What Are Mid-Men Looking For When They Leave Their Partners?

In my previous posts I began to explore what mid-life men really want and why men (and many women) leave a partnership just when it seems that they could begin to enjoy the fruits of their labors. In order to understand what men are really searching for, you have to understand the impact of the thinking that began in the 1970s that was reflected in the phrase, “A woman needs a man, like a fish needs a bicycle.”

Many, including Time Magazine, credit Gloria Steinem with coining the phrase about what a woman needs. It certainly was consistent with the thinking of many Feminist women in the U.S. who were awakening from lives of dependency and recognizing the fact that they were powerful women. In the euphoric emergence of this wonderful feminine spirit some women concluded that men were superfluous and unnecessary. I’ll come back to this point in a minute, because it is crucial in helping us understand the dilemma faced by many men of this era.

First though, we need to give credit where credit is due. On my recent trip to Australia I learned that this famous phrase was coined by Irina Dunn, a distinguished Australian educator, journalist and politician, back in 1970 when she was a student at the University of Sydney. “My inspiration arose from being involved in the renascent women’s movement at the time,” says Dunn, “and from being a bit if a smart-arse. I scribbled the phrase on the backs of two toilet doors, would you believe, one at Sydney University where I was a student, and the other at Soren’s Wine Bar at Woolloomooloo, a seedy suburb in south Sydney.”

The 1970s was a difficult time for us. Like many men I grew up without the presence of a strong, loving, involved Dad. My father became depressed and tried to commit suicide shortly before my 6th birthday. He was hospitalized and I didn’t see him again until I graduated college. My mother raised me. She was a very independent, dominant woman who seemed to get along fine without a man in her life.

Although she was never overtly hostile towards men, she saw most men as vulnerable, weak and untrustworthy (a holdover from her broken marriage and a father who had died when she was young). I’m sure the belief that men are unnecessary, fit the experience of many women of my generation as well as many men.

Poet and writer, Robert Bly recognized the damage that these beliefs were having on young men of the times. In his now famous New Age Magazine interview with Keith Thompson in May, 1982 he talked with sadness and concern about was going on with young men in the world. “I see the phenomenon of what I would call the ‘soft male’ all over the country today. Sometimes when I look out at my audiences, perhaps half the young males are what I’d call soft. . . . Many of these men are unhappy. There’s not much energy in them. They are life-preserving but not exactly life-giving. And why is it you often see these men with strong women who positively radiate energy?”

I think that phrase captures the way I was back then, as were many of my contemporaries. We were, indeed, lacking in dynamic energy. We were life-preserving but not exactly life-giving. I believe we had lost confidence in our ability to be generative, to give something to our families and communities that was valuable and unique. The Viet Nam War had disabled many of us, whether we fought or protested. The death of the Kennedy’s and Martin Luther King caused us to wonder whether taking risks for the betterment of the world was worthwhile.

But most of all, I think we wondered whether men were really necessary at all. More and more women entered the workforce and men wondered whether we were needed as bread-winners. Women learned self-defense and we wondered whether we were needed as protectors. Women bought vibrators and learned to pleasure themselves and we wondered whether we were needed for sex. Women used birth-control and decided if they wanted to have children. When they did have them, they often decided to raise the children without the involvement of a man. We wondered whether we were needed as fathers.

Now it’s 2006 and these “soft” men, the superfluous-feeling men of the 1970s and 80s have reached mid-life. We often feel trapped in a family where we increasingly feel that we are not needed. The kids, if we had them, are moving out on their own. The grandchildren ask to speak to grandma when they call. “Grandpa” is a word that seems foreign to them. Our partner seems content to get whatever sexual pleasure she needs from somewhere other than our starving loins. Perhaps she can take in what she needs from the air, like a fern. She’s got her own job which may be more secure than ours and often her own bank account and assets.

Some men don’t leave. They stay and die slowly of boredom or keep themselves drugged on marijuana, booze, and T.V. sports, with a little internet sex thrown in occasionally to prove they can still get it up. Other men confront their feelings of uselessness, hopelessness, and helplessness and begin to make constructive changes in their personal lives and in their relationships. They want more and are willing to work for it.

Then there are the guys who leave. What are they looking for? Well, for starters I think they’re looking for a reason to go on living. They want to find out if there is a place for them in the world of the 21st century. Are we dinosaurs just waiting to fall over and become extinct, or do we have some important purpose here that we have yet to discover. Are we as useless and ludicrous as a fish on a bicycle? Or is there a greatness in men that we have yet to uncover. It’s an exciting time to be alive today. But it is also terrifying. We truly are living in a new world, with new rules, and new dangers.

I believe the number one reason that mid-life men are leaving is to find out whether they have a reason to live. What do you think? How do you feel? Is there something mid-life men have to offer the world?

©2010 Jed Diamond

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Wealth can't buy health, but health can buy wealth. - Henry David Thoreau


Jed Diamond is the internationally best-selling author of seven books including Male Menopause, now translated into 17 foreign languages and his latest book, The Irritable Male Syndrome: Managing. The 4 Key Causes of Depression and Aggression. For over 38 years he has been a leader in the field of men's health. He is a member of the International Scientific Board of the World Congress on Men’s Health and has been on the Board of Advisors of the Men’s Health Network since its founding in 1992. His work has been featured in major newspapers throughout the United States including the New York Times, Boston Globe, Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles Times, and USA Today. He has been featured on more than 1,000 radio and T.V. programs including The View with Barbara Walters, Good Morning America, Inside Edition, CBS, NBC, and Fox News, To Tell the Truth, Extra, Leeza, Geraldo, and Joan Rivers. He also did a nationally televised special on Male Menopause for PBS. He looks forward to your feedback. E-Mail. You can visit his website at

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