midlifedude

Man at midlife making second half matter

Archive for the category “relationships”

Midlife Men and Divorce: Risky Business

For the capstone class – the 22nd! – of my 5 ½-year master’s degree program in clinical mental health counseling, I had to choose a narrow “clinical population” for a research project. Somewhat shamelessly, self-servingly and unimaginatively, I essentially chose myself: a midlife man who has experienced divorce.

The findings were not pretty for the divorced midlife’s male’s future, though I acknowledge I intentionally selected research that highlighted why this population would be candidates for mental health treatment.DivorceHeartPhoto

Research has come to varying and sometimes contrasting conclusions on divorce and midlife men (roughly age 35 to 60), and mitigating factors are difficult to account for. However, numerous studies have shown that midlife men who have experienced marital breakdown have had greater propensity to become depressed, anxious or develop other psychiatric disorders; abuse alcohol or drugs; suffer from higher rates of illness, earlier death and suicide; harbor anger; live with loneliness and social phobia; qualify for work disability; and experience lower levels of physical health, mental and emotional well-being, and happiness and self-esteem.

And the majority of time, men aren’t the ones pulling the trigger on divorce, which studies show is one of the most psychologically distressing events in life. Research indicates that wives frustrated by an inability to improve their troubled marriages may be more likely to end them, with one study concluding that husbands initiate only a quarter to a third of marital separations.

These are research-based outcomes of divorce that pose challenges for the midlife man:

  • Recently divorced men were more likely than other groups to receive psychiatric treatment and be prescribed medication for mental health disorders. One study concluded that major depression was nine times higher among men who had been separated or divorced compared to stably married and single men.
  • Remarriage in midlife brings with it a whole new set of complications and negotiations that cause stress, indicating that marriage alone does not prevent mental and physical problems. One study found that remarriage was associated with an increased risk of depression compared with men who remained divorced.
  • Men often rely on their wives for their social lives and support for their health and emotional well-being, as women generally have stronger social support networks. Without their marriage, men can become prone to social isolation and loneliness.
  • A common dynamic of divorce is “non-acceptance” of marital dissolution. The ongoing feelings of attachment are associated with depression. The reality for some divorced fathers is continuing angry disagreements with and hostility toward their former wife a decade or more after breakup.
  • Once divorced, men’s physical health can decline, as wives often assume a role for monitoring and influencing their partner’s health behaviors.
  • While women experiencing divorce were at higher risk for mood and anxiety disorders, men were at higher risk for new substance abuse disorders. One study indicated that divorced 46-year-old men comprised a disproportionately higher share of binge and heavy drinkers compared to other groups of the same age.
  • The mortality risk for inconsistently married men (those who had divorced and remarried) was more than 40 percent greater than for consistently married men, and men who were currently separated or divorced had a mortality risk 2.5 times greater than consistently married men.
  • Men who had been divorced had a higher prevalence of work disability many years after the initial divorce.

As for me, I was the prototype of the midlife divorced male: separated at 42 and divorced at 45 in an action initiated by my ex-wife, with two pre-adolescent kids. I also have remarried, and while my wife Amy has been a wonderful social and emotional support, as the research indicated about wives, the second union has inevitably come with some stress due to new family dynamics and inter-relationships, financial complications and psychological adjustments.

I have avoided many of the pitfalls of the midlife divorced male, such as substance abuse or physical health decline, but did not escape divorce unscathed. When first threatened with divorce and teetering on the brink, I suffered from depression that affected my appetite, sleep, energy level and concentration. I struggled with non-acceptance when the reality of pending divorce flooded me like an unstoppable tidal wave. I lost a big chunk of my social connections and outlets. Worst of all, it was hard not to feel like a failure at something so important, and as a letdown to my kids.

Researchers have come to different conclusions over whether such a thing as a “midlife crisis” really exists, or whether it is a pop culture phenomenon, especially for men. But there’s no doubt that midlife is the time men walk through the landmines of marital upheaval, and when they are most prone to its potentially harmful and long-lasting mental health effects.

 

‘Play the Whole Tape:’ The Struggle of Addiction

Alcoholic_AAMtgThe lanky young man with the tattoos took a break from his intricately-detailed pencil-sketching to look up from his art and turned to face me after I introduced myself to the group.

