The Midlife Crisis

Executive Overview
What Is the Midkife Crisis?

    The midlife crisis is a 1-to-3 year period of mental readjustment that occurs with married couples in their mid-forties. It  typically manifests itself between the 15th and 20th years of marriage.

What Causes It?

  1.     For the first 15 to 20 years of marriage, each marriage partner is usually extremely busy working his and her way up at work, having and rearing children, buying and paying for house(s), and so forth. The partners typically consider themselves to be young adults, without much thought about aging.
  2.     By the time they reach their forties, limitations on their careers may have surfaced, and work may have become a means to feed the family rather than an exciting challenge. Then they begin to look to other interests for fulfillment. (One of the symptoms of the midlife crisis is the appearance of a hobby. Previously, the partner was totally absorbed with his or her career, but with the career having plateaued, a succeedaneum has been found upon which he or she can lavish some of the energy and attention that had been previously reserved for the job.)
  3.     Their children are typically teenagers. This can induce a certain amount of stress at home, and this chronic stress can estrange the partners.
  4.     One or more of their children may be leaving for college or may move out on their own, which can trigger the "empty-nest" syndrome, in which the parents realize that their children are growing up and leaving them. So soon, their parenting days are drawing to a close. 
  5.     In the meantime, the clock has been ticking, and they suddenly realize that they are approaching, or even already in middle age. (The departure of the children for college or to their own apartment can bring this awareness of a transition from the young-parents stage to the just-us-two-adults stage of life.)
  6.     There's often a fear, or at least a sober contemplation, of growing old. ("How many more good years do I have left?") People in the grip of the midlife crisis tend to overreact to it, not knowing that, in reality, good things lie ahead, .
  7.     It's at this point that spouses begin to think, "Is this it? Do I really want to spend the rest of my days with her/him? I've sacrificed everything for my family all these years. Isn't it time that I have some happiness?"
  8. Coincident with this may be several couples who are close friends who are contemplating divorce because they don't know about the peril that is the midlife crisis. And this virus is communicable. (She has such good judgment. If she's doing it, maybe I should consider it, too. Her complaints are just like mine.) Unfortunately, the midlife crisis is a time when emotions take over, and calm, clearheaded judgment goes out the window. (If you want to do friends a favor, try, if feasible, to make sure that they're aware of the midlife crisis, and what it can do to people's lives )

What Effects Does It Have?
    If the spouses going through the midlife crisis know that it's merely a period of adjustment, followed by  good and comfortable decades that are really better than the parenting years, the adjustment can probably be easily made. However, in all too many cases, one or the other of the two partners jumps out of the groove and takes irrevocable steps that, a year later, they regret. Liaisons, divorces, harmful career decisions, and bad financial commitments are common disasters that attend the midlife crisis. 
    The midlife crisis generally occurs at a very bad time. The children haven't yet grown and gone, and the effects upon them (and eventually, upon one's grandchildren) are terrible. If the marriage partners separate, it's like a rocket that fails to make it to orbit, and instead, crashes and burns. It occurs at a time when schooling expenses peak, and instead of having one household to maintain, the partners now have two households to care for, at a time when they can least afford it.

What Comes After the Midlife Crisis?
    In my experience, typically, the best years of your life. As your children leave home, domestic stress declines, and you and your mate grow ever closer together. You begin to explore interests that you weren't able to indulge when you were so busy rearing your children and striving on your job. You and your partner do many things together, and many things separately.
    In 1932, an author by the name of Walter Pitkin wrote a popular book called, "Life Begins at Forty", but it would probably be more nearly correct to say that life begins just past the midlife crisis.

