Recently, I had a question from a man who was in serious pain because . . . his wife was going through a midlife crisis. In some ways, there’s nothing odd or strange about that: women and men both experience the physical and emotional changes that signal the transition from adulthood to maturity. In the vast majority of cases, though, men have a harder time with it because of the negative acculturation they’ve received throughout their whole lives that blocks them from getting in touch with their deeper emotions and from sharing their emotional struggles with an intimate network of friends outside of their primary relationship. With culturally-encouraged access to these critical factors, women generally have more support and more grounding that helps them keep their balance through tumultuous times.
Sometimes, unfortu nately, for reasons better explained by a psychologist, the support system supply can’t meet the demand, and the consequences in women parallel what we see in so many men: restlessness, irritability and discontent. This may seem like a somewhat odd reversal of roles (women showing signs of a classical male midlife crisis), but it only seems strange because of the difference in frequency of occurrence between men and women – not because there’s anything inherently unusual about women having midlife crises. Even when roles have been reversed, and the male partner has enough sensitivity and social acumen to be able to cope with the personal transformations that come with midlife without turning it into a crisis, I think that the same wise counsel would be equally applicable no matter who may be having more difficulty.
Should you become the ‘injured party,’ your first priority would be to take care of yourself. Here’s a truism that you may find difficult to accept (at least at first, but, accept it you mist): nobody can hurt or take advantage of you without your permission. So long as you cling to that fact, you never need to become a victim. The corollary to this truth can be expressed this way: you are powerless over persons, places and things. Trying to change these things (‘making him/her understand’) not only brings with it frustration for you, it’s also very likely to produce exactly the opposite effect from what you were striving to accomplish. Taking care of yourself, then, means, first of all, letting go of all the stuff out there over which you have no control. It also means taking all appropriate measures to make sure your needs are being met. True humility has nothing to do with neglecting yourself; neither does true pride mean ‘playing through the pain’ without making sure that you’re keeping yourself at least physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually OK.
I know that it seems counter-intuitive and unhelpful to be told that the best approach to your partner who’s showing signs of a midlife crisis is ‘hands-off,’ but it’s exactly true. Take for example the advice that’s given to people who are in a relationship with people in active addiction (not an unusual situation during a midlife crisis either, I dare say): detach with love. What does that entail? That means, first of all, to let go of the current situation and its eventual outcome. Secondly, it means resisting the temptation to become passively aggressive (playing ‘hard-to-get’). Keep in mind that your partner has become entirely engrossed in trying to manage his/her transition. Without sufficient personal awareness and wise support, that task easily becomes overwhelming. You – regardless of your history together for good or ill – have been relegated to the status of ‘collateral damage.’ Once again, regarding your partner’s midlife crisis, the facts are these: you didn’t cause it; you can’t control it; you can’t cure it.
How can you then best survive what feels like a crushing blow to your ego and your relationship? The same advice that I’d give to someone who was personally trying to manage a midlife crisis would also apply to you. Two essential strategies are: 1) Deepen your awareness of your own feelings. Any avoidance techniques – particularly denial and blame – need to be banished from your life now more than ever. 2) Share what’s going on with you – especially your feelings – with your most trusted advisers (apart from your partner who needs to be ‘off-limits’ to you during this period). Hire someone to talk to if nothing else. Share what’s going on with you only; don’t concern yourself with your partner’s behavior or motives; focus on how you feel and what you need to do to cope with it all. Remember, once again: what your partner is thinking or doing right now is none of your business. And, finally, here’s a third strategy that’ll help you cope: learn as much about the midlife transition as you can. In addition to my own writings, I can also recommend anything written by Dr. Jed Diamond, PhD. His work is as inspired as it is scientific.
The virtues of humility, acceptance, and spiritual connection to your Higher Power (whatever your understanding) will be your strongest allies – particularly if you’re a man facing the possibility of losing your wife to a midlife crisis. You can’t change the outcome of this whole process, because you’re not the one in charge of it. The Serenity Prayer will help you to discern the difference between the things you cannot change (other persons, places, or things – including the past) and the things you can change (yourself). Clean up your own side of the street. That’s the challenging but magnificent opportunity you’re being given through this experience. Your choices may not have a lot of effect on whether or not your relationship survives, but they will certainly determine the quality of your life from this point forward. My advice? Take advantage of it!
H. Les Brown, MA, CFCC
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Copyright © 2008 H. Les Brown
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