The term “midlife crisis” was coined in the mid-1960’s; however, research indicates it’s more of a pop culture term than a clinical diagnosis. Most of us, including myself, use the term to describe a commonly understood set of behaviors that some people display in middle age. And while both men and women display these behaviors, here we’re focusing on the way some men do it.
Because many destructive male midlife crises tend to play out in a fairly similar way, I want to walk you through a typical one – act by act, scene by scene. I’ve chosen this showy presentation for two reasons. First, I’m focusing here on male midlife crises that are more strategic than sincere. Second, these tend to follow a loose script and that can help you get a big picture view of what may happen: over the years, I’ve heard wives describe five general “acts,” each characterized by certain behaviors and events.
If you’re worried that your husband is having a destructive midlife crisis, this can show you how it might play out – because it can be a baffling, scary experience for a wife. You must ensure his “crisis” doesn’t cause a crisis in your life or marriage. You must educate and empower yourself, and keep your dignity through it all.
So pour yourself a fresh cup of coffee, find a comfortable place to sit and read, and get ready for today’s showing of Midlife Crisis Theater. Once we get through the show, I can give you the strategies you need to have your happy ending.
Act One of a midlife crisis opens with a man who is in the middle of a reality check. The cold-hard realities and often the fears of middle age are setting in. He realizes that he’s getting older. He’s aware of his changing appearance and energy level. He may be facing sexual performance issues or he may be worrying about that happening. He may be going through life changes like the kids leaving home or his own retirement. The reality of his financial or lifestyle status may set in – he may not have as much money or success as he’d always hoped to have at this point, or he may not have accomplished everything he had hoped to accomplish despite his success.
As these realities set in, he begins to withdraw from you, his wife, and he may become reflective and quiet as he retreats into his thoughts. I often refer to this act or stage as the calm before the storm.
Act Two and the storm clouds are really starting to roll in – so are feelings of resentment. A man may begin to resent the obligations he’s had or the sacrifices he’s made during the marriage. This is when you will see those first signs of self-focus. He will likely begin to re-write the history of his marriage and blame his wife for his own unhappiness, as well as any problems in the marriage.
Act Three tends to be the height of the storm – it’s when a man tries to recapture a feeling of being youthful or, in many cases, more desirable to women. He tries to recapture what he feels he’s lost. Many – certainly not all – men will embark on a new fitness regime or diet. He may join a gym or jump into a new activity, particularly one frequented by younger women. Now as this is happening, this man does notice some changes – he does manage to gain some ground as he slims down or tones up. He may feel more energetic and desirable. Unfortunately, that may go to his head. And if it does, he may begin to think a lot more of himself and a lot less of his wife.
He may see himself as being superior to her not just in terms of physical attractiveness, but also in terms of lifestyle habits and personality traits. He may suggest that he is more enlightened or interesting or engaged with life. He may begin to feel that she is holding him back or that he can do better than her. He can become self-righteous, judgmental and extremely sanctimonious. If he is surrounding himself with other women, especially younger women, he may begin to think that he is better suited to one of them – after all, they’re just like him. Youthful, energetic, exciting.
Act Four is what I call the redefining stage. This is when he may build on his attempts to recapture his youthfulness or desirability by redefining his life or reinventing himself. On top of his new fitness or dieting regime, he may embrace a new kind of lifestyle in terms of hobbies or spirituality. He may rejoin the religion of his youth, or he may leave his religion in favor of another one. Again, this brings him into contact with new and exciting people.
As a result, he may begin to criticize his wife more, sometimes privately and sometimes openly. All the while, he is continuing to act in more self-focused and more self-indulgent ways. Now in earlier stages, such as the resentment stage, he may have tested the waters in terms of how much he could get away with – that is, how poorly he could speak to his wife. If he learned then that he could control the situation, and that he could basically say whatever he wanted to her and get away with it, he’ll definitely wield that power now.
He’ll re-write your history in more negative and inaccurate terms. He’ll go from blaming his wife or being cool to her to criticizing her to the point of outright cruelty. It’s like he has no filter – if a nasty thought or accusation pops into his mind, he’ll say it. He may become belligerent and narcissistic. He will likely become moody and angrier. He may become aggressive in the way he speaks and acts. He may behave like this – angry, aggressive, even hateful – even if there was no trace whatsoever of this side of him earlier, even if he was most loving, tender husband for decades before this.
