A midlife crisis is a time of transition and challenge for people in or approaching middle age. Definitions of midlife vary, and research into the average midlife crisis age is scant. One study found the average age for a midlife crisis is 47. Other research suggests the midlife crisis begins before midlife, in the middle thirties, and resolves in the middle forties.

Not everyone experiences a midlife crisis. Much recent research disputes the idea that a midlife crisis exists at all. Yet any transition can spur a crisis of identity. For some people, the transition to middle age marks such a transition.

Therapy can help people turn a midlife crisis into an opportunity for growth and generativity. The right therapist can offer advice for how to deal with a midlife crisis, help people facing a midlife crisis understand the roots of the crisis, gain control over their emotions, and take meaningful steps toward goals that make life feel meaningful.

Are Midlife Crises Real?

Midlife crises have long been plot devices in television and movies. They’ve also been the subject of numerous popular memoirs. A 2000 study found that the term was so ubiquitous that 90% of telephone survey respondents could offer a definition. Yet a midlife crisis is not a mental health diagnosis.

Some researchers argue there’s little evidence that such a crisis reliably occurs for most people. A 1992 literature review, for example, found that belief in or experience of a midlife crisis is not universal across cultures. The same study estimated only about 10% of American men experience a midlife crisis. Twenty-six percent of respondents to a 2000 phone survey said they had experienced a midlife crisis. This suggests most people do not experience a midlife crisis.

Even those who see a midlife crisis as a common developmental milestone disagree about how to define it. Some theorists refer to midlife crises as midlife transitions. The transition provides the opportunity to evaluate past goals and achievements before moving on to the next stage of life.

Some symptoms of a midlife crisis are consistent with those of an adjustment disorder, which is a mental health diagnosis. People experiencing adjustment disorders face immense stress in response to a new life event, such as a move or the death of a loved one.

For people experiencing a midlife crisis, the experience is very real. Citing research indicating that the experience is relatively rare, or that these crises do not occur in all cultures, will not make symptoms go away. A person who feels that their symptoms are well-explained by a midlife crisis is experiencing a midlife crisis.

What Causes a Midlife Crisis?

Getting older brings many changes. Relationships may end or shift. Careers can become progressively more demanding, or might fail to live up to a person’s dreams. As a person’s parents and friends grow older or even die, the person may begin to face their own mortality.

Erik Erikson divided human development into eight distinct stages, each with its own central conflict. In midlife, Erikson argues, the conflict is between generativity and stagnation. Fears of stagnation may trigger a midlife crisis, while a move toward generativity—giving something to the next generation—may help resolve the crisis.

Every midlife crisis is different. Some common sources of midlife crises include:

  • Societal messages about aging, such as the idea that middle-aged people and elders are less attractive.
  • Changes in the body, such as weight gain, pain, or less energy.
  • Fear of the aging process itself.
  • Fear of death.
  • Divorce or other changes in a person’s relationship.
  • Changes in a person’s relationship with their children. This may include having children, watching children move out, or even becoming a grandparent. Some people experience a midlife crisis due to empty nest syndrome.
  • Career changes, such as work being more or less demanding than it once was.
  • Financial challenges, especially related to retirement.
  • Grappling with trauma from earlier in life.
  • Feeling that life hasn’t turned out the way one envisioned or hoped it would.

Midlife Crisis Symptoms

Because a midlife crisis is not a disease, there’s no list of symptoms that applies to every person experiencing a midlife crisis. Instead, a midlife crisis is characterized by anxiety, stress, or frustration specifically related to age, aging, or mortality.

Sometimes, in an attempt to stave off the feelings of grief or anxiety that can accompany a midlife crisis, people may have an affair, buy a new car, use drugs or alcohol, or otherwise try to recapture the exhilaration of youth. People experiencing or about to experience a midlife crisis may exhibit some of the following emotions and behaviors:

  • Relationship dissatisfaction. A person might want to change the terms of their relationship, lose interest in sex, or radically shift their sexual interests.
  • Obsession with one's appearance. A person might dress in clothes that create a "younger" look, attempt different diets, exercise often, or use cosmetics or procedures in an attempt to reduce or reverse the signs of aging. The person may feel it is difficult to recognize who they have become.
  • Career dissatisfaction. Someone experiencing a midlife crisis might wish to quit their job or escape responsibilities and may feel envious and resentful of younger coworkers, especially those who appear to be advancing.
  • Emotional distress. A person might feel down or empty (especially for extensive periods), be short-tempered or quick to anger, consider mortality often, question religious beliefs, behave in a reckless manner, or abuse drugs and alcohol, sometimes in an attempt to escape feelings of emotional turmoil.

These symptoms don’t always mean a person is having a midlife crisis. Physiological changes at midlife, such as endocrine disorders, can change behavior. Many of the symptoms of a midlife crisis can also be symptoms of depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions. So it’s important for people suddenly struggling with their emotions to seek help from a mental health provider.

Midlife Crisis Stages

Researchers do not agree on a single definition of a midlife crisis, let alone a predictable set of stages. Midlife crises manifest differently for different people. For some, a midlife crisis follows three general stages:

  1. Something happens that triggers anxiety about getting older. This could be a milestone birthday, the death of a loved one, a career change, or anything else that causes a person to reflect on their age or their life.
  2. A person spends time in crisis. During this time, they may explore different identities, change relationships with loved ones, or seek new sources of meaning.
  3. The person in crisis resolves the crisis through therapy, acceptance of life’s changes, regaining a sense of control, or any other strategy that makes life feel less overwhelming.