“Have you ever been addicted to drugs?” he asked.

“No,” I responded.

“Ever been addicted to alcohol?”

“No,” I said again.

“What can you know?” he mumbled with disgust and turned back to focus on his artwork.

It was my first day as a co-leader of a substance abuse therapy group, an internship for my clinical mental health counseling master’s degree as I make a career transition from public relations to counseling. The group leader smoothed the edges by telling the group members they can learn different things from counselors who had addiction problems and those who haven’t. The leaders with whom I have worked had substance abuse histories and can talk the language of the streets and drug culture; I can’t.

When a member glorifies the days of using, as those in substance abuse recovery are wont to do, one leader admonishes: “Play the whole tape,” meaning remember the misery that accompanied the action, the “ripping and running.”

Later in the session, the young man apologized to me and the group for his abrasiveness, saying he had discovered just before the session that a good friend from childhood had died by drug overdose. That type of emotional volatility and chaotic, unpredictable life is common among members.

In my two months co-leading and leading this three-hour-long group session, I have learned from members and have become more comfortable guiding and interacting with them. The members provide a fascinating window on life’s struggles and many life themes: redemption, commitment, determination, acceptance, grace, hope, resilience, courage, meaning, generosity, self-centeredness, self-destruction, temptation and despair.

Group members represent a microcosm of society: male and female; fathers and mothers; black, white and Hispanic; teenagers to seniors; those from childhoods of abuse, neglect and deprivation and others from relatively stable, caring families; workers and jobless; people doggedly seeking change and others going through the motions.

Some have been homeless, shunned by family members. Many have been imprisoned, and some still are dealing with charges that could result in jail time with any transgression. Some have risked their lives to get drugs, running dangerous streets at all hours, banging on doors of drug dealers. They have lost children, jobs, health, relationships, dignity, trust and respect over their addictions. Many have been through rehab before, but reverted to previous habits, some as soon as they exited. Their emotional lives have been engulfed with fear, shame, guilt, resentment, anger and damaged self-worth.

I don’t have any particular unique or profound insight into the scourge of addictive behavior and those who come under the influence of alcohol and drugs. I only have impressions as a person and professional new and fairly oblivious to this world. My biggest takeaway is that these individuals are not addicts, but people with addictions. In our society, we tend to apply labels to people that come with proscribed traits and characteristics, effectively straight-jacketing people into circumscribed boxes.

The experience has reinforced for me that addiction does not define the group members, a lesson I also learned first-hand when a roommate suffered a relapse. In fact, addiction is not at the core of their being at all. They are so much more than “addicts.” I appreciate the regular group members I have gotten to know for their sense of humor, loyalty, caring, openness, friendliness, raw honesty, suffering and commitment.

One woman exemplified the power of passion, hope and resilience – and the difference between those who truly accept and want to beat addiction and others who may be biding time – in an activity I led challenging the members to identify their strengths. Some struggled to come up with more than two; a few others declined to offer even one when called upon to share. But this woman, for whom the phrase “to hell and back” would apply, rattled off about a dozen assets. She appears to want recovery bad; her emotional pain is palpable. She has a medical condition that might keep others away, but she refuses to miss or give up. She’s a good person who got some raw deals in life and made some regrettable choices that sent her into a downward spiral, like many of the members, and she’s developing the courage to own it all. She is recognizing her worth as a human. She expresses faith.

I’m pulling and praying for her and the others to beat their addictions and find serenity and contentment, and hope I can be a positive influence, however small, on their recovery.

 

Overcoming Perils of Divorce

I’m a child of divorce who has wound up raising two children of divorce of my own.

Children of divorce face many more challenges in their development as kids and in adjustments to adult life and adult relationships than children from intact families, as found in Judith Wallerstein’s landmark 25-year study, The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce.familyatthanksgiving2016

But so far, at least from what I can observe on the surface and by traditional markers of success, my kids Rebecca and Daniel are showing strong signs of overcoming the perils of divorce.

