During one year in my psychotherapy practice I received over twenty referrals from women referring their husbands for treatment. Typically, she had discovered he had been having an affair, e.g. online, texting, Facebook, or in physical reality (it does happen!). I’d inquire about the marriage. In its 15th to 18th year. Two kids in high school. The couple were in their mid-40s. I often asked these questions because I work relationally to deal with these couples crises and often, I would presume the male (typically, but not always, the one who steps out) was experiencing some variation of what we might think of as a midlife crisis.
Midlife Crisis. We’ve all heard of it. We’ve all described someone who we know who we believe are having one. It is a term mostly used to describe men at a stage in their life, but do women also experience midlife crises? And what, exactly is a midlife crisis. Is it “real” … you know … a “thing”? And when, exactly, is midlife?
Midlife is the time from the years 45–64 where a person is often evaluating their life. The term “midlife crisis” was popularized after a book written by Dr. Daniel Levinson in 1978 called “The Seasons of a Man’s Life.” Interestingly, on the issue of gender equity, it was not 1996 that Levinson (his wife finished it after his death) wrote a “companion” book, “The Seasons of a Woman’s Life.”
However, the idea of a midlife crisis began with followers of Freud, who thought that during middle age a person’s thoughts were driven by the fear of impending death (likely Otto Rank). Jung felt midlife is key to self-actualization and self-awareness that could lead to confusion about one’s life and goals. Erik Erikson’s stage theory supported the idea of a midlife crisis. For Erikson, a “crisis” was the pressure of being committed to improving the lives of generations to come when confronted with the inevitability of mortality and stagnation.
Day-to-day stressors can add up and feel like a crisis, but in reality, it is simply an “overload” affecting men and women. Aging, simply, brings with the progression of time, a series of major life events that can cause psychological stress or depression, e.g. divorce, the death of a loved one, or a loss of a job. These stressors can lead to time for reflection and reassessment, but this can be healthy and may not always be a “mid-life crisis.” This “crisis” could be caused by aging itself, or aging in combination with problems or regrets over career, relationships, empty nesting, the death of parents or physical changes associated with aging.
Midlife crises can affect men and women differently because their stressors differ. Some men seek younger women who are able to procreate, not necessarily with an intention to produce offspring: a human instinct. A man’s midlife crises is more likely to be caused by work issues, work and career being central to identity. I’ve often said, ask a man to tell himself and he will tell you what he does for a living. Ask a woman, and she’ll talk about her kids and family.
Of course, in no way am I justifying or rationalizing infidelities of any type among men (or women). My own thoughts as a clinical psychologist are more involved than can be expressed here. The hurt within couples with which I am experienced is immense. The context of each instance of infidelity has its own unique particularities that become factors in treatment. I also, when I can, work with the couple (provided the one who has been betrayed is willing) since I view these episodes in a marriage as a crisis facing the couple and their marriage which, of course, they are.
Dr. Geysen is a licensed clinical psychologist in Glastonbury, CT and maintains a private practice offering psychotherapy to individual adults and couples. Some insurances accepted. Please visit his website at www.drgeysen.com.
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