Male midlife is a period marked by self-inventory and questions like, “Is it too late to salvage my legacy?” or “Would I look cooler with a man bun?” Here’s how to make life’s second act your best half.
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“You’re still young,” I mutter to myself as I take a sleeping pill with a glucosamine chaser and climb into bed at 8:00 p.m. on a Friday. I always thought getting old would take longer. Yet, I’m receiving prepaid cremation mailers and invites to hearing-aid pitches disguised as free lunches. I also can’t pee as fast as I used to. And, no one warned me about the insomnia.
I see middle-aged male peers adorning themselves in flat-brimmed hats, tats, and Vans to stay relevant. But it’s vanity and the “lipstick on a pig” scenario, in my opinion. I remind them to stop dating young and of the importance of having a partner who recognizes the signs of a stroke. Middle age comes for everyone … if you’re lucky.
Plus, you don’t need a new sports car, a boat, or pet falcon to feel better.
“Male midlife crisis is about fear of dying. It’s rooted in separation anxiety and fear of mortality. Many men still live and function under the archaic division of role models and beliefs about self-identity,” says Beverly Hills, California, family and relationship psychotherapist, Dr. Fran Walfish.
Therapist and author Bruce Fredenburg shares that, contrary to stigma, a midlife crisis is no respecter of gender particularly. It’s also, apparently, not a global phenomenon. “Many professionals now believe that a midlife crisis is a cultural construct that doesn’t exist in all cultures, so cannot be understood as a biological inevitability,” says Fredenburg.
A study out of South Korea observed that midlife crises were often triggered by compounding life stressors that created family crisis or obstacles for postretirement plans, such as:
- job demands
- family financial burdens
- death of a parent
- children leaving home as adults
A midlife crisis can be spurred by things such as age, trauma, or a change in some other benchmark against which we measure ourselves.
It’s whatever moment we truly engage with the increasing thoughts about our mortality and the reality of our decreasing metabolism — among other functions.
Here in the United States, it’s when we realize we’re turning gray, not “going platinum.”
Midlife crisis “can occur as early as the mid-30s or as late as the 50s and 60s,” says Christian Counseling Austin’s Licensed Professional Counselor Joseph Bordelon, out of Austin, Texas.
When life expectancy was around 70 years and many Americans started families in their 20s, midlife crisis was commonly seen in a person’s 40s, or at the beginning of the empty nest phase.
Now that people are having children later and living long past the size of their nest eggs, some counselors observe that onset has less to do with a set age range and more with a particular feeling of loss of utility.
Licensed Social Worker and owner of Chicago Compass Counseling Sarah Suzuki shares, “What I often hear from men is, ‘I’m already halfway dead, so what’s the point of going on?’ They feel as though their purpose is to just keep things afloat, and that they’re only seen by others when they make a mistake or do something wrong.”
What it looks like on the outside
“A midlife crisis for a man is a moment of reckoning,” says Suzuki. “There’s a sense that your best days — of physical health, of realizing your inner potential — are somehow behind you.”
It can feel like a combination of powerlessness and sadness — especially when you can’t find your glasses to read the directions on a bottle of prostate pills or antiwrinkle cream.
“But, quite often, men experience [temporary] regression to a childlike way of experiencing time. The past, present, and future fold into a single endless reality,” says Suzuki. “If you’re unhappy, for example, you fear always being unhappy. And, if you feel you haven’t fulfilled your potential, the fear is that you never will.”
Today’s midlifers are also hard-pressed on both sides. As the “sandwich generation,” they’re raising children while also caring for aging or ailing parents.
What a midlife crisis feels like
The short answer from someone with lived experience? I can attest it feels like back pain, societal irrelevance, and lengthy scrolling to select your birth year.
Walfish adds, “A man with an element of narcissistic personality might feel entitled to grab whatever pleasure he can now, without considering the impact of his own behavior [and] actions on others. Conversely, if he’s [empathetic] and compassionate, he may not ‘act out’ on the impulse but rather direct his disappointed feelings inward and become anxious and depressed.”
There’s collateral damage during a midlife crisis in the form of family and friends. Those closest to you are often hapless victims. “A midlife crisis can last anywhere from 6 months to 10 years depending on whether the man talks with a supportive, nonjudgmental [clinical professional] who helps him contain and own his powerful emotions without acting out,” says Walfish.
During these months or years, your midlife crisis can impact a great many people. “If you are acting out, you risk rupturing and destroying your marriage and relationships with children and extended family members,” stresses Walfish.