What Are the Treatments for the Midlife Crisis?
For a partner who considers straying
    The first step is to realize when you've developed the midlife crisis syndrome. There are books about it. Counselors are well-aware of it, and can help educate you concerning it. Gail Sheehy's book, "Passages"
was the book that first brought the midlife crisis to everyone's attention. It should be available at public libraries.
    The second step is to hang in there. For your own sake as well as your loved ones, please don't make any life-changing decisions for a year. Please don't tear up the lives of the people who love you and whom you love with moves that you will haunt you for the rest of your life. (Stray now; pay later.) In a year, the midlife crisis will pass. Then you can make your decisions with the knowledge that you have given your thoughts time to mature. Realize that this is very common condition that affects most married couples, and that if it is contained, it will soon pass. Your hobby is a manifestation of your attempt to replace your involvement in, and high hopes for your job with something else that can engage your mind and mobilize your enthusiasm.

    What follows below is the main body of this "article".

The Midlife Crisis

    In 1973, author Gail Sheehy wrote a book called "Passages" alerting the world to one of the more dangerous phases of the  modern march through life, the "midlife crisis". 
    It's been 30 years since Ms. Sheehy first identified the midlife crisis. At the time, her book made the best-sellers lists, and her findings were widely disseminated. Her insights swept the U. S. like other fads, and by now, they may have lost their fizz. However, that doesn't mean that the midlife crisis is any less common in our lives than it was in the 1970's, or that it's any less dangerous. Ignoring its perils may create the very dangers that "Passages" warns against.
The Midlife Crisis Is a Brief Interlude... a Time of Readjustment
    It's extremely important to understand that this midlife crisis is a brief phase life in life, lasting two or three years, and that it's followed, by those who don't blow their lives apart during this rite of passage, by what Robert Browning described when he wrote,

"Grow old along with me.
 The best is yet to be:
 The last of life for which the first was made."

    The earlier years of marriage are very demanding. The period beyond the midlife crisis is a time when the bread we've launched upon the waters finally comes in, but sadly, for all too many married couples, the bread sinks within hailing distance of the shore.

