the art of older ( + how to become a “free radical”)



The older I get, the greater power I seem to have to help the world. I am like a snowball — the further I am rolled, the more I gain. —SUSAN B. ANTHONY


Not long after I turned 40, a female photographer I trusted and respected (Christa Meola) took some photos of me with a snake. I was wearing fringed high-heeled booties, black leather pants, some false eyelashes, and nothing else.

After Susannah Conway invited a group of us to blog about the positive side of growing older, I found myself thinking of those pictures, the Western mythology they evoke.

Eve was a woman after experience and knowledge, and I could relate to that.

Eve had a rebellious streak, and I could relate to that too.

As I get older I feel my growing sense of space and authority, my determination to live — and love — on my own terms (thank you much). I think it’s this way for a lot of women. Former Ms magazine editor Suzanne Braun Levine refers to the “fuck you 50s”; I would suggest they start earlier than that.

In her book INVENTING THE REST OF OUR LIVES, Levine writes:

“The dynamic that many women are reporting – new outlook, new confidence, new dreams – is supported by scientific research from many disciplines. What we are learning about our bodies tells us that nature has by no means abandoned us at this stage…we are not programmed to fade away. On the contrary, we might be as well or better suited to new challenges at this stage of life than before.”

The brain is “generating in ways that are supportive of big achievements after midlife”. In the part of the brain “responsible for making judgments, finding new solutions to old problems, and managing emotions – not sweating the small stuff – there is a great leap forward.”

Maybe, when Eve ate the apple, she had just leaped forward herself.


You learn that you are tougher than you thought. There’s so much more to you than you realize, or that they – whoever “they” are – might have led you to expect. You take pride in your grit and resiliency. You show off your battle scars. You are no longer the sweet young thing you were at 20 — too insecure to understand how desirable you were just because you were 20 — but that’s okay. People look at you now because you have something to say. Your growing sense of personal power no longer requires the sexy black dress, the overpriced handbag (although they are still there for you to enjoy should you want them). You know who you are, and what your strengths are. You are damn good at what you do.

You are so much more interesting now.


As a symbol, the snake has an interesting history. The relationship between it and the feminine goes back to ancient times: snake symbolism has been found carved into pots, painted in caves and temples. Ancient artifacts contain images of women holding snakes, or wrapped in snakes, or sporting snakes for hair. There’s the mysterious Minoan Snake Goddess, also known as the Household Goddess, since the snake was a domestic symbol of protection (it ate the mice that got into the grain) as well as renewal.

Historically, serpents and snakes have been used to depict the creative life force. Hindu mythology stars a serpent goddess who sleeps at the base of your spine. Her full name is Kundalini Shakti, and she represents the divine feminine — the ability to energize, illuminate and create – that lies within us all. Snakes represent rebirth, transformation, and healing. The famous ouroboros – the snake with its tail in its mouth — is a symbol of immortality and constant regeneration of life.

There are, I think, worse things.


We are complex human beings who leave a lot of ourselves in shadow, in the realm of what Robert A Johnson calls “the unlived life”. Every door you have ever walked through, was another door closing. Every choice you made, was another choice no longer available to make. Every element of your personality you expressed, was another element that got repressed and packed off into shadow.

That shadow life never goes away. Sooner or later, it starts to knock on the doors of your soul. Hey? Remember me? That painting class you never took? That outdoorsy person you decided you were not? That path of spirituality that had no “relevance” for you? Well…guess what?

You learn that you can still surprise yourself.


In 1900, the average age an American woman could expect to reach was 48….assuming she didn’t die in childbirth (roughly 6 to 9 of every 1000 women did). Now a woman aged 40 or 50 has a decent chance of living to 100. What a woman faces now is her Second Adulthood (as Levine terms it). Time to explore new possibilities, as well as a chance to loop back and pick up, in some form or other, what you might have missed the first time around.

Time to spread your wings — or develop a whole new set.

Levine refers to anthropologist Kristen Hawkes, who lived with a tribe called the Hadza in northern Tanzania and observed their daily routine. The men went off hunting, the mothers stayed behind and cared for many children. Perhaps too many. Hawkes identified the older women, the no-longer-fertile women, as “free radicals” who would go where they were needed – tribal troubleshooters. They could tend to the children who risked being neglected, and in this way help the community survive and thrive.

Levine points out that it is not the physical survival of the species that we are “called upon to tend to”, but other kinds of tribal or global flourishing. She quotes psychologist James Hillman as saying that older women are “packed with memes. Memes are the cultural equivalent of genes.” It’s this wisdom gathered from our trip through First Adulthood that we can apply in our Second, whether it’s choosing a new and ambitious set of problems to work on professionally or explore artistically, or transmitting to others what we’ve already learned.


As I step into my early forties, I have to say that life, despite its hiccups and inevitable low points, feels pretty awesome. I suppose at the back of my mind I thought that 40 would be like dropping off a cliff (into an ocean of fillers and Botox). But there’s more intimacy and close friendship and general satisfaction in my life right now than when I was younger (and married). A lot of that has to do with me – what I have become capable of giving, what I have learned in my relationship with the world. First Adulthood wounded me in many ways – how could it not? – but the healing process made for the kind of education that I wouldn’t trade for anything.