[Disclaimer: Father’s unabashed bragging on kids to follow.] Rebecca, 21, is set to graduate from the University of Maryland in May, with a 3.7 GPA and multiple honor roll appearances. She’s run marathons. She’s ventured into the world, spending a semester in France and traveling extensively throughout Europe. She has loads of friends, and has formed and maintained an intimate relationship, dating a solid young man for four years. She has an internship with the French Embassy and is planning to teach English in France after graduation.

Daniel, 18, earned straight As in his first semester at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County (UMBC), taking advanced courses in computer science, biology and math that would have pummeled me as a freshman. He earned multiple Advanced Placement (AP) college credits while in high school, setting him up to graduate college within three years. He has maintained and thrived in a job while attending college and just celebrated six months in a relationship with a lovely girlfriend.

Psychological, social or emotional problems connected to growing up in a divorced family could surface as they advance into young adulthood, progress deeper into their own relationships and reflect more on their childhood experiences. But to this point, I’m thrilled and grateful for their demonstrated resilience and ability to adapt, thrive and make good decisions.

I will also take some credit for their positive adjustments, and give a good deal to their mother Theresa (not the Mother Theresa), for making a commitment to positive, caring and mutually respectful and cooperative parenting, despite the challenges we each faced due to the dissolution of our marriage. Both step-parents, Amy and Bernard, also deserve credit for being consistent, stable and positive influences, in roles often fraught with conflict that can become destructive and divisive.

For half or more of their childhoods, the kids split their time – week on and week off – with each parent. There was unavoidable upheaval – my ex-wife and I each moved twice and sold the kids’ primary childhood home. But we never lived more than 10 minutes apart (until last year when Theresa moved to Texas), and the kids were able to continue attending school in their same district without disruption.

As parents, we cooperated in financial matters, and though we were weaker financially as separate entities, the kids weren’t deprived of things they wanted to do and didn’t suffer materially. We were each committed to continue saving for the kids’ college educations despite the split, and now that is paying off big-time.

I’m sure I said things I shouldn’t have and made mistakes, especially early in the breakup. Challenges arose throughout our co-parenting in relation to family gatherings, which became emotional and tense. We weathered them, though it may have left a mark on the kids. Overall, however, I strived to be respectful and positive about Theresa, and not pollute the kids’ minds or attempt to influence them negatively or turn them against their mother with whatever hard feelings I might have had. And for good reason, because I knew Theresa was a good mother, and the kids knew the same, and anything I did to tear her down would reflect badly upon me and prompt the kids to resent me. To my knowledge, Theresa behaved the same toward me, and I’m grateful for that.

I believe these efforts, which had to be conscious, thoughtful, consistent and enduring, have helped ameliorate the effects of divorce for Rebecca and Daniel. And those potential effects, according to Wallerstein’s 25-year study, are considerable and lasting:

  • A harder, unhappier and diminished childhood, including adjustments in contact with each parent, relocations, losses of friendships and activities, decreased influence of parenting, higher anxiety, and worry about one or both parents
  • More acting out and less protection during adolescence, a result largely of inconsistent and unenforced rules and standards, and assuming greater responsibilities for themselves
  • Higher chances of sexual promiscuity among female adolescents
  • A belief that personal relationships are unreliable, and even the closest family relationships can’t be expected to last
  • Observations of second parental marriages that typically proved less stable and enduring than the first
  • Feelings of loneliness, bewilderment and anger at parents
  • Scarring memories of witnessing violence during the breakup and aftermath, and repercussions of abandonment
  • Less planning for and lower chances of college enrollment, and inadequate financial support from parents once enrolled
  • Diminished capacity to love and to be loved within a lasting, committed relationship in adulthood, a fear of failure and feelings of pessimism based on their childhood experiences, and a desire to avoid the emotional pain

Though impacts are inevitable, I am hopeful that my kids will avoid or minimize these impacts through their own strengths and abilities to deal with their childhood divorce experience in healthy ways, and through the knowledge that their parents – all four of us now – care about them greatly and always will be there to support them. So far, it looks like that’s the track they are traveling, and I am confident that they have the tools and fortitude to stay that course. Hopefully, they will break the familial pattern both my ex-wife and I experienced as kids, and bestowed on our own.

