The Myth of the Male Midlife Crisis

Motorcyclist on the Open RoadAs a psychotherapist who helps a lot of middle-aged men, I have learned that, as with so many pop psychology clichés, there is much more to the male “midlife crisis” than meets the eye. The problems and challenges that crop up in middle age are less about outside circumstances, which we can’t control, and more about one’s psychology and perspective. In the paragraphs that follow, we’ll discuss (1) how this so-called crisis is really an intensified version of an issue that’s always present, (2) why that is, and (3) what can be done about it.

We are familiar with the pop culture-inspired image of the middle-aged man who suddenly feels “old,” his youthfulness scarily draining away, which leads to a reckless fling or pursuit of a younger woman, often with disastrous results. Think of Kevin Spacey in American Beauty lusting after his teenage daughter’s friend; two grown men behaving like the erratic college roomies they once were in Sideways; or Michael Douglas in Fatal Attraction (note how well that worked out!).

Whatever your moral view, these dramatized antics often strike a chord with audiences. Why is that?

The issue isn’t so much moral as one of perception. It calls for deeper understanding of one’s own inner world, and of one’s own vulnerability.

In middle age, many men find, perhaps for the first time, that mortality becomes real, physical, in a way that can’t be denied. But that mortality, our human vulnerability, is always present, whether we are conscious of it or not.

One of the great privileges of youth is denial of that limitation, an embrace of invincibility, a vital rebuke to the idea of aging and death. Life is finite. This implies not only our own eventual demise, which scares us, but also the demise of those closest to us (also scary). We all have to live with a ticking clock, which is both a curse and a blessing; I’ll explain why later. At a certain point, the clock can no longer be ignored.

I’m thinking of some of the men in therapy with me who are creeping up on middle age and noticing their bodies don’t quite have the same resilience; no more boxing, no more marathons. Such activities had lent an aura of invincibility that won’t be coming back. Suddenly, eight hours of sleep seems very important, and the mind isn’t quite the steel trap it used to be. Viagra and Cialis are given a look, and body parts that weren’t even on the radar begin to ache. (As I write this, my lower back is sorer than it used to be.) That ticking clock makes its presence known, in ways both subtle and obvious.

It was always there, of course, but we tend to deny it—which is not to say we ought to obsess or brood over it like Woody Allen in Hannah and Her Sisters, where he says, “Do you realize what a thread we’re hanging by?” But sooner or later, deal with it we must; our aches and pains and other signs of compromised endurance serve as uncomfortable reminders that time is a kind of currency, and none of us has unlimited amounts to spend. We must, at some time or another, consider how we really want to be spending it.

Sometimes, other unexpected losses occurring in middle age can be uneasy reminders of that existential clock: we may lose a high school friend or a parent; we might experience new medical issues; we find ourselves unhappy with our work or career; or perhaps longstanding relationship issues become more challenging. Knowing we’re mortal intellectually is very different from sensing it in our very bones.

These and other encounters with mortality are indicators of what psychoanalyst and philosopher Robert Stolorow (2007) calls “finitude,” the concept that to be human means accepting the finiteness of time and human limitations, including the big kahuna of mortality itself. These reminders can themselves be “triggers” for those who experienced trauma earlier in life. Psychologists sometimes call this “emotional linkage.”

Can’t we just have a fling or watch some porn or take a pill?

I think this is why therapy can seem so frightening. In therapy people face their vulnerabilities—and that can mean acknowledging that clock, which even therapists are sometimes reluctant to recognize. (Those of us in helping professions who duck the issue, who don’t face it in some basic way, are doing ourselves and the people we work with a disservice.)

Often a man will internalize mortality as “weakness” and respond by trying harder at the gym, ignoring aches and pains, working more, seeking more sex or self-validation by making more money, etc. Consumption of booze, porn, and other “medication” may also increase. All of these, of course, are Band-Aids. These things are reliably diverting only for a while. Ultimately, they fail to address the problem in a fulfilling way psychologically or emotionally.