I was exchanging emails with my friend Nilofer Merchant, who just landed on the north side of 45. She wrote this:

…But I’ll tell you what I’ve learned after passing through that gateway of birthdayness: I’m glad for these wrinkles because it shows that I am alive. I’m glad for the curves left by baby and life because it also means i know a good lasagne recipe. And what bra to wear, and what jeans look best. I am glad for the years of experience that let me know when someone is lying, or when someone is worth backing. I know what I know and thus 46 is beautiful. I know more than I knew last year, and so to diminish the years would be saying I wanted to return some of these experiences, some of these things that now make me completely me. I wouldn’t turn in any of these years as if I could — like returning a sweater to Nordstrom. So instead I will relish ALL of it. And celebrate all of it. And go on from here. Because that’s the real joy of 46. To go on, to keep going. To aim higher, to try again. It doesn’t matter where you’ve come from or how hard the journey is… all that matters is where we end up. And for now what it means is I’m on the journey. So that’s what 46 is.”

There are, I think, worse things.


Maybe you’re familiar with the story of the goddess Demeter and her daughter Persephone. Persephone is kidnapped by Hades, lord of the underworld, and Demeter lets the whole world feel her fury (imagine how that would play out in contemporary media). Grieving, depressed, disguised as an ordinary old woman, Demeter takes a job as a nanny. And what a hell of a nanny she is: the sickly baby thrives in her care, grows robust and happy and handsome. Every night, Demeter holds him in the fire, to strengthen him and make him immortal. Finally, inevitably, the parents catch Demeter putting their child to flame, and — not understanding the goddess logic at work here — are less than impressed. Things do not go well.

Demeter throws off her disguise and reveals her true self, in all her blinding, immortal beauty. She decides it’s time to bounce (although she doesn’t phrase it like that).

In her book SPINNING STRAW TO GOLD, Joan Gould notes the bare elements of this story – the old woman, the child, the flames – and wonders if the raging, grieving Demeter didn’t slowly evolve into another kind of character: the crazy psycho witch who lives alone (scorned, no doubt, by a man who traded her in) and wants to cook a boy in her oven so she can eat him.

It’s time for new stories.

Or maybe it’s time to reclaim the old stories.

To shuck off the dead skin, and see what new, vibrant life waits beneath. Scratch a so-called ‘witch’ and find a goddess.

It will take courage, and imagination, and some fire in the soul. But I think we’re well equipped for the job.


Feb 10, 2014

60 comments · Add Yours

I like being in my 40s. I’ll be 47 in a couple of months and I do think about mortality more often, but I’m also energized to work on my dreams and goals because time is infinitely more precious than it was at 27. I think maybe that’s what makes our relationships better and our friendships stronger. We now understand time and choose not to squander it on things that don’t satisfy. My kids are on their own and I can finally think about myself and my own needs. That’s a precious thing. :)


Thank you so much for articulating what I have been feeling about midlife and not being able to express it in words!! I will read and re-read….WOW!


Can women please stop writing endlessly about aging? Men don’t write about aging. It just reinforces the notion that aging affects women in ways that it doesn’t affect men. Women wouldn’t be so terrified of turning forty if they weren’t reading essays about “aging” everywhere they looked.


Wow. If women are writing endlessly about aging (which I’m skeptical about, a few books + blogs do not equal “writing endlessly”), so what? Why is it such a trigger for you (judging by your comment)? No judgment here, just curious.

Aging does affect women in ways that it doesn’t affect men (menopause seems a good example). The female experience is not the male experience and deserves a voice of its own. Different but equal.

Maybe men don’t have to write about aging because the culture validates and reflects older men everywhere you look. They see positive images of themselves everywhere.


Interesting blog – I want to reread it and research some of the tales you referenced. But first, I’d like to write in response to Ellen.

I never worried about ageing until a guy told me I should.

When I was in my 20s, I wondered the same things as Ellen. Why do women talk so much about ageing? Why is it considered rude to ask a woman her age? As a lost 20-year-old, I admired women in their 30s and 40s who were intelligent, independent, knowledgable, confident, wise. Women who had travelled and known love and loss, who were strong and assertive but still maintained their femininity.

Last year, I turned 30. And I was infatuated with a slightly older guy who once liked me but now preferred me as a friend. (I don’t want to talk about it).

And he said to me, for the second time, “You’d better find someone soon [a romantic partner] because guys are only attracted to girls who look young. You look young now, but it won’t last”. And he explained himself with the theory that guys are naturally attracted to girls who are in their early 20s (or at least who look like they are), because men still maintain that caveman way of thinking of being driven by the need to reproduce. He even said he thought guys who dated older girls who weren’t in their “prime” were just “settling” (for second best). He’s 35 and now dating a 21-year-old. I don’t want to talk about it.

Maybe it’s just that that guy has his own issues. But as I see my body starting to change slightly, it has finally got me understanding why women care so much about age. I notice how women start to disappear off TV after a certain age, while it’s perfectly acceptable for men to go on TV looking like wizards (to quote the hilarious writer Caitlin Moran).

Having said that, I lost a female cousin last week to cancer – age 32, with three small children. She was horrified to find out she wouldn’t get see her kids grow up, and that her youngest won’t even remember her. That made me realise that ageing is an absolute privilege.


@Wendy Trust me, not all guys are like that. If a man wants to date a much younger woman, fine. Let him. Chances are he’s probably not looking for — and maybe not capable of — the kind of relationship that you want. (There’s a reason why they’re called ‘trophy wives’ and often it says a lot more about the guy than it does about the woman.) But don’t believe him when he trots out that very tired and self-justifying argument to explain why *all* men are like that. (*All* men are not compelled to cheat, either.)

Besides, love is nuts. It strikes out of the blue, sometimes smack in the middle of what seemed like an ordinary friendship.

Another thing. We’re so trained to think in terms of marriage, but there are other ways to live your life + still get the companionship you need. Alone does not equal lonely. (And you can be married and be lonely as hell.)