Daddy-Daughter Day

adam-reb_foyeweddingWhat are the odds that a father and a daughter would graduate from different universities on the same day?

Infinitesimal. But that is what’s destined to take place for me and my daughter Rebecca on May 20, 2017, barring unforeseen circumstances.

We’re each about to start our final semesters. I’ll be graduating from the clinical mental health counseling master’s program at Loyola University-Maryland after a five-and-a-half-year marathon, while Rebecca will be graduating with a bachelor’s degree in sociology from the University of Maryland.

It will be a proud day for the Sachs family. Unfortunately, though, I’ll have to make a choice, because the graduation ceremonies conflict. The choice is really no choice at all. As much as I would like to participate in my graduation to savor my accomplishment and sacrifice – and it really has been that, involving a career change, job loss, precipitous drop in income, scrambling to patch together part-time, temporary and seasonal employment, large tuition bills, attending evening classes after work, securing and working at two internships that have tested me, and a long-term commitment to finish rather than quit when feeling overwhelmed – the obvious choice is to attend my daughter’s graduation.

It’s not that I’m selfless. I’m not. I think a lot about myself. I’m all about me, a lot of the time. I’m not a huge giver. I might not give you the shirt off my back. But May 20 will be Rebecca’s time. It will be enough for me to know what I accomplished and that I persevered through obstacles, as much as I would like to share that moment with grad school colleagues who have done the same.

It will be more important to me that Rebecca knows and remembers that I was there, and to celebrate her achievement. I have tried to do that throughout her 21 years. There’s a quote you might know, often attributed to director Woody Allen, that “90 percent of life is showing up.” But apparently what Allen really said was, “80 percent of success is showing up.” So if I multiply a .90 show-up rate by a .80 success rate, I have a 72 percent chance of success by showing up at Rebecca’s graduation. I’ll take those odds.

Showing up always been a high priority for me as a parent, and a college graduation is no time to slack off. That simple feat – being present — was made more challenging over the years since I separated from Rebecca’s mother when she was only 9, but it was never an excuse.

We had hoped our graduations would be on different days on the same weekend. How cool would it be to attend each other’s graduations on successive days? I would like Rebecca to see a palpable example that learning, growth, striving and change can happen throughout a lifetime, by observing me graduate. But it wasn’t to be.

So I will do what I know in my gut is right and what all good parents should do – no awards or kudos needed – and put my child first.

The Art (and Practice) of Self-Promotion

I attended my 35th high school reunion last weekend – but not for the typical reasons of reconnecting with old friends or catching up with acquaintances. I knew none of the few people I still am in touch with from high school would be there, and that I wouldn’t recognize the vast majority of attendees, let alone have had even known them in high school.

I went primarily to practice self-promotion and marketing, tactics at which I am not highly proficient, but which I need to improve to raise awareness of and generate interest in my two new books published by Sirenian Publishing. These are skills which I also will sireniancardneed in the future, as I plan to launch an independent counseling practice. Having just obtained Sirenian Publishing business cards, I wanted to see if I could work the two books I have authored into conversations and grease some palms with the information.

I’ll call my endeavor a success, having talked about the books (the novel Three Yards and a Plate of Mullet about a rookie sportswriter in Florida and the nonfiction political memoir Don’t Knock, He’s Dead: A Longshot Candidate Gets Schooled in the Unseemly Underbelly of American Campaign Politics) and given out cards to the eight or so classmates I spoke with at any length.

Sorry to sound so crass, Winston Churchill High School Class of 1981. However, it wasn’t completely an exercise in marketing, public relations and sales. I also attended to be social and with the thought of the possibility of meeting engaging people and establishing a new friendship or two.

It’s just that I know that I fall on the Introversion side of the Myers-Briggs personality inventory and that I don’t get energized by joining big crowds of people I don’t know in loud, cramped spaces. In fact, when I first walked into the reserved room at the restaurant and observed the scene of many strangers who 35 years ago had something in common with me engaged with each other in loud, animated conversation, my first instinct was to leave. I wouldn’t know anybody and I wouldn’t fit in, I thought. I walked straight past the crowd to the bathroom and then stopped at the far end of the bar and watched a football game on TV for a minute to compose myself, get in the spirit and prepare to plunge into the social melee.