There’s also a lesser-known facet to a midlife crisis: economic abuse. According to Suzuki, “Men in midlife crisis are vulnerable to high-risk financial behavior. Reckless or impulsive spending helps them ‘feel something,’ but can lead to financial devastation.”
Economic abuse can look like:
- refusing to work, if they’re otherwise able
- disregarding previously agreed upon financial responsibilities
- using all of a mutual savings account accrual on a big purchase
- trying to persuade a partner to fund their new high-risk business endeavor
The person in midlife crisis might also use another common yet subtle tactic consciously or subconsciously. Future faking is when someone lies or promises something about your future together in order to get what they want in the present.
For example, a parent might promise their kids a huge, unforgettable summer vacation (with no plans of seeing it through) so the kids tell family friends and the parent looks cool. A partner may keep telling their loved one they’ll work on paying off debts after one more large purchase.
Suzuki suggests that “rather than keep [an economically abusive] partner’s behavior a secret, reach out to trusted friends and professional support to cope with the situation.”
I say start by ditching the white New Balance dad sneakers, but researchers have more pointed advice.
A 2009 study recommends that those experiencing a midlife crisis brainstorm on a few key areas:
- Reframe the next segment of your life as open-ended.
- Evaluate the present.
- Set new life goals.
Dr. Erin Miers, a licensed psychologist and consultant for Mom Loves Best, says to heed your body and intuitive brain.
She suggests that men start by considering their thoughts and emotions. “Are you dissatisfied with the direction of your life? Do you want to make up for lost time?”The next step is to consider what’s important to you now, and take small steps to move yourself closer to that life.
Tips for partners
Sadly, it’s the romantic partner who bears many of the manifestations of a man’s midlife crisis.
“This is in part because we don’t support men connecting with each other on an emotional level. Consequently, men tend to experience this sense of crisis in complete isolation,” says Suzuki. “If they have a partner, they tend to hide their growing sense of crisis from their partner or cover it up with acting out behaviors,” she adds.
Society limits opportunities for men to connect deeply with others, foster introspection, or obtain support. But there are things partners can do.
- Recognize biases in how you view your partner and ways these perceptions might constrain them.
- Speak up empathetically if you notice your partner experiencing symptoms of a midlife crisis. It’s OK to say, “I’ve noticed ____. I love you, and I’m worried about you,” advises Suzuki.
- Encourage your partner to obtain professional support — either alone or as a couple. Midlife crises are not inherently bad — they’re a time of potential growth toward seasonal change.
- Affirm his successes and express appreciation. Be a supportive part of the adventures and changes he wants to pursue.
- And, don’t forget to take care of yourself! Practice self-care as a tool to keep yourself mentally and physically in shape.
Fredenburg points out that, “though it’s difficult to agree on whether someone is having a midlife crisis or some other issue, it’s well known by mental health professionals that there’s an abundance of research showing deep, nonjudgmental listening helps people heal.”
Feelings don’t always equal facts. Miers stresses the importance of talking to a professional. “Sometimes when someone feels intense life dissatisfaction, it could be a sign of depression rather than a midlife crisis, so it’s important to connect with a mental health professional. If you’re unwilling or unable to connect with a therapist, partners can practice active listening.”
And, it’s normal if you recall the lyrics to every ’80s song but can’t remember why you walked into a room.
“We call it a crisis for a reason, adds Miers. “These men are in crisis and need support to feel grounded again. That isn’t to excuse inappropriate behaviors that happen during midlife crises, just to encourage partner compassion.”
Recalibrating early and tuning up at the first signs of midlife crisis is pivotal to living your best midlife and beyond.
Moving forward, you may want to do something about getting physical and scheduling a physical. You might also consider leaving whatever happens on the “DL” and in “DMs” to the kids and instead learn the relevance of acronyms like “LDL” and “A1C.”
And, be careful when you sneeze.
The creator and co-author of “101 Ways to Conquer Teen Anxiety” (Ulysses/Simon & Schuster, 2016), awarded one of the best panic books of all time by BookAuthority, Jon Patrick Hatcher is an expert at sourcing the humor and meaning in life’s trials while helping others unwittingly leverage their innate ability to adapt and overcome intense difficulty. Hatcher’s follow-up books include the forthcoming “In Case of Anxiety…” (APA, March, 2022 release), and “Maybe I’m Happy but Asymptomatic” (in production).
His work is endorsed by the APA and ADAA for the clinically efficacious use of humor related to adversity. Hatcher holds an MA from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. Read more of his work on his website, and connect with him on Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn.