Think the midlife crisis is just for men? Think again. Not a day goes by that I don’t get an email from a worried husband – “Help, I think my wife is having a midlife crisis!”
Most women who have the kind of midlife crisis that I see in practice tend to behave in ways that may be shockingly unexpected or out of character. A 32 year old wife and mother may suddenly drop out of family life and take a spiritual journey to a mountain top in Bali, where she strikes up an affair with her guru. A 42 year old wife may suddenly change and become emotional or withdrawn to a degree her husband has never seen before. A 52 year old housewife may suddenly say that she was never happy in the marriage, go back to school, get a breast lift and file for divorce.
Yes, I’m citing stereotypes and extreme cases here for effect – but you get the idea. And it does happen.
In some cases, a wife may start to become profoundly self-focused and self-indulgent. It’s all about her and her path to happiness. It may seem that her commitment level to the marriage or family is shaky. She may be re-writing her history, only remembering the bad times. She may forget or not appreciate all that her husband has done for her. She may immerse herself in self-help books and a new lifestyle – this wouldn’t be bad, except that these seem to draw her even further away from her husband.
A wife may retreat into solitude and introspection, or she may begin to party and flirt with other men, acting more like a single woman than a married one. She may be sending out mixed messages to her husband – “I love you, but I’m not in love with you” is classic. She doesn’t know what she wants. She needs space to figure it out. She’s bored and wants more, or a new life that comes with dramatically different ideas and interests. She may say some mean-spirited things to her husband and refuse to work on the marriage.
Here’s how you can start getting your head around this:
In my experience as a marriage conflict specialist, a wife’s midlife crisis falls on a sort of spectrum. In this very short article, I’m just going to touch on this in the most superficial way possible.
On one end of the spectrum we have an experience that is very sincere and is in some ways a sort of awakening. This is the wife who has reached a certain point in her life and is looking back, and realizing that she doesn’t like everything she sees. Perhaps she has legitimate complaints about you and the marriage. Perhaps she’s been secretly sticking it out for years because of the kids or finances. Regardless, for whatever reason, she’s chosen now to say that enough’s enough and she’s not going to live like this anymore – she wants a change, and that’s what you’re seeing.
This kind of awakening is common (and understandable) and how you respond can make or break your marriage moving forward. There may also be some changes associated with menopause – fatigue, memory loss, night sweats. They don’t call it “the change of life” for nothing. Not easy stuff for a husband to understand.
On the other end of the spectrum we have behavior that is more strategic. It involves more self-focus, self-indulgence and even manipulation. This wife may have enjoyed a fairly good marriage and has had many advantages; however, instead of being grateful for those she seems to be taking them for granted and wanting even more…more freedom, more trips, more plastic surgery, more time alone, more time to spend with friends or even another man. Again, it’s extreme behavior but it does happen.
As a result, her husband is left to ask questions that she cannot or will not answer. “What do you mean you love me but you’re not in love with me? What do you mean you were never happy? How can you blame everything on me? What can I do to make things better…and why are you being so secretive with your phone?”
Yet many female midlife crises fall somewhere in the middle…
They are in some ways sincere and in some ways more strategic. And the behavior can blend, too: those emotions, changes in character, the commitment level to the marriage.
For example, a woman may start out by having a sincere midlife experience but, after she meets a male friend and starts having an affair, she begins to behave in more strategic ways so the affair can continue. That’s something I see all the time.
But how does a husband cope? How does he know when his wife’s behavior is authentic and when it isn’t? Well, it isn’t always easy to tell the difference. And to make matters worse, the counselling business often takes the default position that a woman’s midlife crisis automatically stems from the poor treatment she received from her husband.
“Oh, your wife is having a midlife crisis? She doesn’t know whether she loves you anymore? That’s because you didn’t listen to her. That’s because you worked too much. Give her space.”
What’s missing, of course, is the fact that he may have “worked too much” because of his financial obligations to the marriage and family. There are two sides to every story, especially when it comes to marriage issues.
So what can a husband do to make things better?
If you need help reconnecting with your wife and getting past this crisis in your marriage, you may want to check out my selection of online “crash courses.” They target and tackle specific problems — from affairs and inappropriate “friendships” to chronic arguing and apathy — which may unfortunately sound familiar to you right now.
Yet my main goal here is to send men the message that, if any of this resonates with you, you’re not alone.
Start by thinking about that spectrum and trying to locate where your wife might be on it. That’s often the first step toward understanding the so-called female midlife crisis. The sooner you can begin to understand what she’s going through and why, the sooner you can reconnect and get on with life – together!
• Debra Macleod, B.A., LL.B. can help you now, not weeks from now. See her Marriage SOS instant-access marriage recovery programs.