This is around the time that a new character may stroll onto the stage. In many cases – too many cases – he will strike up a friendship with a female friend, co-worker, etc. It is almost certain that this will be a younger woman. Quite often she is divorced or a single mother. If she is married, she may share her marriage problems with him: this may be the way they initially bond – basically by complaining about their spouses and their marriages. Although it’s less common, this other woman may be single and never married.
Soon, they begin to text each other on a regular basis. They share inside jokes, inspirational messages and build each other up. He loves the ego-boost of this friendship with a younger woman: the younger woman loves the way this older man seems to venerate her – she doesn’t get that from men her own age. They’ll establish a close friendship, one that they both feel is special and unique. They’re amazed by how well they just “click” and the way they just “get” each other. Very quickly, their texting begins to take on a flirtatious quality and before you know it they’re lost in the erotic thrill of it all. They’re consumed by it – oh, if only they could be together.
As this is happening, the midlife man’s wife becomes increasingly worried about and hurt by his friendship with this other woman. However, whenever she expresses a concern, she is told that she is controlling or paranoid or even pathetic. He may tell her that she doesn’t want him to have any friends or that she’s just feeling insecure or jealous because of the way he’s living his life now. He may make all kinds of accusations and say all kinds of things; however, it’s unlikely that any of it is loving or genuinely reassuring.
Now, at this point I’m going to pump the brakes and go down a different road for a few minutes. Because not all men take this belligerent or obnoxious route during this redefining stage. Some take a softer, more introspective route. Some will say that they feel “lost” and that they need to “find themselves.”
Instead of saying mean or cruel things, this midlife man will do the opposite. He may tell his wife that she’s wonderful and say how much he appreciates everything she’s done for him and their family. He may act confused by it all. “I love you, but I’m not in love with you.” I need space. I need to find out who I am. I just don’t know what I want. He may say that his new friend “gets him” and supports him, and that their friendship is really helping him understand himself and figure himself out. He may say that you and he don’t seem to have anything in common – maybe you never did – so he needs to pursue a friendship with this other person to see if he can find that connection there. He may pitch this as something that’s good for both of you, and something that’s in your best interest, too. I mean, you want him to be happy, right?
So regardless of whether his self-focus manifests as mean, angry or aggressive behavior, or whether it manifests as lost, confused and introspective behavior, the result to his wife is pretty much the same. She’s left in a constant stand of anxiety, uncertainty and fear. She may be angry. She may be feeling deeply hurt and threatened by his increasingly close friendship with this other woman – she may be feeling betrayed and that the intimacy or privacy in her marriage is being violated.
And whether he is mean and obnoxious or lost and confused, one thing is certain – he will continue with the friendship no matter what his wife says, no matter how much she tells him it hurts her, no matter how much pain she is in.
As act four plugs along, each scene continues to get worse. The midlife man may tell his wife that he wants to move out of the matrimonial home. He may want to get his own place or apartment. He needs the space. He needs to figure things out. Or maybe he will say that he can’t stand to be around her anymore. He’s just growing in a different direction and he doesn’t have anything in common with her anymore.
This may be motivated by a desire for space and independence. It may be motivated by a desire to escape the responsibilities and familiar, ho-hum obligations of daily domestic life, and instead live like a single man again, to come and go as he wishes. Remember, he is creating a new persona for himself here – and that requires some new digs. The desire to have his own place may also motivated by his desire to have sex with other women and the need to have private space for that. It may be that he already has a sexual partner lined up – or maybe he just wants to be ready in case the opportunity presents itself.
In some cases, he will simply talk about moving out and send mixed messages. In other cases, he’ll really do it. He’ll find his own place and he’ll go. If his wife cries or begs him to stay, he may react in a few ways. He may be completely and utterly apathetic. He may be totally indifferent. Or, he may be angry and insulting, even to the point of saying some very cruel things.
Or, he may take a softer approach, again spinning it as if the separation might be good for the marriage. It might help both of you find yourselves. He might say that it isn’t fair to you for him to stay in the home when he just isn’t feeling like he belongs there anymore.
Now, if he begins or has begun a sexual relationship with another woman, especially a younger woman, he will probably become more distant than ever. And more than likely, he will lean toward cold, cruel behavior instead of the lost or confused angle. If he’s sleeping with a younger woman, he’s feeling a rush of excitement and elation. It’s a massive ego-boost and that makes it easy for him to redefine himself. He has a new life. It’s a life with erections and orgasms with someone else. And part of embracing this new life is erasing his old life – that means erasing his wife and quite possibly even his kids.