@Wendy And I am so sorry about your cousin. One of my best friends lost her sister to cancer while they were both still in their thirties — they would absolutely agree with you. Aging is an absolute privilege.

Life is a gift. We are so lucky to be here.


Great title! There is definitely an art to getting older….with grace, and style. And “free radical”…. even better!! Personally, I wasn’t comfortable in my skin until I turned 40. Since then, it has gotten easier to assert who I am and what I want out of life. The best is yet to come! You are definitely on the right track. Loved your Ted talk, too. Despite the nerves, it was a fabulous presentation!


Such a great article. I am sixty and couldn’t care less about looking younger. I am going through a rough time (deaths in the family, anxiety and panic disorders) BUT I thought about it one day and realized that because of these problems, I had little time or energy to worry about my age. When just getting through the day is a feat in itself, you don’t worry so much about your wrinkles! I realize there is so much more to life than all that nonsense. And, believe me, I was a model and actress when I was younger so I was very self involved with my looks. I know how it is to worry about it, but the joy of getting older is that you don’t have the same concern you once did…if you’re lucky to get past all that.
So, be proud of your battle wounds and wisdom as you get older, ladies. They are so much more important and interesting than your looks.
Saw your TED talk and it was terrific! Hope you do more.


Your TED talk is brilliant. You’re a natural.


Lovely pic Justine!

From my perspective as a man in his forties, as a professional, a poet and a spiritualist, the main issues are:

1. Childbearing and childrearing has a significant impact on a woman’s life in 30-late forties that it did not previously as women would have kids upto 25 or so and they would be grown up by the time the woman was in her forties ( though some could continue to have many more kids than nowadays).

2. While fathers should take on more responsibility with regard to children and generally they are, a mother’s role is very special and nobody else can do it as well. This period should not be seen as a break in career or obstacle in doing the things ‘I want to do’ but seen by both man and woman as a time to evolve into more mature and graceful beings.

3. The relationship between a woman and her partner should get stronger with time.It will evolve and will not stay the same. A lot of difficulties arise wherein the expectations either end are that ‘nothing has changed or should change’

4. Forties of today is the late 20s-30s of yester years. It is a phase full of maturity and grace and that is what women and media ought to highlight.

5. There is no right prescription for what a woman should feel like or do. If she feels like posing with a snake, so be it! The difficulty lies in this being portrayed as a norm by media or others and impacting other women. Whatever a woman feels from within is genuine and is the right thing to do for her.

6. Each and every individual should have the courage and the conviction to follow their inner voice, instinct and dreams. This is an idealistic perspective. I am an idealist and I am proud of being one!


@justine musk I agree! The argument that it’s more natural for men to be attracted to much younger women is SUCH a cliche that it’s actually shocking to hear. What is this, the 1950s?! Quick, someone hand me an unironed shirt!

You’re right that it’s fine for a guy to be attracted to whoever he wants (within reason), and I should let him date whoever he wants (even if it hurts!). I realize now that that wasn’t my main problem. It was his belief that other men are “settling” if they’re not dating a much younger girl – as though a younger girl is a far more prized possession and anyone else is literally, worth less. I’m glad to hear you say not all guys think like that. But, it’s sad that a few do. In your Marie Claire article, you wrote that in certain social circles, women disappear in their 30s. Was that an elephant in the room, or did the men openly acknowledge it? Also, these are intelligent men. Don’t they eventually get bored intellectually with girls who increasingly get younger? As you say, we’re so much more interesting as we get older!

In terms of marriage, I think these days it’s less “cool” to focus on it. I delayed thinking about it seriously because I felt like I was expected to get some accomplishments out of the way first, and I wanted to become more interesting! (Hence why I was shocked to hear a guy tell me I’ll be less desirable to men in a few years’ time!). And sure, there are plenty other forms of companionship that can be satisfying – but to be in a loving romantic relationship sounds nice.

Anyway, sorry for bombarding your intelligent blog post with silly boy talk! I liked your quote “Learn what your strengths are + choose the right arena to play in”.


@justine musk Sorry to hear about your best friend’s sister, and thanks. Again, it’s a cliche, but death sure does put life into perspective. I was so surprised to read that the average age women lived to in the 1900s was 48 – I thought it’d be 60, at least!


Honestly? It was such an accepted norm — the lack of women over 30 or 40 — that I didn’t even notice it until I was literally standing in a room filled with all these accomplished, powerful women. (Which is par for the course. in the 50s and 60s, sexual discrimination was just the water you swam in: so normal that many women didn’t recognize that kind of discrimination at all, or saw how it applied to them.)

Oh — I *was* talking about romantic loving relationships (just not necessarily being married). (When space, freedom, self-expresson, personal power, achievement become increasingly important to you, your relationship with marriage starts to shift a little.)

Keep in mind that these are Silicon Valley men — I say this with love + affection, because I have great respect and fondness for them — but emotional or relational intelligence not really a priority for them. Not their greatest area of competence either. (Abnormal success = abnormal personality.) They don’t look to women for intellectual stimulation; they find that with each other. (In a sense, their real relationships are with each other, not with their wives, especially given their insane work habits.) (The wife’s job — and it is a job — is to be house manager/personal assistant, to run the domestic sphere, which is like a small business in and of itself, complete with staff, etc. I was crappy at it — I have other strengths — and we could have afforded to actually *hire* a house manager/personal assistant, yet for some reason that was never an option.) They don’t necessarily believe that beauty, sexuality, fun, and intelligence can come wrapped up in the same package. Having said that, I do know some of their wives — these men don’t marry stupid. The wives are lovely, awesome, caring people — nowhere *near* the Real Housewives type of caricature you see on tv. But a marriage to these men doesn’t necessarily look like what a woman might want a marriage to look like, no matter how fabulous the lifestyle. If you want a close relationship with a sensitive, loving soulmate, you’re not going to find that with someone like Donald Trump, if you know what I mean. You can enjoy these men for who they are and what they offer, but it’s their world and you live in it.


