Like Peter, many men become more interested in meaningful relationships at mid-life, less preoccupied with success and achievement. Their values become more humanistic, more expressive. They develop a deeper rapport with their children, warmer friendships with both men and women. Some switch careers, change the focus of their work, or get involved with philanthropic or political causes that bring them into closer contact with people. Others begin to paint or sculpt or write. All these changes relate to the natural evolution of a man’s inner self, an evolution that frequently generates a new tenderness.
At the same time, however, these emotional stirrings can threaten the old detente between marriage and adultery. Before, if a man had affairs he was generally careful to prevent their jeopardizing the life structure he had built for himself. But now he is questioning that whole structure, and after years of harnessing his emotions in order to realize his ambitions, he is beginning to discover that he has an improverished inner life with needs and fantasies that have never been nourished.
The result? Suddenly the man who had previously engaged only in detached, perfunctory extramarital affairs, or juggled two lives calmly, or never even considered cheating at all, finds himself at forty yearning for something romantic and consuming, something more rewarding than mere fucking around.
The mid-life man is ripe for love. Ironically, if he finds it he often panics. Accustomed to self-discipiine and denial, he is terrified by the loss of control and the feeling of vulnerability that accompany unbridled passion. Falling in love can be a disturbing experience for the aging male who has always kept his feelings under wraps, his affairs under control. The new emotions are sometimes too hot to handle for the man taught to preserve his cool.
The case of forty-year-old Edwin Gottcsman, profiled in Morton Hunt’s The Affair, is a good illustration of this phenomenon. The son of uneducated immigrant parents, Edwin was a shopping-center developer in Washington, D.C., who had been married since age twenty-two. Wealthy and successful, he was living contentedly in a lovely suburban home with his wife and two children until he began doing business with a group of Philadelphia investors. When he discovered that these men were all having affairs while away from home, he was shocked at first—and then jealous. After several months of fantasizing, he began to cautiously romance a young secretary whom he had met through a client.
From the first, this liaison both delighted and disturbed Edwin. He regarded Jennifer as an “ignorant low-class girl” who failed to match his wife, Betsy, in looks, intelligence, or sexual responsiveness. But Jennifer enchanted him nonetheless. And although he had always regarded money, self-development, and his family’s welfare as his primary concerns, these were all put aside after he met Jennifer. “She became the most important thing,” he said, “because I liked the way I acted and felt when I was with her.”
During the next year their affair intensified. But as Edwin’s behavior became increasingly impulsive—leading him to cancel business appointments to be with Jennifer, or rush out to call her from phone booths late at night—he realized he was dangerously possessed. “For a man like me, the whole thing was crazy, absolutely crazy. T had the best wife you could want, a good life, and I had been making a hundred thousand a year, and here T was letting my business fall apart and making only a half or a third that much, and ignoring my kids and my wife, and taking more and more chances. . . . But I wouldn’t look at the facts; T felt T was living the best and most exciting life possible, and T didn’t ask myself any questions because I didn’t have any answers.”
As Jennifer grew more petulant and demanding, and as their-fights became stormier, Edwin resolved to get out—but with only half a mind. And so their affair, marked by blowups and reconciliations continued for a second year. When Jennifer finally announced she was moving to New York, Edwin was furious at first, then relieved. But his relief was short-lived. Interviewed a year later, he seemed restless and dissatisfied, still puzzled by what happened: Betsy herself is much happier these days, but I’m not. I’m contented—but I’m never happy, the way I used to be when I was seeing Jennifer. . . . The things I used to do! Rushing around playing tennis, taking sailing lessons, hiring airplanes! The fighting, the drinking, the love-making. The lies, the chances I took, the loving things I did that I never knew I had in me. I would have done anything for her, and yet she was no good—a total mess, a complete misfit, not even a great lay. But she made my heart beat fast, she made something happen in me. . . .
But if my wife is so marvelous, why isn’t she enough for me? I wish I knew. She loves me and I love her, and it’s very nice, very comforting. But it leaves me feeling middle-aged and settled, and I’m not willing to accept that. Yet I don’t want anything like the Jennifer business again, so I run after women I don’t care about. I play the game, I chase them, I get laid, I go home feeling good for a little while. . . . But the truth is, I’m not as happy as a man should be who has everything I have. Go figure it out.
The reasons for Edwin’s confusion become clear when his predicament is seen in terms of the mid-life crisis. At forty he had already achieved success, but with no new goals in mind he was ready for adventure, also ready to release the softer parts of himself, which had lain dormant during his years of “making it.” Despite his failure to understand why he fell so deeply for Jennifer when she was neither beautiful nor bright nor sexy, it was never really her qualities that had attracted him, but the qualities she brought out in him.
Reflected through Jennifer’s youthful eyes, Edwin was transformed from a plodding businessman into an ardent and protective lover. She helped to release his spontaneous, tender side, long buried in an excessively rigid personality. Elated with his new self, he then ignored the responsibilities that had always consumed him and gambled recklessly with everything he had worked so hard to achieve.
The tragedy is that Edwin was unable to grow or change after his affair ended, unable to draw on his new capacity for feeling to revitalize his marriage or alter his direction. Instead, he seems to have entombed his loving, playful self, retreating into joyless sexual pursuits and a constricted way of life. And although his choice may not have been conscious, it was clearly influenced by the terror his dramatic shift inspired: Having changed from an overly controlled man into an overly impulsive one, a temporary metamorphosis that is common among men who have never been in touch with their emotions, Edwin was eager to put the lid back on his feelings lest they cause more trouble. Beneath his middle-aged mask he mourns, not Jennifer, but the death of his own fleetingly awakened emotional self.