The Perilous Midlife Crisis
    The midlife crisis generally oc
curs between the 16th and the 20th years of marriage. The children are generally teenagers, and are emotionally separating themselves from their parents, in preparation for their departure from the nest. They are farther from their parents than they have ever been before, and in close families, are farther than they will ever be again. (They also know more about everything than they've ever known before or will ever know again.) This can be hard on the parents, who may find it difficult to believe that this is a natural, temporary stage of maturation, and not a permanent divorce. It's a time when stress may be at a peak at home. Relationships between the spouses are strained because of the problems of having a house full of fledgling adults who seek the privileges of adulthood without yet having the mindsets of mature adults.
    It's also a time when the "empty nest" syndrome is staring parents in the face.
    The spouses are usually in their forties. For the first fifteen-to-twenty years of their marriage, they've been consumed with working their way up at work, and with caring for their young children at home, but now, that requires less time. Before this, there was pride of purpose, and a sense that, as young adults, they still had plenty of time, and that better days lay ahead. Now, the spouses are suddenly confronting middle age and their own mortality, with (they think) no prospects for a better future ahead. Work has often lost its luster, and is now seen as no more than a way of making a living. She's thinking, "I'm 40-something, going on 40-something-plus-one. I'm going to lose my looks by the time I'm in my 50's.. I've outgrown him. Am I going to stuck with this marriage for the rest of my life?"  He's thinking, "I'm 40-something, going on 40-something-plus-one.How much longer am I going to be attractive to women? Linda, at work, thinks I'm really a really desirable guy, and my wife doesn't appreciate me. Maybe it's time to make a change. Our children no longer care about me. I'm just a wage slave, a draft animal hired out to pay their way. Poor me." Basically, this is about, "Is this all I'm going to get out of life? What's in it for me?" The thinking and the feelings are self-centered and child-like. 
    Resentment over your spouse's faults may build up over the years when you were too busy to deal with them, and this may help fuel the urge to split. And, of course, everyone has flaws, except for you and me.
    One of the symptoms of the midlife crisis is that one of the spouses may suddenly take up a hobby as a symptom of their restlessness, and because of the inadequacy or absence of their previous goals. Frustrated by their lack of influence over what happens at work, they find a venue where they can exert control.
    Another characteristic of the midlife crisis is that the marriage partners' normally-good judgment is compromised by the wash of feelings that are running during this interlude. (If you've been infected by the midlife crisis virus, try to avoid making any life-changing decisions until you've recuperated. The midlife crisis time is no more conducive to seasoned judgment than is the whirling mind of drunkenness.) 
    In the meantime, it seems to them as though all their friends are splitting up... which, of course, is a consequence of their friends' infection with the same mid-life virus. 
    What follows next
can be a disaster comparable to the death of one of the spouses, which, in a way, is what happens. One of them may act upon this lunacy, running off with the soubrette, or with the dream man who turns out to be a nightmare.
    Then they learn what it's really like out there. But it's the rest of the family that pays the piper for this tarantella. Specious arguments about the children being better off or the children adjusting happily to this new state of affairs are in the realm of "I'm going to get rich trading commodities!" or "I've got this gambling scheme that just can't lose!"
    Most of us really marry only once. First love endures, even unto our dying day. And we never really divorce.
    One of the important lessons that profits us when learned through contemplation rather than the hard way is that the grass really isn't greener on the other side of the fence.
Its Impact Upon the Affected Children
    The midlife crisis is terrifying to children because they're aware at some level that this is childishness on the part of one or the other of their parents, and their security is threatened. They're outwardly unaffected but inwardly shattered, and their chances of making it through the temptations of adolescence are sizably reduced. From a child's point of view, any involvement on the part of one of their parents with another adult is a rejection of them. Euphemisms about "making it easy on the children", and "the children are taking it quite well" are eyewash, as will be apparent when the children grow up and get to choose how often they see the errant parent. Also, there holes in discipline and role-modeling that can undercut a healthy adolescence. 
    The effects upon children are heart-rending. And eventually, the parents pay many time over for their folly and self-centeredness.
Scenes from a Marriage
    In the early 70's, the famous Swedish filmmaker, Ingmar Bergmann, captured the midlife crisis in a movie entitled, "Scenes from a Marriage".
    In the movie, Marianne and Josef are a happily married couple whose marriage has reached the level of comfortable accommodation. They own a rural cabin, and they visit it in the opening scenes of the movie.
    One night, while they're doing the dishes, Josef announces in a quiet, matter-of-fact way, that he wants a divorce. At first, Marianne thinks that he's joking, but soon realizes that he isn't. He's met a 19-year-old woman, Paula, who thinks he's a dispensation from God. He wants a divorce so he can marry her.
    He packs his clothes and leaves. Marianne's grief overflows, but she gradually makes arrangements to break up housekeeping and to live on her own.
    After a few weeks, she encounters Josef again. He's no longer so happy with Paula. Paula is so immature! She wants to go out dancing and partying every night, and he wants to rest.
    Later, he wants to come back. Paula and he have split. Paula wants a younger man, and he wants Marianne. But it's too late. Marianne won't take him back. The door has slammed tight.
    The movie continues as they age. Neither of them ever remarries. Instead, they grow old, lonely and alone.
This Story Plays Out Over and Over in Real Life
