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. A 42 year old wife may suddenly change and become emotional or withdrawn to a degree her husband has never seen before.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, get her own place, 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, or at least seem 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 rewriting 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, acting – from her husband’s perspective – 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 marital mediator, 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 is 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 and even self-indulgence. This wife may have enjoyed a fairly good marriage and has had many advantages; however, she may lose sight of those and rewrite her history to justify her more self-focused behavior, whether it’s spending more money, or more time with her friends, or even with a male friend.
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?”
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 and the commitment level to the marriage. In fact, that’s often the case with both female and male midlife crises.
For example, a person may start out by having a sincere midlife experience but, after they meet a new opposite-sex friend, they may begin to behave in more strategic ways so the “friendship” (providing it is in fact inappropriate) 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. To make matters worse, it can be hard for men to find quality help that they can access in a way that is comfortable for them. There’s a lot of “advice” online, although as a woman in middle age myself and into her third decade of marriage, I can tell you that some of the advice geared toward a man with your concerns isn’t just vapid, it can make things worse.
If you’re willing to actually invest the time in doing it right, I urge you to spend a few minutes looking into my Marriage SOS online “crash course” New You, Renewed Marriage // Improving Interactions & Intimacy. I’ve heard from countless men in your situation who found its content was able to help them make a real change in their marriage and reconnect with their wife in a loving, affectionate and lasting way. It’s easy and private to use, too, since you can simply listen on your phone or other device.
And if that isn’t right for you, keep looking. Your marriage is too valuable to give up and you’re sure to find a resource that can truly help.
Debra Macleod, BA, JD, is the creator of Marriage SOS™. She has served as an expert resource for major media around the world, from The New York Times and Entrepreneur to ELLE and Men’s Health magazine.