It’s also that I associate high school with a difficult time of life that I never felt I could embrace – no fault of my high school classmates. Just before 9th grade, I moved, the result of my parents’ divorce years earlier and my mother’s struggles with her health and ability to function adequately as a single parent. I didn’t want to move to the new high school district, leaving the neighborhood and classmates I had known since kindergarten, and I resented it. It was difficult to adjust and break into cliques and friendships that had been established for years at the new school. I was an outsider and naturally quiet, and never really felt like my new high school or community were my places.

Luckily, just as I left my safe place at the bar to mill through the crowd and face my fear, I encountered a guy I recognized who was with his fiancé. We talked for 45 minutes while I drank a beer and they ate dinner. The ice was broken. That’s what it took to quell my anxiety, open up more, engage in the event and enjoy myself – while still subtly working on self-promotion (At least, I hope I wasn’t blatant. I think I had some tact.) All the classmates I met at reunion were exceedingly friendly and accepting, and I enjoyed conversations. I was grateful for that. As a former reporter, I asked people I met a lot of questions about themselves, so I wasn’t overly narcissistic about self-promotion.

The reunion was an event I wouldn’t have attended if I wasn’t an author. I just wouldn’t have been interested enough to make the effort. But the only way to become better known is to put yourself out there more, and when you do, good things you don’t expect and side benefits can happen.

I talked to a few people at reunion I would like to see again. They don’t even have to buy a book – but it would make me want to see them again more (final shameless plug)!

 

 

Going, Going, Gone!

A week ago I lugged my son Daniel’s mini-refrigerator and cartful of computer equipment to a cramped dorm room at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County (UMBC) and officially became an empty nester. My daughter Rebecca left home for good later the same weekend to move into her new apartment at the University of Maryland.DanAdam2_PotomacHall

Since I’ve been gone all summer scraping together income to fuel my midlife career transition odyssey – except for one-day-per-month visits back home – teaching tennis at the Sea Colony Tennis resort in Bethany Beach, DE, the kids’ flight hasn’t fully registered with me yet. But when I return home for good on Labor Day night, I’ll be faced with the fact that my role as a parent has changed.

My kids have become so much more independent in the last year. Rebecca spent a semester in France and traveled throughout Europe. Daniel became more social, broadened his circle of friends, with whom he traveled to Ocean City, MD for Senior Week and California over the summer, connected with a steady girlfriend, got his first job at which he is advancing and earned college scholarship funds.

They’re becoming young adults, and our relationships will change. I am curious what those relationships will be like.

Since they are attending colleges nearby, they’ll be around on occasion, but now their college residences are their primary addresses. I am going to miss having one or both kids around the house on a regular basis.

I’m thinking the transition may be easier for me than for parents in an intact family. My kids lived with me only half the time for about half of their childhoods, since they were 9 and 7, because of my divorce. I always felt sad when I brought the kids back to their mom’s on Sunday evenings after a week with me, knowing I was going back to an emptier house and that I would likely only see them one time over the next week for dinner. The necessity to adjust to the back and forth, every other week arrangement I hope will help me adapt to this new transitional scenario.

Still, there’s nothing like your kids branching out on their own and establishing their independent lives to let you know you are advancing to new and later stages of life. I taught many kids tennis this summer and met their parents. I couldn’t help thinking those parents were me a decade ago, enjoying family vacations at the beach and doing fun kid things like walking the boardwalk at night and sliding the water park during the day. When I told tennis parent clients that I had kids also, though older at 20 and 18 and in college, I had a hard time believing it myself.

Rebecca has talked about becoming a teacher recently and of possibly following her boyfriend, a chemical engineering major, to some yet to be determined destination after college. Daniel will be pursuing studies in the computer science field at a university known for its strength in that area. They both have promising futures. I’m proud of how they have developed and the people they are. I hope I have had a positive influence on them and will remember some of dad’s “pearls of wisdom” that they probably didn’t want to hear when I offered. I implored both kids to take Spanish; they each took French. I think Daniel already may be happy that I highly recommended dorm life to him when he was considering other college living arrangements.

