Do Midlife Crisis Relationships Last?

Dear GoodTherapy.org,

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

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Dear BTBO,

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.

Best wishes,

Darren Haber, PsyD, MFT

Darren Haber
Darren Haber, PsyD, MFT is a psychotherapist specializing in treating alcoholism and drug addiction as well as co-occurring issues such as anxiety, depression, relationship concerns, secondary addictions (especially sex addiction), and trauma (both single-incident and repetitive). He works in a variety of modalities, primarily cognitive behavioral, spiritual/recovery-based, and psychodynamic. He is certified in eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, and continues to receive psychodynamic training in treating relational trauma, including emotional abuse/neglect and physical and sexual abuse.
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  • Jenn

    Jenn

    December 9th, 2020 at 11:10 AM

    Dear BTBO and Darren,
    BTBO I appreciate your candidness- to say it like it is. Darren, I appreciate your thought-provoking response and sympathy for the wife left behind. I am sitting here, 6 weeks deep, into what I think is my own husband’s mid-life crisis. He too has left me and has sought a relationship outside of our marriage. Initially he said he left because he wasn’t happy and didn’t want to live his life this way (although the week prior he mentioned I made more money than he did, which isn’t the case because medical costs are deducted from his pay, not mine, and he probably contributes more to retirement). This didn’t concern me until through the whirlwind of “what did I do or NOT do to contribute to his unhappiness” I recalled that conversation and thought this could be mid-life crisis. I suffered pain beyond expression, as he rejected me twice (a few weeks into our separation he said he would give me a chance to show change through counseling- which I have made huge progress- just to be told he wants to pursue someone he just met) hence the second round of grieving, which was stronger than the first. We have two children together, 6 yrs and 2 yrs, and the pain intensifies when you realize he isn’t just leaving you, but essentially he is choosing to be a part-time dad and offer part-time love to our boys who were receiving it daily. The current state of affairs is that he still doesn’t know what he wants, he does love me and the boys, but he isn’t certain he wants to pursue marital counseling and reconciliation. Our marriage wasn’t happy, we had lots of problems. Affairs on his end, and angst and animosity on my end- ultimately losing respect for him and love for him. I do agree that something drastic needed to occur to propel us into change, IF marriage could be salvaged. I discovered I was molested as a child 2 weeks before he left me, which has played a tremendous role in my own personal recovery (when you don’t know what is wrong, you can’t fix it). I am at a point in all of this that I could reconcile if he were to commit and make changes himself, or move on and commit to living a happy and fulfilling life without him. The question I pose to you then is how long should one sit patiently and wait for something that may or may not be fulfilling? I do love him, and I am feeling like I have been rebirthed or Risen from the Ashes and see so much out there to experience. Will it be with him, or should I move on?
    Jenn (the woman left behind)

  • Karen

    Karen

    December 12th, 2020 at 6:22 PM

    I just read this and am agreeing ,my ex husband also went through a rough time and could or would not handle it. We were married for 31 yrs ,its devastating. I am at the 5 yr mark of survival and sometimes I don’t believe it . He got his Divorce and 90 days later was remarried. I seriously needed help ,I wonder if I had handled it differently if he would have came back? I doubt it because he was going through the fear of age and the beginning of erictal disfunction. I hope I have not scared you all but it is real. Thank goodness I went and withdrew a large sum of money for me and my son .
    They say around the 5 yr mark you begin to see a change and yes I was told he misses me and yadayada its way to late . Dont think I am strong because I’m not ,I still vent,cry,cuss but if they are happy then he has no conscience, because you cannot hurt a person to be happy with another and everything be ok

  • Joan

    Joan

    December 26th, 2020 at 12:28 PM

    Jenn and Karen, I can so relate to both of your stories. They sound like my own story. I am also the left woman this year. My husband was angry, blamed me for everything wrong in our marriage and within a few months had moved out. A month later he was in a relationship with someone else and throwing it in my face. He had the nerve to tell me that I could date too and why was I not out there meeting men (well, let’s see…we are in a pandemic, I’m still legally married to you and dating someone else doesn’t seem to be the healthiest way to get over the end of a 20 year relationship). I couldn’t believe I had to actually explain this to him! But I guess if your brain is sitting in your pants, you don’t always see things like a rational person. It has been a few months since he left and through sheer determination I am getting through this. I’ve been through most of the grieving states and have been back over a few a couple of times. It’s not been easy but I can see every day I feel better. I have decided that I would never take him back under any circumstances. A person shows you who they are and if they did it once, they are capable of doing it again. There are many good, decent and healthy people out there. After my divorce is final and when I’m ready, I’m choosing to take a chance on them instead of giving my husband a second chance he doesn’t deserve. Talk is cheap and a person’s actions say everything you need to know about them. His actions prove he is not worthy of a relationship with me.

  • J.

    J.

    January 29th, 2021 at 11:33 AM

    Was it a mid-life crisis, or not, I’m not certain, although like the other women here went through divorce with 3-young children after a 17-year marriage. The marriage was not healthy, and there was manipulation involved, as well as a lot of other issues, some of which I never knew on his end since he never shared them with me. He likely had a number of affairs for 3 years or so prior to separation, and then started a relationship with a supposed good friend. Then a few more women. He married a woman that is a wonderful person from a family I enjoy spending time with. He divorced her about three years and married the woman with whom he was having an affair. They are still married and have 2 young girls. The 10-years or so after the divorce were horrible, and I found a good counselor and finally an attorney who I called my knight in shining armor for being the buffer in dealing with all types of custody issues. The very large wealth gap had always caused problems. Throughout this entire time, getting close to 15 years now, I can say it was all for the best, no matter how horrible it was. And I mean horrible, needing to sleep in my car, intimidation, issues between me and the kids, one of who didn’t talk to me for 1 1/2 years, and more. As a person, there would have been no way that I would have been able to grow as an individual as within the marriage. It’s made me a better person, with good relationships with all my kids, and developed courage, empathy, and leadership to an extent I never could have imagined. I write all of this to let you all know that it CAN all be for the best, and that sometimes it’s simply a matter of how we frame the situation and the meaning we give it. Wishing all peace, sleep, healing, and growth as you move through this time in your life.

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