This post really hits home – I was also born in 72 and I feel that I may be FINALLY coming into my own. Aging can be difficult; there are some days I feel like I’ve wasted years in my life, but other days, I have so much time left to live the life I truly want to live. And, I’m the only one who is responsible for making that happen. You said, “As I get older I feel my growing sense of space and authority, my determination to live — and love — on my own terms (thank you much).” This is my favorite sentence in your post! It’s a declaration that says to me “It’s ok to be me now and I expect and deserve whatever I want from this wonderful life!”
Great post!

I just watched your TED talk – and WOW! Thank you for your brilliant words!


Dr. Christianne Northrup hypothesized, based on her study of our changing brain chemistry as women age, that at menopause we emerge from a kind of fog that descends at puberty. Said fog is useful for making men seem attractive even at their most ridiculous, and enduring every challenge necessary to perpetuate the species, from pregnancy to childbirth to sleep deprivation to screaming children to teenagers (I’m paraphrasing). When the fog lifts, we’re in a hurry, at best, to catch up. At worst, we’re supremely pissed, and intolerant of stupidity and injustice. I like her way of thinking.


I say “Amen, sister!” to not waiting until our 50’s (or 60’s or beyond) to become our genuine selves. Or to speak our minds. I recently decided to speak directly on a sensitive subject, on the theory that at 44 I’m old enough to just get on with it, no more tip toeing. I must say, I did not expect the painful emotional fallout that my directness caused me. I’m not used to using those muscles, and dang were they sore for a couple of days. Maybe there’s something to be said for soft-pedaling the delivery. But when the dust settled, the gut instinct that propelled me to be blunt in the first instance was the right one. I haven’t sorted out all the lessons I learned from this experience, but I know this: With age comes courage. Time is short, let’s be real.


“to live on the edge of your ability – the place where growth happens + greatness is possible – means to hang out with fear/discomfort/anxiety as your near-daily companions.”

This sounds like a recipe for ending up with cancer or some kind of immuno-deficiency disorder. I’m guessing you’re not advocating ignoring the limits of our bodies, minds, hearts and spirits, but it sure sounds that way.

Here’s another possibility, a story taken from Mark Epstein’s book, The Trauma of Everyday Life …

Years after his beloved teacher had died, a student was back in India staying at the home of their guru’s most devoted disciple.

“I must show you something,” the disciple said one day. “This is what he left for me.” The disciple was excited, of course. Any trace of his teacher was nectar to him. The elderly man opened the creaking doors of an ancient wooden wardrobe and took something from the back of the bottom shelf. It was wrapped in an old, dirty cloth.

“Do you see?” he asked.

“No. See what?”

The disciple unwrapped the object, revealing an old, beat-up pot, the kind of ordinary pot one sees in every Indian kitchen. Looking deeply into the visitor’s eyes, the disciple told him, “He left this for me when he went away. Do you see? Do you see?”

“No Dada,” the student replied, “I don’t see.”

Dada looked at him even more intensely, this time with a wild glint in his eyes.

“You don’t have to shine,” he said. “You don’t have to shine.“

So, may we all be free to be how we are and to not HAVE to shine. And freer still to operate as Mother Teresa advised and do small things with great love.


Advocating growth, Mark. Growth. Exploration. I’m talking about creative fear, the kind that causes us self-sabotage, regret and to die with our songs still inside us. Mother Teresa, btw, lived on the edge.


@justine musk That’s really interesting. Yeah, I can see how being in a certain environment all the time would just become the norm.

I get what you mean about the uber-smart men being less emotionally intelligent. Did you have to “translate” them? As in, “he didn’t react like a normal person would in that situation, but this is what he *actually* meant”. And did their levels of emotional intelligence lower as they became more involved in their work over the years? (Not asking to be nosy – but curious about intelligence/emotional intelligence/relational intelligence).

I’m surprised to hear there’s a trophy-wife culture happening in Silicon Valley, considering it’s otherwise so innovative. And I’m not saying the wives aren’t awesome, smart women. But even though the men didn’t look to their wives for intellectual stimulation – would they still involve the women in big philosophical discussions, if the women were interested? Or was that reserved for the male colleagues? Because that’s the thing that seems appealing about Silicon Valley (from afar) – the exposure to great intelligence, passion and mind-blowing ideas. But I know how some guys can be with their close male friends – not wanting women to encroach on that sacred space – and instead just be nice, and fun – which isn’t a problem unless the girl wants to feel included!

Becoming the house manager/personal assistant seems to be the norm for a lot of women when they have children anyway, in the early years at least. It could be lovely. For a month :) But I can imagine how soul-destroying it would be as a deep thinking-creative type, to be squeezed into a left-brain, organisational role. When I’m in creative mode, I’m a mess. I lose track of time, forget to prepare food for myself etc. So I’d want to employ a house manager too!

It’s hard to understand *how* a woman could be content in that world over a long period of time, if her emotional needs aren’t being met.

P.S. Thankfully, I’m really not attracted to Donald Trump ;)


That is the fiercest photo I’ve ever seen. never thought snakes could be beautiful ’til today.

Loved your exploration of getting older and just letting shit go. Getting caught up in the ever-increasing double digits of your age can blind you to the sweetness and joy of having lived as long as you have and absorbed what you have.