One thing that surprises many men who come to see me is that the limitations and finiteness they are encountering in a newly anxious way have, as noted earlier, been there all along. The loss of the ability to box, run, work, work out, and have sex with the same vigor and stamina may be subtle, if potent, reminders of times in the past when one felt overwhelmingly weak or defenseless in the face of unbearable pain. Perhaps abuse or abandonment occurred and equally intense self-protections were needed, ways of building the person back up again. The original trauma may have necessarily been forgotten for the sake of survival, but here are those feelings and memories again, with their same implications of shameful “weakness” and vulnerability. Losing one’s youthful strength can feel like losing the armor that protected us for so many years, plunging us into anxiety and uncertainty.

Often a man will internalize mortality as “weakness” and respond by trying harder at the gym, ignoring aches and pains, working more, seeking more sex or self-validation by making more money, etc. Consumption of booze, porn, and other “medication” may also increase. All of these, of course, are Band-Aids. These things are reliably diverting only for a while. Ultimately, they fail to address the problem in a fulfilling way psychologically or emotionally.

Ironically, it’s almost a blessing that time is limited. The finiteness of time gives the present its value; it forces us to focus on what truly matters to us: soulful versus immediate gratification. (Not that there’s anything wrong with the latter, provided it’s not the only means of enjoying life.) If time and youth were infinite, we might not find value in the present, in the moments we get to share with each other, or in the wondrousness of our world.

When we can at least take a stab at accepting our humanness, when we can live in abundance and in the present moment no matter our circumstances, then our world can open up to us in unexpected ways. Human connection becomes more valuable, and authenticity and emotional truth become something to strive for rather than fear or dread. As we come to accept that, as men, it’s OK to need support and love from others in facing what is frightening, we can better help and support others in their own times of grief and loss.

Of course, facing our humanness can be very difficult and messy, and often prompts the raising of hairy questions such as, “Am I happy in my work? At home? How do I deal with aging parents and their impending loss? Is it time to forgive and forget? What do I really care about? Will the ‘real me’ please stand up?”

This is not to say, by the way, that physical activity or outside “stuff” doesn’t matter. (I would not turn down a free sports car.) It’s just that so many men who come to me for help have put all of their psychological eggs in that particular basket. When the basket begins to fray, panic sets in. It’s when our usual “fixes” stop working that real therapy begins. (Carl Jung, for one, felt that therapy truly began in middle age.)

So many who begin working at this—via therapy, creativity, spirituality, relating more closely to others, or other means—discover that, in the end, there’s nothing to be afraid of. There is sadness and loss, yes, but also greater capacity for connection, even joy. There is as much beauty in the human soul as in the natural world, if not more so. Some tender scrubbing at a tarnished heart often reveals a priceless gem. Hard to believe? Why not try it?

It’s not the fears and hidden demons that can hurt us, it’s the persistent avoidance of them that gets us into trouble.

There’s no shame in asking for help (from a therapist, religious or spiritual adviser, trusted friend, even a family member). The practice of gazing, with assistance if need be, into our own psychic mirrors in the end helps us enjoy even more the joys of exercise, food, drink, sex, and embodied aliveness.

Water is most valued when the well runs dry, as the old saying goes. I believe we are meant to enjoy our pleasurable sensory experiences, but not as a total escape from our all-too-human situation. We are all in the same boat with this than most of us ever realize.

Reference:

Stolorow, R. D. (2007). Trauma and human existence. New York: The Analytic Press.