    Not long after Ruth and I saw "Scenes from a Marriage", I was talking with a very pretty neighbor who mentioned that she and her family were going on a skiing trip. Something about the way she said it evoked a little frisson of deja vu for me, raising the specter of the midlife crisis. Not long after that, I encountered the woman again (at Christmas time). She said that her husband had just moved out. He'd met a 19-year-old who had  excited him, and he had moved in with her. 
    Merry Christmas!
    Four weeks later, I saw her again. She said that her husband wanted to move back home, but that he also wanted to continue bedding down with the woman. She told him absolutely no.
    Still later, Ruth and I saw him walking with a much younger woman at the mall, and then we saw him walking with older and homelier women. And many years later, although his very pretty wife had dated many men, she had never remarried.
    Their children were working as store clerks.
And Played Out Again and Again
    By now, I've seen this theme re-enacted again and again. Usually, it's the man who makes the witless move, but I know of a few cases in which the woman was the culprit.
    Like honeymoons, or the periods of grieving after a mortal loss, the midlife crisis is a stage couples go through. After it has burned itself out, they're either left with embarrassment at their self-indulgence if they haven't been consumed by its flames, or they're left with the dead, cold ashes of their lives if they've acted upon their folly.
Beyond the Midlife Crisis
    After a year or two, the thoughts and feelings of the midlife crisis run their course, and the affected lose interest in its issues. New interests, causes, and passions re-energize their lives, and they're ready to move on to more rewarding challenges... unless they've made life-disrupting choices while they were in the narrows of their midlife crises.
    After the stresses of the midlife crisis have subsided, the spouses enter a new era of closeness. The wind dies down, the waves subside, and they get on with their lives, exploring interests that they were unable to address during those years when they were so overwhelmed at home. (Ruth took up bird-watching. I began to write poetry and short stories.)
Divorces Run in Families
    I've never read that divorces run in families, and stable marriages run in other families, but you can see by looking around that it's true. There are virtually no divorces in some families, either in past generations or in the current generation. 
    Then there are other families in which virtually everyone has been divorced at least once.
    I mentioned this to a marriage counselor. She said,
    "It's no accident. They learned subconscious lessons at their mothers' knees. Children who grow up in stable families have a better chance of having a stable marriage themselves. But once that chain is broken, all bets are off "
    If you act out, and get a divorce during your midlife crisis, your folly may well reverberate through your children's marriages as well 
    This isn't to say that there aren't situations in which divorce isn't well-justified, but, the year or two of the midlife crisis is a time when marriages are at exceptionally high risk... a time of rebellion and of "do-your-own-thing". Our mental states aren't conducive to seasoned judgment during that interlude. 
The Time of the Great Marrying
    The time of the Great Marrying occurs when we're between the ages of 18 and, perhaps, 23. There's a scramble then for the most apparently-desirable marriage partners. Most students want to select their partners while they're still in school, where there's a good selection of unattached marriage prospects. By the age of 25, the pickings are leaner. There are some seemingly-attractive singles who turn out to be much less attractive when you get to know them better..
The Permanently-Married
    Many of the ones who marry during the time of the Great Marrying will remain married, reappearing in the singles world only at the far end of life after their spouses have died. The chances of finding them  in the forty-something singles' "Meet Market" are small. If they do show up, they often re-marry within a year or two, and once again, are unavailable.
    The men and women who say, "All the good ones are married", aren't just letting off steam. When you look at the numbers, you realize the grain of truth behind what they're saying.
The Never-Married
    The ones who never marry are single for the rest of their lives, and the probability of finding them among older singles is highest. More often than not, if they've never married, it's for some good reason, and the likelihood of finding one's dream partner among them is slight. Some of them are addicts.
    Also among these singles are many homosexuals.
The In-and-Out Partners
    Then there are the ones who move in and out of marriages. These are the most dangerous men and women of all. They include many addicts who straighten out while you're in the courting stage, but who fall back into their addictive ways once you're married. (It must be extremely hard to have your spouse fail to come home for supper, and then to found out that they've gotten stoned, and have bedded down with whoever put the make on them that night.)  
    By no means all of the younger singles are unsuitable for marriage. Some of them are excellent life partners (e. g., the good marriage partners whose spouses have foolishly dumped them during the midlife crisis),. but it must be expensive finding out who are good partners and who aren't.
    In short, the mid-life singles group is enriched with unmarriageable or relatively difficult singles. There must be a waxy buildup of men and women you'd be advised to avoid.
So Much Can Be Wrong With a Spouse
    There are so many things that can be wrong about a spouse. They can be addictive. They can be unable to handle money... too loose or too tight. They can be compulsive spenders. They can try to take your money, or they can look out for themselves at your expense. They can tell nasty or embarrassing things about you behind your back, or even to your face, in front of others. They can have bad breath or smell bad. They can be physically abusive. They can be selfish and self-centered. They can have violent tempers and throw things. They can be parasites, taking from you without giving back. There can be endless arguments over disciplining the children. They can have mothers who are third members of the marriage bed. They can be chronic philanderers, unable to resist sampling the flowers. They can be people who have a high need for variety or for excitement. And so on. Of course, some of these things may be adjudged to happen from time to time in a small way even in a good marriage. But these are the kinds of imperfections that must be accommodated if the marriage is to remain intact.
    If you let go of a good wife or husband (defined as someone who isn't fatally flawed), it's like dropping a succulent piece of ham into a pool of piranhas.
