Our society has evolved to make light of and trivialise the midlife crisis; the middle-aged man in his red sports car is lampooned, the middle-aged woman with a much younger partner is frowned upon and neither is offered a sympathetic ear. We have come to assume it is just a flimsy excuse for erratic or questionable behaviour.
But is that true or is the midlife crisis a real and genuinely difficult period of transition? In part 1 of a two-part series, Counsellor Janet Balcombe examines the evidence and how we might be able to stave off the worst of a midlife crisis.
What is a midlife crisis?
Canadian psychoanalyst Elliot Jacques (1965) is widely credited with coining the phrase ‘midlife crisis’ (1). The concept of a period of stagnation/ introspection is common across a range of psychological theories explaining human development in terms of ‘stages of life’.
The contributions from Erikson’s ‘8 Stages of Man’ (1963), Levinson’s ‘Seasons’ (1978), Gould’s ‘Transformations’ (1978) and Valliant’s ‘Adaptation’ (1977) firmly establish the principle of multiple life transitions as we age, of which a midlife crisis can be one.
What can cause a midlife crisis?
Research does support these theories. Studies have found there can be significant drops in life satisfaction levels during the broadly accepted midlife crisis period from our late-thirties to late-fifties (2). Several factors are thought to influence this:
- Biological – natural ageing processes (e.g. hair thinning and greying; weight gain; potential infertility)
- Psychological – questioning of life purpose, sense of self-worth and place within the world
- Social – changing friendship groups, the demands of older family members, children leaving home
- Economic – financial pressures of raising a family, paying a mortgage or alternatively we may have few financial worries and lose a sense of purpose in life.
Is it inevitable?
Professor Margie Lachman of Brandeis University believes that most people will not experience a full-blown crisis if they have learned to employ coping strategies earlier in life. In theory, more accurate reflections will most likely result in a better balance of our life’s losses and gains. (3)
Theoretically then, our teens, twenties and thirties present an opportunity to develop those coping strategies ahead of the mid-years. However, most of us spend those decades growing up, starting careers, finding love and starting families. There is little interest or time to devote to planning ahead for baldness, a middle-age spread or questioning our life choices.
In part 2 of the series, Janet will look at the nature of the midlife crisis and techniques to help reduce the negative impact it can have on our mental and emotional health.
If you find yourself struggling with issues like your life choices, relationships and place in the world, counselling can help you work through them. Counselling is all about working with a professional psychotherapist to make sense of difficult issues and the big transitions in life.
- Jacques, Elliot. “Death and the Midlife Crisis”, International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 1965.
- Australian Bureau of Statistics – 45-54 is the age with the lowest satisfaction levels.
- Lachman, Margie. “Mind the gap in the middle: A call to study midlife..” Research in Human Development 12. (2015): 327-334.