Use the phrase 'midlife crisis' and most people will probably laugh. But the midlife crisis is no joke. On the contrary, it is an important, even potentially dangerous, phase in someone's life. Of course, the comic potential has been endlessly exploited by advertisers, artists and comedians. Fortieth and fiftieth birthday cards are a good example of this, often using the cartoon image of a balding man chasing his secretary or driving his teenage children around in a car marked 'taxi'. And there is undeniably something amusing about a chubby 48-year-old trying to squeeze into his designer T-shirt then being refused entry to a trendy nightclub. But the midlife crisis is also serious.
The midlife crisis begins when an individual reaches a certain age, often their early 40s, and is forced to acknowledge that he is no longer young. Suddenly (and it can be a sudden realization rather than a gradual dawning), people recognize that their life is not something ahead of them but something largely decided. In other words, they have usually met their life partner, had their children, taken out a mortgage and settled into the family home. This is their life. Whether correctly or not, they feel that the journey is over: they are going nowhere; they have arrived.
If they are unhappy in some way, with their career choice perhaps, or their relationship, this in itself can trigger the crisis. But some undergo a crisis even though they enjoy their job and love their partner. A British journalist once remarked that in his early 40s he and his wife treated themselves to a meal at a top London restaurant. Halfway through, he went to the rest room, washed his hands and made his way back to the table. As he did so, his wife turned and smiled at him. "She is so perfect and so beautiful," he thought, "I love my wife, I love my job, I have plenty of money and my kids are great." At that point, he said, his midlife crisis began! He suddenly felt that there was nothing left to strive or aim for.
Many people live in furious denial of the ageing process, continuing to dress, act, and think like someone in their late teens or early 20s. Therapists will often tell their patients that they must "update their internal maps," meaning that they need to adjust to the reality of their situation and accept things as they really are. Their therapist may not be able to convince them, but time will: a milestone birthday is passed (usually 40), a bald patch appears, and their libido fades. The crisis refers to the internal battle that follows. Part of them continues to resist, part attempts to adjust and accept.
The signs or 'symptoms' of a midlife crisis are numerous. They can be trivial, like finding it harder to sleep, wishing to lose weight, or feeling that the world was a much better place when they were young. Often, people act out of character, suddenly showing an interest in things they had previously ignored, like foreign travel, or buying something strange, like a leather jacket or motorbike. Some changes can be more serious. Depression is common, as is anger, irritability, and a yearning either to shake things up or simply runaway altogether. Living with someone in the grips of a full-blown midlife crisis is no fun. Not only can they be morose, sullen and unpredictable, but those who love them often find they are now living with a stranger.
People look back over their life and think, "Here I am, trapped in a boring marriage, taken for granted by my kids and parents, with nothing to look forward to but thinning, greying hair, aching joints and the same old monotonous grind. What happened to all those dreams? You only get one life, and I have done so little with mine." This in turn triggers a sort of panic, which explains the often erratic, impulsive, self-destructive behaviour all too common in middle-age. The 52-year-old professor who has an affair with one of his students and wrecks his marriage, or the 40-something mother who runs away with a new lover, are more often tragic than comic. And this is why it needs to be emphasized once again that the midlife crisis is serious. When people have affairs, collapse into depression, or start drinking too much, they hurt not only themselves but those they love.
It should first be stressed that the midlife crisis also has an upside. Handled carefully, it can motivate an individual to make all sorts of positive changes. Most obviously, it can drive them to get fit. Watch any of the world's marathons and you will see slim, fit middle-aged people who were chubby and out of shape a few years before. The marathon is a way of proving to themselves that they are not finished yet! Others will experience a new hunger for knowledge and an eagerness to return to education, learn a new language, or try their hand at painting, sculpture, or poetry. Some feel a burning desire to understand the meaning of life and begin working their way through books on philosophy, mysticism and religion.
A crisis need not be all bad. After all, many languages use the same word for crisis as they do for opportunity. The Swiss psychologist Carl Jung, for example, saw it as an important and necessary part of the maturing process, vital to ongoing psychic growth. Those who care for someone gripped by such a crisis have a part to play. Therapy may be an answer. Some therapists actually specialize in the midlife crisis (which they prefer to call a midlife transition). Sadly, many still see therapy as something for weak or sick people. In reality, it is for the brave and determined. No competent therapist will allow her client to wallow in self-pity. On the contrary, you are there for self-exploration and personal growth.
Overcoming the midlife crisis need not mean bitterly resigning yourself to the end of youth. It should instead be a transition. Youth has its down side, just as middle age has its advantages. Many hate their teens and twenties, looking back on it as a time of confusion, loneliness, and insecurity. You are transitioning to a new phase of life. Approached with courage and honesty, it can be a time of immense happiness, when you finally let go of those lingering adolescent insecurities, learn to say no, and finally commit to loving those who love you.