August 25, 1980 12:00 PM

“A lot is known about the physical changes women go through during menopause,” says Dr. Edmond C. Hallberg, professor of counselor education at California State University at Los Angeles. “But very little is known about men at this age. I think basically men and women are more alike than different in their middle years.” Hallberg explains his conclusions in a recently published book, The Gray Itch: The Male Metapause Syndrome (Warner Books, $2.50). He coined the term “metapause” to describe the midlife crisis experienced by most males between the ages of 40 and 55. Hallberg, 48, became aware of the syndrome eight years ago when he and his first wife of 14 years began drifting apart. At the time Hallberg and a colleague were also asked to counsel 100 laid-off aerospace engineers about new opportunities. Since most of these men seemed to identify themselves in terms of their work, Hallberg says, “The issue was not ‘Get me another job’ but ‘Who am I?’ ” Hallberg investigated further and found the highest alcoholism and divorce rates exist among men in their 40s. (Hallberg’s own marriage ended in 1975. His two daughters, Kristen, 18, and Karin, 15, live with their mother in a Los Angeles suburb.) Despite the potential for crisis, Hallberg believes that metapause can also be a positive time. He took up painting and photography himself during this period, remarried (his second wife, Kaylene, teaches gifted children) and launched a new career counseling others in midlife crises. He talked about the male metapause with Sue Ellen Jares of PEOPLE.

What precisely do you mean by metapause?

To say “menopause for men” is wrong because the cessation of the menses is a typical female thing. I think of “meta” as denoting change. The “pause” is the first message you get about it. Perhaps you’re driving down the freeway and suddenly feel a little depressed. Metapause is characterized not so much by fear of death as a need to use well the time that’s left, to do the right things, make the right moves now. That tension causes a lot of stress, and many men respond by drinking heavily, getting depressed, having affairs, not showing up at work. Their behavior can also take the form of sniping, sarcasm and irascibility.

Do men experience hormonal changes during this period?

Yes, hormone output, particularly of testosterone, declines in midlife. The decline is gradual, with the greatest drop usually between 40 and 50 years of age. There seems to be a loss of physical stamina as a result, plus evidence of behavior changes related to depression. Sexual potency does not seem to be related to hormonal output, but the gradual loss does affect men’s interest in sex.

Do men have “hot flashes” as women do at this age?

Yes, in midlife our thermostats sometimes get out of whack. The feeling comes over us quickly, and we ask our bed partners to throw off the blankets or our business partners to open a window during a board meeting.

Is a midlife crisis inevitable?

I think men who are workaholics escape. Their work is very protective, like a cocoon. There’s nothing wrong with that unless you discover that when you get your gold watch, you wish you’d done something else.

Is metapause then aggravated by a man’s professional life?

I think it often is. Sometimes problems and conflicts at home will lead to some questions at work, and vice versa—the emptiness when kids grow up and leave often affects the father as much as the mother. The man feels the emptiness because a primary purpose, i.e., getting the kids educated, is no longer there. Our physical and sexual selves, our wives, kids, work—all are mirrors of our identity, and when you reach your 40s, those mirrors begin to smudge.

Do men who own their own businesses suffer less?

I’ve counseled attorneys, dentists, physicians and others who have their own practices or businesses, and my hunch is that in the career area they have an easier time of it, but the problems in other areas are just as dominant. I do know that many men in corporations long for the small-business life when they reach their 40s, because it’s personal and they have more control. I think they often jump into the fantasy of small business without enough planning, and that’s why so many of them fail.

Is a midlife crisis an excuse for irresponsible behavior?

It is used that way by some. I got a call from a woman who said she knew her husband was going through the “gray itch,” and one way he was working it out was by playing a lot of tennis with a woman from his office. The previous evening he’d called his wife to ask if it was all right if he stayed at the woman’s house because they could get a court only very early the next morning. The wife asked me if I thought she should say yes. I told her I did not.

Is boredom the main reason men so often discard their wives in favor of new, frequently younger women?

I think that has a lot to do with it. As our life cycle gets longer, it’s not very exciting to sleep with the same person for 30 years. That’s something we must contend with unless we can keep the excitement in a marriage. As for the younger woman, I think it can be a very genuine love relationship, but for the man it also has to do with recapturing—lost youth. When the man looks across the table and sees a 20-year-old, he’s also projecting that he’s 20. The other kind of man we run into is one who uses his experience to compensate for her youth; he becomes her mentor. But the main advantage of such an affair, regardless of age, is having a confidante. Many men tell their mistresses everything. People save up all their problems, meet once a week, make love and talk about how bad their spouses are.

Is there a solution?

I think it’s clear that what we can offer each other in midlife is a sense of intimacy that you don’t get any other place. All of us seem to need it, and very few of us have it. I read that the average couple married 15 years or more spends only 17 minutes a day talking about personal things.

If the man is having a greater struggle than the woman, what can she do to help?

Help him understand it has something to do with his time of life, that he’s not the only one going through it. Until recently, men never talked to each other about personal things. Try to get the man to talk about what’s bothering him, to discuss the overt problems such as depression, alcoholism or absenteeism at work. Unfortunately, it frightens some women when men show emotion. They’ll say the guy’s falling apart because he was crying the other night.

What do others do to exacerbate the problems of metapause?

After a couple separates, people say, “I’ll bet you’re really having fun,” and, “Wouldn’t it be nice to be like Fred?” But I had some time to do that after the breakup of my first marriage, and the other Freds I ran into weren’t very happy. However, when they saw old friends and relatives, they would say they were happy because they didn’t want to look like they’d made a poor decision.

What are some examples of escapist behavior?

One Los Angeles attorney went off to climb Mount Everest because he was losing control of his life. In another case a computer salesman’s business colleague died, and he became a fry cook at a ski resort. Another man was impotent one night, and the next day took up skydiving.

Is impotence a common problem?

I think impotence occurs sometimes with all men—generally secondary impotence, induced by such things as overeating or overdrinking. But it scares a guy half to death, because the male’s masculinity is so closely tied to his sexuality, even more than to his work. A great deal of secondary impotence is basically just being a spectator and worrying about it so that it happens again. Primary impotence—caused by medical problems—is rare, accounting for less than 10 percent of all cases.

Is there a decline in interest in sex as people reach midlife?

A common myth about sexuality is that you’re over the hill at midlife, but there is no evidence to that effect. People who are healthy can have good sex into their 80s. Sure, people take longer to be stimulated by one another at middle age. I can’t do as many pushups as I used to, but it doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy physical activity.

Can the metapause crisis be avoided?

Escapist behavior should be avoided, because too much drinking or blaming your wife or running off to Tahiti—the so-called Gauguin syndrome—doesn’t solve the problem, though it may relieve it for the moment. I think metapause ought to be faced as a positive time. In our groups we call it “scratching the gray itch.” Some of the scratching—looking around, questioning who you are or what you’re doing with the rest of your life—is valuable if coupled with new goals.

What steps can be taken to alleviate the trauma of metapause?

Kids need to know what parents are going through. Because productivity may be reduced during metapause, corporations must look at other things besides raises as incentives for their employees, such as giving older men positions advising younger employees. People have different needs when they’re in midlife. Stress costs corporations an estimated $2.5 billion per year, and my guess is that metapause problems cost an equal amount in terms of alcoholism, absenteeism and depression. I would like to see life-cycle courses taught in high school and college. We must learn what to expect at different stages of our lives. We have a kind of nirvana view of marriage and life, and that’s too bad. Why shouldn’t we struggle at times?

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