Studies show a dip in happiness at midlife across the world, which fortunately is temporary and followed by an upward trend in life satisfaction (The Joy, 2010). Midlife is a time when we are no longer parented or mentored, but now are the ones with all the responsibility.
During midlife typically we are burdened by taking care of children and parents. We are faced with loss — loss of youth, previous roles and opportunities. Midlife transition often is associated with a shift in our sense of time, leading us to reflect on our lives so far, decisions we’ve made, and the future. Midlife transition does not have to involve calamity, but for some people it turns into a crisis.
Midlife crises can occur in both men and women, but take a particular form in men facing identity crises, often spilling into family life. Men in midlife crises feel hopelessly trapped in an identity or lifestyle they experience as constraining, fueled by an acute awareness of time passing. Finding themselves in a life that feels empty and inauthentic, they feel pressure to break out, and may desperately grasp at a chance for vitality and pleasure.
David, 47, a family man and do-gooder, felt lonely and trapped in his marriage. He always followed the “right” path, accommodated others, and made life decisions based on his sense of what was expected. David had a strong sense of loyalty and responsibility, and seemed an unlikely candidate for an affair. When a female colleague at work befriended him, David felt flattered. In his unhappiness, he fantasized and was drawn to her, but never considered cheating. But while away on business, David indulged temptation. Acting on his impulses, he unwittingly became swept into a full-blown affair.
David had unconsciously followed a prefabricated, externally driven trajectory formed by others’ expectations – part of what set him up for rebellion and crisis at midlife. Men with similar profiles make automatic life decisions, without inner reflection or a “felt” sense. They swallow parental or societal values whole, without question, later feeling oppressed, deprived, and resentful. These and other risk factors – including limited self-awareness, difficulty talking openly, and feeling unloved or unsupported in their marriages – create breeding grounds for crises driven by the need to escape.
An essential developmental issue for men in midlife is sorting out who they are separate from societal and family expectations. This task also is common to adolescence (Levinson, D., 1978). In adolescence, modulated risk-taking and contained rebellion against parents’ values can facilitate healthy differentiation and development of an autonomous sense of self. When parents set protective limits on opportunities for dangerous behavior, while allowing teens their voice and room to make their own choices (for example: clothing, hobbies), teens are helped to discover and “own” what’s right for them.
With men at midlife, a similar balance between restraint/limits and exploration is needed as issues of freedom, autonomy, and self-definition from adolescence are reworked. Mastery and opportunity come from self-exploration, not outward rebellion. The key is recognizing that the protest is an internal conflict over constraints and self-perceptions internalized in the past, creating an internal divide.
Natural midlife development in men naturally elicits awareness of previously unexpressed needs and parts of the self (Levinson, D., 1978) which may be felt as an ambiguous sense of something wrong or missing. In men whose histories may not have supported the development of their identity, such internal cues may be misinterpreted as a sign of a fatal flaw in their lives, leading to the impulse to flee.
But signals from within of something unrequited can provide positive impetus for self-examination and psychological and interpersonal growth. Healthy resolution occurs when self-examination leads to an achievable vision of change anchored to the context of our lives. Gary, a man struggling with midlife issues, worked to understand the emptiness he felt. Ultimately, he transformed loss into fulfillment by embracing the role of mentoring others, coming into his own, rather than giving in to longings for youth and the wish to go back.
Midlife crises can lead to growth or destruction. When it seems there’s no way out, creating a crisis, an unconscious process forces change. Experiencing the reality that we can lose our spouse is a powerful antidote to complacency. This jolt can trump fear of conflict and change, mobilizing couples to face destructive patterns and rebuild stronger relationships.
But prevention is better. Couples can work together using protective guidelines to contain midlife challenges and crises.
Tips for Men
- Mourn losses, but limit time spent in fantasy, regret and longing for what cannot be recaptured.
- Examine past decisions without judgment to understand what factors in you, possibly still at play, drove those decisions.
- Brainstorm about what you want now in your marriage, work, leisure.
- Realistically assess what’s possible now and what opportunities are gone.
- Imagine how it would feel day-to-day if you lost your wife and family.
- Realistically assess your need for security vs. excitement.
- Identify and write down things in your life for which you’re grateful.
- Include your wife and others in conversations about this.
Tips for Spouse
- Recognize biases in how you view your husband and ways these perceptions might constrain him.
- Be open to seeing him differently – as his friends or others do – and letting him change.
- Notice him – what makes him happy and unhappy?
- Share excitement over his successes.
- Show interest in what he likes.
- Find out how he’s feeling in the marriage, whether he’s lonely.
- Be open to change.