Do Midlife Crisis Relationships Last?
Not long after my 48th birthday, I started having persistent thoughts about time slipping away, getting old, and letting go of my dreams. The specter of turning 50 scared the hell out of me. Most of all, I couldn’t shake the thought that soon I would no longer be considered attractive to women or able to perform sexually. Even though my wife and I have always had a good sex life, I caught myself thinking more and more about what I didn’t have, and I became desperate to prove to myself that I wasn’t simply fading away into oblivion.
Long story short, I went online and discreetly began talking to women as young as half my age. At first I was just hoping to confirm to myself that I “still had it.” I thought all I needed was a confidence boost and then I’d stop and go back to my life as I knew it. But I didn’t stop, and I have been having an affair for almost a year now. She’s 25. I concede she could easily be my daughter, but she’s very mature for her age and is established in her medical career. I am also in the medical field. We are talking about potentially working together in the near future.
I have no misgivings about the notion that this all came about due to a midlife crisis. I saw 50 creeping up on me and I flat-out panicked. In the process, I let my marriage go. I am that guy now—the one who leaves his wife for the hotter, younger woman. I do feel ashamed about that, and knowing I hurt my wife, whom I still love, will probably eat at me for the rest of my days.
At the same time, I feel alive in ways I haven’t in a long, long time. I can see a future that isn’t bleak. My divorce is only in the early stages, but I am already thinking of proposing to my girlfriend as soon as it is final. I know that if we marry, I could very well be dead by the time she’s my age. I would like to think, though, that I will have spent my sunset years having the time of my life.
I am not writing to be told what an awful husband I am, or that I should go back to my wife (not that she would have me). Instead, I am wondering: Do you see a lot of these types of situations in therapy? People like me who make big, risky decisions as part of midlife crises? I am wondering how those situations typically play out, especially in the case of affairs with younger women that lead to relationships. They can’t all end disastrously. Hopefully, you will give me hope that midlife crisis relationships can work out. But in the absence of hope, I will take the truth. Thank you! —Better to Burn Out
Thanks for your candid question, and I appreciate your wanting an honest answer.
First of all, yes, this is extremely common. Erotic preoccupation tends to be at the forefront for many men anxious about middle age, especially in regard to a pending loss of “it” (“do I still have it,” “what if I lose it,” and so forth).
The specifics vary, but the majority of men I treat who are struggling with marital intimacy and sex (or lack thereof) are in their mid-40s or later. Some decide to seek new partners, others turn to pornography, still others discover gay or bisexual feelings and want to experiment. The details differ, but the theme tends to be “life is short, and I may have more years behind me than in front of me.” The creeping awareness of aging and mortality sparks a turn to vitalizing pursuits.
In middle age, of course, one begins to notice changes in terms of stamina, perhaps more aches and pains, worsening eyesight, and so on—which is why many seek counseling. Carl Jung said middle age may be the ideal time to begin psychotherapy because mortality tends to grab our attention and focus us on what’s existentially or spiritually important.
Now, one could write volumes about what this eroticized “it” is and why a desire to feel desirable skyrockets. As with most things human, there is much more to “it” than meets the eye.
We might also note there is an unfortunate tendency to marginalize or minimize the benefits of old age, along with the inevitable difficulties and anxieties. Though it is that anxiety, as Jung also noted, that prompts us to focus on what we want our life to be about.
In your case, it sounds like something sparked an enormous hunger for a new romantic start. You sound conflicted in the sense that, on the one hand, you feel ashamed and remorseful about leaving your wife, while on the other, it’s full speed ahead and damn the (graying) torpedoes! That is quite a contrast of simultaneous attitudes, and I am curious about how you experience or navigate them.
In fact, I had to read your question several times before I began to intuit what you might be asking. I think it is, at heart, about certainty. Middle age is a strange, possibly frightening zone of experience, and you sound as if you want to hold on to something, to “it,” as it were … to know you have “it,” as borne out in your new relationship, which to your credit has dimension and full-fledged hopes in terms of developing a life together.
You imagine you will either be happy or not happy, have the time of your life or its opposite. Most of life happens in the middle of the spectrum, in ambiguity rather than certainty.
You are excited about your new romantic prospects, that excitement being a desired state of being. Your question about how these relationships play out indicates concern or anxiety about the future. I wonder where that comes from. Your hope for something to count on shows in your keenly hoping the new relationship works out so you can experience continued excitement and the “time of your life” rather than (I am guessing) the dreaded loss of sexual vitality, desirability, and “performance” essential to feeling so alive.
It is all more complicated than it appears, to my mind. In fact, I think part of the anxiety you are having is due to oversimplification in seeking an answer, wanting things to be “good” or “bad.” You imagine you will either be happy or not happy, have the time of your life or its opposite. Most of life happens in the middle of the spectrum, in ambiguity rather than certainty.
As a medical doctor, you’re probably used to certainty in terms of diagnoses, medicine, treatment, and so on. But Jung is right in that we need psychology to understand what is happening to our inner subjective world, not just the material or external circumstances.
I would be curious, were we to talk, about how you decided none of this can happen with your wife. You make scant mention of the state of the marriage when the new relationship began. Were there unresolvable issues afoot? Irreconcilable impasses? I suppose if you’re “that guy” who leaves his wife, she is “that wife” who gets left. Women experience middle-age anxiety as well, albeit in different ways. But those differences can often be worked through to find a vitalizing, intimate center, if both partners are willing. Sometimes couples counseling is required to help jump-start a deeper dialogue. (You didn’t mention if you have children; sometimes affairs start after children are older and leave home.)
The other curiosity I am left with is the specificity of the fear presented to you by your age. You are not, after all, about to turn 90. The strongest emotion I sensed here was fear, something close to panic—as if death’s door were closing in. Is there something you deeply fear losing beyond “it” or sexual appeal? Maybe it’s worth reflecting on what exactly “it” is for you.
It is no doubt scary to find oneself cresting over middle age, with a glimpse of the descent that is rife with uncertainty. At the same time, there is a chance to live life within an expanded perspective and awareness of what is important to us, rather than just following the path we started out on in our 20s and 30s. Such expansiveness might mean the beginning of a deeper search for personalized meaning, rather than just “having a good career” or marriage, and so on.
My hope is that your new romantic opportunity is enjoyable, fulfilling, appropriately challenging, and a chance to understand yourself and your middle-age restlessness in a way that brings you a broader understanding of your soulful strivings.
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