Marriage and Midlife Crisis: A Journey of Challenge and Transition
Suzanne Phillips, PsyD
Given that there are now 81 million baby boomers in this country ranging from ages 46 to 66, there are many people navigating the transitions of midlife. When you add to that the fact that 80% of the male boomers and 77% of the females are married the journey gets more complicated.
Amazon lists over 2,00 books dealing with midlife with titles as different as Awakening at Midlife, Midlife Meltdown, Thinking about Tomorrow: Re-inventing Yourself at Midlife, How to Survive Your Husband’s Midlife Crisis, Midlife Crisis For Men: Male Menopause, My Favorite Midlife Crisis etc. The message is that against the backdrop of mortality and a story half told, men and women navigate their midlife passage in different ways with different challenges and different needs. When married, the impact they have on each other is inevitable.
After his father died, he changed. He felt he needed more in is life; apparently, I wasn’t enough.
I don’t know who she became. She started going to the gym…she looked great but she acted differently. She wanted to go out at night with her girlfriends. She’s gone. Was it a midlife crisis?
I was fine until he said he was tired of the rat race. He wanted us to move to someplace warm but I didn’t feel we should leave the grandchildren–I’m always stuck between everyone else’s needs.
So we retired and opened the Bed and Breakfast. Then I said, “I can’t do this anymore.”
Whose Midlife Crisis is it Anyhow?
Midlife crisis does not happen in a vacuum. It always takes place in the context of relationships. On the broadest social level there are cultural norms for lifespan, expectations of happiness, measures for success, opportunities for mobility, medical advances for health and beauty, wars, and reversals of fortune that bear on our experience of midlife and that of our partner.
No matter where or when you started your journey, most couples end up in unknown territory in midlife. As seen above, whether you plan together, quietly comply, support the other’s fear of getting old, find a way to negotiate, or feel victim of the other’s change of life, your midlife is colored by the reactions of your partner. His or her midlife crisis becomes yours.
What is This Thing Called Midlife Crisis?
In some ways the question of the prevalence and meaning of a “midlife crisis” is a function of who is asking. Generally speaking midlife crisis is defined as a period of emotional turmoil in middle age (40-60 years) characterized by a strong desire for change.
While originally midlife crisis was identified with men and associated with fear of death, the definition expanded to include the issues faced by both men and women in response to physical, social and psychological issues associated with aging. Notwithstanding the media driven stereotypes of the middle-aged man in a new sports car or the menopausal woman trying anything to look younger, middle age is a complex journey of re-evaluation and re-definition. That midlife inevitably equates to a midlife crisis, however, has been questioned.
Academic studies have found that only 10-26% of adults over 40 report having a midlife crisis, inviting many to suggest that it may be more appropriate to speak of midlife transition. Both terms imply change – perhaps change need not imply crisis.
A follow-up phone interview study by Elaine Wethington of 724 Americans suggested that regardless of academic research, there is a popular perception of midlife crisis being more prevalent. This seems due to the fact that when asked, people use a far broader definition of midlife crisis than researchers. For them the term connotes personal turmoil and sudden changes. For men it is often a metaphor for physical or psychological changes.
Differing from theoretical expectations, participants did not attribute their self-reported midlife crisis to aging or fear of death, but rather to major life events that posed a severe threat and challenge during a broadly defined period of midlife. For men the events dealt with job or marriage and for women, health, family, deaths and marriage.
From Midlife Crisis to Transition
It may be worth considering mid-life crisis and midlife transition not as alternative definitions of this time period but as points on a continuum. It is conceivable that the feelings associated with midlife crisis are in different measure a necessary impetus for transitions to life’s next chapter.
Given that partners may jolt, stir, soothe or support this transition, it is worth considering some strategies for navigating the passage.
Strategies for Navigating Midlife Together
It is a great value to use the information about midlife and midlife crisis to inform rather than to obscure or oversimplify your own or your partner’s feelings. Beware of the comments of the immediate world and the judgment of social stereotypes. Yes, he/she may be acting like a stranger, but the fact that he suddenly wants to buy things for the house, or she wants to sell the house is worth understanding in the context of your history, your marriage and your plans for the future. To automatically write it off as a “midlife crisis” may feel dismissive and shut down the sharing.
Given that midlife demands a re-consideration of what has been and often a confused sense of what comes next, partners need to use the wider field of vision that humans have to keep their eyes on self and other. Often a partner is so frightened by the changes and threat of losing the other partner that they lose sight of their own needs or midlife journey as they obsess and anguish about why and what their partner is doing. The other extreme is an absorbed view of self that overlooks the partner.
