Seeking dalliances to prove manliness

November 20, 1992|By Sheila Anne Feeney | Sheila Anne Feeney,New York Daily News

Hell hath no fury like a man in midlife crisis scorned.

The accusations against former Chief Judge Sol Wachtler -- trying to extort money from his ex-lover and threatening her child -- are extreme examples of how far some aging men will go to reignite an affair that symbolizes lost youth, a last chance and self-esteem, according to psychologists.

Men who are envied might in fact be so insecure, sexist and narcissistic -- believing themselves above the law -- they will risk everything to satisfy their drive for adoration from a woman who rejects them, the psychologists said.

When men near retirement "they either self-destruct or they come to a sense of acceptance and equilibrium," says Karen Shanor, a Washington sex therapist known for her research on male sexuality.

Many men at the peak of their professions, "just don't feel good about themselves," and harbor unrealistic expectations of what they should have and achieve, Ms. Shanor said.

In their 50s and 60s, "men look back and ask whether they have more of a past than they have a future. If they look back in despair, they're very likely to do something desperate to salvage the tapestry of their lives," says Stuart Fischoff, a psychology professor at California State University at Los Angeles who specializes in male issues.

Many powerful men have sullied their reputations and risked their political lives to frolic in fresh flesh. Until recently, discreet extramarital affairs were regarded almost as an unspoken perquisite of privilege.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt's alleged affair with Lucy Mercer was no better known to the public during his reign than the fact he was paralyzed. Nor were the sexual indiscretions of President John F. Kennedy and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy widely known until after their deaths. The spotlight was turned on Sen. Edward Kennedy only after Mary Jo Kopechne drowned in the accident at Chappaquiddick.

Ohio Rep. Wayne Hays, chairman of the House Administration Committee, was 67 when he was forced out of Congress in 1976 after Elizabeth Ray revealed she had been given a $14,000-a-year job because she was his mistress.

Rep. Wilbur Mills, the powerful chairman of the House Ways and Means committee, was humiliated and ultimately defeated after he was nabbed in 1974 driving drunk, and stripper Fanne Foxe leapt from his car and into the Tidal Basin in Washington. While he was elected to another term after the incident, the Arkansas congressman was forced to relinquish his chairmanship.

It wasn't until Sen. Gary Hart dared the media and got caught with model Donna Rice during the 1988 presidential campaign that affairs became political dynamite.

Womanizing is rarely exclusively a symptom of sexual needs, though, psychologists stress. Taught from childhood to smother and mask their feelings -- and to sexualize their urges for comfort, understanding and nurturing -- men might turn outside a marriage for sexual affairs when they really want love, a sympathetic shoulder, or nurturing.

"The irony is that in most cases there is a wife at home who would be more than glad" to listen to their problems, fears and woes, Ms. Shanor said.

Sexism is a critical component of how some powerful men treat, perceive and, in some cases, seek to punish and manipulate the women in their lives, said Dr. Don Sloan, a sex therapist and associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at New York Medical College and Lenox Hill Hospital.

Accustomed to public adoration and calling the shots, powerful men can resent wives and family members who have reasonable needs of their own and are not fawning sycophants. Similarly, they don't cotton to the novelty of feeling victimized if a woman in their life cuts off an affair, Dr. Sloan explained.

Threats, coercion and violence can be used on a woman who is perceived as turning off the taps of the fountain of youth. Bronx, N.Y., Surrogate Bertram Gelfand was removed from the bench in 1987 for repeatedly and improperly firing and rehiring his legal assistant, and placing 69 insulting and obscene phone calls to her.

"Many times, we've noticed defense mechanisms by men who are in these power plays and they don't like it that a woman is dishing it out," Dr, Sloan said.

Adds Ms. Shanor: "They get caught up in power and control. They think they can do anything; that they're invulnerable. . . . If they don't have control, it can be very scary to them, and in this culture when men get scared, they can become aggressive."

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