You Don't Really Know Someone Until You've Been Married to Them for a While
    One of the worst problems with changing partners is that you don't know someone until you've been married to them long enough for the honeymoon to be over. If you try to evaluate someone before you're married, you'll either set the bar too high, in which case nobody qualifies, or you'll set the bar low enough that you don't really know "the other side" of them until you've been married a while. 
    Think she's just about perfect? Think again. There's a side to her of which you're totally unaware. People are absolutely on their best behavior during the courting phase. And after you're married, you're still going to have to do everything you did before, plus some new obligations stemming from the enlargement of your circle of relatives. And you're going to have to do all this with with diluted resources. If you were in a rut before, you'll be in a steep-sided ditch afterward.
    Six months is the average period during which endorphins run in a new marriage. After that, it's worse than it was before. Is it worth screwing up the rest of your life for six months worth of good feelings?
Looking at the Numbers
    Suppose you live in an urban area with 250,000 inhabitants. 
    Of that number, approximately 125,000 will be members of the wrong sex.
    If you delimit potential partners to those who are no more than 10 or 12 years older than yourself, you're probably looking at 25,000 members of the suitable sex within your age range.
    At any given time, there are nine married persons for every unmarried divorcee. To this must be added the widowed and the chronically single. This leads in the early or middle years to, probably, no more than 5,000 eligible singles.
    Some fraction of these singles are currently locked in with someone else. Another large fraction, although suitable, aren't in circulation for any of a variety of reasons... e. g., commitment to small children. A third sizable fraction consists of people with neuroses or psychoses, with substance abuse problems, with other addictive problems (viz., obesity), or with personality or character flaws such as a high need to control, a very jealous makeup, chronic philandery, etc.
    Many of the chronically single will never marry.
    You'll be lucky if there are 500 singles in your area who are visible and who might make suitable spouses, and there will be several thousand people competing for them.
    The minute someone promising (e. g., someone widowed) enters the singles pool, those singles who are in contact with them will tend to approach them.
    When you subtract out all the unsuitable choices, it becomes clear that the actual selection of desirable and available singles in these early and middle ages isn't as generous as one might suppose at first blush.
Marrying Into a New Family
    When you marry into a new family, it means twice as many relatives to conjure with.... twice as many weddings and funerals to attend, twice as many opportunities to sit up with sick relatives at the hospital, and twice as many troubles to contend with. In other words, it eats up a lot of your time, and potentially exposes you to some serious problems that you're expected to help solve.
Your Investment in Time and Training
    It takes a long time to housebreak and train your young marriage partner. If you've spent 15 to 20 years adjusting to your spouse, and your spouse has spent 15 to 20 years adjusting to you, you have a lot invested in each other. Are you prepared to spend another 15 to 20 years reaching the same level of comfort with someone else? During the years of your marriage, you've both grown toward each other. You've adopted some of your partners more-admirable traits, and your partner has adopted some your more-admirable traits.
    There are some situations in which divorce is the only reasonable option. These include partnerships in which one of the partners is a substance abuser, chronically unfaithful, a deadbeat, or exhibits other unacceptable behavior, but the one-to-three years of the midlife crisis is, perhaps, not the best time to make that assessment.
Expert Feedback
    If you want to find out what it's like to be single in your forties, ask anyone who's been single for at least ten years. (Don't ask someone who's planning to get a divorce, or someone who's been divorced for a year. They may not know yet.)
The Midlife Crisis Is Only a Phase    
    I know I've said this before, but it's so important that maybe it warrants saying it again: it's terribly important to know that
the mid-life crisis is only a brief stage in life, a time of transition, of readjustment between the commitments of early adulthood when time seemed to stretch out forever, and the golden age that follows the midlife crisis when life's burdens have lightened.  
   After a few years, you simply lose interest in contemplating your midlife crisis, and you move on to more worthwhile topics.
    The midlife crisis is a temporary stage between the frenetic pace of spreading one's wings (and ultimately, finding one's limits) and rearing small children, and settling into the fascinating and rewarding years that lie a year or two beyond the midlife crisis... like crossing the sound barrier.
The Antidote for Empty Nest Syndrome
    The antidote for the sadness of an empty nest is the realization that if you and your spouse successfully make it through your midlife crisis, your nest won't be empty for long. Pretty soon, the grandchildren will start to arrive, and you'll get to enjoy your children all over again. And as any grandparent can tell you, happiness is being a grandparent!
Your Lives and Your Aging Rates May Not Be Like Your Parents' Lives and Aging Rates
    Although we're aware that things change as we go along, most of us aren't aware of what's happening on the longevity front. We have the idea that we're going to age and die just like all the generations that have gone before us. (There are gerontologists who will assure you of this.) However, it's not true.
    There are two aspects to the amelioration of aging. 
Increasing the Average Lifespan of a Species
    This is affected by the kind of lifestyle we lead (e. g., not smoking, keeping our weight down, eating lots of fruits and vegetables), and can also, perhaps, be improved by activating certain longevity genes. This in itself won't allow us to live beyond a maximum age, but it would allow more us of us to live longer and better than we would otherwise.
    Some of the medications we take today actually slow certain aspects of the aging process. For example, the class of blood pressure medications known as ACE inhibitors actually slow the rate of accumulation of "glycation end products"... the cellular sludge that is one of the principal by-products of aging. 

