discuss two hypothetical examples. One initiated the change, and the other was the recipient. Let's say that both men were in their late 40s, had children, and were married for most of their adult lives. For one, his wife's request for divorce struck him like a bolt of thunder. For the other, his decision was met by a similar reaction by his wife and children.
They both had the much-heralded American dream. Loving wives, nice homes, and healthy children. They were respected community leaders, dedicated fathers and husbands, responsible workers and citizens. They were role models in behavior and by example. But let us assume that different roads were taken by both men due to their circumstances.
Mr. A decided that married life didn't appeal to him any further. He left his wife for a younger woman, exposed her to his children before the divorce was final, moved from upscale Suburbia to a shared residence with someone from Craigslist, and began to associate with new friends. Now he has several mortgages to pay, educational bills for his children, he can't afford a new residence for many years (if at all given the mortgage melt-down), and when his life is sorted out, the younger woman probably has moved on to greener pastures. Speaking of "green," the financial aspect of this complication is another factor that is rarely analyzed. If marriage is perceived as a ball and chain, what would we call this? Could Harry Houdini get out of this type of entanglement? Or would he just meet Sally again?
We can ask if his children needed to be exposed to the new woman before things were final. Contemporary adults sometimes forget that our children are not peers. Frequently, they are exposed to a parent's new lives immediately, or consulted about adult life choices. Even when those choices are temporary and in flux, which is the very definition of adolescence and young adulthood. But who is growing up, and who is regressing to their "glory days?" Perhaps that equation needs further analysis. In this scenario, Mr. A, who initiated this change, has more complications and obligations now as a single man than he ever had in marital bliss. And he has unwittingly plunged himself back in time to a life more suited to a young man fresh out of college, when ideally he should be well immersed in this “happiness thing” he thought he was trying to achieve. Once again, “The best laid plans of mice and men….”
Mr. B moved from a house to a small apartment for the first time in his adult life. He focused on his work and other activities. He hasn't dated. Having been previously married, he will not expose his children to a new partner until his own life is more stable. He is adjusting to new issues such as joint custody and holidays spent alone. He was a man who married for life; however, it takes two to tango for that old Argentine dance. Diamonds are not forever. Neither are marriage vows. In a society without honor our commitments are more “druthers” than an oath.
To complicate or not to complicate, that is the question. What is the answer? Perhaps less is more. Perhaps the trend is not your friend. The nuclear family tree has now grown into Branch Avenue. "My ex brother-in-law from my second marriage. My step-grandchild from the first divorce of my son." Just like the Olive Garden, we'll treat you like family. But you now need a U.N. interpreter to cook the meal and take your order.
There are two kinds of hell in the world: no options and too many. A spiritually fit person would know how to navigate the current of life, rather than seek to control it. But that raises another issue altogether, which we’ll get into in a later column. What is clearly missing from these situations is a man at peace within himself. That is the real bottom line. While Sartre said “Hell is other people”, it seems we put all our winnings on others, in reality having no real spiritual currency with which to place the bet. And thus goes our judgment. Frantically and consciously seeking complication, we only seem to find those people and situations that fit but, at the same time, are not necessarily right. Living a shopping list life can only lead to filling the cart, not nurturing the person. Potato chips will fill you up, but will not give you the necessary nutrients to sustain you. The produce aisle may have things you like and things you need, as a tree may have fruit that is not yet ripe, ripe ones and rotten ones.
Would you prefer to pick five good apples from a healthy tree? Or twenty from a sick one hoping to find five good ones? As William Shakespeare said, "There is little choice in bad apples."
Steve Amoia can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. His web site is www.sanstefano.com
Andrew T.Durham is a graduate of State University at Albany, with a degree in Psychology/Philosophy. In the late 80's to mid 90's he was instrumental in creating ground-breaking outreach/prevention programs, as well as being a highly successful public speaker. A former acupuncturist and clinician (primarily to inner city adolescents), he has also been a consultant to the Massachusetts State Department of Public Health and several non-profit organizations. He is an accomplished musician - proficient in 7 instruments - ,actor and author of 10 plays, 5 of which have been produced. He is currently a consultant for small non-profit agencies and lives in Rochester, NY