I’m in my 20s and have a tendency to fret that time is passing me by, but it’s all in my head. What time? What passing me by? My life is as full or as empty as I make it. At the end of the day, it all boils down to perception.

What do we choose to perceive? How do we choose to perceive it? Who do we choose to be? These are the questions that make us “stronger at the broken places” and let us know that every moment has been worth it. Even when we hurt. Even when we cry. Even when the world breaks open and shit rains down from the sky. Through it all, we are strengthened by the fire as we breathe through the flame (and how interesting is it that Demeter cooked the boy in the fire so he could become strong and immortal, right?). I had the same idea when I wrote this blog post even though I’d never heard the story before. Evidence that we’re now remembering ancient wisdom coded into our bones? I think so.


@minesh Preach it, brother. I’m glad some men are taking the time to be thoughtful + articulate on this.


@Wendy Wendy — I probably shouldn’t make such sweeping generalizations. I do remember one older woman telling me — with genuine sympathy for everybody involved — “You have to keep in mind that these guys were nerds in high school. Girls totally ignored them and wouldn’t have anything to do with them until they made a lot of money. That’s bound to warp their perspective a bit.” Good point about women generally taking on house manager — maybe my real point is more about the imbalance of economic power and how that can impact things — that sense of being your husband’s employee. Not an equal. Not someone who has equal say in the big decisions (like what city to live in). Or feels equally seen and respected within the relationship. Again, that’s a sweeping statement, but you know what I mean. I found it truly brutal, and couldn’t deal, but other women can find ways to gracefully navigate it and make it work. I respect them for that.


@Amy thank you Amy!

@Lynne Spreen That jibes with this other idea I’m come across more than once — that at 40 a woman’s life truly starts to belong to her and she can become her own true self — before that, she belongs to nature, to attracting a mate and producing and raising offspring, etc. Also, I think we disconnect from our anger — because anger isn’t a nice girl kind of thing, because we want everybody to just get along — but anger doesn’t go away, it just lodges deep in your body. So it makes sense that when you feel ‘safe’ and strong enough in yourself, that anger starts to release. And if you channel it constructively, it can be a catalyst for new action, new life.


@justine musk @justine musk Sure – and I didn’t mean to generalize or show any disrespect. Nerds are great – but I had wondered if, by the very nature of what they do (problem solving), that that’s what affects their relationships with women. I have a computer-nerd brother who works in and outside of SV, and conversations don’t flow easily. I never expect to get a fleshy answer to “How are you?” because he thinks he has no time for emotional stuff!

The high school anecdote makes sense. And the balance of power is interesting – especially because of what might happen when the woman is no longer in that relationship.


@justine musk and @Wendy, when you talk about this intelligent men with low emotional intelligence, one phrase comes to my mind: High Functional Autism (HIF). A neurological disorder that manifests itself in surprising ways. Einstein had it, and so did many other great scientists. These men serve humanity in noble ways, but for their partners they are a disaster to deal with. Their brains are not capable of understanding our “normal” emotional pathways, and our “normal” brains are not capable of understanding their high level of science or philosophy. As an autism researcher and married to one such man, I recognize the traits rather easily. They could be a genius in their field, but when it comes to communication they act like a 5 year old or less. Normal romantic gestures or rituals seem irrelevant to them, they perceive any criticism from their partner as an imminent threat and react to it twice as hard. Bursts of anger and lack of empathy with their “attacker” are daily realities. If you look at their extended families you see more people with similar traits, mostly fathers and uncles, since autism runs in families and affects males more frequently. Their partners can stay with them only if they have made a conscious choice to sacrifice their own good for the greater good that these men offer for the humanity. These women have to become self-reliable in meeting their own emotional needs.

Sorry that it wasn’t relevant to the topic, but I feel it was relevant to the discussion.


@Rose Interesting, thanks! And yes, I do apologize for leading this conversation from “the awesomeness of getting older” to “how to co-exist with abnormally intelligent men”.

But Justine – thanks for your advice about making sense of guys who date much, much younger girls (and getting over someone who keeps doing that!). As a result, I’m actually more at peace with it! :)


@Rose Yes! Thank you for this comment! I SO RELATE TO THIS. So do a couple of other women I know. I have wondered about the similarity between this and malignant narcissism, wondering where one might end + the other begin, or if they’re both cooked in the same lack-of-empathy stew. I would add ‘normal romantic gestures of rituals’….except those that they see on TV and in the movies, and can mimic, doing the same things with each woman without thinking to personalize according to her real + actual tastes (which are a mystery to him anyway).


@justine musk Going back to the anger thing – I definitely can relate to how it is considered “unladylike” to feel or express anger. Obviously it’s not nice to be around anyone (male or female) who is angry, and of course, it’s not always healthy or helpful to express anger. But, I’ve noticed that the same people who have a problem with your anger are often the same people who provoke you!

