Contra Costa Men’s Center  eNews

Men's Midlife "Crisis": Myth or Reality?

By Steven Freemire, MFT, CCMC Director

Winter 2015



IN THIS ISSUE:

                        We will examine the so-called “Men’s Midlife Crisis” that typically affects

                        men any time from their late 30s until their early 50s. We will provide

                        10 Tips to help men undertand the challenges of this stage of life and to

                        help in managing the twists and turns they may be experiencing.


Gary*, a 49-year old CPA who had reached partner in his firm started feeling a vague dissatisfaction. He couldn’t shake the voice in his head asking, “Is this all there is?” Nothing quenched his thirst for something more – not a new computer, a new car, and or even a nicer house. Gary began to worry about his marriage when the last of his three teenagers moved out. He had the impulse to quit his job and move out himself, telling his wife Carol, “I feel so bored that I’ve half a mind to junk it all and find what I really want.”


Gary’s story fits the stereotype of a “Midlife Crisis” in men. Should he follow that impulse to “junk it all”?


What exactly is a midlife crisis and when does it take place?

Many experts view the years roughly from age 37 to the early 50s as the time when midlife crisis occurs for men. In her 1998 book about men’s lives^1, Gail Sheehy describes midlife as a critical passage when men may question identities built largely on what they had achieved in the outside world. In her view, many men craft a “false self” in “First Adulthood” that is useful in earning approval, rewards and recognition. But they begin to realize it’s not really who they are. Some make frequently ill-fated attempts to remedy this by seeking a second boyhood (buying more “toys,” affairs, divorce, or other means of escape). Instead, she concludes, midlife for men can be an opportunity to create a “Second Adulthood” during which they find a more authentic self defined by a greater sense of purpose, a truer expression of emotions, and deeper levels of intimacy with loved ones.


A “Crisis” or a “Predictable and Normal Dip in Happiness”?

Some more recent voices dispute the notion of a midlife crisis for men. In his 2012 book reporting on a groundbreaking study that followed the same group of men over a 75-year period, Harvard professor George Valliant^2 disputes Sheehy’s contention that a midlife crisis for men is virtually inevitable.^2 Further, in a recent article in The Atlantic entitled “The Real Roots of Midlife Crisis,”^3 author Jonathan Rauch makes a compelling case that what we view as “Midlife Crisis” is generally not a crisis at all, but a predictable and normal dip in happiness experienced by many people during these years.


“The Happiness U-Curve,” a pattern identified by researchers that shows happiness rising in our 20s and early 30s, then declining in our 40s and early 50s, and finally increasing during the later years of life, illustrates this dip.


Hannes Schwandt, an economist at Princeton University’s Center for Health and Wellbeing, concurs that midlife is a time where satisfaction with life may reach a low, and adds that it is also when pessimism about the future hits a high as the idealism of youth meets roadblocks in achieving our dreams.^4


The so-called “midlife crisis” may then be explained best by a powerful one-two punch: Dissatisfaction with the present plus pessimism about the future.


If, indeed, these midlife developments may be “normal” instead of a crisis, with the future brighter than it may appear, how can men best respond to them in a considered way rather than impulsively thinking they need to take dramatic action?


10 TIPS FOR MEN TO RECONSIDER THE “MIDLIFE CRISIS”


1. “Is That All There Is?”

As you consider how happy you are, examine your expectations. Our 20s and 30s are times of idealism when many men believe the sky is the limit, only to get disillusioned if those dreams fall back to earth. The first step in assessing our happiness is to consider where we are setting the bar.


Take into account these questions:

How is your physical health? How much does that promote or limit you?

How much of your satisfaction comes from work? Relationships?

Do you have passions or interests outside of work?

What do you do that most excites you?


2. It’s Normal

You are not alone in second-guessing your life choices and direction. The happiness research shows that men are in good company if they are feeling dissatisfied with their lives starting around the late 30s until the early 50s. Realizing that these are normal feelings can lessen the tendency to conclude we have fallen short and failed, or to look for someone else to blame.


3. No More Mountains To Climb

Successfully achieving our goals does not guarantee happiness either. Author Shirley Glass, in her landmark book on Infidelity, “Not Just Friends,”^5 points out that success can also leave us feeling empty. Having dedicated ourselves to “making it,” we may suddenly realize that “there are no more mountains to climb,” This may leave us at a loss to know which way to set our compass in finding new directions in our lives.


