Midlife and midlife crisis have unfortunately become the stuff of Lifetime movies with the resulting stereotype of a 40-something male driving a sports car and leaving his family for a woman half his age. As such, midlife crisis is often dismissed as trivial. In fact, midlife crisis can be a profound spiritual event leading to significant growth. However, one has to be willing to endure much discomfort to derive benefit.
Midlife crisis is often triggered by something. Stereotypically, it is triggered by turning 40. However, it can also be triggered by a significant death, by the empty nest when children move on, by physical changes such as menopause or prostate problems.
Midlife crisis can evolve around 3 themes: intimacy, vitality, and legacy. At midlife, we may find ourselves taking stock of the quality of our intimate relationships. We may become aware that some, even all of these relationships have become stagnant, perhaps because of inattention, perhaps because of taking someone for granted. We find ourselves longing for greater closeness and connection. We may also become aware of some issue within that prevents our growing closer to someone. In other words, we may uncover an unhealed wound.
A crisis of vitality centers around two themes: physical vitality and passion. At midlife, we may begin to confront the reality that with aging can often bring with it reduced energy. The aches and pains of getting up in the morning are testimony. Even moreso, though, at midlife we may sense a loss of passion. Not just sexual passion but passion for anything. A career. A cause. A creative pursuit. Life at midlife may feel tepid with no enthusiasms.
Finally, at midlife we may begin to deal with the reality of mortality and so become concerned as to what if anything will live past us. In other words, we may begin to fear that nothing about us or what we do has any lasting meaning.
Murray Stein has written that the resolution to midlife crisis involves the uncovering of a gift. Some quality or potential within each of us that may be largely untapped. That gift can be uncovered as we search for deeper intimacy, renewed passion, or meaning. The quick fixes of a sports car or an affair with a much younger person will prevent us from reaching the deeper, more lasting gift of midlife crisis. We have to tolerate the tension.
And, yes, women suffer midlife crisis just as much as men.
I have had 3 clear midlife crises. They were all very uncomfortable. In one case, I even thought I was losing my mind. Thankfully, I didn’t resort to any quick fixes and so was blessed with sobriety and creativity as gifts. In the case of the second crisis at age 40, therapy was also quite helpful with the resolution as was journal-writing and attending to my nighttime dreams.
Psychologists nowadays extend midlife to age 65. So I have one year left to squeeze in one last midlife crisis. To be honest, 3 have been quite enough!
For reflection: What have been your experiences with midlife? Did you uncover/are you uncovering any gifts?
Further reading: Murray Stein On Midlife
Chapter 17 in my book Writing Your Spiritual Autobiography