When you hear the term ‘midlife crisis’, what comes to mind – a man who suddenly buys a red sports car or motorbike, starts wearing trendy clothes, dyes his hair, leaves his wife – or a woman who takes a lover and leaves home to ‘find herself’?
Although it is easy to stereotype and find humour at others’ expense, a midlife crisis is significant and brings personal angst, confusion and unhappiness for the individual and the family it affects. However, more than simply a cliché, midlife is a period when we contemplate our place in life, our achievements and direction, and it can be transforming and rewarding.
What is a midlife crisis?
Psychologist Carl Jung identified this period as a normal stage in life as we mature.
Although on the outside we may notice someone changing their image, or displaying unusual behaviour or making decisions without the consideration of those around them, internally there is an emotional transition-taking place. Between the ages of 40 and 60 – research suggests 46 as the average age – is when many people will take stock of their lives, their achievements, where they are, where they are going and make adjustments in lifestyle or goals.
Relate, a UK marital and relationship counselling organisation, in a 2010 survey of 2,000 people, found that people in the 35-44 age range felt more lonely and depressed’ than any other age group.
So if this is a normal stage, what’s the crisis?
Although most people will make the transition smoothly and involve those around them, for some it can be an intense personal time of conflict. Those who have difficulty with this transitional stage may experience feelings such as:
Unhappiness with life and lifestyle that has made them happy for many years
Boredom with things or people that used to be of interest
Feeling a strong need for adventure and change
Confusion about who they are and where they are going
Questioning the choices they have made in their lives and the validity of past decisions
Anger, blame or frustration at spouse for tying them down
Doubt that they ever loved their partner
Seeking a new intimate and passionate relationship
Are there any other causes?
Often, external factors can trigger a midlife crisis or examination of life so far. A sudden death of someone close to the person’s age, death of a parent or a major illness can quickly bring into sharp focus one’s own mortality. Grief is difficult enough to contend with, but in midlife, our belief system can be questioned in the face of limited time on earth, either questioning one’s long-held beliefs or searching for a different answer.
Debt, redundancy and worries about the financial future in middle-age can add fuel to an already stressful time. Rather than seek professional advice, the person in crisis may have the desire to walk away from the family to avoid the difficult emotions associated with the debt.
The time when children leave home can be a surprisingly challenging period for some, maybe not the expected freedom but a sense of ‘what now’ as that parental role may feel redundant. Once again, ‘empty-nest’ syndrome, a feeling of emptiness and uncertainty in life once the children have left, is a normal and understandable stage.
Making it through
In a partnership, marriage or family, if one person feels uncertain about his or her future path or growing dissatisfaction with life as it stands, then this is going to spill over. If you are going through a midlife crisis, it can be a confusing time and perhaps difficult to articulate to your spouse or friends. The most important thing is to share concerns, don’t bottle them up, no matter how strange you think you may sound, or through fear of upsetting those around you.
This may not be the time to strike up a friendship with a member of the opposite sex who acts as confidante, which can easily venture into a more physical territory. If you think your partner won’t understand, try them! There are probably very few of us who at some point in our lives haven’t felt a deep sense of, “There must be something else, is this what I want in life?”
Discuss your feelings before the dissatisfaction develops into depression, you become emotionally distant or engage in behaviour that will ultimately challenge the strongest of marriages and families. Of course, changes in mood, loss of interest in activities once enjoyed, lethargy or poor sleep may be signs of depression and this should be checked out by your physician.
The good news is, with love and the right kind of support, you can get through. Difficult adjustments and changes may take place, but ideally they will be made with the least amount of heartache to your partner and family. Be open and honest regarding your insecurities with those you trust.
Midlife is a great time for reassessment and this doesn’t have to be destructive. It can be a new phase of growing together but on a different path. Counselling can be a constructive way to explore this difficult personal issue, either on your own or as a couple.
Emma Roberts is an EAP counsellor. If you would like to discuss this or any other issue, please contact a professional counsellor at EAP for a confidential appointment on 949-9559 or visit www.eap.ky