I once had an upsetting conversation with a guy who I think was somewhere low on the autistic/narcissistic spectrum (smart, but not on the genius level we’re talking). He’d done something inconsiderate – and I tried to be assertive rather than angry and say I was “hurt”, but that didn’t get a response. So I finally *did* express anger, and rather than acknowledging why I was upset, he turned it into an intellectual/academic discussion on the futility of anger and how I was only hurting myself (based on PhD research). :S

I totally get the narcissistic thing – and wonder if that’s why guys like this go for much younger girls, because the girls are less likely to realise that the relationship isn’t quite right and are less likely to resist. This particular guy would get annoyed that I wouldn’t throw myself at him – like other girls supposedly did – and he didn’t seem to be able to comprehend that it also mattered what I wanted or felt comfortable with. One day I sent him a YouTube link to that scene in Funny Face where Audrey Hepburn adorably says to Frank Sinatra, “Do you know what the word ’empathy’ means?”. :)


@Wendy, I know your comment wasn’t directed at me, but I just wanted to add that normal communication strategies and those that couple therapists offer don’t work with autistic men, they only make the matters worse. Methods such as “using I statements” or “expressing your feelings” absolutely don’t make sense to these men, they only make them more and more uncomfortable = > angry. These methods are designed for normal people with normal brains. These men’s brains really connect differently. They have a wealth of emotions, but they have no way of getting them out. Their emotions are as impossible for us to understand as our emotions to them. They can be attached to an object more than they’re attached to a person. They can be so obsessed with a seemingly minute detail that they’re willing to ruin an otherwise perfect occasion for it. As @Justin has mentioned due to their intelligence they learn to imitate certain behavior, and that signifies the importance of targeted education for autistic children. They can somewhat improve, but they’ll remain awkward and non-genuine.

As for this guy you talk about, he sounds like a real a-hole. Excuse my language but the sooner you get away from him the better off you are. He doesn’t even deserve your friendship. Based on what you’ve described, he hasn’t honored you in anyway. It is obvious that the comments about younger girls are not mentioned as a fact, but only as an insult, directed at your self-confidence and possibly to sabotage the value of your achievements and accomplishments. He doesn’t even deserve your pity, ditch him and find yourself an appreciative decent guy. All of us have met at least several guys who not only aren’t ageists, they even prefer older women with higher wisdom and enlightenment.


“These men’s brains really connect differently. They have a wealth of emotions, but they have no way of getting them out. Their emotions are as impossible for us to understand as our emotions to them.”

There’s a sensitive monitor inside all of us designed for one purpose: threat detection. Men (and women) high on the autistic spectrum have a super-sensitive threat monitor. An unkind word or a disapproving glance – through this process called “neuroception” – can flood the system with threat chemicals, which essentially close down the already compromised empathy circuits in the brain.

Each of us on the planet have our own work to do, essentially, to move the best we can towards understanding and kindness in our relationships with others. Often not easy, but to the best of our ability, our work to do nonetheless.


I agree. And if you’re on the receiving end of any kind of consistent verbal and emotional abuse — whether or not it’s actively intended as such — your understanding + kindness is best achieved from a certain distance. What is tolerable to some is toxic to others.


Here’s what’s really cool, though: we know from studies like these ( ) that we can actually grow increasing capacity to have that needed space/distance live inside us, probably ultimately by increasing the bandwidth in the cells and fibers … of the heart. Until we actually get there, of course, physical / emotional distance is often a necessary, self-sustaining alternative.


@Rose Thanks, that’s good to know that normal communication strategies don’t work. Do they understand that they have low self-esteem (you said “they perceive any criticism from their partner as an imminent threat”)?

@Justine, you make a good point about how what’s tolerable to some is toxic to others. And again, that’s about getting comfortable in your own skin and making tough decisions about what’s best for you. As in…saying no to get to the deeper yes! *LIGHTBULB*!

Before continuing I should I should specify I’m talking about smart, narcissistic men (ageist guy who broke my heart) and not introverted nerds who are merely terrible at small talk (my aforementioned brother). I don’t wish to confuse the two! ;)

It seems that the very thing that is attractive about intellectual, narcissistic guys eventually becomes the very reason why the relationships are so hard. They stand out because they think about the world differently – it’s refreshing and exciting to be around them. And they’re opinionated, so when they disapprove of so much in the world but yet “approve” of you – it feels like a boost to the self-esteem because they’ve let you into their “club”. But in the end, you’re still kept at a distance and left scratching your head trying to figure out how their brains work! Oh, the irony!

Based on what Justine said about certain Silicon Valley men – am I right in saying they do have a capacity for empathy, but moreso towards their male colleagues/friends who mirror the same traits?

This is why I originally said women don’t focus on ageing purely because of “other women writing blogs about it”. The guy I speak of had a circle of very close male friends who also only believed in dating much younger women. Similar to the Silicon Valley men, their real relationships seemed to be with eachother. It’s enviable.

And Rose, I did cut contact recently, hence why I’m still raw. With credit to the guy, he agreed because he finally understood how toxic it was for me. I was confused about it for ages because he wasn’t entirely non-empathetic – he could talk in depth about emotions and say very compassionate things. But somehow, I’d always end up feeling disappointed or insecure! And being a psych student, he would sometimes sound more analytical than intuitive – perhaps that’s a form of “mimicking”.

Anyway, it sounds like you’ve both put a lot of work into understanding your relationships!


I love what you’ve contributed to this thread, Wendy, thank you. I do want to state though the difference between being brilliant/intellectually interesting, or even charismatic, and being narcissistic. (One thing about narcissists: on first meeting, people consider them *more* charismatic and likeable than average, but as months pass those likeability ratings go down. Way down.) I’ve lost count of the number of times people have excused some powerful dude’s asshole behavior because “He has to be like that, doesn’t he, to achieve that level of success?” (As if that makes it okay. As if emotionally/verbally abusing a loved one is okay under any circumstances.) To which I say, Did Steve Jobs’ vision and talent depend upon him being such a dick to the people around him or who worked for him? Was he a jerk because he simply couldn’t help it? Would he have treated, say, Bill Clinton that way? No of course not; on some level these men *choose* their behavior, they treat certain people badly because they believe it is acceptable to do so, and the culture reinforces that belief because we bend over backwards making excuses for them. (But could you imagine how the culture would react if a female CEO ranted and yelled and abused people and openly displayed her anger? Or an African-American man?) In any case, the greatest individuals — the world/spiritual leaders we revere — Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr — Oprah — may have had their issues, flaws and problems, but they’re known for their empathy, their ability to connect, *as well as* their ability to command power. It’s why they’re not only so deeply respected, but loved.