© Copyright 2015 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Darren Haber, PsyD, MFT, therapist in Los Angeles, California

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 15 comments
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  • Conner

    Conner

    November 18th, 2015 at 7:14 AM

    A myth? No it’s real

  • sadwife

    sadwife

    November 18th, 2015 at 2:20 PM

    my husband lost it when his brother died last year it has been the worst year. he is acting wild, buying things, drinking like collge kid. Don’t even try to talk to him about his brother he says not related. he thinks its normal to act young forever all I say is yes but also settle down

  • Darren Haber

    Darren Haber

    November 18th, 2015 at 4:00 PM

    Thanks SW, sounds like a rough time for both of you. It is sad when we see the desperation of someone trying to avoid real pain by acting like that. Is there anyone in his life he’ll listen to besides you, who can tell him to cool it and allow himself to grieve ? Would he be open to couples counseling, at least one or two, so you can be heard? I
    Hope you have a safe place to vent as this sounds pretty stressful and at some point he’ll really need to knock it off and face some tough but necessary feelings. Thanks again.

  • Jake

    Jake

    November 19th, 2015 at 7:55 AM

    tHe problem for most of the guys that I know, and I include myself in this statement, is that we have always been told to man up, keep it in, so then when something does happen and we need help, rather than asking for the help we just start acting out.

  • Darren Haber

    Darren Haber

    November 19th, 2015 at 2:56 PM

    Well said, Jake. Double standards abound for both genders. We’re supposed to man up and get in touch with our feelings, be strong but a sensitive listener, assertive but not controlling…. It happens for women too, but in different ways.

  • Jake

    Jake

    November 20th, 2015 at 8:19 AM

    I think that more people though expect that sort of thing form women not because they are softer or weaker but just because they are usually a little more in touch with their feelings than men are. But for men? It has always been about being strong and providing for the family but there are times when we need to have a soft place to fall too, and I do not think that society is usually very accommodating to that.

  • Morgan

    Morgan

    November 23rd, 2015 at 8:00 AM

    People know that women undergo hormonal changes and this is widely accepted. But for men, are there the same kind of changes that we could point to that would make people more accepting that this actually happens? I think that it is always downplayed a little more with men than with women and they have a difficult time getting the understanding and acceptance that maybe women do in the same circumstances.

  • julia s.

    julia s.

    November 24th, 2015 at 10:22 AM

    Men want to think that they are the only ones who have it bad, but once you get to a certain age, we all have our woes.

  • Darren Haber

    Darren Haber

    November 24th, 2015 at 11:43 AM

    Thanks Julie. Perhaps we could say there are physical differences and emotional similarities.

  • Jenson

    Jenson

    November 27th, 2015 at 12:48 PM

    There is the perception that this is something that happens because in truth it is something that happens to many many men. The reality is that many men feel stressed and overwhelmed for a number of years and when midlife strikes, then you look back and see that you have been very busy providing for others but that you have done very little doing the things that actually make you the happiest.

  • Darren Haber

    Darren Haber

    November 29th, 2015 at 1:48 PM

    Well said!

  • Gwen

    Gwen

    November 29th, 2015 at 1:28 PM

    I am most confused because by the title it sounds like it is something that you feel people are making up but in reality there is some proof that this does happen.

  • Darren Haber

    Darren Haber

    November 29th, 2015 at 1:47 PM

    Hi Gwen. Fair question. I meant myth in the sense of, we’re always in ‘crisis’ in terms of having finite time, and having human limitations, but usually we just ignore it. The myth is it comes out of the blue, suddenly we’re wondering what life is supposed to be for us; you’re right something is happening, it’s just happening all the time. Usually we choose to ignore it. Sort of like suddenly there’s global warming tho scientists have been warning us about this for decades. Or the housing bubble that ‘suddenly’ burst in 2008 seemingly all of a sudden. It seems to be part of our nature somehow to wait for crisis before addressing things. Thx for the comment!

  • Holly

    Holly

    January 23rd, 2019 at 5:14 AM

    Where to get help for people you love going through this?

  • The GoodTherapy.org Team

    The GoodTherapy.org Team

    January 23rd, 2019 at 10:57 AM

    Hi Holly,

    If you would like to search for a therapist in your area, please go to http://www.goodtherapy.org, and enter your zip code in the search field. You may also find this article about helping someone who needs therapy to be a good resource: http://www.goodtherapy.org/how-to-help.html.

    Warm regards,
    The GoodTherapy Team

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