Conflicts — 29 October 2003
Handling the male midlife crisis

Just as our bodies experience physiological changes so does our
emotional life evolve in stages.

One common maturational step which men go through, is what has been
termed “the male midlife crisis”. It is commonly observed in men between
the ages of forty- five to fifty- five, though it may occur sooner or
later depending on one’s life circumstances. It is a crisis, because it
often entails a shift in emotional and behavioral patterns.

In this crisis men begin to review their adult history. They assess
their past decisions, the resulting outcomes and view of the road ahead.
It is a time of reflection and introspection. As such, this may not be a
traumatic process, yet it is often accompanied by painful emotions.

Most men in their twenties embark on their career paths. They often plan
their vocational future and envision themselves attaining their goals
within the next twenty or so years. Interestingly enough, whether they
succeed in their life’s quest or not, they experience similar sad
feelings. For those who failed to reach their goals there is a sense of
disappointment and even defeat. For those who successfully reaped the
fruits of their labor, there is a concern about the future. Will present
work related tasks be sufficiently stimulating for the next twenty years?

Emotionally, both groups of men become pensive, sad, and even depressed.
They are aware of aging and are concerned about their lost vigor and youth.

It is natural that some of the solutions for these unwelcome emotions
would entail the pursuit of youth. Some men join a gym or attend it more
regularly, decide to run a marathon, or become a triathlete to regain
the physique of years past. Others search for other external symbols of
appeal such as; fancy cars, boats, flying lessons or youthful
adventures. For some, the recouped youth entails seeking new, younger
sexual conquests. By associating with younger women, they pretend that
they are younger as well and as vigorous and virile as ever.

Needless to say, some of these undertaking are very hazardous to the
men’s committed relationship. When some men begin to feel unhappy, often
unaware of the source of their pain, they assume that their marriages
are the cause of their misery. It must be the wife who makes me so
unhappy, or bored, or disinterested in my life. Therefore, I must
extricate myself from her in order to regain my happiness.

The man in a mid-life crisis may feel very insecure, vulnerable and
unloved. He then becomes susceptible to any attention from another woman
who values him. Frequently this woman is a work colleague or employee,
who spends many hours a day in his presence and is able to acknowledge
his competency. As she shows her adulation, the man is flattered and may
begin a relationship that initially seems so refreshing and invigorating.

Very often the wife is unaware of her husband’s silent suffering and is
thus prevented from being helpful to him in his time of need. She may
notice his withdrawal from the family, or his silent preoccupations, but
often assumes that these are reactions to work stresses.

Of course, not all men in midlife crisis resort to another relationship,
or to physical or material indulgences. Many men have milder, less
dramatic periods of re-assessment of their lives and decide to pursue
hobbies, old interests, talents and new goals.

After their period of introspection, most men conclude that their former
emphasis on material goals is no longer a primary concern. They now seek
intimacy and spirituality as their new focus for the third part of their
lives.

Many husbands now cherish the emotional connection with their wives,
desire more verbal exchanges, bonding experiences and shared intimacy.
Some men shift their focus from attaining goals to giving back to
society. Their community involvement, volunteer work, and charitable
endeavors provide a new meaning to their lives. For others, spiritual
study or service supplies a source of meaning for their newly dedicated
lives.

A midlife crisis is a healthy, normal maturational stage of the adult
male. It is the transition to a more emotional, philosophical and
spiritual being. Though the process may be painful, the outcome of this
life’s passage can be delightful.

Some recommendations to wives:

  • Pay attention to your husband’s change of mood, routine, or habits.
  • Refrain from personalizing his crisis as your issue.
  • Approach him lovingly, and encourage him to express his thoughts and
    feelings.
  • Affirm his concerns as appropriate, normal and difficult.
  • Offer to cooperate in his life’s realignment by listening and willing
    to make the necessary adjustments. For example- if he wants to retire
    early, participate in devising a plan to achieve it.
  • Be particularly attentive, appreciative and reassuring.
  • Abstain from complaining about his slacking in his responsibilities.
    He is “temporarily out of order”.
  • Remember that this crisis is time-limited and the outcome is often
    positive.
  • Stay supportive and a good friend.

Recommendations to the male in midlife crisis:

® What you feel is normal, healthy and temporary.
® Take the time to feel, grieve and sort through your emotions.
® If handled wisely, this is a growth crisis that leads to greater
clarity and serenity.
® Refrain from blaming your relationship for your unhappiness- it is
within you.
® Avoid “soothing your ego” elsewhere, it is destructive and unwise.
® Solicit your wife’s help- she is a willing and able facilitator of
emotions.
® Welcome this period of self-reflection and reassessment, it ushers you
into a more meaningful and peaceful phase of your life.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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