Michele Weiner-Davis, MSW, licensed clinical social worker, marriage and family therapist, Boulder, Colorado, and author of Getting Through to the Man You Love: The No-Nonsense, No-Nagging Guide for Women. DivorceBusting.com
A woman in my therapy practice said that her grumpy 52-year-old husband complained about her incessantly. Each time she “fixed” something—lost weight or organized the house—it failed to improve his mood. His needs seemed to be a moving target.
The husband decided to move out. He told her that he wasn’t sure that he wanted a divorce—he just needed some time to think about his life. He had LASIK surgery so that he could stop wearing glasses. He had plastic surgery to make his eyelids appear more youthful and liposuction to slim his belly. Shortly thereafter, he decided to quit his well-paying job to start his own company.
Can you say, “Midlife crisis?”
Here’s how to tell if you or someone you love is going through a midlife crisis—and what to do about it…
Although it’s normal, even healthy, to question our life choices periodically, people experiencing a midlife crisis often can’t think of anything else. They have a gnawing feeling deep inside that something in their lives is off-kilter and must be addressed.
This typically happens to people ranging in age from the mid-40s to mid-60s. In our 20s and 30s, we are focused on making important life decisions about career paths, where to live, life partners, whether or when to have children—and then raising those children. We’re too busy carving out our niches in life to do too much reflecting about our choices.
But once we’ve settled into our grooves, our children have grown independent and we’ve had some time under our belts, we also have time to think. We ask ourselves, Is this all there is? and Aren’t I supposed to feel happier? We obsess about the paths not taken and feel that time is running out. Failing to achieve personal, relationship or business goals and dreams can lead to deep regret or remorse, even depression.
Other problems that weigh heavily at this time…
•Aging bodies. Over the years, our bodies change—we gain weight, get wrinkles, lose muscle tone. We don’t like what we see in the mirror. If our identity has been intertwined with our appearance, we start to feel insecure or depressed. Looking older often is difficult to accept.
•Ailing bodies. We begin to have more aches and pains. Activities that once were easy for us become more challenging. Additionally, our immune systems tend to weaken—when we get sick, we take longer to heal. Plus, our illnesses can be more serious and often life-threatening.
•Ailing parents. Another stressor for people in midlife is ailing parents or relatives who require a great deal of care. Watching loved ones deteriorate physically and mentally is emotionally draining and can create a sense of urgency to live one’s life to the fullest. Plus, it’s hard not to dread this unfortunate but natural deterioration in our own lives. Losing a parent exacerbates the feeling that time is running out.
To be certain, reflecting on one’s life and making midcourse corrections when necessary are natural and good things. Our happiness depends on it. But unfortunately, many people going through midlife crises aren’t always thinking clearly—they are overly pessimistic. Their glass-half-empty thinking can lead to remedial actions that are regrettable in the long run. They may start a completely different career or find a new life partner or embark on a completely different lifestyle. Although changes that are well thought out can make a person’s life more satisfying, it’s important to refrain from making irreversible changes that may be based on feelings that are merely transient.
Finally, people going through a midlife crisis often tell themselves to Grab for the gusto, and start experimenting with risky hobbies such as skydiving, bungee jumping or hang gliding, or become uncharacteristically extravagant in their spending habits. Hence, the proverbial new red convertible.
If you’re going through a midlife crisis and you’re married, it’s important to understand that your marriage might be at risk. When you’re unhappy, you look around for the cause of the unhappiness. And sometimes the person standing closest to you—your spouse—is in the line of fire. You think about how differently your life might have turned out were it not for your spouse holding you back in some way. You tell yourself you would be better off striking out on your own or finding a new, more supportive, sexy, fun-loving spouse with whom you can spend the rest of your life.
What could be a better escape from all the thinking you’re doing about what’s not working in your life than to find someone with whom you can have a fresh start, who finds you fascinating and exciting?
While it’s possible that your marriage has been less than satisfying and in need of a major makeover, it’s important not to make any monumental, life-altering decision such as having an affair or ending your marriage while you’re feeling overwhelmed with powerful emotions.
Making an impulsive decision to break up a marriage or have an affair often leads to a deep sense of regret or remorse.
If you think you’re having a midlife crisis, here are steps you can take…
•Try a small change. There’s a saying, Bloom where you’re planted. It is often possible to identify what you could do—without undergoing major life changes—to help you feel better immediately. Sometimes it’s simply a matter of tweaking your daily routine, trying a new hobby, making a new friend or beginning a new project. Novelty makes us feel more alive. If your marriage has gotten you down, reflect on what was different when you met. Start doing some of the same activities you enjoyed early on.
•Talk it out. Talk to friends you trust who are able to understand what you’re going through. It helps enormously to have a sounding board who knows you, has your best interest at heart and who can offer valuable feedback.
•Stay active. Negative thinking and emotions during a midlife crisis can lead to depression or intense anxiety. Research suggests that regular exercise is a powerful antidepressant that will help you think more clearly. It also can make you feel better about yourself.
•Find meaning from within. Again, without making drastic changes, it’s possible to feel more purposeful in your life. Read inspirational books, keep a journal, start a meditation practice, pray, take walks in nature, listen to music. In some ways, being in the throes of a midlife crisis is an opportunity to take a time-out from your busy life to reflect on what’s truly important to you. Busyness often prevents us from pausing long enough to get in touch with our inner compass. Taking time to go inward can offer the direction we need to emerge from a midlife crisis feeling whole.
•Hang out with positive people. Optimism is contagious. Surround yourself with people who are joyful, upbeat and have clear visions about what matters in life. Their enthusiasm is likely to rub off on you. Conversely, it might be a good time to sever relationships with people who drag you down or don’t add to your life in some way.
•Mend your marriage. If you’re married and you believe that your relationship is problematic, do some soul searching about what’s really important to you and how you might be contributing to the problem. Talk honestly to your spouse about what’s troubling you. Ask for what you need rather than complain. Be specific. For example, instead of saying, “I’m feeling unappreciated,” say, “It would be great if you made a point of telling me that you appreciate all the things I do to support you, such as helping you with your parents, entertaining your business associates, handling all the bills and so on.”
•Seek professional help. If necessary, speak to a therapist who can help you sort through your feelings and help you devise a plan to feel better. He/she also can reassure you that the challenging transitional period you’re experiencing won’t last forever.
If you strongly suspect that your partner is having a midlife crisis, give him/her space to work things out alone. Chances are, your partner won’t agree that a midlife crisis is the issue at hand. Don’t debate this. Don’t insist that he/she read this article. It will only make matters worse. Instead, focus on yourself for a while. Try some of the steps above such as exercising, talking to friends and finding inspiration within. Find ways to self-soothe and find peace until the haziness clears. If your spouse wants to separate or asks for a divorce, speak to a therapist either by yourself or with your spouse to focus on the real issues and chart the best possible course.