Increasing the Maximum Lifespan of a Species
    This maximum life span can only be increased at present through a restricted-calorie diet. However, researchers are learning that a reduced-calories diet can be effective at any age. It can work whenever the subject reduces caloric intake for a few days time. My own speculation is that it doesn't require that someone be skin-and-bones. It may work whenever the caloric intake drops low enough.
    Beyond this are certain genetic manipulations that, in lower organisms, extend not just the average lifespan but also the maximum lifespan. For example, it has just been learned that a component of grapes, resveratrol  (, activates the SIR2 gene in yeast, extending its average lifespan by 70%. "It's a long way from yeast to humans," says David Finkelstein, at the US National Institute on Aging in Washington DC. "But it points the way to go."
    (Karyn Huntting played a key role (if not the key role) in identifying the cardiovascular benefits of resveratrol.)
    And beyond this is the fact that Nature has a technique for totally reversing aging. Otherwise, babies wouldn't be born brand, spanking new but would be the average age of their parents. And if that were true, life would never have been possible in the first place.
    I believe that those who are young now won't be subject to the tyranny of the clock as are those of us who have gone before them. And that means that the transition into middle age may not be what it appears to be..

The Bottom Line
    If you have had any thoughts about changing spouses, think again. Your dream woman/man is a fantasy, and you'll end up worse off than you were before. What you see is fool's gold. If you can manage to learn more about what it's really like out there, you'll show your appreciation for your spouse, and will take no chances on letting anyone else get hold of them. Good spouses are hard to find. And better days are coming. Wake up before it's too late.
    As married parents, try to cut yourselves some pieces of slack. Take a little quality time with each other.
    The midlife crisis is a classic sand trap. Do you suppose that anyone who succumbs to it might possibly feel just the least bit embarrassed about it later on?... like buying the Encyclopedia Brittanica from that nice young man who's working his way through college? 
    "All that glisters is not gold... "