That line about putting “a lot of work into understanding your relationships” made me laugh. Therapy, baby. Lots and lots of therapy. :)

Btw, if you think you might have a repeating attraction to narcissistic types — some of us are more vulnerable to them than others — it helps to get as educated about this personality type as possible. One good book is DISARMING THE NARCISSIST: Surviving + Thriving with the Self-Absorbed. There’s also NARCISSISTIC LOVERS: How to Cope, Recover + Move On.


@justine musk Oh really? I felt bad/selfish that it got so off topic – but it all links together, eventually.

Haha, therapy! Love it! I’m in the middle of it now, am still unravelling a hippopotamus-sized ball of spaghetti.

Good point about the difference between being brilliant…and being brilliant AND narcissistic. AND the excuses that people make for a brilliant man to be unkind. I’ve thought about it a LOT over the years. So I’ll need a day or two to clarify my thoughts before I tackle that one!

Very good point that anyone who isn’t white and male would be frowned upon for such rubbish behaviour. Women in particular would not only be frowned upon – they’d get death and rape threats. A comment I heard a lot growing up was that “often female business managers struggle to be strong and assertive, so instead they get angry and aggressive and try to act like men – and that’s why people don’t like them”.

On a side note, my favourite excuse for sexism I heard recently (I’m Aussie) went something like, “Girls in Australia don’t have strong, feminine, assertive, graceful role models like they do in countries like France, so they’re just confused and angry. And this confuses boys. So that’s essentially why some boys make catcalls from cars.” Argh! (I suggest we’re angry because we keep getting loudly catcalled from boys in cars!).

Anyway…I’ll respond to the brilliance/narcissism topic soon! It’s too big!


@Justine, I have a question for you, and I wanted to ask this for a long time, but it never seemed relevant. But now, thanks to Wendy, I can ask it: With your current knowledge and wisdom, if you could go back in time to when you were married, would you have opted for a break up earlier, or would you have chosen to stay married longer, and maybe try yet other methods of dealing with the challenges and maybe coming to other solutions? The reason I ask is, I’m sure there are many other women out there at that exact point, where they are deciding whether to stay or leave; staying is hard but they are warriors, and leaving is also hard since there is some real good stuff in their relationship, such as honesty and trust, but they’re afraid they won’t recognize themselves after all the battle scars. I would be honored to learn from your experience.
Personally I haven’t had much therapy. I tried it a couple of times, and maybe I hadn’t the best therapists, but my experience was that they were pushing me to the verge of a divorce. And I was there to fix things, not to make them worse. Getting to the divorce point I could do myself, I didn’t need extra help for that. I realized that nobody knows me better than myself and I have to find my own solutions, since the generic ones don’t apply. That’s when I seriously started my autism research at school, in the hope of saving myself and hopefully others at some point. The genetic basis of autism is now known, but narcissism in my opinion emerges after success. Have you ever noticed it before accomplishments?
I learned never to get into a fight with an autistic or I’m bound to lose. Surrender was the way to go and the proud warrior that I am, it was the hardest thing to do. But when you finally come into terms with yourself and reach the acceptance, when you finally surrender magic happens. I find it hard to put into words and haven’t understood it completely yet, but it does happen. A notable part of emotional abuse that I had encountered was due to my own insecurities – which is natural when your partner is a genius – for example being a people pleaser, that you Justine have so elegantly described in one of your posts. So when I finally surrendered to accept my partner’s shortcomings, I decided to be less hurt by his behavior. And a real change of attitude did make a big difference.


I wasn’t prepared to surrender my soul, no. It was his way or the highway and it ended the moment he gave me an ultimatum. I could not have responded any other way.


Here’s a research piece by a woman neuroscientist (Yay!) that I find hopeful and encouraging. Essentially it describes what our work is to do the best we can (or not, if we can’t):

Love’s Sweet Spot


It makes sense. “his way or the highway” is a daily reality for me, so I can totally relate to that. Thanks for the answer.



Thanks Bro.

Justine has chosen to ignore it, which makes me think why did I bother in the first place. Take care.



I don’t respond to every comment minesh but I read and appreciate them all.


@Mark if it hurts, and makes you cry, it probably isn’t love.


@justine musk


May I ask why you chose to respond to this one then?
My earlier original comment was more important and highlighted some important aspects that deserve consideration.

Which were the only comments you chose not to respond to?

Life can be lived based on misconceptions and self fulfilling prophecies or it can be lived with an open mind, eager to explore without a predetermined motive.


If it hurts and makes you cry, might it be The Relationships Gods baiting and switching?


@Minesh Khashu Like you, I am busy. A friendly reminder request or follow up comment is all it takes to redirect my attention to something I didn’t get to respond to the first time round.


@justine musk

Thanks Justine.
I appreciate what you stand for and that is why I took the time to respond to your blog, especially from a man’s perspective.
While there are particular difficulties from a woman’s s or feminine perspective, the discrimination, lack of appreciation or emotional abuse is experienced across gender, nations, social and economic class.

If you have the time please visit
mineshkhashu@ to get a better idea about my perspectives on such issues.

A poem for you:

I just want to fly
I know I may fall
It ain’t a reason why
I should instead crawl.

I wish you and your kids well.