Tolerating the Unknowns
Tolerating and even giving each other permission to be in the space of not knowing is a crucial strategy in mid-life. In a sense for as long as you can tolerate the anxiety of not knowing exactly how to proceed, what needs to be addressed, how dreams can be reached – the more creative, expansive and long lasting the final decisions may be. There is often an urge to make something happen just to abate the anxiety:
Ok, then let’s sell and go South with our friends.
You just don’t know who or what you want. Why don’t I just leave?
Dealing with the unknown often takes trusting that you will be ok as you keep on walking – even if your route is not clear. Partners facilitate this when they support positive expectations, forgive mistakes and allow the passing of time to clarify feelings and options.
Same Time – Different Places
What is often confusing to partners as they try to negotiate their midlife together is that they are psychologically in different places. Actually this is not such a surprise. As clarified by Erikson in his well known eight stages of psychosocial development, the stages are rarely traversed in a linear way and most people carry unresolved issues from earlier stages into later years. Whereas people from 19 to40 years, for example, are considered to be working on the balance of Intimacy ( capacity to make a commitment )vs. Isolation( defense against rejection), those between 40 and 65 years are addressing “Generativity (making a difference to the next generation) vs. Stagnation (dissatisfaction and lack of productivity).
She wants to change careers, to make a difference in a different kind of way. He wants to retire, get away and finally be intimate.
Having given so much in the first half their lives, both partners often feel “It’s My Turn” – What they can’t imagine is how that fits with “Our Turn.”
If partners believe it – there is always time to have your turn and help your partner do the same. Sometimes it takes risking the unconventional or the experimental. It always involves trying to clarify needs and goals so both know the challenges and the possibilities ahead.
Regulating Loss and Re-defining Self
Dealing with midlife is about dealing with loss on many levels in ourselves and in what we may observe in our partner.
For many, the aging of parents, the unexpected death of a friend, the loss of job status, the empty nest, changes in appearance, illness etc. all conspire to assault the denial of mortality and time passing. The reality of this may be hard for one or both to integrate. Some feel depressed for a time and may need support as well as validation of feelings. Some consider outside help as a couple or as individuals. Some avoid their partner as a way to avoid the reality of aging and loss.
Many consciously and unconsciously use the assault of loss in midlife as a turning point for re-evaluating their life thus far. Often colored by regrets of what could or should be, they consider how the second half of life might be different.
Re-defining self is less difficult when regrets are re-framed as lessons and there is permission to change at one’s own pace.
Partners Create Loss
The Way We Were – Sometimes partners create the greatest feelings of loss in midlife. There is ample evidence that midlife is a time of stress and strain in relationships often evidenced by infidelity of partners. The rupture of trust can equate to a loss of innocence, a feeling of rejection, guilt – even of mutual failure.
Accepting this loss, using it as a point of information, many couples actually find a way to a better place. Often with help, sometimes alone, they choose to go forward with a newly defined sense of “The Way We Are.”
Beyond Repair – Some marriages don’t make it through midlife. There is an agreement to end the marriage or there is disruption and contention without repair. The loss, while creating considerable pain, is often an unexpected passage to a newly defined self.
Clinically I have seen many who come devastated, confused, depressed and bereft by the break-up of a marriage in midlife. Often they feel stuck in a dark unknown place without options. I have watched, however, as they slowly integrate the loss and re-define themselves and their future in ways they would never have imagined. One woman described it as the midlife journey from “Oh My God to — Thank God.”
Resources in Midlife
Just as midlife crisis and transitions occur in the context of relationships, the journey from the unknown to a new and re-defined self is greatly facilitated by the support of others – by the view of self in the eyes of others. The response of partners as well as the use of outside resources be they recreational, educational, spiritual or on-line groups addressing midlife issues, reduce the chances of getting lost or of traveling alone.
Midlife Crisis, Marriage and Opportunity
In a marriage, a midlife crisis is often something faced together. As such it is offers challenge, transition and ultimately the opportunity to arrive at a new place together – a little older and maybe a little wiser.
Wethington, E. (2000) “Expecting Stress: Americans and the ‘Midlife Crisis’.” Motivation and Emotion, Vol 24.No.2, 2000. http://midus.wisc.edu/findings/pdfs/103.pdf
Suzanne Phillips, PsyD Bio
Dr. Phillips is a licensed Psychologist, Psychoanalyst, Diplomat in Group Psychotherapy and Co-Author of Healing Together.Learn More