I look forward to developing and nurturing close and warm adult relationships with both kids. I hope it happens. It will be a two-way street from here on out. Both kids will have to desire that too and give our relationship love and care to help it grow as we all mature.

The kids are gone and one long and crucial part of my parenting journey is over. It’s been a challenge, a great learning experience, an honor and a joy, but also tinged with some tumult, sorrow and readjustment resulting from the family breakup and my second marriage. I am eager to see what the next phase will bring and know I will need to work at staying connected.

The kids are gone. In the coming weeks, I’ll learn how prepared I am to accept it.

5 Basic and Valuable Lessons I’ve Learned about Parenting

As the younger of my two children closes in on his 18th birthday, I offer five basic parenting principles that I view as important in raising well-adjusted, self-sufficient, industrious and confident children.

I didn’t invent them, and by no means was I always exemplary in following these practices — I had to learn, and still am learning, from my own mistakes and bad habits — nor are Parentsmy 20-year-old daughter and high school graduate son perfect or devoid of flaws or insecurities. Neither are your classic All-Americans or stereotypical overachievers. But they are on good tracks in their lives, have done quite well for themselves, and, importantly for me, rarely caused me any worry, grief or stress that more troubled children can cause parents.

I also have realized these aspects of positive parenting in my counseling masters’ program and associated internship, where I saw the havoc wreaked by destructive or neglectful parenting.

  1. Express caring, love and pride often. Parental expression of the positive emotions toward their children can have a lifelong impact on their self-esteem, self-image, confidence, security, well-being and overall feelings about themselves. As long as these expressions of positive emotions are genuine and backed up by actions, I don’t think you can overdo it. On the flip side, parents who frequently express destructive emotions and feelings, such as anger and disappointment, or who excessively criticize children through mocking, condescension, belittlement or other abusive behaviors, cause their children great damage that they invariably will carry into adulthood and will have tremendous difficulty in undoing.
  2. Promote independence; let children make their own choices within reason and accept responsibility and consequences. A relatively new phenomenon in parenting is the “helicopter parent” – those parents who hover over their children and try to protect them from any wrong move or negative consequence and cushion or fix any disappointment, failure or mistake. Kids aren’t fragile; they’re resilient. But when you hover too much, they don’t use their resiliency muscles and they atrophy. As a result, it seems there’s a trend toward a large generation of young adults that has trouble breaking away from the safe cocoon of over-protective or over-indulgent parents. The sooner kids are given responsibility for their decisions, the more they will take ownership over their own lives and the less they will blame others or external forces for whatever doesn’t go their way.
  3. Show up…and be present. There is no better way to let kids know you care about them, and to help them feel attached, secure and loved, than to show up all the time, every day, unless circumstances absolutely prevent it. Show up to elementary school concerts, dance recitals, athletic events, birthdays, sleepovers (not to stay overnight, but when pickup is needed), and all other activities important to your kids. When you show up, provide encouragement and positive feedback, even if you find fault with their “performance” or “effort.” Separate the child from the action. In other words, don’t let a child feel unworthy because he didn’t perform well. You can offer constructive criticism or advice after the positive words, lending your wisdom and experience to aid learning, but not to tear down or damage confidence. And when you do show up, do your best to be truly “present,” not distracted or off in your own distant world. Kids will know when you’re paying attention.
  4. Model good behavior and caring, respectful relationships. Kids will model what they observe in the most important relationships in their life – those with their parents. Their behavior, manners, work ethic, diligence, emotional regulation and respect for others likely will pattern after their parents’. If they see their parents treating each other and other family members poorly or disrespectfully, they likely will display aspects of that behavior themselves within the family and with others.
  5. Live a disciplined life. As psychiatrist and well-known author Scott Peck wrote in The Road Less Traveled, undisciplined parents breed undisciplined children who carry bad habits and behaviors learned in childhood into adulthood. These problems stemming from a lack of discipline that are hard-wired during childhood often are extremely challenging to break and can dog individuals for a lifetime, causing dysfunction that can damage individuals’ self-functioning and ruin relationships. Undisciplined, out-of-control parents usually live chaotic lives in unstructured environments that rarely produce disciplined children.

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