In the movie City Slickers the character played by Billy Crystal hits his 39th birthday and finds himself in a slump. His boss tries to find out what’s the matter, but Crystal’s character just sits there, staring glumly ahead. Finally, he looks up with a pained expression.
“Did you ever reach a point in your life,” he asks, “where you say to yourself, ‘This is the best I’m ever going to look, the best I’m ever going to feel, the best I’m ever going to do? And it ain’t that great?'”
That’s as good a description as any of what a midlife crisis is all about. Of course, Billy Crystal’s alter ego is far from the only hombre to ride nervously past the buzzards of Midlife Gulch. Ulysses, Dante, and Michelangelo have been there. So have Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung.
In his late thirties, Shakespeare switched from writing comedies to writing tragedies, producing in the process King Lear, Macbeth, Hamlet, and Othello — all tales of men who discover too late that their lives have gone seriously awry.
What is This Vague, Uncomfortable Feeling?
What, exactly, constitutes a midlife crisis? Experts agree there’s no single definition, although a pervasive sense of disappointment and a nagging feeling that time’s running out would be among the major characteristics. Larry Bumpass, Ph.D., a sociologist at the University of Wisconsin in Madison who directs the National Survey of Families and Households, says there’s “an array” of at least 40 events that commonly occur at midlife, from losing a job to the death of a parent, a flagging libido, divorce, or illness.
Midlife for men today is tougher than it’s ever been, says Ronald Levant, Ed.D., a psychologist who teaches at Harvard Medical School. The Ozzie and Harriet model of family life no longer prevails, he says, and new demands on men can exacerbate the confusion of midlife transition.
“It’s more of a crisis now than it might have been for our fathers because of the dynamic changes in the role of women and the structure of the American family,” Dr. Levant says. “Midlife men are now living with role expectations that are vastly different from when they grew up. The traditional masculine code has been broken.”
No Need to Panic
Many experts believe the word “crisis” overstates the degree of angst most middle-age men experience. These same experts also say that many of the stereotypes about men at midlife-such as their burning desire to hold onto youth by latching onto a younger woman-aren’t necessarily true. “Sure, we all know somebody who left his wife for his secretary when he was 45. But men leave their wives when they’re younger, too,” says Dr. Bumpass.
In fact, Dr. Bumpass’s research demonstrates quite clearly that the risk of divorce actually declines the longer people are married. Another study, conducted at the New England Research Institute by psychologist John B. McKinlay, Ph.D. showed that only 2 percent of over 1,700 middle age and older men surveyed reported having more than one current sexual partner, a far lower rate than the stereotypes would have us believe.
The word “crisis” applies more to how midlife transitions are handled than to the fact that transitions are taking place, says Leonard Felder, Ph.D., a psychologist in private practice in Los Angeles and an expert on midlife and career issues.
“Most people between the ages of 30 and 50 go through some major shifts in the way they see themselves and the way they feel about their lives,” he says. “That’s normal. It’s a crisis if men act impulsively during it. If they throw away their wives, kids, friends, then it’s a crisis. If they carefully think this through, it’s a fascinating transition.”
Take Stock of Your Life
That midlife regrets can serve as a potent catalyst for personal growth is a theme sounded repeatedly by experts from many disciplines. “I would go so far as to call it a midlife opportunity,” says Marsha Sinetar, Ph.D., an organizational psychologist and the author of Do What You Love; the Money Will Follow. “It’s time to look at questions like, Who am I? What do I believe? What do I really need? Those are issues worth examining. This means taking yourself seriously, perhaps for the first time.”
The first recommended step for getting the most out of your midlife agonies is to listen to them. Therapists say there’s a strong temptation to deny the questions that come up at midlife because the answers are sometimes threatening.
“Accept what’s happening,” says Dr. Sinetar. “Try to relax into the chaos. Trust that you’re going to find something wonderful in it.”