4. Questioning is Good: Use it to Examine What Is Most Important To You

If you are among those men who may genuinely need to make substantial changes, the questioning that occurs in midlife can be a important catalyst. I was a Vice President at a PR and Marketing Firm when I realized I needed more meaningful work. I began a masters program in psychology at night while maintaining my "day job." It took 7 years for me to get my degree and earn my license to practice psychotherapy. My experience shifting my career has helped me coach many men individually and in men’s groups. Men I have worked with have taken similarly bold steps and persevered to find more satisfying lives. You may be one of those men.


5. Some Men Reconsider What is Most Important As They Reach Midlife

Some men who have made career success their single-minded focus find their priorities changing in midlife. According to Stanford University psychologist Laura Carstensen.^6  “Midlife is, for many people, a time of recalibration, when they begin to evaluate their lives less in terms of social competition and more in terms of social connectedness.”  As we age, we often realize that what is most important are the people in our lives, not the accolades and awards we have received. So consider WHO in addition to WHAT is important, and WHETHER you might want to invest more in the people who matter most. Some of these men realize that they had allowed their marriages to get stale, and decided to put effort into falling back in love with their partners.


6. Restrain the impulse to immediately “Fix It”!

Men are conditioned to fix problems. If they assume they are having a “midlife crisis,” they are more likely to seize on a major fix. If, instead, they realize they may be going through that dip seen in the Happiness U-Curve, then riding it through may be the best course of action. As Rauch says, “March through midlife and don’t do anything stupid.” Unlike the men described in #4 and #5 above, these men may benefit from small, incremental changes. This could mean learning to play guitar, studying Spanish, or volunteering at a community organization.


7. Are Life Cycle Events Triggering Midlife Reactions?

Midlife invariably is marked by major external transitions such as parents dying or children leaving home. These can cause emotional upheaval, sometimes in unexpected ways. Some men are stunned to see how much they miss a parent or child who is gone, while others may feel a measure of freedom to focus on themselves in new ways. Best to take time to digest the meaning of these events before making any major decisions.


8. The Impact of Aging: Is “Male Menopause” Creeping Up on You?

Aging forces men to reckon with many physiological changes, such as lower strength and stamina, increasing aches and pains in the gym or on the sports field, and diminishing sexual potency at home. These losses can be frightening and distressing. The proliferation of commercials for treating “ED” suggests it’s a widespread concern, yet it’s something men may feel embarrassed or ashamed about and uncomfortable discussing with anyone, especially spouses. To compound those difficulties, those with female partners may find her going through major hormonal changes and emotional challenges related to perimenopause and menopause. If they cannot find ways to communicate their concerns, men may become obsessed with physical conditioning or seek out new sexual partners as a reaction to fears around sexual potency and other issues associated with their and their partner's aging.


9. “Reach Out” Rather Than “Act Out”

In addition to sitting with discomfort, men can benefit from reaching out to others and confiding about their feelings. Talking about it in a supportive context can help a man determine whether he’s going through a speed bump rather than a crisis, and to consider what if any changes he needs to make as a result.


10. Where to Go from Here

That's up to you, of course. But identifying the nature of the problem as a starting point will be key to determining the appropriate solution. Don't just run out to buy a flashy new car when the trusty old vehicle may just need some sprucing up to be good to go.


And if getting a second opinion may be warranted, seeing a counselor or life coach, joining a men's group or coming to a workshop to talk with other men going through similar experiences could be very valuable. See below for some resources available through CCMC.


References:

1 Sheehy, Gail, Understanding Men’s Passages: Discovering The New Map of Men’s Lives, 1998, Random House, NY

2 Valliant, George E., Triumphs of Experience, The Men of the Harvard Grant Study, 2012, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass

3 Rauch, Jonathan, “The Real Roots of Midlife Crisis,” The Atlantic Magazine,

December 2014, pp. 88-95

4 Rauch, Jonathan, “The Real Roots of Midlife Crisis,” The Atlantic Magazine,

December 2014, p. 93

5 Glass, Shirley P., Ph.D., “Not Just Friends,” Free Press, New York, 2003

6 Rauch, Jonathan, “The Real Roots of Midlife Crisis,” The Atlantic Magazine,

December 2014, p. 93.


  1. *Note: Gary is not based on a real person

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