@Minesh Khashu I agree. Totally. Typing into my phone at conference so can’t respond at length right now but thank you for your viewpoint.


@justine musk

No worries. Will wait to hear from you.

Take care.



@Mark I really liked the articles you suggested, all three of them, great reads. Thank you.


Well, if you liked those, then you’ll REALLY like this one:

The Feminine Face of God and the Two Perilous Questions …
( )


@ Mark

Thanks Mark for sharing.

What’s true for me?

They say flowers have a motive,
Bees and honey is an accident,
Mountain peaks and bosom flows,
Nature nurtures unconsciously.

What do I want?

I just want to fly
I know I may fall
It ain’t a reason why
I should instead crawl.


Keep asking. Keep breathing.
Keep attending to whatever needs releasing.


The trite summary that “hurt people hurt people” is unfortunately all too true in my experience. Hitler is probably the poster boy in that regard. But if we look at the experiments of scientists like Phil Zimbardo and Stanley Milgram, we learn that many more of us than we think have the capacity to be mean … to the point of actually killing people.

A huge part of that equation is the environments these scientists created. They were systematically designed to ratchet stress up to unbearable levels. Stress at unbearable levels has been shown to short circuit the compassion circuits in the brain (along with, I suspect whatever meager vagal connections run to the heart). In my experience, people focused on their “art” or their “important work,” can easily lose site of the much larger picture (for which the “feminine” part of the brain is essential). What’s the point of creating cool technologies that reap us billions of dollars if we leave a path piled with battered and broken hearts in our wake?

There’s a wonderful quote from the Talmud, popularized by Anais Nin that I love: “We don’t see the world as IT is; we see the world as WE are.” Each of our work then, it would seem, is to begin striving towards creating the world we want to see. Also, in my experience, the battered and broken-hearted among us have a much clearer picture of what we want that world NOT to look like.


Mark, I do appreciate your perspective, but people *do* have to take responsibility for their own behavior. You can have compassion for the child without condoning the behavior of the adult. I am well aware — trust me — of how stress can break things. But there *is* free will involved. Also — perhaps ironically — the kind of men we are talking about are also not the type who would have responded in that experiment by pressing a button simply because somebody else told them too. They’re accustomed to being authority, not obeying it, even before they become authority figures.


@Mark And I’m very aware of that wonderful Talmud/Anais quote; I’ve used it several times myself.

Some people are emotionally abusive. Period. This is not about the other person projecting their own darkness or weakness onto them; this is about being emotionally/verbally abused. In the best of cases, the relationship goes into therapy and both people learn how to change the dance; and the abuser takes responsibility for his/her behavior and also for *changing* it — and also for ending the cycle of abuse in the first place (which can only happen through compassion, healing and love). But staying in a toxic relationship is like breathing in toxic fumes. Getting out isn’t a question of ‘striving toward creating the world we want to see’; it’s a matter of basic psychological survival. I believe just as strongly as you in be the change; I believe in repetition compulsion (we reenact things from the past to resolve them or simply because they are familiar); but a huge part of compassion is cultivating healthy boundaries, which enables you to be compassionate in the first place. And being free means freeing yourself of those compulsive life dramas that keep you trapped in destructive patterns. There are better ways to live — and be of service.


So, here’s a question I’d love to ask you, Justine. What’s your ACTUAL experience with real people and their ability to take responsibility for their own behavior? And with your own capacity for free will. My experience is that mostly people (and me) are all over the map in these areas, profoundly affected by other people, the surrounding environment and my own stress levels in any moment.


@justine musk
We’re totally on the same page with what you’ve written here, both theoretically, and in meat space reality. And it’s taken/taking me nearly 70 years to become even a little bit good at much of it. You’re lucky to be learning and practicing it so early.


My experience is that emotionally abusive people are not so likely to acknowledge their own behavior, much less work to change it. Although I’ve watched one relationship evolve in a way that’s made me slightly more hopeful.

My experience is that most people are not emotionally and verbally abusive. Emotional abuse is when the abuser systematically uses 4 or more verbal tactics (insulting, blaming, stonewalling, withdrawal/silence treatment, deflecting, trivializing, a bunch of others) to maintain control over the other person (by defining her reality) and the relationship in general. (Often this extends to financial abuse and sometimes, but not always, physical abuse.) Of course we all can be grumpy, bitchy, etc., and we all engage in those tactics at one point or another, but an emotionally abusive person uses language not to communicate, but to confuse and control, to keep the other person off-guard, and in a one-down position which, over time, destroys her self-esteem and even her soul. (The abuser then depicts her to others as ‘crazy’ and unstable and because by that point she’s often a nervous wreck around him, he comes off as more credible.) This starts out subtle (an abuser often begins a relationship by sweeping the partner off his/her feet) and escalates over time. The frog in the pot who doesn’t realize the water is getting hotter until she’s too weak to jump out.


It sounds like you’ve really had a very difficult time of it. In lots of ways that took you by surprise – that you never expected or intended. Having been made to feel crazy (not only by S.O.’s, but by some Stanford psychiatrists as well!) I have a pretty good sense of what not having our reality accurately reflected back to us can do to our mental and physical health. It’s taken me a long time to pay close attention and learn the language of the wisest “person” I know: my own body. It’s always the first to know when the pot water temperature is on the rise. And it almost always wants the very best for me.

What do you think though, of this possibility: that an emotionally abusive person uses language in the many ways you describe, because that’s the conditioning they’ve learned in order to manage their own internal fears and insecurities? To keep their own internal chaos at bay? It might work for them, but rarely does it work for members of the family/community around them.


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