Midlife Crises Affecting Men and Families
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.