And as if all of this isn’t baffling enough, it is likely that he will show a total lack of remorse as he does this. It’s as if the ten or twenty or thirty or forty years of his previous life, your shared life, your family life, never existed to him.
If he’s sleeping with or living with another woman during this act of the midlife crisis, he may just kind of disappear like this. Or, he may choose a different strategy: he may waffle between the two women in his life – his wife and his girlfriend – setting up a sort of love triangle. Of course, he’s at the top of his love triangle. He may try to have his cake and eat it, too – perhaps coming home for a good meal now and then or to have sex with his wife, but then once he’s had his fill, it’s back to his new place and his girlfriend. He may send his wife all kinds of mixed messages – one day he is loving and she feels hopeful, confident that he will choose her. The day next, he is cruel or confused again. She is devastated.
This act – act four, the redefining stage – is without a doubt going to be the most agonizing one for his wife, regardless of whether he’s having an affair or not. An affair will make it worse, of course, as his wife feels she must compete with his newer, more exciting and likely younger girlfriend.
But even if another woman isn’t involved, this is still going to be the most difficult time. She will still have to compete with his new identity, his new life. She will live indefinitely in a state of anxiety, uncertainty, pain. She will go through cycles of hope and disappointment, relief and despair. She will live in his wake.
As he indulges in his journey of self-discovery and self-recreation, his wife feels powerless. She may question her own attractiveness or desirability or worth. She may go into panic mode – will he ever come back? What is my life without him? Who am I without him? As the midlife man indulges his new identity and rushes toward it with glee, he shatters his wife’s identity. She is left to pick up the pieces of decades of her life, wondering if and how she can put them back together.
Debra Discusses the Male Midlife Crisis on TV
Eventually – and it may be a long time coming – this midlife crisis will move into Act Five, the final act of the show. This is the review and resolution stage. It’s where the excitement of his new life, whether he’s had an affair or not, begins to level out. After all, a person can only stay in that state for so long. At this point, the midlife man begins to think back upon the changes and choices he’s made. He begins to think in terms of his own future best interests. Should he continue with the new life he’s created for himself? If he is having an affair, should he stay with this person? Or should he apologize to his wife and try to make amends, so that he can return to his previous life? He will weigh his options here and he will think about each outcome.
The way he chooses to resolve this, the way he chooses to wrap-up this show, depends on who he is as a person, as well as his current circumstances. He may choose to continue on with his new life without looking back. He may file for divorce and choose a new life with his girlfriend, if he has one. He may continue to treat his former wife with disdain and to forgo any kind of relationship with his children. He may simply close the door to his past life as if it never happened.
Or he may choose to return to his previous life. This may or may not be a sincere desire. If, for example, his girlfriend has left him or he fears he will lose too much money in a divorce, he may try to reconcile with his wife; however, he will do this begrudgingly. Consequently, his apologies and re-commitment to the marriage will be half-hearted at best. He may also carry a lot of anger and resentment back into the marriage. Because things didn’t play out the way he had intended, he will likely continue to treat his wife quite poorly. He may be back, but he doesn’t really want to be there. And it’s obvious to both of them.
And finally, it may be that he truly feels remorse and even shame for his actions, and that he truly does wish to reconcile with his wife. He may sincerely apologize and acknowledge the heartache and loss of dignity he has caused his wife. He may show true insight into his actions or at least strive to find that insight. He will show her all the patience and love she needs, and he will do everything she asks of him so that they can heal and move forward as a couple. Clearly, this is the happy ending his wife has been hoping for. This ending does happen; however, it is more likely to happen if you, his wife, handle his destructive midlife crises in the correct way.
Okay, that concludes my five-act drama called the destructive midlife crisis. Although I have found these stages to be fairly distinct in practice, categorizing them like this is in some ways artificial. The lines between stages may be clear or more blurred in your situation. Your husband may or may not display all of these behaviors.
Not all men who have a midlife crisis will dive into fitness or cheat on their wives or want to move out; however, their compulsion to recapture their youth or freedom, or feel sexually desired, often causes them to behave in these or similar ways. You need to be prepared for anything. Ultimately, you need have both the insight and the strategies to deal with whatever your husband says or does. You need to know how to limit the damage he does to you and to your marriage. If you can handle things correctly, you will increase the chances of getting that happy ending where he truly, eagerly, recommits to you and his marriage.