His Midlife Crisis Can Affect a Marriage
And you may find yourself In a beautiful house,
with a beautiful wife
And you may ask yourself,
"Well, how did I get here?"
—Talking Heads, "Once in a Lifetime"
The phrase "midlife crisis" conjures up an instant set of images for most people.
You probably imagine a paunchy, middle-age guy driving a shiny new convertible, a too-young lady at his side, his newly sprouted baby hair plugs blowing in the wind as he secretly mourns his lost youth. While there may be some real-world truths in this scenario, there are more nuanced and complex ideas to consider when it comes to the changes middle age can bring.
Let's take a look at some of the challenges men and their partners face in midlife—whether they constitute a crisis or not—and some strategies for coping with them.
The history of the midlife crisis
While the phrase might be such a part of the social consciousness that it seems like it's always been around, "midlife crisis" was actually coined in 1965 by psychoanalyst Elliot Jacques.
Jacques described the midlife crisis as a dawning recognition of one's mortality, suggesting that the chore of maturing was to move beyond the idealism of youth into a space of "contemplative pessimism" or "constructive resignation."
Awesome. Congratulations on reaching middle age! Now your job is to get comfortable while you wait around to die.
With an outlook like that, you have to wonder how many of Jacques' patients back in the day went straight from his office to buy a convertible and drive off into the sunset, never looking back. (Editor: All of them?)
"Today, I think the cultural acceptance of practicing more self-awareness—who am I, what do I want, what's my purpose—it's a little bit more infused in our day-to-day life," said Natalie Finegood Goldberg, L.M.F.T., a Los Angeles-based sex therapist and psychotherapist. "It's not like you wake up one day and go, 'Oh, f**k, where am I?' I think people also feel more empowered to get out if they're feeling trapped or whatnot."
What is 'midlife'?
Another complicated aspect of the classic conception of the midlife crisis is that it assumes there is a well-defined "middle" of life. Trying to describe what "midlife" is can be hugely subjective, and not only because we're living longer.
For instance, one study from 2009 indicated that younger people see middle age as beginning in the early 30s. A survey from 2002 by the National Council on the Aging showed that up to a third of people in their 70s still consider themselves middle-aged.
But for our purposes, let's take the area right in the middle of those two. Even if people don't see their lives entering a "crisis" phase, what we can say for sure is that the period of life during the 40s and 50s is often one in which people's lives undergo many changes. Kids may go off to college, for instance, leaving empty-nesters to suddenly face each other with no buffer for the first time in years. But even without kids, couples who have been together for a long time often face relationships that shift gears at this point.
"I think the research says that like 10 to 20 percent of people really fit that kind of definition of a midlife crisis," said Kelifern Pomeranz, Psy.D., a licensed clinical psychologist and certified sex therapist in the San Francisco Bay area. "But I think the rest of us have transitions that might not go into a crisis category. I do know the ages of 40 to 50 are kind of a heavy divorce time of life, with a lot of transitions happening."
Sex and the midlife crisis
The classic "Midlife Crisis Guy" is, of course, not only a man in a convertible with a bad toupee and a girlfriend 25 years his junior, but also one whose penis doesn't work. Yeah, as people age, their sexual response changes. This can be important to bear in mind for guys who are feeling a second wind to sow their wild oats.
"In the men I work with, in their 40s and 50s, whether they're coming out of a relationship or starting a new one, or they've been single all this time, their penis cannot keep up with how old they feel emotionally," Finegood Goldberg said. "It's a question of managing their expectations, embracing their body and embracing the reality that you're no longer a teenager who thinks about sex, and boom, you have an erection. You may need actual physical stimulation to get your engine revving."
Sexual issues may well be intertwined with years or decades of complicated relationship issues that might seem completely separate from sex at first glance. This combination can complicate matters for couples navigating angsty, doubtful feelings that might be defined as "midlife crisis adjacent."
"With a lot of my couples, there's something relationally going on where partners feel resentment toward one another, a lack of shared agreements around parenting or commitments or things like that," Pomeranz explained. "And then I think for men not having the penis of a 20-year-old anymore that works on demand, as well. So there can be a lot of stuff with couples about how do you deal with changing bodies, how do you deal with changing functioning."
It really doesn't have to be a crisis
At the end of the day, wherever the actual middle falls, it's fair to say that throughout our lives, we all go through shifts in our outlooks, our goals and our focus.
For middle-age men and their partners, whether they've been together a long time or are starting something new, one key to any relationship is to communicate what makes you happy and fulfilled and what doesn't, even if those things have changed over time.
"People are trying to figure out what makes life worth living, what gives meaning and value and purpose, and that changes over time," Pomeranz said. "It's just a time for reflection, I think, the midlife period."
If you have clear lines of communication with an open and supportive partner, it can be one of the most fulfilling periods in your life.