For some people, a midlife crisis lasts just a few weeks. For others, it takes many years to resolve. Jim Conway, a pastor and counselor who has authored several books about midlife crises and transitions, argues the midlife crisis is similar to the stages of grief originally developed by Elizabeth Kübler-Ross. He points to six stages of a midlife crisis:

  1. Denial. This is typically the beginning of a midlife crisis, and occurs as a person attempts to fight or deny that they are growing older.
  2. Anger. During this stage, people feel frustrated about the challenges of midlife, or about their inability to manage those challenges.
  3. Replay. A person may attempt to replay what was most appealing about their youth by having cosmetic surgery, seeking an affair, or shirking their responsibilities.
  4. Depression. When replay fails, a person may become depressed and anxious.
  5. Withdrawal. A person distances themselves from loved ones as a way of coping with their depression.
  6. Acceptance. A person finally accepts that they are growing older, and begins seeking meaning in the next stage of life.

Conway argues the midlife crisis typically lasts two to seven years.

Midlife Crisis in Men

Little research supports the notion that men and women experience significant differences in the way they process a midlife crisis. Research published in 2000 found that similar numbers of men and women report a midlife crisis. Thirty-four percent of men and 36.1% of women who had reached 50 years old said they had a midlife crisis.

Both men and women reported that awareness of time passing was a trigger for their midlife crisis, and 14% of both men and women said the midlife crisis is a time for making major personal changes.

In popular media, midlife crises in men center on fancy cars, affairs, toupees, and unusual new interests. But for many men, a midlife crisis is less about outward signs of youth and more about finding meaning. Gender roles and socialization may affect how a man experiences a midlife crisis. For example, a man may worry about:

  • How aging affects others’ perception of his masculinity.
  • How age-related maladies will affect his desirability or strength.
  • Whether he is sufficiently successful in his career.
  • How his career decisions have affected his relationship with children and other family members.

Midlife Crisis in Women

As is the case with men, little research supports the notion of specific female midlife crisis stages or a midlife crisis experience unique to women. Women are about as likely as men to experience a midlife crisis. Just like men, their experience of midlife may be colored by gender norms and socialization.

Women face immense pressure to remain youthful and desirable, and may worry about their partners becoming interested in younger women. Women are more likely than men to seek plastic surgery, and some of these surgeries may be due to a midlife crisis or anxiety about growing older.

Women can experience the same midlife crisis symptoms as men, such as concerns about an aging body, desirability, career success, and relationships. Additionally, some women may struggle with how childrearing decisions affect them at midlife. Women are more likely than men to quit working outside the home to rear children. Some women may regret this choice, feel frustrated by limited career options, or feel less fulfilled as their children grow older.

Contrary to popular stereotypes about men abandoning wives for younger partners, women are significantly more likely than men to divorce their partners. A 2015 study found that women initiate 69% of all divorces. According to a National Center for Family and Marriage Research study, the divorce rate for women ages 55-64 has tripled since the 1990s. Women may pursue divorce at the end of a midlife crisis, or as a way to resolve the crisis.

Midlife Crisis and Divorce

Divorce rates are dropping among most age groups, including adults under 35. Among people in late midlife—those 50 or older—divorce rates have doubled since the 1990s. This suggests that midlife changes, including midlife crises, may play a role in the decision to divorce.

Sixty-six percent of Baby Boomers say they would rather divorce than be in an unhappy marriage, compared to just 44% of younger people.

People consider divorce in midlife for many reasons, including:

  • A desire for a happier life, either as a single person or with another partner.
  • Blaming their partner that life hasn’t turned out as they hoped.
  • No longer having young children at home, removing the desire to stay together for the kids.
  • No longer feeling attractive, or not feeling attractive to one’s partner.

Sometimes people unfairly blame their marriage for other problems they face. In other cases, legitimate marital issues make life feel unbearable. Sometimes these issues can be resolved through therapy. Even when a couple opts to divorce, therapy may help make the process less contentious.

Achieving Posttraumatic Growth in Midlife

The realization that life is progressing rapidly and may be already half gone can feel overwhelming. During midlife, people often consider issues such as life purpose, loss of youth, mortality, their legacy, and their sense of accomplishment and physical adequacy.

A midlife crisis can feel traumatic, and may even lead to traumatic experiences such as divorce. Other traumas in midlife, such as the death of a parent or loved one, are also common.

Some people with a history of earlier trauma, such as being raped or sexually abused, begin grappling with that trauma in midlife. Because midlife is a time during which many people seek a deeper sense of meaning, some people wish to understand what feels like senseless suffering.

Therapy can help people struggling with the aftermath of trauma, whether the trauma is recent or occurred many years ago. Therapy may also help people experiencing a midlife crisis to:

  • Improve their relationships with others.
  • Decide whether to stay in their marriage.
  • Talk about the disappointments and challenges they’ve faced in life.
  • Decide what they want the future to look like.
  • Find meaning in life’s changes.
  • Identify new goals.
  • Regain a sense of control over life.
  • Establish better relationships with adult children.

References:

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  6. Plastic surgery statistics. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.plasticsurgery.org/news/plastic-surgery-statistics
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  8. Women more likely than men to initiate divorces, but not non-marital breakups. (2015, August 22). Retrieved from http://www.asanet.org/press-center/press-releases/women-more-likely-men-initiate-divorces-not-non-marital-breakups