Midlife myths

Midlife crisis has mistakenly been used to encompass everything from character flaws to psychological afflictions to social dilemmas

Middleaged man being naughty with his colleague

Middle age is when your age starts to show around your middle. Heard that joke? Funny, until you look down and can’t see your toes!

Of all the decades in one’s life, the forties probably provides the most fodder for comedians; this decade is associated with men having affairs with, and women dressing up like girls half their age. So should you just roar with laughter [is that why they call it the ‘roaring forties’?], or take this ‘passing phase’ more seriously?

Young at heart?

Extra-marital affairs, by men as well as women, at this age are almost expected and even excused as a part of ‘midlife crisis’. However, unlike Kevin Spacey in American Beauty, the story does not end with you winning an Oscar for your performance.

Responsibilities and routine can lead relations into a rut. Rakesh never had a great marriage to begin with, but his ambitious nature took the focus off his personal life and onto his career. By the time he was 46, he had reached his professional peak. From where he stood, he could see how easy it was to play the ‘field’. And so began an affair with a colleague. When the flames of passion died out, his guilt led him to confess all to his wife. His justification? Yes, midlife crisis.

Pallavi Ullal, a psychologist and counsellor, says, “This kind of behaviour stems from a character flaw — of taking the easy way out by giving up on your long-term relationship instead of giving it a shot of rejuvenation after so many years of togetherness. It is not just a symptom of this supposed age-related condition, but of deep-seated emotional malfunctioning.”

Careering off the road

After working for 25 years as an engineer, building a small fortune over time, Vijay put in his papers and decided to plough back his savings into organic farming! His wife, who had barely finished clearing up after his 50th birthday celebrations, could only shrug and put it down to midlife crisis. But the engineer was serious. Ever since he made the move from an IT firm in Bangalore to a farm in Mangalore, you could not deny seeing a glow in his eyes and a smile on his face.

This age does make people revise and revisit their life goals and career choices. You find yourself at a crossroads—do you continue along the same path of familiarity or do you risk it all for a challenge? If there is a nest egg in the bank and the children have flown the coop, most would decide on setting out on the less-trodden path. And this could lead to a healthier mindset and a happier heart.

“When one continues to do what one has done for so many years, without engaging in hobbies or alternate pastimes, a kind of fatigue and boredom can set in. One should attempt a good work-life balance so that navigating the middle age years is easier,” says Ullal.

Pause and effect

Hormonal changes, which usually occur in one’s forties, are termed as menopause in women and andropause in men. The aberrations and emotions one faces as a teenager are similar. Except, at this age one does not have the energy and the ability of the youth. But, ultimately both adolescence and middle age are transitional periods.

“Not being prepared for these transitions is what causes the so-called crises,” says Ullal. “If you approach the challenges of the age with acceptance and as an opportunity for growth, then most of the problems can be avoided.”

Did you know?

Psychologist Elliot Jacques coined the term ‘midlife crisis’ 40 years ago. He put forth that the quality of life generally declines after the age of 35 [since the average lifespan during that time was 70], and that some extreme reactions to looming mortality were to be expected as a result.

Carl Jung described the midlife crisis as a normal part of adult maturation—the time during which people took stock of themselves.

Erik Erikson, the theorist known for the Eight Stages of Development, explained this stage of transition as ‘middle adulthood’—when people naturally struggle with questions about their meaning and purpose. With necessary adjustments, he believed, people could achieve long term satisfaction by the last stage of life, called ‘late adulthood’.

Daniel Levinson, in his famous book The Seasons of a Man’s Life, felt that midlife crises were characterised primarily by a stark, painful, ‘de-illusionment’ process stemming from the individual’s unavoidable comparison between his youthful dreams and his sobering present reality.

Who am I?

While the first identity crisis in adolescence was about ‘finding yourself’, the second one is about ‘giving up who you think you are to become what you were meant to be’. Many of us turn to spirituality or other means to discover our
inner selves.

Ritu had been a wife and a mother for so long that when her husband succumbed to heart disease and her children started their own families, she suddenly felt lost. Years of looking after her children first, and then her husband in his last years, did not allow her to look at herself as someone beyond a ‘nurturer’.

Instead of moving in with her children and helping out with her grandchildren, as they insisted she do, Ritu decided to shift base to the mountains. She always wanted to write a book and so, over the years she had penned down ideas for short stories that she could now compile at peace.

Middle age is often feared as a traumatic transition in one’s life. “This happens when people are not ready to age gracefully,” says Ullal, “But it is just another phase with its own set of challenges. Look at it as an opportunity to grow.”

Susan Krauss Whitbourne, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, in a research paper has revealed that “people who had switched jobs early in adulthood scored higher in a category she calls generativity—a sense of productivity in work and a desire to leave something of yourself behind for future generations—than those who settled down and stuck with an occupation for 20 years or more. In contrast, she found, divorce and other changes in personal relationships in early life had a detrimental effect on midlife mental health.”

Continuing research into this subject has found that people are actually a lot happier at midlife than at any other point in life. Didn’t someone say that life begins at 40?


A version of this was first published in the June 2012 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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